It could be said that I came of age, as both a horror fan and a fan of movies in general, during Wes Craven’s golden age, but the very suggestion of a “golden age” implies undue disrespect to the several distinct and highly influential phases of his career as the author and director of uncommonly smart, uncommonly affecting, above the bar genre nightmares. Craven was a calm, thoughtful, professorial type, sensible but sly, a horror lifer who never particularly seemed to mind toiling away in a disreputable genre. Instead, his work strengthened it from within. At two flashpoint moments, in 1984 and 1996, he succeeded in bringing the movie mainstream to him rather than the other way around, but some of his most personal and memorable successes were written in the margins of his career comparatively. Neither quite the all-encompassing brand name that was his zombie-wrangling forebear George A. Romero, nor the sci-fi/horror auteur that was his contemporary John Carpenter, Wes Craven’s name on a poster, above or just below the title, still carried impressive weight and, with it, made plain certain, unspoken promises. It became a symbol of quality – hard won and well-deserved, if not ever 100% accurate given the restlessly creative director’s moving target of a muse – as much and as good a reason as any to see a new film. Craven’s very worst movies were still at least generally interesting. His middle of the road fodder contained a baseline of care, quality, and deep imagination that leapt well beyond the greater average. His very best work shredded nerves and shifted paradigms in equal measure. Craven died this past Sunday at the age of 76, following what I’ve read described as a prolonged battle with brain cancer, despite the fact that, before hearing the news, I had barely registered he was even sick. It speaks in a way to the subtle and sustained positive presence he was, as warm, unassuming, and intellectual in life as his films were creepy, or scary, or unnerving, or an optimal combination of the three. You just took a person and a talent like Wes Craven for granted. Then you blinked, and he was gone.
I’ve spent a little unprompted time lately reflecting on the genesis of my passion for movies, particularly the development of my love of horror. I had the good fortune to be born into a seriously analog world at a moment, in the mid-1970s, when modern popular cinema – think The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars – was in full emergence from the haze and/or wreckage of what had come before. Everything was changing in myriad ways I was far too young to either understand or process, but I liked feeling like a small part of it. It was enough to be in the audience, and what I experienced tended to leave me awestruck. The first two horror movies I remember ever seeing – Alien (in parts) and Creepshow (in full) – came about as the charming byproduct of insufficient parental oversight when I was a fairly wee child, and remain two of my favorites. By the time I entered my teens, I had weaned myself off of Star Wars as my principal source of nourishment and had acquired a taste for darker, more succulent morsels. To that end, HBO was a godsend, of course, but so too was the altogether rougher terrain of the then-fledgling USA Network, which, in its desperation to cultivate and satiate any audience, gave over large swaths of its weekend programming (premieres on Friday night, matinees on Saturday afternoon, blocks on Saturday night, and copious repeats of everything) to edited for content viewings of classic and recent horror movies. The more I watched both channels, soaking up absolutely everything I was able, as has always been my wont, the more I noticed the name Wes Craven, seemingly everywhere, attached to movies like Swamp Thing, and Deadly Friend, The Hills Have Eyes, and, most critically, A Nightmare on Elm Street. The more I saw, the more I was intrigued, and, by extension, the more I sought out. Before long, Wes Craven’s name had become for me the most valuable creative currency the horror genre had to offer. It would never truly be supplanted by any other.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street had on me. It was one of the first movies I ever owned (by proxy – the copy actually belonged to my video pirate step-uncle, who loaned it, among others, to us semi-permanently after my family brought home its first VCR), and, therefore, the first ever horror movie I could study at will. Study it I did. I’d been introduced to Craven on HBO via his campy, toothy, loving adaptation of the DC Comics secondary player Swamp Thing, which came to the screen as a PG-rated potboiler that emphasized action and pathos over horror, although the wide-eyed kid in me appreciated most the moments when he swung for the fences. Elm Street struck me immediately as something highly compelling and, visually, thematically, aesthetically, almost completely “other”. Having first made his name with ultra-violent, gut level survival experiments like The Hills Have Eyes and his infamous 1972 debut The Last House on the Left, the original Nightmare, with its story of a tight-knit group of friends stalked by a madman who had complete dominion over their dreams, seemed simultaneously like Craven’s breakthrough and his natural next step. Here, Craven was able to meld the brutally realistic with the overtly supernatural, creating both a central villain and a movie that operated on cruel, unpredictable “dream logic.” The first five minutes of Nightmare, which show notorious murderer Freddy Krueger hammering together the razor-tipped claw glove that will help make him infamous before diving into a cold-hearted pursuit of Tina Shepherd through a grungy, dimly lit boiler room, remains a litmus test for genre neophytes even now. It packs a punch. I remember being so disoriented by the film’s by turns shrill and pounding audio, its lurid optics – the relentless red rust of boiler room walls contrasting with the wetness of cracked concrete floors (was that water or blood?) – and feeling the sick jolt of energy when the fiend Krueger suddenly, inexplicably appeared behind Tina.
