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Why Wes Craven walked out of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’

Wes Craven’s impact on the horror genre is non-negotiable. After beginning his filmmaking career as a pornographic director, making many hardcore movies under different pseudonyms, Craven went on to release his first feature-length film in 1972, entitled The Last House on the Left, an exploitation horror.

The film is controversial, to say the least, intercutting scenes of rape and torture with slapstick humour. The negative reception didn’t deter Craven from filmmaking, despite Howard Thompson of The New York Times labelling the film “sickening tripe,” and Edward Blank of the Pittsburgh Press describing it as a “cheap jack-ass movie with no discernible merit.” Craven refined his satirical take on violence, and after a series of successful films such as The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street, (the latter launching the career of the renowned Johnny Depp), he released 1996’s Scream, which became the first instalment in one of horror’s most successful franchises.

The effortless blend of parody, comedy and slasher horror led to the film’s cult status, not only spawning four more instalments, but also an MTV series inspired by the franchise, and the parody franchise Scary Movie which heavily bases its first instalment on the plot of Scream

With all that in mind, you may be under the impression that Wes Craven would have no difficulty in watching a graphic movie scene, especially one bathed in satire. But on one fateful showing of Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut crime drama Reservoir Dogs at Spain’s Sitges Film Festival, Tarantino saw five people walk out of the theatre during the iconic torture scene, including the horror genius Craven himself.

Reservoir Dogs’ heist gone wrong storyline results in Michael Madsen’s character, Mr Blonde, torturing Kirk Baltz’s Officer Nash, not only slicing off his ear but dousing him in gasoline in the hopes of setting him ablaze for a warehouse barbecue. The brutality of the scene is juxtaposed by Madsen’s dad-like dance moves to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ by Stealers Wheels, while the camera cuts between the two characters, Baltz tied and taped up, covered in blood. Explaining the scene, Madsen stated that he was initially intimidated by the prospect of dancing while rehearsing the scene, only freestyling his classic routine on the day of the shoot, which was captured on the first take. Inspired by a “weird little thing” Jimmy Cagney did in a film Madsen once saw, his moves made the remarkable and chilling scene unforgettable. 

During Tarantino’s worldwide festival tour to promote the release of Reservoir Dogs, he noticed that many people would walk out during the intense scene, despite the most graphic moment – the slicing of Nash’s ear – taking place off-screen. In one screening, the filmmaker counted a whopping thirty-three people exiting the theatre.

There is no definitive answer to why Wes Craven, someone whose career consisted of depicting graphic dismembering, murder and rape, walked out of the theatre, despite Tarantino introducing the film screening saying, “finally I’ve got an audience that won’t walk out!” Maybe Craven left for a popcorn refill and got side-tracked, or perhaps the hopeless begging of Blatz’s now ear-less Nash, alongside Madsen’s evil tormenting retorts, was too much for him to stomach.

Regardless, the film’s controversy only garnered Tarantino’s debut feature further attention, leading him to become one of modern cinema’s most established and respected directors.