The legendary Wes Craven died on Sunday, August 30, after a tragic battle with brain cancer. He left an amazing number of friends and admirers behind, as well as a legendary legacy including some of the most important horror movies ever made. The “Nightmare on Elm Street” films and the “Scream” series have gone down in history as two of the greatest franchises in movie history. “Scream” is still so popular it was recently revived on MTV as a regular series with Craven serving as one of its executive producers. Craven’s touch was far and wide in horror, and even when he ventured away from the genre, he showed a deft, master’s touch. He directed Meryl Streep to an Academy Award nomination for “Music of the Heart” in 1999. Yet, horror is where his greatest triumphs were, and no wonder, as he changed the face of horror in three significant ways that cannot be underestimated.
The first time that Craven altered the way we look at horror was in 1972 with his low-budget film “The Last House on the Left.” Up until that moment, most horror was born out of the macabre or the supernatural: monsters, witches and creatures transformed by nuclear waste. “The Last House on the Left” was different. It was realistic, almost too real in many ways. It was the first post-Manson family horror movie. After the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969, villains no longer came draped just in black capes, black hats or ghoulish appearances. They could look like flower children, even pretty teenage girls. Craven ran with that in “The Last House on the Left” and created vile monsters who looked like regular Joe’s and Jane’s. It forever changed what the antagonists in horror looked like, and broadened the genre to include tropes that were much more true-to-life.
Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” from 1960, Craven made his film about rape and revenge feel like a documentary. It was shot cheaply, with unskilled actors, and had a crude, handheld style throughout. That made it seem like it was real. And playing off of current events like the Manson murders and the Zodiac killings, “The Last House on the Left” seemed almost like a horrific home movie.
In Craven’s first masterpiece, the teenage Mari goes off to the city for a concert in New York City with her girlfriend Phyllis. Mari’s parents worry about their youth amidst the dangers of the big city, but Mari talks them into trusting her. It would be the last time they’d see her alive as once she got there, Mari and Phyllis quickly fell into the hands of a marijuana dealer and his vicious family. His dad was a just escaped rapist and serial killer named Krug. And this thug is traveling with two equally loathsome cons – his girlfriend Sadie, and buddy Weasel. They take the girls hostage and transport them out to the suburban woods, which Mari recognizes as being close to her home.
Krug, Weasel and Sadie take turns taunting, defiling and torturing the two teens. Phyllis is stabbed to death, while Mari is carved up, raped and ultimately shot dead as she tries to escape via the nearby lake. Any resemblance between these fictional events and what happened in August of 1969 at that famous house on Cielo Drive that Roman Polanski was renting was strictly intentional. Even the name Sadie echoes the nickname “Sexy Sadie” given to Manson girl Susan Atkins.
The scenes of violation in Craven’s shocker were truly traumatic to watch, but they were masterfully executed by Craven and his committed actors. The story’s events had an almost random energy to them. They were shot close, jittery, and the brutality was more visceral than most films had dared present in those days. Watching it, the audience felt close to it all, too close, as if they were victims being savaged by Krug and his gang as well. And if Craven had stopped there, the film would still have been regarded as a truly revolutionary American horror cinema. But Craven went one better. What came afterwards really created a conversation – one about how violence had seeped into the fabric of everyday American life.
For here, the parents did not just mourn the loss of their beloved Mari, but they decided to ultimately avenge her. Craven presented a normal couple driven to vigilantism and their own thuggery by the events of violence. America was becoming a nation of an eye for an eye, Craven was saying, and that’s why he had Mari’s parents exact revenge that included stabbing, electrocution and sexual sadism. Crime drove them mad with rage, something that all the terrible events of the sixties were doing to everyday Americans. Assassination, war, crime, poverty and moral decline was taking its toll and Craven said so. It may have been a grindhouse movie but it spoke to the nation, became a huge hit, and quickly catapulted Craven to the big time.
The second way that Craven transformed Hollywood horror happened when he wrote and directed “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in 1984. Marquee horror characters were nothing new at the cinema. Ever since the heydays of Universal Studios’ Dracula and Frankenstein, scary movies were filled with larger-than-life bogeymen who made the audience shiver with delight. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Michael Myers from the “Halloween” franchise and Jason Voorhees from the “Friday the 13th” series had already staked claims as superstars. Yet they were mute thugs who essentially killed without much thinking. And their means of knives and machetes were hardly imaginative tools of the trade. That’s where Craven came in. With his “Nightmare on Elm Street”, he created a much more sophisticated and well-spoken baddie with better and more clever ways of dispatching his victims. Freddie Krueger was witty, outspoken, and a haunter of dreams who could turn your deepest fears against you. He found all sorts of ways to kill his victims based on themes or props from their subconscious. And it turned him into a celebrity villain almost immediately.
Krueger came with a backstory of child molesting, and his subsequent punishment of lynching and being burned alive by the livid parents of his victims. Again, Craven played off of the current trends in the nation and our increasing knowledge of such sociopathic behavior by the likes of Atlanta child murderer Wayne Williams. Craven also rode the wave of our nation’s obsession with psychology and how our brain makes us think and act the way we do. Krueger invaded his victim’s sleeping states, a place that was full of infinite imagination, and he used that playground to tease, torture and slaughter his prey. Our worst fears literally killed us in Freddy’s world. It was an endless landscape in hell, one that spawned five sequels, a series, and a 2010 reboot.
In addition, Freddy’s imaginative ways of killing inspired hundreds of other movies afterwards. Conventional killing became too expected as screenwriters ran in all directions to find new ways of offing their fictional victims. The entire series of “Saw” owes a great deal of debt to Craven as its Jigsaw Killer was practically a flesh and blood version of Freddy, exacting revenge with the most outlandish devices and Rube Goldberg set-ups.
Finally, the third way that Craven revolutionized the horror world came in 1996. That year, Craven had an idea for a horror movie that would practically define the term “meta.” Meta is the term applied to anything that references itself or the conventions of its genre, and that’s exactly what Craven did with his movie “Scream.” It was a horror movie about horror movies, one that constantly commented on the conventions and clichés of the genre while playing out as a real movie. The killer(s) in the film were obsessive students of horror who lived and breathed the narrative tropes of the genre so well that they editorialized about them while they were committing their own heinous acts of bloodletting. From the opening scene where they torment Drew Barrymore about what happens in horror when someone is left alone in the house, like she was at that moment, the film satirized the genre while simultaneously playing it for real.
Craven was brilliant as he made us laugh while his characters reminded those in the movie and those watching it of how easily predictable most horror had become. But then Craven pulled the rug out from under us by finding a fresh new way to scare just when we thought we had it all figured out. With subsequent sequels, the films started playing us even more. Was Craven riffing on horror clichés or merely those of “Scream”? Was that a real clue or just a red herring, or perhaps a clue masquerading as a red herring like “Scream” was apt to do? It almost became film classes within the films, as Craven made the first post-horror horror movie series.
Ultimately, what Craven did was make horror a whole helluva lot smarter. His movies and scares always felt fresh, new, and of-the-moment. His films were often gruesome but they always remained entertaining and cathartic for audiences desiring quality thrills and chills. That was always at the forefront of Craven’s mind and thus, today he is at the forefront of ours. Wes Craven was a great filmmaker, a horror pioneer, and a man who gave us the stuff that Hollywood dreams are made of. They were darker versions, granted, but dreams nonetheless.