Because the Future is Fun

RIP Wes Craven: 1939 – 2015

Wes Craven

The details are sketchy, but it was some point in the tail-end of the 1980s. The devilishly handsome wordsmith whose words you read now was a pre-pubescent urchin, just starting to explore his recently-discovered love of movies. Constantly hungry for new entertainment experiences, the appearance of a new VHS tape in the house was always a source of excitement for this fledgling film fanatic, especially if it was a horror flick; late-night double-bills of the marauding monsters of Universal and Hammer, viewed furtively on a portable black-and-white bedroom TV, had imprinted an early appetite for all things that go bump in the night.

The tape that my elder brother had brought home on this occasion, though … there was clearly something different about this one. There was an air of caution surrounding it, as if the contents were somehow dangerous. Rather than the usual lightly-amused indulgence of my captivation with the macabre, strict and stern parental instruction was handed down that under no circumstances was this film to be watched while I was in the house. The cover was mesmeric, tinted a pale blue and focusing on a beautiful teenager sleeping peacefully while a menacing razor-fingered glove hovered above her. Even the tag line – Sleep Kills – was hypnotically and tantalisingly direct.

Hold on a minute – was this that movie? The one was being consistently discussed in hushed tones throughout the school playground? The one with the gross and gory special effects, and the horrible villain in make-up? The film that was considered firmly off-limits, that only that one or two lucky kids has managed to get their grubby mitts on? The one that circulated on the schoolyard black market, only be watched in secret and making it into rotation at just the most laxly-monitored of sleepover parties? Plans were swiftly made to sneak downstairs when everyone else was asleep and feed this addiction. This movie demanded to be seen.

Seen it was, and it eventually became a personal favourite – despite the fact that even now, over twenty years later, it still inspires chills from some kind of reflex muscle memory (a source of mirth to those who watch it for the first time in the cold, hard light of 2015). That’s Now, though, and we’re talking about Then; and back Then, about twenty minutes was more than long enough to tell me that under no circumstances was I ready for A Nightmare on Elm Street. This may have been the little horror flick that could, breaking out of the slasher ghetto and re-invigorated the genre for a new generation, but Freddy Krueger terrified me, sparking regular nightmares and a borderline phobia that lasted at least a decade.

The point of this rambling stroll down memory lane is, of course, a personal touch to note the sad passing of the great Wes Craven, who lost his battle with brain cancer yesterday at the age of 76. A big loss for Hollywood, and sad news for yours truly; for better or worse, the works of Wes Craven have played a significant part in forging the tastes of this scribe over the years.

Born into a strict Baptist family in Cleveland in 1939, Wesley Earl Craven lived in the shadow of organized religion for much of his early life. Far from a horrorhound in his youth, Craven was barely aware of the world of movies beyond the wholesome animated works of Disney, and he was certainly not familiar with horror. Watching Night of the Living Dead in the late 1960s was a lightbulb moment for the then-Professor of Humanities; assuming that Romero’s feted festival of flesh-munching was a one-off, he began to learn that there was a career to be forged in terrifying, horrifying and repulsing paying audiences. Already experienced in writing prose, Craven turned his attentions to the film business.

Far from an overnight success, however, it would prove to be an arduous journey to respectability for Wes Craven. Unable to secure funding for a project, he worked in the pornography industry under a variety of pseudonyms for a spell, making the best of the experience by taking the opportunity to educate himself in the technical aspects of moviemaking. It was during this time that Craven met a fellow director with ambitions of breaking out of the skin-flick game in favour of something more palatable, Sean S. Cunningham, and together they plotted the Sex Crime of the Century.

That title would, of course, become evolve into the more congenial Last House on the Left, but the content of Craven’s 1972 directorial debut remained as grubby, disturbing and unpleasant as its original moniker suggested. Perhaps Ang Lee summed it up best when he declared “it’s one of the greatest films ever, and now that I’ve seen it, it should be banned”, and even Craven himself expressed no desire to revisit the movie as a viewer (though he did produce the substantially slicker 2009 remake). He clearly didn’t make much of an impression on his fellow horror maestro Stephen King either, who claimed in his 1981-penned genre review Danse Macabre that “if you’ve seen one film by Wes Craven it’s safe, I think, to skip the others”. As a calling card, however, Last House did the trick. Critical notices were significantly stronger than many would have expected for a movie that revolves around rape, torture, murder and toothy castration – including strong praise from Roger Ebert, among others – and audiences flocked, perhaps intrigued by the memorable poster campaign. Having the flick banned as a video nasty in the UK certainly didn’t hurt its notoriety, either.

