Wes Craven: 1939-2015 It took Groundskeeper Willie to make me truly appreciate Wes Craven. The Simpsons‘ 1995 Treehouse of Horror segment Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace stripped back the Freddy Krueger mythos to its fundamentals – a man burned alive and swearing vengeance on the residents of a sunny suburban town, haunting the dreams of their innocent children. It is uncompromisingly terrifying, reflective of enough real-life horror to be believable, buoyed by a strange sliver of the supernatural to leave a permanent mark. Craven took the old adage of ‘just close your eyes and it’ll go away’ and reduced it to total bullshit, creating a murderer with knives for fingers and a face for radio that morphed suburbia into a place where the most stupid, dangerous thing you could do was fall asleep.
The power of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) itself grew a little diluted over time, Freddy Krueger turned into a gimmicky punchline with a predilection for puns as opposed to a chilling source of fear, but its central premise still remains one of the most upsetting, inventive origin stories in film. You just needed to wade through all the distractions to get to it.
Of course, I already knew who Wes Craven was by the time I saw Bart and Lisa thwart tartan-draped terror, since he had directed Scream (1996), the subversive thriller that ushered in all of my cultural and creative loves as a kid. He was one of the first directors I knew by name, with a preternatural ability to cast burgeoning up-and-comers, pace a scene to its skin-crawling best, frame a face-in-peril like few others, and tap into our greatest societal fears.
When talking of Scream, Craven’s other most significant venture, it’s easy to credit its winking, intertextual particulars to writer Kevin Williamson, particularly when his brand of gen-X meta smarts permeated all of his late ’90s work. But it was an emerging idea already on Craven’s radar, long before he received a script in the post featuring a pretty blonde girl answering the phone in the dead of night. Two years prior to Scream, Craven wrote and directed New Nightmare (1994), his self-aware kiss-off to a franchise that had become elaborately dragged through the mud via a series of increasingly banal sequels. New Nightmare saw original Elm Street final girl Heather Langenkamp stalked in the Hollywood hills and along studio backlots by a real-life evil inhabiting the persona of the Krueger character, so convinced by her performance in the original movie that it’s made her its prime target. It was a naughty, transgressive work – not all-together successful, I should add, but showcasing of an understanding of where the genre was going, and Craven’s continued interest in subverting expectations.
Throughout his career, Craven slid effortlessly into the overriding social fears of every successive generation, long resistant to the creative burn-out that seemed to plague many of his contemporaries. Early films like The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) aimed to fuse the gritty, grindhouse sensibilities of the ‘video nasty’ era with the anxieties of the mainstream audience. Charles Manson and his ilk had brought sub-human horror into the regular news cycle, and its shadow hangs over much of Craven’s ’70s work.
The go-getting 1980s ushered in a wave of features capitalising on the new fears of the decade: strange new tech like Kristy Swanson’s cyborg lover in Deadly Friend (1986), sinister cults as depicted in Deadly Blessing (1981), or the lurking dark underneath the cookie-cutter whiteness on Elm Street. Craven recognised that times were changing. Our worst fears weren’t backwoods hillbillies anymore, instead it was misery hidden beneath a cheerful veneer.
With New Nightmare and Scream, he tossed out the rule-book all-together – since everybody already knew the thing from front to back. The casts of the Scream films knew their horror, they were savvy and whip-smart, doing the stupid things while keenly aware that they were doing the stupid things. It would become another hugely successful franchise for Craven, and usher in his second world-famous horror movie villain.
While his output would slow down and lose some of its critical acclaim in the 21st century, 2005’s Red Eye, arguably his last truly great thriller, is a masterpiece of post-9/11 paranoia, with Rachel McAdams’ frazzled businesswoman trapped in first class terror on a plane ride with a charming psychopath played by Cillian Murphy. In a world of corruption, technology and terrorism, who needed a nut in a ghoul mask?
There was always the feeling in his later years that Craven secretly wanted to make work of a lighter quality, whether it was his 1999 inspirational teacher weepy Music of the Heart (starring Meryl Streep!), or the comedic short Père Lachaise (from 2006’s Paris, je t’aime anthology). You wonder if he sometimes felt slightly trapped in the genre for which he was most known – a kind of directorial spin on the typical tale of the young horror movie starlet typecast into oblivion. But whatever his personal outlook, of which we may never know, Craven shaped much of the genre as we know it. He was also by all accounts a lovely man, soft-spoken and thoughtful, but with a mind for all kinds of murder. It reads like something of a contradiction, but only punctuates his specialness. He’ll be missed.