“Check’s in the mail!”: Dennis Hopper’s Feck was one of Night Flight’s favorite 80s movie (non)villains

By on July 18, 2016

In our popular segment “Night Flight Goes To The Movies,” Dennis Hopper — described by Pat Prescott as “a Hollywood bad guy from way back whose deranged performances as villains have gained cult status” — is shown in a couple of his scene-stealing turns as villains in two films from 1986, including our favorite “demented drug dealer” Feck, from Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge, a crippled-up, one-legged ex-biker fugitive outlaw with the inflatable sex-doll named “Ellie.”

This episode — profiling some of our other favorite villains of the 80s, played by Robert DeNiro, Henry Silva, James Woods and Rutger Hauer — can be seen right now on our Night Flight Plus channel!

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Two years before this episode aired — on May 21, 1988 — Hopper had revived his one-sagging acting career by appearing as the sociopathic, gas-huffing Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and he also gave a Best Supporting Actor nominated performance as an alcoholic assistant basketball coach and former town loser, Wilbur “Shooter” Flatch, in David Anspaugh’s critically-acclaimed Hoosiers.

That same year he also appeared in the lesser known 80s cult hit River’s Edge, as Feck, a deranged recluse — but not a villain! — living out the rest of his life holed up in his house, answering the phone and the door like a paranoid with a loaded pistol or calling out “Check’s in the mail!”

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The film’s storyline was based somewhat loosely on the real-life November 1981 murder of 14-year-old Marcy Conrad, who was strangled by 16-year old Anthony Broussard, in Milpitas, a suburb of San Jose in northern California.

Broussard had dumped her semi-naked body in the nearby hills, then over the next two days bragged about what he’d done, leading a dozen of his friends, and his 8-year-old brother, back to the bottom of a ravine, where they all poked at her bloating corpse with a stick, and even covered her up with leaves.

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For two full days, none of these teens (who called themselves The Stoners) reported Broussard’s crime to the police, and went back to their classrooms or the local pinball arcade as if nothing had happened. Finally, two of the teens finally stepped forward and told school authorities, leading to Broussard’s arrest. He eventually pled guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years to life (he’s still locked up in Folsom State Prison).

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Screenwriter Neal Jimenez was still an undergraduate majoring in English at Santa Clara University when he first read newspaper accounts of Conrad’s death and its aftermath in Milpitas, and he was inspired to begin working on a screenplay which he finished in 1982, at age 21.

River’s Edge won some writing awards and began to attract the attention of producers and directors, including Oliver Stone, and ended up with producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury (they’d produce Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985) who struck a deal with Hemdale, an independent company on something of a hot streak at the time, having produced The Terminator (1984) and The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), and during the same year River’s Edge began production, they would produce both Hoosiers and Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

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Director Tim Hunter got his hands on Jimenez’s screenplay in 1984, but was initially turned off by the project’s low budget and the subject matter. He’d directed his first feature, Tex (1982), based on S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel, and co-written the cult hit Over the Edge with Charlie Haas, in 1979, so he wasn’t interested in making another “teen” movie, but was so impressed by Jimenez’s writing that he changed his mind.

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The casting for River’s Edge proceeded along with Keanu Reeves (“Matt”), Crispin Glover (“Layne”), Ione Skye Leitch (the daughter of the singer Donovan plays “Clarissa”), Joshua Miller (“Tim”), and Daniel Roebuck (“Samson”), but when it came to casting the town psychopath Feck, the producers actually had some difficulty at first.

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Both John Lithgow and Harry Dean Stanton turned the role down, but Stanton recommended the role to his friend Dennis Hopper, saying “This is too weird for me, you should do it.” Hunter thought that Hopper might be too obvious, and briefly thought about Timothy Carey for the role, but thought Carey’s acting methods might cause expensive production delays on the low-budget indie film.

Hopper soon convinced Hunter that he saw Feck as a romantic character, and landed the job, and now it’s difficult to imagine anyone else but Hopper reciting some of Jimenez’s best bits of dialogue (e.g. “I ate so much pussy in those days, my beard looked like a glazed donut.”)

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There wasn’t anyone like Feck involved with the actual Milpitas story, incidentally, but Jimenez realized having Feck hide the teenage killer — now called Samson Tollet but nicknamed “John” — in his house actually gave the story somewhere else to go.

Filmed in just 32 days during the rainy, overcast months of January and February of 1986 in Tujunga, California, a suburb near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, north of L.A., River’s Edge was beautifully shot, almost documentary-style, by Frederick Elmes (he’d also lensed David Lynch’s Blue Velvet), with lots of blue shadows and brown-tinged riverside exteriors and grainy textures.

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The film’s soundtrack hit all the right gloomy notes too, with a score by Jürgen Knieper, who’d famously score Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire just a few years later. Knieper balanced out his bleak orchestral cues with hardcore thrash metal music and punk throughout from Slayer, Fates Warning, Hallows Eve, the Wipers and Orange County-based punk rockers Agent Orange, among others, perfectly capturing the foreboding downer vibe.

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After screening River’s Edge at a handful of film festivals, including the Mill Valley Film Festival, and receiving mostly mixed reviews, Hemdale were scored a domestic distribution deal with Island Pictures, who decided to go controversial in their marketing campaign, the first film posters using a deliberately shocking image of the dead girl (now named Jamie, played by actress Danyi Deats) with the tagline: “The Most Controversial Film You Will See This Year.”

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There were several theatrical trailers (one proclaimed the film as “the Rebel Without A Cause of the 80s”) aimed at college students and young adults, who packed theaters in both New York City and L.A. for three weeks before Island expanded distribution to 83 theaters in thirty additional cities in May of 1987.

In his review, the late Roger Ebert wrote gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and describing Feck as “another of Hopper’s possessed performances, done with sweat and the whites of his eyes.”

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River’s Edge was awarded Best Picture at the 1986 Independent Spirit Awards, but failed to earn any Oscar noms. The film would gross $4.6 million in the U.S. against the original budget of $1.9 million.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.