Remembering Wes Craven
The word craven may mean “cowardly,” but for slasher fans, it’s more appropriately synonymous with fear itself. Director Wes Craven, who died of brain cancer on August 30 at the age of 76, launched not one but two iconic horror franchises: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996). Though he demonstrated equitable skill with suspense thrillers and even straight dramas (he directed Meryl Streep to an Oscar nod in 1999’s Music of the Heart), Craven was first and foremost a horror master. Like Romero and Carpenter, his name will always carry an inextricable link to the genre.
For the discerning, though, there’s more to be found in Craven’s films than simple slice-and-dice gore (he can’t be held entirely responsible for Nightmare’s first five execrable sequels, as none were directed by him). His debut, 1972’s The Last House on the Left, is a thriller that turns the tables by following the vile antagonists once they’ve disposed of their two young female victims. When they end up spending the night in the home of the parents of one of these women — who then exact their revenge — it’s the sort of filmmaking that digs deep beneath the audience’s skin. We know it’s already far too late for there to be a happy ending; all we can do is watch in twisted fascination as the characters explore the basest regions of their psyches.
A Nightmare on Elm Street took a brilliant premise — what if there was a monster that could only find you when you were asleep? — put in in the food processor, and hit puree. Literally, at times. After the heroine’s boyfriend (played by a young Johnny Depp) is sucked into his mattress and then spit out again by the franchise’s villain, Freddy Kruger, the paramedics turn up wheeling a stretcher. Another character, having already seen the carnage, quips dryly, “That’s no good. You’ll need a mop.” The sequels would only up the stakes in the gross-out department — not unlike the Saw franchise, which was equally guilty of beating a solid idea into the ground. Nightmare was at its best when it focused on the sheer terror these kids had of falling asleep, and the inevitability of it — not unlike the fear of death itself.
Craven pulled a remarkable act of resuscitation on the project in 1994, with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Instead of coming up with yet another silly device to resurrect Freddy (who was killed for good and all in the last film, titled Freddy‘s Dead: The Final Nightmare), he went meta, casting actors from the original film as themselves, to explore the effect that horror films have on the people who make them. Though Robert Englund does return as Freddy, he’s not a simple boogeyman anymore, but rather a representation of subconscious forces that must be harnessed and subdued in the absence of their conduit. It was a fascinating move, one that managed to find freshness in the material while still rewarding longtime fans of the series.
Taking the meta concept a step further was Scream, which posed the question: What if the characters in a horror movie knew they were in a horror movie? From the white-knuckle opening sequence — in which Drew Barrymore is dispatched in classic girl-home-alone-at-night fashion — to the new and unforgettable use of Edvard Munch’s classic artwork, the movie is a slick love letter to the slasher genre. Craven would go on to direct three sequels, and the conceit spawned several copycats, among them the Scary Movie franchise. Films like 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods would likely not exist if it hadn’t been for Scream.
In the mid-aughts, when the self-aware horror-comedy subgenre had reached a certain saturation point, Craven returned to basics with another straight thriller, Red Eye (2005). Starring Rachel McAdams as a hotel manager who’s trapped on an overnight flight to Miami with a smooth-talking terrorist (Cillian Murphy), the film provided a solid showcase for its two young stars while preying on the nation’s post-911 fears. While certain developments are howlingly unrealistic (see the tracheotomy scene), the airplane setting creates a degree of claustrophobia that nonetheless turns Red Eye into a worthwhile suspense outing.
Wes Craven’s legacy will stretch on for as long as horror movies continue to thrive — which, as any fan could tell you, is as good as forever. There’s no doing away with those slasher madmen. They keep on coming back.