BORN: 2nd August, 1939
DIED: 30th August, 2015
NOTABLE FILMS: The Last House on the Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Shocker (1989), The People Under the Stairs (1991), Scream (1996), Red Eye (2005)
We at 4thact would like to take a moment to fondly remember a man who altered the definition of terror on three separate occasions.
How many auteurs or artists can legitimately claim to have changed the medium that they work within? Maybe two or three figures in modern cinema can assert that their contributions to the art form have affected the course of not only a single genre, but numerous divergent branches of film culture. In the context of horror cinema, Wes Craven was a powerhouse. An institution capable of directing the trends of the genre and sending ripples through its many sub categories, his influence is still prominent and vital to this day. It is no surprise then that today, on the 30th of August 2015, the day of his death, there was such a titanic outpouring of love and fond remembrance for the American filmmaker. Cinephiles across the globe waxed lyrical, recalling their first viewings of A Nightmare on Elm St (1984), The Last House on the Left (1972) and Scream (1996) each film a staple of horror within its respective decade. Those within the industry recounted how his film-making and writing had shaped their own productions, with a wide spectrum of characters, often separated from horror entirely, claiming to channel the spirit of Craven.
With Scream, Craven reshaped and viscerally de-constructed his own creation. Simultaneously a dissection of his own product and an exercise in biting industry satire, Scream would pave the way for a new type of horror, one that addressed the idea of terror as a concept and contained an introspective and reflective tone whilst still remaining scary. Films such as Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods (2011) would arguably not exist nor function as effectively, were it not for the meditative anxiety of Scream, and reprobates around the globe would have been without Halloween costumes for the better part of twenty years.
An innovative, daring and intelligent film-maker, Craven was equally as thrilling in his latter career where many would have eased off or involuntary toned down. Red Eye (2005) though a more straightforward and conventional thriller, as opposed to the horror that made his name, remains a stellar demonstration of his thorough knowledge of tension. Still nasty and still bitter but streaked through with flashes of Hollywood sheen and a sleek modernity, Red Eye pitted contemporary and relevant threats to our well-being against Craven’s blend of horror and dread. Smartly dressed terrorists replaced masked villains with knives, and familial bonds stood in for his trademark teenage pandemonium.
For many of us, Craven’s passing will signal the end of an era, an untimely milestone in the annals of horror cinema. However, with this sudden burst of interest and passion levelled at the Cleveland born director, and his films, there is the possibility of a discovery of his work by a whole new audience. Those unfamiliar with his filmography may be encouraged, by this outpouring of love, to explore and discover the important and integral films that he made over his almost 40 years of activity. The films of Wes Craven will never truly be forgotten; instead they will re-emerge regularly, as examples of influence, and points at which the genre of horror took on a new dimension.
- Kristofer Thomas
Wes Craven is one of the most influential figures in horror cinema history. He drew from the horrific realities of the world, his own dreams, the trappings of the horror genre itself and sublimated them into his films so astutely that they would have more impact, be scarier, and resonate much longer in the mind. In doing so, he reinvented the face of horror more than once.
Along with a slew of fellow film-makers like George A. Romero, Larry Cohen and Tobe Hooper, Craven was one of the few horror maestros that tapped into the Zeitgeist of the violent and traumatic culture of the American ‘60s and the initial fallout of malaise that ensued in the ‘70s with precision and intelligence. For his directorial debut, The Last House on the Left (1972), he took that violence, trauma and uncertainty and forged it into one of the most shocking and influential horror films ever made. For its overtly grisly and disturbing subject matter, the film was initially lambasted by many as merely a visceral, vile, low-budget exploitation rendering of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960). Yet, the film has endured and is now considered to be one of the most apt political statements in horror cinema; a film that explores the nature of violence begetting violence which tied in neatly with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the redaction process of violent contemporaneous news footage. The film pointed in a radical new direction for horror.