Despite this, it would take Craven five years to get his next project to the screen – and even then, the theme of good, civilized people being driven to violent extreme behaviours was revisited. The Hills Have Eyes was deemed an exercise in brutality when released (in the first of many battles with the MPAA that Craven would endure throughout his career, the first cut was slapped with an X and cut to ribbons), and while the shock factor of the original has been superseded by the substantially grisly remake from Gallic splattermeister Alexandre Aja, the movie holds up considerably better than its predecessor in the modern era. Now considered a cult classic, the uncompromising and visceral nature is unsettling but engrossing today. It’s also playful in places – one scene features a torn poster of Jaws, suggesting that anybody scared by that flick was going to have a real rough time with this one. This was mischievously homaged in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead a number of years later, which included a torn Hills poster as a prop in the cabin’s basement. Craven returned the favour by playing Evil Dead on a TV in Nightmare on Elm Street.

An improvement though The Hills Have Eyes may have been, Craven was still struggling to get his movie career to take flight by the end of the 1970s; in addition to taking jobs as a hired gun cinematographer, most notably on Cunningham’s pre-Friday the 13th family-friendly tale of little leaguers, Here Come the Tigers, Craven retreated to TV and directed Linda Blair in the politely tolerated Summer of Fear. 1981 saw the release of Craven’s next cinematic directorial credit, Deadly Blessing, which remains one of his more underrated efforts. The movie is a mess, unsure as to whether the evil at it’s dark heart is supernatural or earthly (at least until a woefully misjudged final coda, pasted in by the studio after production without consultation), but for the first time Craven was able to bring a touch of his own life experience to a story, turning a fairly hackneyed screenplay that relied upon a twist ending into an intriguing meditation on the dangers of a life lived according to cult-like religious decree. And if that’s not enough to convince you to check it out, Deadly Blessing is also notable for providing a young Sharon Stone with her first speaking role.

Twelve months later, Craven made his first attempt at shaking off his burgeoning tag as a horror helmer with Swamp Thing, a goofy and amusing adaptation of DC Comics’ Bayou-dwelling bog beast. Sadly brand recognition for the property wasn’t high at the time of release, with the character last enjoying a solo title back in 1976 and reduced to cameos and supporting roles in books such as Challengers of the Unknown and The Brave and the Bold, but Craven’s movie is a hugely enjoyable throwback that harks to the golden age of EC horror comics; a camp caper packed with rubber suits and hokey dialogue that’s impossible to dislike (if you’re cynical, check out the cheap and Craven-less sequel Return of the Swamp Thing for proof of what it could have been). If nothing else, Swamp Thing also deserves attention for inspiring DC to bring the monthly periodical back into print – Saga of the Swamp Thing was launched as a cash-in in May 1982. A certain Alan Moore took over scribing duties in 1984 with issue #20 with the book staring down the barrel of cancellation, and took it upon himself to reinvent the character and change the face of comic storytelling forever more.

The well-received TV movie Invitation to Hell was next on Craven’s slate, but it was 1984 that saw his career really take off. The script for A Nightmare on Elm Street had been in development and shopped around for around three years, and while he’d had some nibbles (Disney were interested, but wanted to de-fang the flick and make it a kiddie-frightener; Paramount took a look, but decided to back Dreamscape instead – no comment), it was becoming a frustrating experience to find a backer. Enter Robert Shaye of the fledgling New Line Productions, who were flush with a modest sum of money after touring the infamous copyright-free propaganda flick Reefer Madness around American college campuses.  Smelling the potential of Craven’s story, Shaye gave the director almost two million dollars and free reign to develop his movie in return for just one caveat; give him an ending that he could hang a potential sequel upon. Craven reluctantly agreed to grant that favour and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Forget the sequels, however, and bask in the gory glory of the original Nightmare, the little horror flick that defied all expectation. Earning over fourteen times it’s budget in US box office receipts alone, Nightmare – and Freddy Krueger – became a financial juggernaut. Indeed, New Line became known as The House That Freddy Built, with their eventual evolution into a studio sizable enough to undertake and adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s holy trinity providing another feather in the cap of Wes Craven’s vision.

