Published on September 1st, 2015 | by Brad0
RIP Wes Craven – 1939-2015
Sunday saw the passing of horror legend Wes Craven at the age of 76. A statement from his family confirmed that he died at home after a battle with brain cancer. He directed 20 films between 1972 and 2011, primarily in the horror genre, creating the iconic monsters Freddy Krueger and Ghostface and launching the careers of Johnny Depp, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone and more.
It almost feels a little disingenuous to reduce Craven’s career to a few facts, though. I’ve been a horror fan for as long as I can remember, and Wes Craven has been a huge influence on my tastes over the years. He was one of the most important figures in 20th century horror, and there were three films in particular where he just completely reinvented the genre, spawning countless cheap imitations in his wake.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
With the advances of special effects in the 1950s and 60s, American horror movies in that period had moved towards alien invasions or mutated humans, plants or insects being the threat. In this climate, Craven wrote and directed his first feature, The Last House on the Left. Inspired by real life events such as the Manson family murders, as well as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, the film tells the story of two young girls who are raped and murdered, and one of the girls’ parents’ horrible, horrible revenge against the killers. It’s a brutal, deeply unsettling watch, and moved the horror genre away from the science fiction trappings to look at more socio-realistic monsters. In its wake came Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave and more, whilst the fake “Based on a true story” misdirect has been used on anything from Fargo to Paranormal Activity to, hilariously, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Though the slasher genre has roots running back as early as the 1920s and beyond – not to mention Craven’s own The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes – the formula was really solidified through John Carpenter’s phenomenal Halloween in 1978. As faceless, voiceless killer Michael Myers hacked his way through promiscuous teenagers before being defeated by virginal final girl Laurie Strode, the seeds were sown for the next five years of cheap, nasty gore and dead teenager films, typified by 1980’s Friday the 13th and its myriad sequels. Stepping into the fray as the genre appeared to be on its last legs, Craven delivered A Nightmare on Elm Street. Inspired by news stories of Khmer refugees from Cambodia suffering disturbing nightmares and dying in their sleep soon after, Nightmare introduced the world to Fred Krueger, later Freddy, the snarling monster who taunted and toyed with his victims in their dreams before brutally murdering them. Freddy captured the public imagination the world over, and has now been so neutered and declawed that we’ve reached the point where you can now dress your child up as the burnt, scarred ghost of a child murderer for Halloween if you so choose. Nightmare also put New Line Cinema on the map as their first major production, and introduced the world to a young actor by the name of Johnny Depp – victim of one of the best horror movie deaths ever as his bed ate him and spewed his blood all over the ceiling.
Though Nightmare briefly revitalised the slasher genre, it soon fell into lockstep with it as Freddy’s fearsome image was reduced and the focus became less on the characters trying to survive Freddy than the elaborate manner in which Freddy would kill them – a trope which would come to define the later Final Destination and Saw franchises. Craven launched his own attack on that trend with the sixth sequel, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a meta-textual spoof of what the franchise had become in which series stars Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, John Saxon and Craven himself all played themselves, being menaced by Freddy Krueger as he tries to manifest in the real world. It’s a superb film, really worth checking out. Ultimately, though, it proved to be a dry run for something else.
In 1996, Craven released what’s considered to be his final masterpiece, Scream. Picking up on New Nightmare’s spoofing of various Nightmare tropes, Scream is a blast at every derivative slasher movie made in the previous decade and a half. Not a single cliché goes un-skewered, not a single trope uncommented on. Scream was a monster success, and probably the last interesting thing anyone did with the slasher genre until 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods.
Sadly, after Scream, Craven’s career rather petered out. He would make one foray outside the horror/thriller genres, with the Meryl Streep-starring musical biopic Music of the Heart, which followed another trope – the “it’s not particularly good but Meryl Streep was Oscar-nominated because of course she was” cliché. He made three Scream sequels with diminishing returns, and the spectacularly bad werewolf flick Cursed. There was, however, to be one final flourish – in 2005 Craven released Red Eye, a thriller which sees Rachel McAdams trapped on a flight from Texas to Florida sat next to terrorist Cillian Murphy, who has a particular purpose in mind for her. It’s Wes Craven at his best – taking what’s scary in the news, and making it scary on film.
Wes Craven leaves behind a great body of work and a remarkable legacy. He was one of the smartest, most creative and most important horror directors of the last forty years. For that, and so much more, I feel I speak for all of his fans when I say simply; “Thank you, Wes.”