As per usual, I’m a week late to this post, but Wes Craven passed away on August 30 after a fight with brain cancer. I’m not normally in the habit of writing this sort of thing, but since we’re heading into my favorite time of the year, the fabled Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, I figured I should look at Craven’s oeuvre and perhaps find something of his I haven’t seen before (or, perhaps, something to revisit).
As genre filmmakers go, I’m hard pressed to think of a single, more influential horror director. I mean, maybe Alfred Hitchcock (do you consider him horror?) or Mario Bava (probably too obscure for most folks), but that’s fine company to keep. You could make an argument for Craven’s contemporary, John Carpenter, as he does have two classics to his name (Halloween and The Thing), but he also veered away from horror and managed to produce a string of mediocre (at best) films later in his career. Craven, though, has directed three of the genre’s most iconic and influential films. Oh, and he did it across three decades.
The Last House on the Left was Craven’s first film (1972), and in some ways it shows. But it’s also a clear example of what Craven always manages to do. It’s a crude, nasty film that taps into something dark and raw. That’s, uh, a good thing when it comes to horror movies. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is slicker and more commercial, but no less effective because of that. Indeed, its brilliant premise is the purest distillation of horror ever committed to film: a monster that gets you in your dreams. Inescapable and supremely terrifying (especially to my childhood self, who was stricken with fear before even having seen the film), the film’s inferior sequels only serve to illustrate Craven’s ability to tap into something elusive and terrifying. Craven’s X factor only returned to the series when he retook the reigns for New Nightmare, a winking, fourth-wall shattering exercise that was really more of a dry run for his third genre classic: 1996’s Scream. Another winking, self-referential exercise, this one captured audience’s imaginations and revived a flagging genre right when it needed it the most. It wasn’t the first film to attempt this sort of thing, but it’s the best.
Man, if you didn't make your very own Freddy Krueger glove with steak knives and get yelled at by your parents, you didn't have a childhood.
— Alex Riviello (@alexriviello) August 31, 2015
Craven’s also got a large catalog of underrated works that are often more effective and influential than you’d think. Stuff like The Serpent and the Rainbow or The Hills Have Eyes are relevant to this day. Even his out and out failures contain that Craven X Factor that gets under your skin and never lets go. I mean, yeah, My Soul to Take isn’t his best work, but man, I could see that thing garnering a cult following someday (and apparently, Shocker already does!)
Yet by all accounts, he was one of Hollywood’s kindest, sweetest fellas. He had a rough childhood, but apparently worked that out on screen, rather than by lashing out at folks.
After a publicist cut off my phoner with Wes Craven for RED EYE, he called me back personally. "We're just getting started!" Craven said.
— Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf) August 31, 2015
For an example of his good-natured spirit, check out this story from Edgar Wright:
The intertextuality of ‘Scream’ was a surprise to some, but in reality there was a winking side to Craven’s movies that goes all the way back to 1977’s ‘The Hills Have Eyes’.
That film began a series of funny intertextual references between horror film directors that became a game of one-upmanship. In the first ‘Hills Have Eyes’, there was a ripped poster for ‘Jaws’ on the wall of a ravaged trailer, as if Craven was saying ‘that’s not scary, this is scary’. Then in response Sam Raimi featured a ripped ‘Hills Have Eyes’ poster in the cabin in ‘The Evil Dead’. Craven’s reply to this was to have his characters watching ‘Evil Dead’ on television in ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’. Finally Raimi responded once again by putting the iconic razor glove of Freddy Krueger, in the basement of the cabin in ‘Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn’.
I loved this running gag between horror directors. So you can imagine my answer when we got word that Craven wanted to use a clip of our film ‘Shaun Of The Dead’ in ‘Scream 4’.
Horror is a weird genre that often forces viewers to grapple with tough questions, not the least of which is often “Why the hell am I watching this depravity?” If you’ve ever seen an interview with Wes Craven, you’d get a pretty eloquent response. He’s always a welcome sight in horror documentaries and was even compelling in his short appearance on Project Greenlight’s third season. I can’t put it any better than Scott Tobias:
Wes Craven made many great horror films, but he was also the genre's most articulate defender. He affirmed its social and artistic worth.
— Scott Tobias (@scott_tobias) August 31, 2015
My initial plan for this year’s Six Weeks of Halloween was to cover a series of “obscure horror auteurs”, and while Craven is certainly an auteur, he’s anything but obscure. Still, while I plan on tackling those other, obscure directors, I may have to dedicate some time to finding something from Craven that I haven’t seen (there are only a handful, if that). In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this:
See you in my nightmares, Mr. Craven.
— ChristopherMcQuarrie (@chrismcquarrie) August 31, 2015