The genesis and making of A Nightmare on Elm Street has been discussed at great length countless times before, so there’s no need to profile it again here. What is often overlooked, however, is just how slow the ascent in Craven’s career was after this busting of blocks; the next projects to bear his name were the TV movie Chiller and a handful of episodes of the rebooted Twilight Zone. Unfortunately for Craven, he was also set to be haunted by The Hills Have Eyes part II, an appalling sequel he was working on for the much-needed payday before Nightmare went into development. The plug was pulled on the cannibalistic sequel halfway through filming due to funding concerns, which left Craven free to set off to Springwood. Unfortunately, the success of Elm Street convinced the studio to bring Craven back to finish the flick – but without allowing him to shoot new scenes. The result is a shoddy mess, a bad film made worse by padding it out with flashbacks to the superior original, recycling footage to force the sequel over the finish line into feature length. A desperate ploy at the best of times, it’s made more risible by the fact that even a dog is given a remembrance scene.

Craven did actually get to work for Uncle Walt eventually by directing an episode of the anthology show Disneyland, but he was incapable of escaping the looming shadow of horror. 1986’s Deadly Friend was conceived and shot as a PG-friendly SF-tinged teen love story with a dark side, intended as proof that Craven was more than just a scream factory. Indeed, star Kristy Swanson suggesting that John Carpenter’s Starman (itself a change in direction after the grueling terrors – and critical savaging – of The Thing) was held up as an inspiration during filming. Alas, Warner Bros. decided that a violent goregasm was what the public wanted (Craven claimed that “they realised who I was halfway through filming”), and forced reshoots to include of violent, grisly deaths in order to tap into Nightmare’s share of Halloween audiences. The result was a critical and commercial bomb of epic proportions.

A Nightmare on Elm Street part 2: Freddy’s Revenge had been churned out in 1985, and Craven wanted no part in the circus. Having seen what could happen to the characters he created without his input, however, he agreed to draft a screenplay for the next sequel, Dream Warriors. An initial meta pitch was declined (but saw life some ten years later – more on that to come), and while a great deal of credit for the steep improvement evident in Dream Warriors is attributed to Craven, his first draft actually bears little resemblance to what was eventually shot by Chuck Russell following a rewrite from Frank Darabont. Perhaps his name on the poster was enticement enough for audiences, however, as Freddy’s latest slice-and-dice was another bona fide smash.

Craven pitched a concept for the fourth Nightmare, The Dream Master a year later, but Shaye was disinterested in his idea of dreamstate time travel; far too expensive for the now firmly-established formula of young, hungry and visually gifted directors overseeing pretty teenagers carved up by a wisecracking Robert Englund. The next attempt to escape the horror genre took the shape of a Jeffrey Jones-led fantasy sitcom about a cartoonist whose creations come to life, but unfortunately The People Next Door bombed so hard that even the citizens of Dresden were sympathetic. Playing it safe, Craven opted to close out the 1980s with two more tales of terror; 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, and 1989’s Shocker.

Neither movie was successful, but in one case this is an injustice. Shocker was a lackluster and cynical attempt at launching a new supernatural slasher franchise to rival the Nightmare flicks that had escaped Craven’s creative control (and, as a result, caused fractured the relationship between the director and New Line over financial disputes), memorable only for Mitch Pileggi’s deliriously entertaining performance as the electrical-charged serial killer Horace Pinker and a riotous headbanging heavy metal soundtrack. The Serpent and the Rainbow, however, is an oft-overlooked classic; a classy study of voodoo rituals in Haiti, crafting a fictitious narrative from the factual account of ethnobotanist Wade Davis’ expedition. A far cry from the shambling, brain-munching zombie flicks that were growing in popularity by the late 1980s, Serpent relies instead on a slow-burning sense of dread and uneasy anticipation, and packs an impactful closing scene that lives long in the memory.

While it was the 80s that gave Craven his biggest hit and arguably created his legacy, it was the following decade that must be considered his creative highpoint. Undeniably there were missteps, most notably Vampire in Brooklyn, which isn’t generally discussed in polite company, and the Wes Craven Presents imprint, which saw Craven act as Executive Producer and lend his name to a number of new projects on the small and silver screens – a name that soon dragged through the mud through attachment to bona fide stinkers such as Dracula 2000. All of these sins and more can be forgiven when a period’s filmography contains titles such as The People Under the Stairs, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and the first two Scream flicks, however – as well as finally managing to obtain backing for his only feature length project outside of the horror genre with Music of the Heart, in which he guided Meryl Streep the twelfth of her nineteen Academy Award nominations (the same movie was also nominated for Best Original Song, the only other occasion that the helmer’s work was in line for any golden baldies). Craven even squeezed out his first novel in 1999, Fountain Society, and had time to develop another ill-fated TV series, reuniting with Robert Englund on Nightmare Café. The failure of this show to find an audience has often been cited as a huge regret of both creator and star.

