Horror, as a genre, is essential. It can often be written off as schlocky or superficial, but in the right hands, a well-crafted scary story provides us with a cathartic release that reminds us we’re human. When it reaches the heights of fine art, horror can be a visceral mirror through which to look at the darkest, hidden, or ignored parts of society.
Wes Craven was a master of this kind of brutal satire. He was an intellectual, a former humanities professor who could look beyond the macabre, but who did such a fine job of chilling our bones that his name alone could cause some to quake with fear. But he was more than that even. He was also fiercely devoted to the “do it yourself” artistic lifestyle that would become even more relevant to the online generation.
Craven came of age as a director in the early 1970s: an era of political and cultural turmoil that bled over into the burgeoning independent film scene. For the first time, young filmmakers were able to work outside of the traditional studio system to push the boundaries of film with controversial works that dealt more explicitly with violence, sex, and the human condition. Horror was a natural playground for cinematic minds like George Romero, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg because it was often considered cheap to produce, while maintaining a niche audience that could practically guarantee a profit.
It was in this climate that Wes Craven, a young man who had been raised in a strict Baptist family, saw the seminal zombie classic Night of the Living Dead. He had always been interested in cinema, but had never considered the merits of the horror genre. “It made me realize that with a genre film, as long as it scared you, you could say anything; about politics, about psychology,” Craven told Rotten Tomatoes in 2009. “That’s what’s great about the horror genre is that you’re getting a load of people together in the cinema at the same place and the same time, having them all experience extreme fear and come out alive at the end. It’s an uplifting experience and there’s a sense of elation.”
Night of the Living Dead created the modern interpretation of the brain-hungry zombie, but it also contained thematic layers that allowed for a discussion of complicated topics like race relations and the civil rights movement. Suddenly, social commentary was fair game alongside the fake blood and intestines.
Craven grew increasingly interested in this thematic power of horror, and in 1972 he directed his first feature film: the infamous Last House on the Left. To this day, it is considered one of the vilest and most disturbing visions ever put to celluloid, banned in a number of countries for its excessive use of violence. Inspired by the saturation of bloody images broadcast from the Vietnam War, Craven set out to make a film that would condemn Hollywood’s reverence for violent imagery. Nothing about the cruelty of Last House on the Left is exciting. It’s as horrible as violence in the real world.
“We had gone to see one of those ‘Man With No Name’ Clint Eastwood movies and by actual account there was something like 300 dead bodies [on screen]. Armed with that sort of philosophical orientation, two peace-and-love flower children went out to make this violent film,” said Sean Cunningham, Craven’s long-time producing partner.
David Hess, the lead actor in the film, was well aware that Last House on the Left was a new kind of protest: “Everybody wanted to make an anti-violent film. Well, how do you do that given the violence of the subject matter? You push the envelope.”
“We didn’t think that it would have such a wide audience,” Craven told the AV Club in 2009. “We made it literally for a group of theater owners in Boston that owned, I think, 30, 40, 50 outdoor theaters. And it was specifically for those theaters, and no place else. We never thought we’d go beyond that. Going in, I thought I’d never have to worry about anyone in my past going to see it. Which proved to not be the case whatsoever. But at that time, that thought gave me a freedom to be outrageous, and to go into areas that normally I wouldn’t have gone into.”
The film did modest business, but it was well received by critics like Roger Ebert, who called it “About four times as good as you’d expect.” The cult status of Last House on the Left enhanced Craven’s reputation as a filmmaker. Initially, he thought he’d try to escape the bounds of horror to explore other interests, but ultimately he could not ignore the genre’s ability to mold to his own intellectual leanings.
Wes Craven was especially prone to long periods of research between projects. It was important that each of his films be grounded in reality, so he would often read through history books and newspapers in search of inspiration. His second film, The Hills Have Eyes, was a modern reinterpretation of a story he discovered in the Encyclopedia of Murder and Mayhem, and it would further cement his legacy as a director willing to show the worst sides of humanity. His monsters weren’t supernatural; they were simply strangers of the human variety.
However, it wasn’t until 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street that Craven would pen a legitimate hit. While this story of a phantom serial killer who stalks teenagers in their sleep seems completely fantastical, it too comes from a kernel of truth. Craven read a newspaper article about a group of Cambodian refugees who were suffering from such terrifying nightmares that they would altogether refuse to sleep. This extreme, paranoid insomnia led to their deaths.
