Tragic news for horror movie fans, and film fans in general, in Fresno and all over the world today as horror maestro Wes Craven passed away Sunday at 776 years old after a battle with brain cancer. Craven died at his home in Los Angeles, his family announced. He is survived by his wife, producer and former Disney Studios vice president Iya Labunka.
As outlined by sources such as The Hollywood Reporter, Craven was a longtime summer resident of Martha’s Vineyard, where he moved permanently three years ago before returning to L.A. for work and health reasons.
Craven is most famous for creating the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and its iconic horror character Freddy Krugar, played consistently throughout the original series by actor Robert Englund. Craven claimed to have gotten the idea for Elm Street from living next to a cemetery on a street of that name in the suburbs of Cleveland. The five Nightmare on Elm Street films were released from 1984-89 to great cult success.
Craven was also well-known for creating the Scream series, which also went on to became a box-office sensation. The series was a spoof of the teen horror genre and frequently referenced other horror movies.
He made his feature film in 1972 with The Last House on the Left, which he wrote, directed and edited. The film was a rape-revenge movie that may have appalled some viewers but generated succeeded in generating big box office. He followed this success with another film he wrote and helmed, The Hills Have Eyes in 1977.
With the original horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, the first of the franchise, Craven re-invented the youth horror genre in a creation he wrote and directed. He also conceived and co-wrote Nightmare on Elm Street III as well, and then after not being involved with other sequels, he personally deconstructed the genre a decade after the original, writing and directing Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which was nominated for best feature at the 1995 Spirit Awards.
The first Scream, released in 1996, allowed Craven to reach a new level of success when the film grossed more than $100 million domestically, as did Scream 2 the following year.
But in-between Scream 2 and Scream 3, Craven was offered the opportunity to direct a non-genre film for Miramax. He helmed Music of the Heart (1999), which earned Meryl Streep an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in the inspirational drama about a teacher in Harlem. In an interview with writer-drector Mick Garris in October, Craven said, “We had a very difficult time getting an audience into a theater on my name. In fact, we moved toward downplaying my name a lot on Music of the Heart. The more famous you are for making kinds of outrageous scary films, the crossover audience will say, ‘I don’t think so.’”
That same year, 1999, in the midst of directing Music of the Heart, Craven also he completed his first novel, “The Fountain Society,” published by Simon & Shuster.
He would push genre boundaries again with the 2005 psychological thriller Red Eye, starring Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy and Brian Cox. And in 2006, he went on to write and direct a romantic comedy homage to Oscar Wilde featuring Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell as a segment in the French ensemble production Paris Je T’aime.
Craven then served as producer on the remakes of The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and The Last House on the Left (2009). His most recently written and directed film was 2010’s My Soul to Take, which marked his first collaboration with Labunka, who also produced Scream 4.
As one of the most recognisable names in the horror and thriller genre, Craven directed several other films during his career, including Swamp Thing (1982), Deadly Friend (1986) and The People Under the Stairs (1991).
Recently, he signed an overall television deal with Universal Cable Productions and had a number of projects in development, including The People Under the Stairs with Syfy Networks, Disciples with UCP, We Are All Completely Fine with Syfy/UCP, and Sleepers with Federation Entertainment. He was also an executive producer on the new Scream series for MTV; reportedly, an MTV spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter that the season finale of the series will pay tribute to Craven in the wake of his passing.
Craven had recently written and was to direct the Thou Shalt Not Kill segment for The Weinstein Co.’s Ten Commandments miniseries for WGN America, and he is listed as an executive producer of The Girl in the Photographs, a horror thriller directed by his protege, Nick Simon, which is slated to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next month.
Born Wesley Earl Craven in Cleveland on August 2, 1939, his father died when he was only 5. He was raised in a strict Baptist household and graduated from Wheaton College with degrees in both English and psychology, then later earned a master’s in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins. He briefly taught English himself at Westminster College and was a humanities professor at Clarkson College, where he served as a disc jockey for the campus radio station.
Throughout his career Craven had an eye for discovering new talent. In fact, while casting A Nightmare on Elm Street, he discovered a young up-and-coming actor named Johnny Depp. He also cast Sharon Stone in her first starring role in Deadly Blessing, and he gave Bruce Willis his first featured role in an episode of the 1980s version of The Twilight Zone.
He was married to Labunka in 2004, his third marriage. Survivors of Craven’s also include his sister Carol, son Jonathan, daughter Jessica, grandchildren Miles, Max and Myra-Jean and stepdaughter Nina.
Craven was also a nature lover and committed bird conservationist, serving as a longtime member of the Audubon California Board of Directors. He even penned a monthly column called “Wes Craven’s The Birds,” for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.
About his, Craven said in his interview with Garris: “I come from a blue-collar family, and I’m just glad for the work. I think it is an extraordinary opportunity and gift to be able to make films in general, and to have done it for almost 40 years now is remarkable. If I have to do the rest of the films in the [horror] genre, no problem. If I’m going to be a caged bird, I’ll sing the best song I can. I can see that I give my audience something. I can see it in their eyes, and they say thank you a lot. You realize you are doing something that means something to people. So shut up and get back to work.”
Wes Craven will long be missed and fondly remembered by his family, friends, loved once, and legions of devoted fans the world over.