Wes Craven (1939-2015)

WC6Anythinghorror is sad to report another loss to the horror genre this year: Wes Craven has died over the weekend at the age of 76, after a long battle with brain cancer.

There are many in the industry who could be described as One Hit Wonders: somehow coming up with a brilliant, innovative, well-made movie, but then failing to further demonstrate the gifts they ostensibly possess (still, at least they’ll be remembered for something, as opposed to all those that try and get forgotten).

However, Wes Craven would not be one of those OHWs. In a career spanning five decades, he managed to produce a number of unforgettable, iconic films, and a handful more of flawed but interesting works, while stretching out into multiple media such as TV, the Internet and comic books, while remaining relevant to the end.

He was born in Cleveland, Ohio, raised in a strict Baptist family (by all accounts it wasn’t a particularly happy childhood), went on to study English and Psychology, eventually earning a Master’s degree in Philosophy and Writing from John Hopkins University, and briefly teaching English and Humanities at various schools. He married, then divorced. By most accounts, that might be the end of an ordinary story.

But it was from here, as they say, that things got interesting for him.

After some taxi work, he got into Porn. As you do.

DEEP THROAT. Never saw it. I think it was about a woman with tonsillitis.

DEEP THROAT. Never saw it. I think it was about a woman with tonsillitis.

Craven found porn a more lucrative profession than teaching, and a way to learn more about the work he really wanted to do: film making. Among other efforts he worked on the infamous DEEP THROAT, though his exact roles were unrevealed, they presumably involved writing and/or editing (as opposed to being a stand-in for the actors). It was this preliminary work which led him to his first directorial feature, 1972’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.

Yes, but is it only a movie?

Yes, but is it only a movie?

A rough remake of Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING, only with more hippies and scenes of teenage girls being forced to piss themselves before being raped and murdered, LAST HOUSE was banned in the UK for decades, before being officially released in May 2003 (naturally we all had bootleg copies long before then). It was also his first collaboration with producer Sean S Cunningham of FRIDAY THE 13TH fame (whose own horror creation, Jason Vorhees, would later fight a certain horror creation of Craven’s – but, I’m jumping ahead of myself). LAST HOUSE was a rough, grungy movie, pure Grindhouse, more notorious than worthy of notoriety.

A face only a mother could love. Maybe.

A face only a mother could love. Maybe.

Fortunately, Craven got better at his work, next creating 1977’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES. He originally titled his tale of a cannibalistic mutant family BLOOD RELATIONS, but changed it at the insistence of his producer Peter Locke. Craven said he initially disliked the title but stuck with it because it tested well with audiences. He was right; the movie still holds up well nearly forty years later (as does the poster with Michael Berryman on the front). His official 1985 sequel holds up less well, though it remains a guilty favourite of mine, but only because I had a crush on the lead actress, Tamara Stafford.

Craven kept busy after this, directing a number of movies (and TV movies): STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE, DEADLY BLESSING, KENT STATE, SWAMP THING, INVITATION TO HELL.


Do I really need to caption this?

Do I really need to caption this?

Craven’s idea of Freddy Krueger came from a childhood memory of looking out of his apartment window to see a drunk man dressed similarly to Freddy looking back up at him for several minutes (the name itself came from the name of a boy who used to bully him in high school). Craven had written the script but none of the major studios would take him up on it until New Line accepted – on the condition that Craven signed over all the rights to the character. As a result, despite the phenomenal success of Freddy through the Eighties, Craven never made a penny on him until much later, when New Line finally recognised his part in filling their bank accounts, and cut him in on the profits, including back earnings.

The NIGHTMARE OF ELM STREET was a smash hit, bringing in $25 million domestically and establishing its production company, New Line Cinema (subsequently nicknamed “the house that Freddy built”) as a Hollywood force and introducing Robert Englund as someone who could do more than play nice-guy aliens on V. There would be nine NIGHTMARE films in total, along with a TV series, comic book series, an NES game. And, sigh, yes, rap songs too. I had them on singles cassettes when I was young and tasteless.

He's been marked for SPACEBALLS 2

He’s been marked for SPACEBALLS 2…

But NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET doesn’t really need elucidation here; that’s like going to the Kardashians and asking, “Do we need to talk about being famous and rich for no damn good reason?”. The following ten or so years seemed a little rough for Craven, in that his subsequent work would be compared with NIGHTMARE, rightly or wrongly: DEADLY FRIEND, SHOCKER, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN.

And suddenly, there was SCREAM.


The best horror movie ever inspired by a 19th century Norwegian painter since Olaf Isaachsen’s THE SYRINBUSK FJORD MASSACRE

Some of his works tend to share a common exploration of the nature of reality and unreality, including obviously the NIGHTMARE movies, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. When he returned to Freddy to direct WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE in 1994, he tapped into Meta levels, with a script that had himself, Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp playing themselves dealing with the making the movie that we’re seeing.

With SCREAM, he went Full Meta, with characters aware of and playing with all the conventions of horror movies that the rest of us were doing all along. It also had a high dose of humour, a risk that doesn’t usually pay off in horror, but did in this case.

They still wrote it off as a suicide...

They still wrote it off as a suicide…

As if learning his lessons from the NIGHTMARE franchise, Craven decided to stick around his second hit horror franchise for a while, directing SCREAM 2 (1997), SCREAM 3 (2000) and SCREAM 4 (2011). I’m very glad that he made SCREAM 4, even though I haven’t seen it, because now it’s his last film, as opposed to 2010’s MY SOUL TO TAKE. If that had been his last movie, that would have been a shit swan song.

Craven also produced many remakes of his own work in recent years, including HILLS HAVE EYES, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. He had a considerable production output over the decades, includes personal favourites, WISHMASTER (1997) and DRACULA 2000.
Say what you want about him, he wasn’t lazy.

Nor without a sense of humour, when he cameoed in JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKES BACK (2001) when he portrayed himself, more interested in counting the money he was making for the (then-fictitious) SCREAM 4 (where the killer turns out to be a monkey, chosen because of test audience reaction). And by all accounts, he was a nice, thoughtful man, always ready to converse with fans.

And for a guy his age, he embraced new things, including social media, and had a healthy online profile. One of his last Tweets summed up a philosophy that can be applied to any field of endeavour:

3 Responses to “Wes Craven (1939-2015)”
  1. Katie says:

    Wonderful eulogy. He most definitely will be missed, but will live on forever as new generations discover his films.


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