He paired this story with one from his own childhood, where he had seen an old man staring through his window from outside his house. The man wore a fedora, which became the signature of the film’s famous antagonist—named after an elementary school bully—Freddie Krueger.
Nightmare on Elm Street is a surreal, visually arresting experience, in which the audience is never sure if they’re in reality or a dream. In fact, the horrifying imagery is still as potent and innovative today as it was upon release: a teenage boy is swallowed by his bed, a girl is dragged kicking and screaming across her ceiling, even the bath tub isn’t safe, as Freddy’s clawed hand creeps below the bubbles. Stylistically, it’s in sharp contrast to the snuff-like realism of Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, but Elm Street continues Craven’s examination of American fear and violence.
The technicolor suburban paradise where the protagonists have grown up looks like the achievement of the American Dream, but beneath the manicured lawns and trimmed hedges lies a dark secret. Elm Street was once home to a horrible serial killer, Freddie Krueger, who made murderers of the whole community when a mob burned him alive in his home. As revenge, Freddie invades the dreams of teenagers, threatening them when they are most vulnerable: when they’re asleep. What’s worse, he taunts them as he hunts, spouting the twisted gallows humor that would turn him into a horror icon.
Nightmare was the biggest commercial success of Wes Craven’s career and was immediately recognized by critics as one of the greatest horror films ever made. The star of the film, Heather Langenkamp, said the following during the film’s 30th Anniversary: “A lot of ’80s movies acknowledged that part of growing up was overcoming obstacles—whether they’re posed by broken families, the modern world, or the rise of technology. Wes had a story to tell that wasn’t just about killing—Nightmare is actually about the loss of youth and what kids are forced to do to save themselves from the mess their parents have made.”
Craven rounded out the ‘80s with a series of underrated gems, none of which could match the charm and wit of his most famous creation. Regardless, he cherished his independence more than financial success and would often choose a good idea over a marketable idea. The Serpent and the Rainbow dealt with Haitian voodoo and the origins of zombie mythology. The People Under the Stairs allowed Craven to inject some black comedy into his horror, all while analyzing the divide between rich and poor in suburban America. New Nightmare may have been the first meta-horror film, in which Freddy Krueger haunts the cast and crew of an Elm Street sequel, including Wes Craven himself in a rare onscreen role. Roger Ebert noted that the film asked “unsettling questions about the effect of horror on those who create it,” no doubt intentionally by a director who had grown weary of blood and guts.
But Wes Craven was not done innovating the horror genre. Nightmare on Elm Street had reinvented the slasher film, but Scream would deconstruct the genre in ways that no audience had ever seen before. It was a culmination of everything Craven had learned as a Master of Horror: teenagers in danger, a mysterious unstoppable killer, and self-referential humor to break the tension. The script was so tailor-made for his sensibilities that he initially refused the job.
Scream has a deceptively simple premise: A group of teenagers who understand the clichés of real world horror films are stalked by the kind of killer you’d find in Halloween or Friday the 13th. It’s a subversion of the genre that’s as funny as it is frightening, functioning as a critique of Craven’s own work and the work of his peers. Only a filmmaker at the peak of his powers could so cleverly deconstruct elements of horror that he’d had a hand in creating. If New Nightmare questions the impact of imagining such terrible visions, then Scream asks what kind of impact horror has on those who consume it.
“Kids have seen all of these films,” said Craven in 1996. “They know them. They know them by heart. You have that informed audience. The point is, are you going to undersell them, come in under their level of intelligence—which is typically what happens with this type of film—or come in at their level or slightly above?”
The film revitalized the slasher genre during a time when it had largely fallen out of fashion, eventually becoming the highest grossing horror film of all time (until it was beaten by The Blair Witch Project in 1999). This was the third time that Wes Craven transformed the cinema landscape, one film for each decade of his career. The Last House on the Left challenged the politics of horror, Nightmare on Elm Street challenged the imagination of horror, and Scream challenged the value of horror.
On August 30, 2015, Wes Craven passed away at the age of 76. He took with him a legacy beyond that of a simple macabre storyteller. Wes was a visual genius who used horror as a tool to peel back layers of the human condition, to explore philosophy and psychology. His films challenge us to go to the brink of acceptability and to stare at what makes us afraid. A champion of free speech, of independent filmmaking, and of smart storytelling, Wes Craven is the director to watch if you want to understand how to frighten, to compel, to challenge, to enlighten your audience, and to “do something different” in your genre.
Featured image courtesy of New Line Cinema