Monday, August 31, 2015

Godspeed Wes Craven

Wes Craven, the famed horror director known for such films as The Last House on the Left (1972), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Scream (1996), died yesterday at age 76. The cause was brain cancer.

Wesley Craven was born on August 2 1939 in Cleveland, Ohio. He grew up in a strict Baptist household that not only forbade such things as swearing, drinking, smoking, and dancing, but strongly discouraged watching most movies. He was allowed to see Disney films, and particularly liked Fantasia (1940).  He attended Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, where he received a bachelor's degree in psychology and education. It was while he was at Wheaton that he paid to see a movie in the theatre for the first time. That movie happened to be To Kill a Mockingbird (1963). He received a Master's degree in philosophy from  Johns Hopkins University.

After receiving his master's degree, Wes Craven taught for a time as a humanities professor at Clarkson College in Potsdam, New York. Mr. Craven found teaching to be unsatisfying and left the profession. He worked as a taxi driver for a time before entering the film industry as a production assistant. Afterwards Mr. Craven was a a sound editor for a post-production film company and an editor on low-budget releases. For a  time he worked on pornographic films. In 1971 he was an associate producer on the low budget film Together, directed by Sean S. Cunningham.

The year 1972 saw the release of the first film directed and written by Wes Craven. Inspired by Ingmar Bergman's classic The Virgin Spring (1960), Last House on the Left was an ultra-violent, revenge horror film that could be described a forerunner of the torture chic genre. The film was a source of some controversy upon its first release. With the exception of Roger Ebert, critics generally deplored the film and labelled it "trash". Everyone from local censorship boards to even individual projectionists would make cuts to the film. In the United Kingdom Last House on the Left was refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Classification, effectively banning the film. It would not be released on video without cuts in the United Kingdom until 2008. Regardless of the controversy, Last House on the Left proved to be a success at the box office, largely due to its famous "It's only a movie..." advertising campaign. In the years since its release Last House on the Left has come to be regarded as a horror classic.

Regardless, the controversy over Last House on the Left would make it difficult for Wes Craven to make another movie right away. Following Last House on the Left he edited the films It Happened in Hollywood (1973) and Kitty Can't Help It (1975). He also directed the porn film Fireworks Woman (1975) under the name "Abe Snake". He returned to directing horror movies with The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Like Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes was also an ultra-violent film. In fact, the MPAA ratings board initially gave the film an "X" rating before several cuts were made allowing for the film to be rated "R". Ultimately The Hills Have Eyes did not provoke the controversy of Mr. Craven's previous film, although it still did fairly well at the box office. Following The Hills Have Eyes, Wes Craven directed the television movie Stranger in Our House, which aired in 1978 on NBC. He served as the cinematographer on The Evolution of Snuff (1978) and as a gaffer on Here Come the Tigers (1978).

The early Eighties saw Wes Craven transitioning from the gritty brutality of Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes to films that were a little bit more commercially mainstream. The poorly received Deadly Blessing was an example of this, combining more traditional horror fare with the grittiness of Mr. Craven's earlier work. The film received largely negative reviews and today is not considered one of his better works. Fortunately Wes Craven's next film, Swamp Thing (1982), was much better received. An adaptation of the DC Comic book of the same name, Swamp Thing had a lighter touch than much of his work (and also  than the comic book), and also featured more action as well. Wes Craven's most commercial film up to that time, Swamp Thing did moderately well at the box office and developed a cult following. Wes Craven followed Swamp Thing with the TV movie Invitation to Hell. The film aired on ABC and received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Art Direction for a Limited Series or a Special.

In the early to mid-Eighties the horror movie genre was dominated by a cycle towards slasher movies that included such films as Friday the 13th (1980),  My Bloody Valentine (1981), and  Prom Night (1980). Wes Craven's next film is still often lumped together with the slasher movies, even though it had much more in common with such supernatural horrors as Demons (1985) and Hellraiser (1987). A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) introduced the world to Freddy Krueger, a psychopathic ghost with the ability to kill people in their dreams. A Nightmare on Elm Street received largely positive reviews and did extraordinarily well at the box office It would produce numerous sequels, only one of which would be directed by Wes Craven, as well as a syndicated anthology series titled Freddy's Nightmares, with which Mr. Craven had very little to do.

Following A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven directed the TV movie Chiller, the poorly received sequel The Hills Have Eyes II (1985), the sci-fi/horror film Deadly Friend (1986), The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), Shocker (1989), and the TV movie Night Visions. He also directed several episodes of the Eighties incarnation of the TV show The Twilight Zone. He wrote the screenplay for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) as well.

