When I heard that Wes Craven passed away of brain cancer at the end of August, it was difficult not to take the filmmaker’s loss personally. As a seminal filmmaker working in horror, Craven’s influence was wide-reaching and inescapable. He was a genre figure who ultimately transformed and owned his genre.
Even for those who might not consider themselves horror film devotees, Craven’s work was nearly inescapable. From the wicked fantasia of 1984’s “Nightmare on Elm Street” to the sadistic meta-commentary of 1996’s “Scream” and its sequels, the director’s work overcame the restrictions of its genre and permeated contemporary filmmaking, helping to reassert a popular idea of horror filmmaking while subverting expectations and conventions through sharp humor and artistic experimentation.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio on August 2, 1939, Craven was raised as a strict Baptist before earning an English and Psychology joint degree from Wheaton College in Illinois. Moving on to Johns Hopkins University, the filmmaker achieved a Masters in both Writing and Philosophy, laying the heady groundwork for the pictures with which he would eventually be most associated. Before entering filmmaking, however, the director taught English at both the high school and college level. His first work in the film industry was as a sound editor for a movie produced by folk rock star Harry Chapin.
When he left academia for good, Craven began working as a director of adult films, and did undisclosed work on the revolutionary porno “Deep Throat,” which galvanized culture upon its release in 1972. That same year, Craven would make his first splash as a horror filmmaker with “The Last House on the Left,” an equally controversial picture which combined the textures of social commentary and exploitation filmmaking to discuss the cultural loss of innocence that defined America in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
A grungy update on Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” “Last House” tells the story of two parents who find that they have provided room and board for a gang that recently assaulted and brutally murdered their daughter. Though often grouped with other rape-revenge films of its time (most famously “I Spit on Your Grave”), “Last House” distinguishes itself through carefully calibrated attention to questions of retribution. Drawing on the imagery of Charles Manson and company, the picture strives to deconstruct the sanctity of the family unit. In increasingly gruesome strokes, the traditional family, organized around moral virtue and loyalty, is brought into conflict with an informal collective founded on violation and denigration of those values.
Five years later, Craven would return to these themes in “The Hills Have Eyes,” which follows the Carter family road trip to Los Angeles, derailed when the family is hunted by a pack of irradiated cannibals in the desert. Once again, Craven explores how the two units war with each other for superiority, each clinging to a unique idea of survival and sovereignty. Watching Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake of the film, it’s easy to write “Hills” off as an exploitative piece of splatter filmmaking, but like all of Craven’s work, the original is deliberate and self-conscious in its use of violence. As in “Last House” the trauma being inflicted is both physical and societal, a disturbing reverberation of shifting cultural tides and a demarcation of feudalism both abandoned and sustained. Much like Tobe Hooper’s classic “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Craven’s film perverts the comfortable image of the American family to suggest its roots in a far darker, less sanitized set of founding institutions.
Despite the power of these two pictures, it wasn’t until “Nightmare on Elm Street,” nearly ten years later, that Craven began to gain prominence outside of his genre. Building on the strictures of the slasher film, best exemplified by John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” Craven once again went after the symbols of Americana, this time taking his fight to the insulated culs de sac of suburbia. In “Nightmare,” American teenagers are hunted by bona fide boogeyman Freddy Krueger, a child murder who found himself on the wrong end of vigilante justice. As revenge, Krueger now haunts the dreams of the children of those who brought about his end, stalking them in increasingly baroque fantasies.
It is in “Nightmare” that Craven’s academic roots are most apparent. Though ostensibly a slasher picture, the film functions primarily as a fable, drawing on the same dark energy that propels many of the fairy tales children have grown up with for centuries. This influence became even more apparent in Craven’s return to the franchise as a writer for the 1987 sequel “Dream Warriors” and later as writer/director for 1994’s “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” In the former, Craven’s script gives its charges the chance to fight back through their own fantasies, and in the latter the already demonic Krueger is transformed into an extra-textual monster, haunting the makers of the original film across the so-called real world. Both films are prime examples of Craven’s playfulness and love of experimentation. Rather than rehashing his creation like the other films in the franchise, “Dream Warriors” and “New Nightmare” expand on their own mythologies without ever sacrificing their demented roots.
It wasn’t until 1996 that Craven stepped back into the public eye (after the gonzo underrated pleasures of features like 1988’s “The Serpent and the Rainbow” and 1991’s “The People Under the Stairs”), slaughtering Drew Barrymore in the opening thirteen minutes of “Scream.” That jaw-dropping sequence plays like a brilliant short film in and of itself: a masterclass in escalating tension that combines Hitchcockian devilishness and old-fashioned savagery. The film that follows on its heels would redefine horror for a new generation, revitalizing Craven’s brand and the genre as a whole through a combination of biting homage and pitch-black humor. Taking the self-referentiality of “New Nightmare” and multiplying it tenfold, “Scream” proved that there was life left in the slasher film, even after the increasingly self-parodic gluttony of the genre in the 1980s. With a few teasing phone calls and a slew of quality guttings, Craven and the Edvard Munch inspired Ghostface brought horror into the 20th Century, mashing up metacommentary and simple vicious chills as only Wes could.
It has been said that horror is the only genre that defies literary and film theory. While drama, comedy, tragedy, and action can be analyzed on their visual and textual elements, horror operates on a much deeper level, through a fusion of anthropology and psychology. Wes Craven’s work seemed both to prove and defy this. On the one hand, at his best the director was blunt and primal, tapping into something wordless in its effectiveness, going for the throat with nary any hesitation. On the other hand, Craven’s work was always smart and funny, packed with allusion and self-deprecation, drawing on social and political elements, the fears of childhood, and the unpredictable roadways of growing up. In horror and in popular filmmaking as a whole, few directors have demonstrated such an acute awareness of their work and their audience as Craven. He peddled unease with a warm smile and a wicked bite, and no matter how much sleep any of us lost, he made the terror worthwhile.