There was also another exit made this week, one far more painful to acknowledge than the conclusion of a landmark television series. Director Wes Craven, who as one of the pioneering directors of a new strain of crude and often psychologically brutal horror in the 1970s fearlessly burrowed into the subconscious dread of his audience, died earlier this week at the age of 76 after a long struggle with brain cancer.
After making his way from academia (he was, for a time, a college humanities professor), Craven made his way to New York into the wilds of pornography and, eventually, more mainstream exploitation filmmaking, and the fledgling director’s first feature belied the cowardly implications of his surname with an unrelenting fury. Last House on the Left (1972), which recast Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring with relentless, pitiless sexual violence, refused to look away from either the misery of its two central, female victims, raped, mutilated and murdered by a gang of thugs in the woods, or the angry vengeance rained down upon them by one of the girls’ parents, and the movie, inadvertently or purposefully, reflected the dark undercurrent of political and social tension tearing at the country during the Vietnam era. The filmmaking was raw, artless and sometimes inept, qualities which actually served the film’s purpose of simultaneously implicating the audience in the horror and submerging them into a much more immediate, difficult-to-digest experience. (Last House on the Left was, of course, the movie whose advertising encouraged potential audiences, when the going got rough, to continually keep repeating to themselves, “It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie…”)
In 1977 Craven unleashed The Hills Have Eyes, in which a vacationing family is stranded in the desert and subjected to assault and terror at the hands of a deranged mirror-image clan of cannibals surviving in the desert hills, themselves victims of mutations brought on by exposure to nuclear radiation. Again, Craven’s unrefined approach was perfectly appropriate for keeping the audience under his thumb, and the movie’s lack of superficial finish makes it look even better, and play far scarier, in comparison to the slick, up-to-the-minute ghastliness of the 2006 remake and its even more revolting 2007 sequel. (Craven himself directed a 1984 sequel to THHE which is also held in low regard.)
But it was when he dared to invade the audience’s dreams—specifically, the nightmares of the kids in the audience—that Craven managed to up his game as a storyteller and an image maker, in the process delivering the first truly frightening serial killer of the slasher era. In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), scraping the elongated finger blades of his gloves along the walls of an abandoned boiler room in pursuit of yet another sleeping victim, built a legacy of horror on, of all things, the foundation of a child’s prayer (“If I should die before I wake…”) and turned the respite of slumber into the absolute worst refuge a terrified teenager could take. (The director would return to that same prayer at the end of his career which far less resonant results.)
The culture took to Craven’s monster on a first-name basis, and Freddy became not only a figure of genuine fear, but also one who opened up the possibility of self-awareness within the genre with his penchant for pitch-black wisecracks and the outright glee he took in punishing the younger generation for the sins of their mothers and fathers. Sequel after sequel, most of which Craven was only tangentially involved with, eventually diluted the effectiveness of the concept, until the director was moved to revisit Kruegerland with his New Nightmare (1994), which brilliantly deconstructed the Freddy mythology, and the very idea of the morbid attraction of the slasher phenomenon, in the process pointing the way to Craven’s last great achievement in genre subversion.
In the wake of the first Nightmare, Craven seemed to be satisfied working themes of racism and classicism and social justice into an uneven string of pictures like Shocker (1989) and The People Under the Stairs (1991), the best of the bunch being his weirdly earnest and unsettling look at the world of Haitian black magic in The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), which was based on the first-person accounts of anthropologist and author Wade Davis.
But it was in Scream (1996) that he seemed to find the perfect distillation and balance between sincere genre practice and the detailed examination of same, and he brought his own sort of pop-anthropological sensibility to the party in spades. Here was a movie which succeeded in having fun with conventions that had become worn-out and tired from overuse, an exhaustion to which Craven himself had contributed, that was at the same time deadly serious about the violence and the emotional toll inflicted upon its cast of characters. That Craven and writer Kevin Williamson would subject this most self-aware of franchises to the same sort of process of diminishing returns over the course of three sequels was one irony that went largely unacknowledged within the movies’ increasingly convoluted plots.
It’s unfortunate, too, that he also seemed, as he attempted to move further into the mainstream, both pre- and post-Scream, to have so much trouble shepherding good material past the meddling influence of the suits. Movies like Vampire in Brooklyn and Cursed may have been bad ideas to begin with, but studio tampering surely did little to ensure that Craven would deliver on the promise of his reputation as a horror master. But even in acknowledging that reputation, there’s a whiff of desperation about movies like Shocker and especially My Soul to Take, both of which saw Craven angling for new horror franchises based upon faint, anemic echoes of past glories rather than attempting to craft solid stories to tell. (In 1999 the director even made a bold attempt to separate himself from his stature as a horrormeister by directing Meryl Streep as a music teacher in the middle-of-the-road would-be Oscar contender Music of the Heart, but few seemed to notice.)
Thankfully, Craven will instead always be remembered for his successes, and he can lay claim to creating some shocking, potent, original horror imagery during a period when much of what was coming out of American efforts in the genre was satisfied with the simple repetition of worn-out plots and ideas. A friend of mine posted on Facebook upon learning of his death that “(Craven) made his mark, more than once, and it's a mark that is uneraseable,” and such a claim seems about as undeniable as anything that has or will be said about the director upon the occasion of his death.
Wes Craven seemed to me more a meat-and-potatoes storyteller who had an undeniable talent for occasionally tapping into resonant, zeitgeist-flavored themes than an artist driven by personal expression. But when he was in peak mode, he was among the genre’s most fertile and socially engaged practitioners. His influence upon a generation of self-aware and self-examining horror filmmakers may be a double-edged sword (as Tarantino’s has been as well), but I suspect his unique penchant for creeping past their defenses into the dark corners of the audience’s collective fear centers will continue to be the envy of upcoming directors for a long time to come. “The first monster you have to scare the audience with is yourself,” Craven once said, and at his best he cast an unblinking eye on the sort of unforgiving horror that on its most fundamental emotional and visceral levels could only be described as personal.