Wes Craven 1939 – 2015

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This piece was originally published on the 1st of September 2014 by The 405. This was the first full obituary I wrote, and it was difficult for a couple of reasons. First, the news was deeply upsetting as I had a considerable amount of respect for Wes Craven and his work, which I hope comes across in the piece. Second, on a practical level, the rigorous demands of online publishing don’t really afford much time to craft the thorough, detailed consideration of the subject’s life and work that one would want to write. I think I did an adequate job here, although I really would have liked more time to research. He lived a hell of a life, I only wrote about a tiny slither of it here.

It’s strange to write about someone like Wes Craven in the past tense. The venerated director sadly died on Sunday at the age of seventy-six following a battle with brain cancer, but he still feels so present. A cliché, perhaps, but no less true of a director who left such an indelible mark on horror cinema, and on popular culture writ large. This is, after all, the director of such landmark films as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996), and The Last House on the Left (1972). Had those films been made by three separate directors, they would each be regarded as legends among fans of horror cinema for having reinvented the genre; that he made all three, and countless other fascinating, idea-driven horrors throughout the last five decades, is a testament to his genius. Certainly, one of horror’s great voices has been lost, and our thoughts are with his loved ones at this time.

Born in Cleveland Ohio in 1939, a career in genre filmmaking would have been unmanageable for a young Wes Craven. He was raised within the strict confines of fundamentalist Baptism by his widowed mother, and while this assured that he was no stranger to the lingering darkness behind the peaceful façade of everyday life (which would become a key theme in his work), it also left movies largely out of bounds. He followed the path of academia, earning two degrees and taking a job as a college professor in humanities. Following his involvement in a student film, however, Craven fell deeply and madly in love with filmmaking, to the extent that he quickly sacked in his academic career to move to New York City and make movies. He took a few jobs here and there, and eventually wound up in the world of pornography, where he performed various roles, including editing and writing. It’s here he met another pornographer by the name of Sean Cunningham, who you may recognise as the director of Friday the 13th (1980), and would finally realise his dream of becoming a filmmaker.

Cunningham had already produced and directed a couple of films, one of which Craven worked on, and had secured a deal with Hallmark Releasing to produce a horror movie. He hired Craven to direct. The film, which Craven also wrote, was a little ditty called The Last House on the Left: a sadistic, taboo-smashing rape-revenge picture that reflected the disillusion of the late-1960s America, allowing audiences to confront the violence that permeated the public consciousness in the midst of the Vietnam war and the Manson murders. In his early thirties at that point, Craven hadn’t seen many horror films, but that wasn’t exactly a disadvantage. Horror cinema still largely comprised of childish gimmicks, monster movies, and Psycho (1960) rip-offs, but here was a film with a different approach, that played more like a documentary about the grisly underbelly of American life than a William Castle joint. Its low budget necessitated location shooting and an aesthetic verisimilitude that eluded many horror films; the infamous tagline advised “To avoid fainting, just keep telling yourself, ‘It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie.” but that was difficult when it didn’t look or feel anything like a horror movie to contemporary audiences.

Following The Last House on the Left and his equally great second feature The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Craven went through a brief arid period that encompassed Deadly Blessing (1981) and Swamp Thing (1982). To be sure, greatness didn’t grace all twenty of his features films; honestly, he made some real shit in his time. But, like Freddy Krueger, he always came back with films that ranged from the curious to the game-changing. And so, after those two relative duds, he made A Nightmare on Elm Street, his biggest mainstream hit and perhaps the definitive horror film of the 1980s. Though Elm Street looked remarkably different to The Last House on the Left, it was similarly grounded in a recognisable American milieu. Sure, it had an appealing monster and impressive splatter that, when imitated, would really push slasher films into the mainstream, but its success was rooted in fears that were more primal than that. Elm Street’s terror was derived from comfortable domesticity: from what lies beneath it, and from the early childhood fears rooted directly in it – like when the idea of walking down the stairs in the dark was terrifying because your feet might get stuck in the floor. Craven loved ideas that would get people thinking about the real terrors and atrocities around us – perhaps that’s what elevated him above many other genre directors – and A Nightmare on Elm Street addressed those fears with a playful kind of hopelessness that secured the film’s status as a sleepover-botherer for generations to come.

Craven’s popularity skyrocketed following A Nightmare on Elm Street, but the subsequent period of his career was not marked by that film’s excellence. The eleven years after Elm Street were scattershot to say the least, with gems such as The People Under the Stairs (1991) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) littered among the disappointing likes of The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985), Shocker (1989), and Vampire in Brooklyn (1995). In 1996, however, he reinvented horror again with his final masterpiece: Scream. When people think of Scream they think of its postmodern dissection of the beleaguered slasher sub-genre and its self-reflexive wit, but what seems to be forgotten is that it’s a truly great horror film – in terms of form, perhaps the best he ever made. There was a malaise in American horror at the time and he sought to correct it, not only through a self-conscious acknowledgement of horror conventions, but through immaculately constructed and genuinely disturbing set-pieces that reminded audiences what intelligent horror actually looked like. As with Last House and Elm Street, Scream spawned countless imitators but was never bettered, and its success saw Craven settle the least fruitful phase of his career. There was his one film to exist out of hard genre, the Meryl Streep Oscar-bait Music of the Heart (1999), three Scream sequels of varying quality, the universally derided duo of Cursed (2005) and My Soul to Take (2010), and the underrated thriller Red Eye (2005). Many argue that the latter was his last good film (although I maintain that Scream 4 [2011] is a hoot), and that, after Scream, Craven ultimately petered out bereft of a last triumphant hurrah.

But who cares about something like My Soul to Take when, without The Last House on the Left, there’d be no Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Evil Dead (1982), or Blair Witch Project (1999)? He won’t be remembered as the director of mediocre horror films, but as the reason why many people now working in the industry fell in love with cinema in the first place. He’ll be remembered as the man who – like George Romero before him and Tobe Hooper after – helped pioneer the idea that horror cinema was legitimate, that it could be explicitly informed by (and symptomatic of) contemporary political realities. He’ll be remembered as a storyteller with an instinctual understanding of fear, of its cathartic and galvanising powers, and how it’s woven into the fabric of everyday life. He’ll be remembered as a great advocate for a disreputable genre, who spoke widely and intelligently about why horror movies matter. We learned a lot from Wes Craven while he was alive, and there’s still plenty more we will learn from his work, which will be adored and slavishly studied forever. It sucks that we now have to write about him in the past tense, and that he suffered such a terrible disease, and that the world has lost someone who was by all accounts one of the good guys. But when you sit down to watch Sinister 2 (2015), or The Visit (2015), or any bloody disgusting horror film now deemed legitimate enough for mass consumption, please know that Wes Craven will be there somewhere, haunting the modern horror film as he always has.

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