There are so many times where director's names are thrown around as being revolutionary, iconic, visionary. Most of the time, those are hyperbole, but in the horror genre, there truly is a Mount Rushmore of legends, and one of those is definitely Wes Craven, who sadly passed away today at the age of 76.
Of course, you can't talk about Wes Craven without talking about Freddy
Krueger and the 'Nightmare On Elm Street' series, which Craven so brilliantly created, wrote, and directed. Released in 1984, the genre-defining tale of Freddy Krueger, a serial killer that murders a string of teenagers in their dreams, made Craven a superstar writer and director, and would create a series that would span 8 movies over 3 decades, a tv series, and the creation of the ultimate horror pop culture icon. While there is absolutely nothing I can say about 'A Nightmare On Elm Street' that hasn't been said, the other films in Wes Craven's filmography deserve just as much attention.
The first movie of his career was 'The Last House on the Left' in 1972, which is legendary in it's own right. At the height of exploitation and shock horror, a super disturbing story of a couple of teenage girls who are kidnapped by a group of murderous psychos, it is hyper violent, almost snuff-like, and it certainly falls into that "what I'm watching isn't real, is it?" category that other films like 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and 'I Spit on Your Grave' do. Apparently, this is one of those films that, at release, was banned, caused people to pass out and/or fall violently ill during screenings. In fact, the tag-line for the film is "Keep repeating: "This is only a movie...".
Craven done a string of very memorable genre films through the late 70's and early 80's including the classic 'The Hills Have Eyes' (and it's subsequent sequel), about a family stranded in the desert, being hunted by a group of mutant cannibal killers, 'Deadly Blessing', a film about an Amish community, a killer tractor, demons, and Ernest Borgnine. It's certainly a very unique and underrated gem. And then there's '82's 'Swamp Thing', based off the comic book about a scientist that, after an accident, becomes a half plant/mutant. It was seemingly an homage to the 1950's schlocky creature features, and features a great performance from Adrienne Barbeau.
After 'A Nightmare on Elm Street', he embarked on making a few less traditional, more original projects, including 'Chiller', 'Deadly Friend', and 'The Serpent and the Rainbow', which is more of an underrated psychological thriller featuring the
always excellent Bill Pullman as a Doctor that travels to Haiti to investigate a powder that turns people into zombies, based in the voodoo culture. His next couple of films were some that fans of early 90's horror hold close in their hearts, especially after them being played so often on cable while growing up. 'Shocker', about a serial killer who is put to death in the electric chair, but comes back to haunt, and you guessed it, basically uses and travels through electricity to do his bidding. Then there's 'The People Under the Stairs', an awesome film about a poor family who are trying to save their neighborhood, so they break into a big house that is rumored to have riches in it. Problem is, the house is inhabited by an INSANE couple, who have their daughter held captive in the captive, as well as a group of ghoulish prisoners in the basement. This movie has several very entertaining elements, including humor, heist, horror, action, and it was honestly a favorite since I was a kid.
New Line Cinema had continued creating 'Elm Street' films well after Cravens had moved on, but after 5 movies, had incessantly been trying to lure him back in. He agreed to come back to the series, as he wanted to finish off Freddy once and for all, and creatively on his terms. Some consider 'Wes Craven's New Nightmare' to be the best of the series. Taking on a completely unique spin for the series, the movie is about reality, and the fact that 'Elm Street' is a fictional movie, but as Wes Craven (in the movie, playing himself) begins to write a new Freddy movie, Freddy becomes real. Probably sounds confusing, but it's the ultimate movie-within-a-movie idea, and was an excellent film. Throughout the mid-90's and into the 2000's, Wes made a few more original, horror-tinged movies including 'Vampire in Brooklyn' with Eddie Murphy, 'Red Eye', 'Cursed', and 'My Soul to Take', but his obvious swan song was the 'Scream' series.
By the mid-90's, many felt that the horror genre had somewhat become a parody of itself and needed a reinvention. Enter 'Scream'. Truly an "event", it came at fever pitch of the kind of MTV reality era of that time. It featured a who's who ensemble cast of the day, insanely clever twists and turns, it turned the genre on it's ear. It was one of those movies that EVERYONE had to go see. Somewhat of a murder mystery, a serial killer, uses the classic tropes of horror movies to get his victims, almost in a self-referential way. The movie knew the audience was in on the joke, but there was enough mystery to keep you on the edge of your seat, and it became an instant classic, for the MTV generation at least. Craven went on to direct 2, 3, and finished up the series with 'Scream 4', which was sadly the last movie he ever directed.
So we say goodbye to a legend of film. My favorite memories of Craven aren't
necessarily just in his films, but the man himself. Having watching numerous in-depth interviews, making of featurettes, behind the scenes pieces, etc., I was
always struck by how smart he was. He always had such a cerebral and well thought out idea of what horror, and films in general, are and what they *can* be, and the psychology behind them. Hearing him talk about his true life inspirations for creating the character of Freddy, his studies of dream mythology, he always had fascinating ideas, and while most of us will agree entirely with him, I'll leave you with a quote of his, his view on what makes horror interesting: "It's like boot camp for the psyche. In real life, human beings are packaged in the flimsiest of packages, threatened by real and sometimes horrifying dangers. But the narrative form puts these fears into a manageable series of events. It gives us a way of thinking rationally about our fears." Well said.
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