Wes Craven (1939-2015) is one of the few filmmakers ubiquitous with the “Horror” genre who had not been relegated to mere cult-ish fandom. He was a genuinely admired filmmaker amongst critics and general filmgoers who might have even been exposed to his unique creative voice outside of horror & thrillers. He’s a filmmaker whose masterpieces and failures equally define him. He was one of the first few filmmakers whose entire filmography I learned by heart as a kid merely by meticulously combing through the local Hollywood Video & the library (the others were Steven Spielberg, Jackie Chan, Amy Heckerling and Mel Brooks). There was something about being a wide-eyed little kid with open-minded parents who let me scare the pants off myself with these films not to mention the old RL Stine novels and Teen Nick shows my classmates and I were obsessed with (Goosebumps, Fear Street and Are You Afraid of the Dark?). To this day I have no clue why my folks let me see and read these at a young age but, nightmares and occasional troublemaking language slip-ups aside I’m glad they did. Every time I popped in one of these on VHS or caught a TV broadcast of the Wes Craven or John Carpenter movies, whose promo art promised terrifying times ahead, I had my eyes glued to the screen when I wasn’t hiding under the covers or huddled behind my parents or badass babysitter. It was almost an exposure therapy challenge where if I could brave the horrors of these movies, certainly dealing with the bullies, “mean” teachers and awkwardness of my school days would be a walk in the park. I would never claim to be a “horror fan” but I’m certainly a fan of the greats like Hitchcock, Craven, Carpenter, DePalma, Kubrick and the like. Wes Craven died yesterday, at the age of 76. His movies scared, unsettled and entertained me and weirdly along with the Disney Renaissance movies and Bruce Lee martial arts epics, showed me how to not be afraid of what goes bump in the night.
It’s amazing to think that an English & Philosophy professor went on to editing & writing pornography, directing exploitation films to go on to re-define the “Horror” film genre 2-3 times for decades and even make brief forays into Oscar-bait family dramas and screwball comedies. Wes Craven’s first was The Last House on the Left, a sickening rape-revenge story that seemed to come from the most disturbed mind. I only ever had the courage to see this movie when I was in college, after Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movies of All Time” special. By then I was older and well-read enough to understand what Craven was going for as he tapped into not just the darkest side of human nature but also his interest in art cinema – the movie is a riff on master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. After that, horror had practically defined Craven forever but he never settled on making the same movie twice even with sequels. And yes, from the start of his career to his death, he created not only some of the most iconic horror characters, he profoundly influenced the horror cycle with films that are now established classics.
Unlike many horror filmmakers, for whom nihilism and despair seemed to be the default, Craven’s movies often had clear defining lines of good & evil and a sense of justice about them that was unique. The monsters, madmen (and women) were almost always pure, unrelenting evil often devoid of any sympathetic or empathetic qualities and their actions were almost always cruel and disturbing in every way possible. The “good” in his films were often average or less-than-average everyday men and women (often the “final girl”) caught in the wake of these monstrosities but often triumph over them by simply refusing to be afraid. Even with the often terrifying sequel-baiting stingers, Craven’s films were special in that they suggest that while evil & darkness can never truly be extinguished, the good & light will always triumph by keeping them in check with simple courage and willpower. The leading ladies of the Elm Street movies beat the living nightmare of Freddy Kruger (brought to life by character actor Robert Englund) often by staring him in the face fearlessly; Sydney (Neve Campbell) of Scream constantly thwarts whoever’s hiding behind the iconic “ghostface” mask by refusing to bend towards the conventions of horror fiction (literally) which are evoked by the killers in a deadly twisted “game.”
Many of Wes Craven’s films were terrible too. When you look at his filmography you might even wonder how his career had not ended several times over, relegating him to late-night cable or Direct-to-Video ghettoization. However, even his worst works were schlocky-curiosities. The Eddie Murphy-led Vampire in Brooklyn, actor/not-yet-director Peter Berg in Shocker and even the Jesse Eisenberg & Christina Ricci teen werewolf movie Cursed (co-starring half the cast of the sitcom Arrested Development like Judy Greer and Portia De Rossi no less) worked as screwball comedies that remind us that underneath all the horror, Craven had lightly absurd sense of humor (the Scream movies blend comedy and horror perfectly). Even My Soul to Take is perhaps one of the all-time great bad movies, a monumental trainwreck that deserves a cult-following alongside Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.
However, beyond his own schlock output and questionable production credits (there’s a special place in my heart for Gerard Butler as Dracula swaggering to Linkin Park music in Dracula 2000, one of the early “Wes Craven Presents” movies), his successes did far more than be the ultimate playground “dare” for my friends and I. His great movies stand like enormous peaks of genre filmmaking. The one-two punch of The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes in the 70s were soon joined by A Nightmare on Elm Street, one of the seminal films of the 80s slasher genre, the one that introduced the infamous boogeyman Freddy Kruger into our pop culture subconscious. And in the 90s he brought us Scream, a movie that alongside Joss Whedon’s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer redefined horror (and satire) for Gen-Xers and Millennials alike. Sometimes he made a classic without even trying. 2005s Red Eye not only is a suspense thriller that stands alongside the best of Hitchcock, DePalma and puts Shymalan shame, it propelled Rachel McAdams (hot off the success of The Notebook) and Cillain Murphy (fresh off the now classic post-apocalyptic 28 Days Later) even further into the mainstream. His brief dabble into Oscar-friendly drama territory with Music of the Heart in 1999 (with an all-star cast of Mery Streep, Angela Bassett, Gloria Estefan and Cloris Leachman no less) shouldn’t be dismissed or forgotten either and neither should his segment in the Paris, je t’aime anthology.
Dabbles aside, Wes Craven was probably the single most important horror filmmaker of his lifetime. He was to Horror, what Michael Jordan was to basketball. Sure, there were greats before and will almost certainly be after them, but you can not deny the overall impact of their respective careers. Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the Scream movies and Red Eye… any filmmaker would be lucky to make a movie that good and/or that important. Craven was not only a towering icon of the horror genre but one of its most passionate and articulate defenders. To this day, while I still don’t quite “get” horror movies, nor their fandom as a whole, Craven’s films were of the few that I do and would recommend to anyone whether they want to “soil their undies” (so to speak), simply experience a good film or enjoy some “terribad” schlock. Now *that’s* a filmmaking legacy.
My Favorite Movies from Wes Craven:
- Scream 1-4 (1996-2010)
- Red Eye (2005)
- The Last House on the Left (1972)
- The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
- A Nightmare on Elm Street 1, 3 & New Nightmare (1984, 1987, 1994)
- Swamp Thing (1982)
- The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
- Shocker (1989)
- The People Under the Stairs (1991)
- Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)
- Music of the Heart (1999)
- Cursed (2005)
- The ‘Père Lachaise’ segment in Paris, je t’aime (2006)
- My Soul to Take (2010)