It was hard to see writer/director Wes Craven, who died yesterday at the age of 76 after a battle with brain cancer, in person without experiencing a sense of cognitive dissonance. A dignified man with an academic air, kind eyes, and an easy smile, Craven defied the expectations created by his films, which sent character after character to their deaths, usually in imaginative — and always brutal — ways. Could the man expanding on the cultural roots of horror be the same man who turned Johnny Depp into geyser of blood in A Nightmare on Elm Street?
Craven’s teacher-like qualities can be easily explained: Prior to turning to filmmaking, he worked as a humanities professor. His career in horror has less likely origins. The product of a strict, fundamentalist upbringing in Cleveland, Ohio, the future director grew up in a household that viewed the outside world as a place of sin; his strict mother allowed him to watch only Disney cartoons. After college, Craven developed a passion for film, which he’d use it to express repressed emotions he’d long kept under the surface. “I had so much rage as a result of years of being made to be a good boy,” Craven told author Jason Zinoman in the 2011 book Shock Value. “When you’re raised to be within such rigid confines of thought and conduct […] it makes you crazy. Or it makes you angry.”
After a period working in the sleazier sections of the New York film industry, Craven made his directorial debut with Last House on the Left (1972), whose poster and trailer featured the famous tagline, “To avoid fainting, just keep telling yourself, ‘It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie.'” Yet part of what makes this grindhouse landmark so unnerving even today is how easy to forget it is a movie — or at least a fiction film made by professionals. Inspired by the chaos of the Vietnam War era in general and Charles Manson in particular, Last House follows a pair of teenagers as they’re kidnapped and tormented by a gang of criminals; one pair of parents then exact some equally vicious payback on the perpetrators. A loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (but with a much bleaker ending), the film is made all the more effective by its low-budget and technical limitations. It plays less like a horror movie than evidence of a crime, an example of the awfulness and inevitability of violence.
It wouldn’t be the last time Craven would touch a nerve. Subsequent films, like the drive-in classic The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Deadly Blessing (1981) would showcase his growing technical skills even as they continued to get under your skin; if nothing else, the goofy but endearing comic-book adaptation Swamp Thing (1982) would prove that he was capable of doing more than assembly-line slicing and dicing. But it’s his best-known movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), that would use the slasher-flick template to dig beneath the peaceful surface of the Reagan era to find secrets, lies, and hidden threats. With the story of Freddy Krueger, a murderer of children in turn slaughtered by parents, Craven once again made a film about how violence works as an endless cycle. The big difference was that he grounded it in a bucolic small-town setting and made his boogeyman manifest himself in the seeming safety of suburban streets. Again, the tagline says it all: “Every town has an Elm Street.”
Its inventive dream sequences and memorable villain made Nightmare truly stand out amidst the glut of brand-name horror films in the 1980s. It owed as much to Jean Cocteau as it did to John Carpenter and operated by a different, scarier genre logic: Where Friday the 13th and its ilk punished its characters for sex, drugs, and other perceived transgressions, it’s the sins of the parents that doom the kids of Elm Street. That change makes its scares cut even deeper.
The success of Elm Street allowed Craven to enter into a prolific, inventive period. He contributed ideas to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (the best of the original film’s sequels), directed a sequel to The Hills Have Eyes and the moody, voodoo-themed The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), made a loud return to monster movies with Shocker (1989), and helped close out the Reagan/Bush era with The People Under the Stairs, (1991), a fairy tale-like horror film that pitted some inner-city protagonists against villains modeled after Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
It was Craven’s 1994 film Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, however, that would surprisingly prove the most influential, both for his career and horror in general. Returning to the Elm Street world, sort of, the director crafted a Chinese box of a film in which Heather Langenkamp, the real-life star of the first movie, plays herself — and becomes troubled by evidence that Freddy Krueger is finding a way to manifest himself in the real world. Combining folklore, Hollywood satire, black humor, and the unnerving dreaminess of the first film, it’s among Craven’s best films.
It also helped push the genre in a more self-aware direction, which he’d take to the next logical step with Scream. Working from a witty screenplay by Kevin Williamson, Craven made an old-fashioned whodunit that was wink-nudge informed by the clichés and expectations of slasher flicks. It knew all the rules and how to subvert them, then added the element of characters who knew those same scary movie-savvy guidelines — and often found that simply understanding they were in a horror movie would do nothing to save their lives.
Released to tremendous success in 1996, Scream combined intelligence with horror, skimping on neither. That was the trick he worked throughout his career. Craven was smarter and more thoughtful than most others in his field, but his films never felt cerebral. They scared because they provoked thought. Their terrors made viewers think.
He returned for three subsequent Scream sequels, but the filmmaker also found ways to branch out in the last stretch of his career, directing the Meryl Streep-starring drama Music of the Heart (1999) and trying — if not quite succeeding — to invent another memorable teen-horror villain in My Soul to Take (2010). The best movie of his later years, Red Eye (2005), suggests he could have had a second career as a director of white-hot thrillers; while Craven occasionally expressed regret that he didn’t get to work out of the horror genre more often, any sense of confinement never showed in his work. Leaving behind his cloistered childhood, he found a way to explore the larger world that opened up to him in adulthood by plumbing its fearful depths. If there’s little comfort in them, that’s because providing comfort was never Craven’s job.