In 1991 Wes Craven's film The People Under the Stairs was released. He created the short lived TV series Nightmare Cafe, six episodes of which aired on NBC in early 1992. He wrote two episodes of the series and directed one episode. Wes Craven directed Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), a sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street set outside the film's continuity in which the fictional Freddy Krueger breaks into the real world to menace the cast and crew of the Nightmare... films (including Mr. Craven himself). He followed it with the mainstream horror comedy Vampire in Brooklyn (1996).

It was in 1996 that Wes Craven's film Scream was released. Scream parodied the slasher film genre, with numerous references to its cliches. The film received overwhelmingly positive reviews and did very well at the box office. Wes Craven followed Scream with a sequel, Scream 2, released in 1997. Mr. Craven directed the drama Music of the Heart (1999) before directing Scream 3 (2000). During the Naughts Wes Craven directed the horror comedy Cursed (2005), the action film Red Eye (2005), a segment of the portmanteau film Paris, je t'aime (2006), and the supernatural horror film My Soul to Take (2010). His final film as director was Scream 4, released in 2011.

In my humble opinion, along with John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and possibly Sam Raimi (if one counts him as part of the genre), Wes Craven was one of the last great horror directors. He was one of the last horror directors to truly know what frightened people. In the Seventies and Eighties, when many horror movies depended more upon shock or revulsion, Mr. Craven was still making films that were truly scary. I have no doubt that much of the success of Nightmare on Elm Street was due to the fact that it was one of the few frightening films released in those years dominated by rather banal, non-threatening, slasher films.

Not only did Wes Craven make some truly scary movies, but he also made movies that were truly original. In fact, he was something of a trendsetter. Last House on the Left took the horror movie genre to levels of gritty brutality it had never been taken before, to the point that even today many scenes in the film would be considered shocking. It paved the way for yet other graphic horror films, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Shivers (1975). Released in the midst of a cycle towards slasher films, A Nightmare on Elm Street marked a shift back towards supernatural horror. It would be followed by such films as Hellraiser (1987), The Gate (1987), and Warlock (1989). In 1996 With Scream Wes Craven gave us a slasher film that not only had strong elements of humour, but parodied the genre and constantly made reference to the genre as well. For better or worse, Scream not only revived interest in the slasher films of the Eighties, but spurred a generation of self-referential slasher films, including I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Urban Legend (1998). For most of his career, Wes Craven created trends rather than followed them.

Not only was Wes Craven very original, he was also very versatile. With Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes he made films that were so realistic in their portrayal of violence that they were not only brutal, but for many very hard to watch. With Nightmare on Elm Street he crafted a truly frightening supernatural horror film. Scream blended horror and humour. Indeed, Mr. Craven directed films that could be considered outright comedies, including Vampire in Brooklyn and Cursed. He also directed the drama Music of the Heart and did a fairly good job at it, as well as the action film Red Eye. Wes Craven was best known as a horror director, but he could direct other sorts of films and even his horror movies varied wildly. Indeed, it is sometimes hard to believe the same man directed Scream as directed Last House on the Left.

It must be also be pointed out that Wes Craven's films were often much more sophisticated than other horror films made in the last three decades of the 20th Century. Indeed, a recurring motif in Mr. Craven's films was the nature of what is real and what is not. While the motif is perhaps felt most strongly in A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which the line between dreams and reality is nearly non-existent, it occurs in many of his other films as well.  In his underrated The Serpent and the Rainbow the protagonist finds it difficult to distinguish between hallucinations and reality after drinking a  hallucinogenic potion. Scream and its sequels are slasher films in which the conventions of the genre are constantly referenced, a prime example of metacinema if there ever was one. While other horror directors in the Eighties were content to have nubile young people chopped up by generic serial killers, Wes Craven was using his films to explore the nature of reality.

Of course, beyond being a talented auteur (Mr. Craven wrote many of his films as well as directed them), from all reports Wes Craven was also a very nice man. Those people I know who had the honour to meet him always said the same thing. He was very warm and funny, a soft spoken man who seemed to truly appreciate his fans. As is sometimes the case, those who can summon up the greatest horrors on the silver screen are in reality the nicest people around. I have to suspect that much of the reason Wes Craven is being so mourned isn't just because he was a talented director, but because he was also a very nice man.

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