Wes Craven: Remembering Movies’ Master of Nightmares

CRAVEN, WESIt takes a certain type of filmmaker to, as their directorial debut feature, craft a horror movie based on an Ingmar Bergman drama. That, however, is just what former college professor and adult film industry veteran Wes Craven did in 1972 with The Last House on the Left. Made on a shoestring $87,000 budget, the audacious and (for the time) ultra-violent revenge tale would take in over $3 million and help establish its 33-year-old creator as one of the leading figures in the evolving realm of shock cinema. Over the next four decades Craven, who passed away last weekend at 76 from brain cancer, would thrill audiences with depictions of the dark underside of American culture, bringing to life the terrors that awaited people in their dreams and offering darkly funny jabs at some of the genre conventions he popularized.

Born Wesley Earl Craven in August of 1939, the Cleveland native and son of a devout Baptist family graduated from the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois with a degree in English and Psychology. He taught English and Humanities in New York and Pennsylvania schools and began shooting his own 16mm short movies. A job with a post-production house run by future singer/songwriter Harry Chapin led Craven to turn his attention to filmmaking, but his initial efforts came in the decidedly non-Hollywood world of adult cinema, where he worked as editor, writer and director on various skin flicks (including 1972’s landmark Deep Throat).

HILLS HAVE EYES 1977After the box-office success of Last House on the Left (thanks in part to an ad campaign with the slogan “Keep repeating ‘It’s only a movie!'”), Craven–who later confessed in an interview, “I didn’t even know what a horror film was…I kind of made it up as I went along”–scored a second indie hit with 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, the story of a vacationing Ohio family who must fight to stay alive when they’re stranded in the desert and confronted by another brood, this one a demented clan of cannibals who live in nearby caves. He directed Exorcist star Linda Blair in a 1978 made-for-TV film, Stranger in Our House, and followed that up with Deadly Blessings (1981), starring Ernest Borgnine, Lisa Hartman and a young Sharon Stone and set amid a rural, Amish-like community. In 1982 he brought DC Comics’ marsh-dwelling man-monster, Swamp Thing, to the big screen.

In the mid-’80s Craven helmed two more telefilms–Invitation to Hell, with Susan Lucci and Robert Urich, and Chiller with Michael Beck–and also wrote and directed the 1985 sequel The Hills Have Eyes, Part II. 1984, however, would see him introduce a new horror icon–razor-gloved child murderer Freddy Krueger, who was burned to death but returns to prey on the offspring of his killers through their dreams–in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETEerily blurring the cinematic lines between imagination and reality, Nightmare–whose mostly-unknown cast included Heather Langenkamp, a debuting Johnny Depp, and Robert Englund as the sinister, scarred Krueger (named by Craven for a childhood bully)–was a commercial and critical hit. It would spawn a slew of  sequels (only one of which, 1994’s aptly-titled Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, he directed), a TV show, a talking doll for kids (!) and an inevitable 2003 showdown with fellow ’80s screen cut-up Jason Voorhees.

Craven continued to explore new realms in fright in the 1980s with tales of girls next door turned into killer robots (Deadly Friend, starring Kristy Swanson and famous for the scene where Anne Ramsey’s head explodes after being hit with a basketball), Haitian voodoo ritual and zombies (The Serpent and the Rainbow with Bill Pullman),  and electrocuted killers who come back as high-voltage villains (Shocker with Mitch Pileggi). Wes also took a satirical look at the Reagan Era in 1991’s The People Under the Stairs, where the demented couple (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, co-stars on TV’s Twin Peaks) who keep the title cannibals in their house bore a resemblance to the former President and First Lady and called each other “Daddy” and “Mommy.” After co-creating the short-lived 1992 TV series Nightmare Cafe, Craven teamed with Eddie Murphy for the supernatural comedy Vampire in Brooklyn.

SCREAMBy the mid-1990s even casual fans of modern horror films were aware of the unwritten rules (“Never have sex,” “Never say ‘I’ll be right back,'” and so on) for characters to ignore at their own peril, and Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson fiendishly paid homage to the terror tropes with 1996’s Scream. Part slasher film, part send-up, the spine-tingling whodunit helped add a postmodern spin on what had become a stale genre, and Craven would return over the next 15 years to direct the three Scream follow-ups. In between these efforts he landed a change-of-pace assignment as director of the 1999 “based on a true story” drama Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep as a woman who founds a school of music in a blighted East Harlem neighborhood, and also helmed the 2004 werewolf tale Cursed, the airborne suspense tale Red Eye in 2005, and the serial killer thriller My Soul to Take in 2010. 2011’s Scream 4 would turn out to his final turn behind the camera.

“Horror movies have to show us something that hasn’t been shown before so that the audience is completely taken aback,” the man who delighted in giving audiences nightmares once said in an interview. “You see, it’s not just that people want to be scared; people are scared.” And for nearly 40 years, Wes Craven succeeded in bringing those scares to life on the movie screen.

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