The People Under the Stairs was first out of the gate in 1992. A social commentary dressed in the clothing of a camp comedy-horror romp, the movie saw Craven return to fertile ground in addressing societal issues for the first time since the early 80s (once and always a Professor of Humanities?). By this point in his career Craven seemed certain to tease at least one standout performance from his cast, and in this instance it was Twin Peaks veteran Wendy Robie, unforgettably deranged as the houseproud S&M leather-clad nightmare twist on the stereotypical suburban Mom.

Skipping over the previously mentioned bloodsucking Eddie Murphy team-up (while his desire to spread his wings was admirable, outright OTT comedy clearly wasn’t within the director’s wheelhouse), Craven really struck gold when dissecting his experiences in the business with 1994’s New Nightmare and 1996’s Scream. Craven’s response to the rampant desecration of his character’s legacy, New Nightmare impressed critics as much as it baffled audiences upon release, many of whom were anticipating another straight-up slashathon despite the apparent demise of the dream demon three years earlier in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. A whipsmart flick made too soon after the franchise had been run into the ground to be fully appreciated, New Nightmare is held in considerably higher regard today than twenty years ago with good reason; it’s fiercely intelligent, gleefully imaginative, and for the first time since the original installment, genuinely scary in places.

New Nightmare may have undoubtedly been ahead of its time, but Scream was arguably the ultimate encapsulation of an era. By 1996 horror was a dirty word in the mainstream, with a pre-LotR Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners and From Dusk Till Dawn the highest-profile genre efforts available. Seemingly aware that playing it straight would get him nowhere, Craven cheerfully adapted Kevin Williamson’s white-hot screenplay (no doubt appreciating the early reference to his own Nightmare experiences, with Drew Barrymore’s Casey opining that “the first one was good, but the rest sucked”). Things had come full-circle for Craven’s biggest hit since 1984; once again, his movie was the talk of much buzz and scuttlebutt, earning an increasing number of viewers every weekend through positive word of mouth. If you’ll forgive this narrator another personal wallow in nostalgia, Scream was once again the talk of the town. It became a bloodsport to consistently avoid spoilerific exposure to its many excellent plot twists and turns.

The following year’s Scream 2 kept up the high standards Craven had set for himself, but sadly the century would see a downturn in his fortunes. Scream 3 suffered from Williamson’s departure from the franchise, with the ironically named Ehren Kruger turning in a script with a handful of gloriously tense set pieces but too many clichés, and a yawnsome, illogical conclusion indistinguishable from countless identikit 80s slashers. Craven and Williamson re-teamed for the lycanthropic howler Cursed, which proved to be an unfortunate case of nominative determinism; a movie that promised much excitement was hounded by production issues and studio interference, limping into multiplexes in 2005 before quickly leaving with its tail between its legs. A return to teen slasher territory with My Soul to Take in 2010 was another damp squib, and his final directorial credit, Scream 4, had its moments but failed to launch a new trilogy as planned. Thank heavens for Red Eye, a blisteringly fast-paced and dizzily entertaining airborne thriller from 2005 that proved that, while form is temporary, class is permanent.

Wes Craven’s directorial career may have petered out toward the end of his life, but he remained busy and involved in the industry right until his passing. In addition to producer duties on MTV’s currently-airing Scream series, Craven was collaborating with the SyFy network for a People Under the Stairs TV show, and working with 30 Days of Night scribe Steve Niles to bring his latest four-colour frightener, The Disciples, to the screen. Craven may no longer be with us to weave his unique magic, but his legacy is in no danger of being extinguished. This is the man who responsible for Freddy Krueger, arguably the most iconic genre creation since Jack Pierce glued bolts to Boris Karloff’s neck. This was the man that restored the horror genre to respectability with Scream, ensuring that teenagers will be menaced by masked maniacs for generations to come. Most of all, this was the man that taught fans of fearful fantasy to disregard the advice of his own characters, and to not be afraid to dream. Now, though, it’s his turn to sleep – rest in peace, Wes Craven. Thanks for all the frights.

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