One of my first introductions to full blown horror was through Wes Craven, albeit indirectly. Back in 1977 my brother Luke had gone to see The Hills Have Eyes under the quite frankly bizarre misbelief that it was a comedy. Instead of seeing, I don’t know what he was expecting, funny mountains who could talk maybe, he ended up with dog-killing, people-eating backwater maniacs. Luke told myself and my sister Clare all about the cannibalistic swivel-eyed simpleton and the grimness that ensued. I’m pretty sure my brother never watching a horror movie again, but for me, I couldn’t wait to grow up fast enough so I could get into an X certificate movie.
It took a long time, well, eight years anyway before I could somehow fake getting into what was by then 18 certificate movies. It involved a lot of standing behind people and stuffing toilet rolls into my shoulder pads (don’t ask) but one of the first films I saw as an “adult” was the instant classic A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Its hard to look back now past all the dolls and video games and comedy one liners but when A Nightmare on Elm Street was first released it was a truly terrifying and surreal experience. What Wes Craven had fashioned was a brilliant but simple story which tapped into a base fear that all of us can relate to – the hideous fear of our scarier night dreams, and what would happen if those scares were real. In many ways the film is just a standard slasher, but only in the same way that many of Wes Craven’s horror movies are standard i.e. they are not. His films subverted the genre and subverted our expectations of them.
Wes Craven’s first film was Last House on The Left and despite the fact it is an extremely grim and unpleasant affair it is not made by a man who was inexperienced in life. Craven was in his thirties and had already been a university lecturer for quite a while when he made his directorial début. There is no denying that the film is violently unpleasant and exploitative (possibly made worse in my mind having only ever watching it on pirated, grainy VHS after it was banned in the UK) but there is also a fierce intelligence working away behind the camera. As much as there is some torrid action with castrations and a chainsaw, it is also a comment about middle America being sucked into violence, reflecting the Vietnam war that was raging at the time.
This intelligence evolves in The Hills Have Eyes as the nuclear family is torn apart by violence again, having to rise up and battle against the animals who would destroy them. But now it is also more concerned with a threat to modern America from within, from a backward non-intellectual America, savages uninterested in living in the consumerist 1970s with its RVs roaming the States. You could ague that he continued this theme Deadly Blessing, but now the threat wasn’t so much a bunch on cannibals but puritanical pilgrims, still living in the past, only able to fight against changing attitudes with more violence.
Wes Craven had probably had his fill of this line of thought as the eighties hit and reacted against it with one of the first, and certainly one of the dumbest, comic book movies ever made: Swamp Thing. Whist the comic of Swamp Thing is certainly seeped in horror imagery and tropes with its murdered mad scientist coming back for revenge as a green slimy monster, Craven moved away from his own horror roots and made a low-budget action movie with a guy in a rubber suit which is more like an episode of the A-Team from what I can remember. It doesn’t make it any less fun and despite its small ambitions probably marked the sea-change in Craven that would make the rest of his movies something that wasn’t always considered important in horror: he made them fun.
As classic as Last House on The Left and The Hills Have Eyes are there is no denying that they are traumatic, miserable experiences to sit through. When it came to A Nightmare on Elm Street things had changed. No one is denying that that first Freddy movie is a dark and terrifying affair. It is scary, with some freakish imagery but it is also a roller coaster ride through a haunted house. Tina getting pinned to the ceiling, Johnny Depp getting sucked into the bed and launched out again as a fountain of blood, Freddy’s hand coming out of the bathwater, Jaws-like: these are very entertaining moments in a story about a child killer. Gone were the far too grim rape scenes of earlier films and instead an embracement of the slasher with its pretty-teens-in-peril cliche. But what Craven gave us beyond this amazing imagery was also a rich original story with well written and interesting characters. A Nightmare On Elm Street was the opposite of the Friday the 13th films et al because it wasn’t just throw away trash – it was really, really good.
Of course Wes Craven may be responsible for some of the great horror movies of our time but he also made some crazy and ridiculous movies. Deadly Friend is a great case in point. Coming off the back of Elm Street Craven chose to make a film about a teenager who misses his dead girlfriend so much that he sticks his pet robot into her corpse in order to bring her back to life. Things go horribly wrong from there, for both the film and the audience. Deadly Friend is now mostly remembered for the moment when the robot girlfriend throws a basketball at an old woman’s head, making it explode. This is fair enough although this one of the many times in Craven’s career that studio interference messed with his ideas, he did’t even want that scene in the film. It has always grabbed me as a tragedy that a man who has made so many great horror movies has been harassed and bullied on so many projects, especially later in his career when producers should be just sitting back and let a genius like Craven get on with whatever the hell he liked. Scream 3, Cursed and My Soul To Take were all pulled apart, cut up and reshot multiple times to make them “better” (none of them are up to much). But even during these disasters Craven was still able to make films which were at worst never boring and often rather entertaining.
Maybe the studios feared Craven’s ideas because of where they came from: in countless interviews when asked where his got his ideas from, Craven would say that he literally just dreamt them up. Maybe producers feared a dream-logic imagination that wouldn’t make any sense to audiences, although why they would think that when Craven had proven himself a master story teller is beyond me. Maybe Hollywood never fully trusts its own creative side when there’s always so much money involved.
Craven did occasionally get out some great original bits of film making, seemingly without interference. The Serpent and the Rainbow about an American investigating zombies in Haiti (and based on a true story no less) is a brilliant and different take on the genre with a fantastically unnerving scene where star Bill Pullman is buried alive. And then there’s The People Under The Stairs with it’s genre-hopping plot that at one minute is a socio-political thriller then a zombie (ish) horror then a weirdo incestuous black comedy. Even something like Shocker when Craven tried to reclaim the serial killer mantle, that Freddy Kruger had once owned before becoming a comedian, has its moments.
It was Scream that finally cemented Craven as a master of the genre. Where his previous films, even his best ones, had been hated by the critics and often ignored by the mainstream audience, Scream was now a critical darling and the cool film for the kids to see. It managed to take the piss out of the slasher genre whilst at the same time being a great example of it. Obviously with any hugely successful horror movie they had to make progressively worse sequels to sully the original’s memory, although this time, unlike with the Freddy movies, Craven was behind the camera for all of them so they never reached the lows that A Nightmare on Elm Street did. In fact the last one, Scream 4 was actually pretty good. It was also Wes Craven’s last film.
Considering Craven didn’t get going to until he was in his thirties he had a remarkable career. Whist mostly sticking to the horror genre he did flirt with other types of film. Red Eye was a solid thriller and Music of the Heart was, bizarrely, a passion project of his he’d been trying to make for many years. He finally got it in front of the cameras in 1999 with Meryl Streep and general indifference. But he always had horror as his backbone and continued to work when many of his contemporaries had faded into the sad world of forgotten directors.
If an artists legacy is the work they have left behind then Craven’s legacy is a rich one: Last House On The Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The People Under The Stairs, The Serpent and The Rainbow, New Nightmare, Scream. Not a bad list Mr Craven, not a bad list at all…