I loved it. I was hooked, and I wanted more.
Craven, more than anyone else at the time, seemed to be the horror director that would not equivocate or compromise, shortchange or cut away, that would literally do anything in his quest for a good scare. It was exhilarating. His scares just seemed more authentic than many others’, his scenarios better imagined and visualized. His best filmed sequences – the camper attack in Hills, the equally striking (more famous) pre-title stalking in Scream, the premature zombie burial in Serpent and the Rainbow, Tina’s revolving room demise in Nightmare – felt unforgettable instantly. Elm Street proved to be his magnum opus, among the most singular and affecting statements the genre ever produced, but Craven did not, could not, rest on his laurels. He never stopped working or pushing. During this period, I devoured on spec most everything he produced (the eerie Serpent and the Rainbow, the hokey but fun Shocker, the tense, surprising People under the Stairs), and was charmed and dependably entertained even as the films fell short of his established high water mark. He would quickly lose both patience with and control of the Elm Street saga as producers hunting dollar signs exclusively reconfigured the heretofore terrifying Krueger into a homicidal Borscht Belt comedian, then step back into a shepherd’s role for 1994’s uneven but fascinating New Nightmare, a film that, in acknowledging the pop culture phenomenon Krueger had become in the interim and reimagining him as a malevolent force that haunted the real life cast, crew, and creators of Elm Street, not only improbably succeeded in making him scary again but prefigured the referential, self-aware wave of horror that would soon become all the rage. New Nightmare is hardly a perfect film, but it is smart and bold and gets under the skin in unexpected ways. It is arguably a bigger artistic achievement than would be his next triumph, the skillful, satirical (and, against odds, still scary) pop culture phenomenon Scream, a new age slasher film both aimed at and populated by kids that had grown up on steady diets of Halloween and Elm Street. It would spawn three sequels and, two decades later, even a television adaptation, and cement Craven’s reputation for all time.
Though a look at the scope of his career reveals he only ever really dabbled in the “slasher” sub-genre, it’s not surprising that the variant, with its uncluttered, populist appeal, brought him his two biggest successes. Both A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream played off Craven’s affinity for teenaged everymen defending their homes and friends from unwanted intruders and were spun off into (perhaps too) popular, enduring franchises. Much as Steven Spielberg did for fantasy filmmaking in the late 1970s and ‘80s – with the bestsellers of Stephen King having partially blazed a trail for them both – Craven was a prince not of rustic or gothic but of suburban horror. His films took place on your block, or an uncomfortable approximation, and were all the more unsettling for occurring behind overly familiar facades. His heroes and heroines were normal schoolkids with brains in their heads, their parents middle class strivers with occasionally complicated motivations and back stories. His most indelible protagonists – Nancy from Elm Street, “Fool” from The People under the Stairs, Sydney from Scream, Lisa from Red Eye – try to think their way out of untenable situations, using violence largely as a matter of last resort. One imagines the man himself approving of their behavior, even if he hadn’t written the majority of his best-known movies, lending them a distinct authorial voice that helped set them apart from their peers – though, tellingly, not the fully self-aware Scream or any of its increasingly hysterical sequels. The reserved Clevelander was content to treat Scream more as a series of expert technical exercises – its first two entries are essentially sprawling master’s classes in suspense-driven filmmaking – but had, in truth, from his lean, guerrilla beginnings to his wildly esoteric classic period, to his climactic time in the Hollywood sun, by that time already touched most every corner of the horror genre and proved his class and consistency beyond reproach.
I can still hardly believe that Wes Craven, this man who I’ve heard so many mourners refer to as a “maestro”, has left us. He has seemed like nothing so much as a pleasant fact of life for as long as I, as either a movie or a horror fan, care to remember. His penchant for clear-eyed and inventive cinematic malevolence was a kind of tonic during precisely the transitional times – as the horror genre, first removed from the gonzo ‘70s, then marooned at the end of the ‘80s, threatened to slide into complacency or irrelevance – it was needed most. I assume Craven was a fairly private man in real life, in that I didn’t ever feel I knew nearly enough about him despite wanting to. I always delighted in reading his interviews, or listening to his thoughtful film commentaries. With his serene, subtly amused demeanor – among other pursuits, he was an avid birdwatcher, and a charter member of the California Audubon Society – at once so weirdly informative of and at apparent cross purposes to the mayhem he unleashed on screen, he just seemed a singularly fascinating man, a filmmaker with vision that matched his talent. Wes Craven never let the horror genre hem him in or define him. Instead, for the greater part of four decades, he defined horror. Then we blinked, and he was gone.