Craven would continue to take reality as a source of inspiration and inject it into his later films, thus tapping into common fears, breaking down further boundaries and devising some of the greatest horror films of the ‘80s. His most popular film, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – a film in which teenagers die in their sleep when the spirit of a child-molester, Freddy Krueger, kills them in their dreams – was inspired by a newspaper article Craven had come across in which teenagers were actually dying from nightmare-induced cardiac arrests. To this day, Nightmare remains one of the cornerstones of contemporary horror and has never been surpassed by any of its numerous sequels, spin-offs or remakes; not even by Craven’s own addition to the franchise, New Nightmare (1994), which is certainly one of the better sequels.
Another one of his most shrewd political statements would come with the overlooked but brilliantly realised The People Under the Stairs (1991); it resembles a retrospective analysis on Reaganomics and the ongoing Conservative revolution that had been crippling America and marginalising the poor communities since the early-‘80s. The film was also notable for empowering the African-American community as it is them who ultimately deliver justice to the rich, demented, cannibalistic psycho landlords of the ghetto (who unsurprisingly enough are dead ringers for Nancy and Ronald Reagan). This is made all the more significant as the film was released at a time when racial tensions in America were again at breaking point due to the much-publicised Rodney King incident and the trial and rioting that ensued.
Later in the ‘90s, Craven would turn the horror genre inside-out with his supposed comeback franchise: the post-modern Scream films (1996-2011). The original and best of the four accomplished the neat trick of being both a very witty and humorous deconstruction of the horror genre – particularly slashers – as well as being a pretty damn scary film in itself; one that for the first time employed the newly popularised use of mobile phones to the film’s own insidious advantage. The film was a sleeper hit that eventually went on to single-handedly revitalise the horror genre after suffering something of a slump following the abundance of horror films that was pouring out of the ‘80s and paved the way for numerous, mostly inferior, imitations as well as the Scary Movie films (2000 – 2013).
The legacy that Craven left was immeasurable and this article has clearly scratched the surface on his extensive body of work. Later in his career, Craven would direct much more infrequently – most notably the terrific white knuckle thriller, Red Eye (2005) and return to writing and directing with My Soul To Take (2010) – and become involved more prolifically as a producer, often of the massively inferior remakes of his own classics. But, the fact that his films are being remade, no matter how sacrilege they appear, speaks volumes of the impact that he has left as a filmmaker and how synonymous his name (such a great name for a horror director) has become with the genre. With the likes of Jim Mickle, Ti West, Larry Fessenden, David Robert Mitchell and Adam Wingard currently helming the genre, horror seems to be in safe hands for the time being. But if it ever undergoes another trough as it often does, there will always be the sanctuary of Craven’s work that we can withdraw to.
So long and thanks for the nightmares.
- Liam Hathaway
Craven’s defining feature was arguably his flexibility. In the early-to-mid 1990s, the horror genre was losing out to action films, adult dramas, and the post-modern cinema of cool spearheaded by Quentin Tarantino. Jonathan Demme’s stylish The Silence of the Lambs became the first horror film to sweep the Academy Awards (and only the second to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar since The Exorcist in 1973), but it was a different beast to the genre efforts of the ’80s. Other relatively mainstream examples include the work of David Lynch (who was more rooted surrealism anyway), as well as standalone stabs by Francis Ford Coppola and David Fincher, with established masters – George A. Romero, Larry Cohen, Dario Argento, David Cronenberg, Sam Raimi – either underperforming or veering away from the genre altogether. As sequels to 70s and 80s milestones began to pile up, it could be argued that horror was becoming a parody of itself.
All of this informs Scream, in which Wes Craven took a Kevin Williamson script and breathtakingly revitalised the genre, declaring war on all horror to come. Everybody knows the part where Randy Meeks outlines the rules of the slasher film, but the most potent scene is in the opening; audiences taking their seats in cinemas in 1996 were set to have their every expectation turned upside down. After ninety seconds of creepy phone calls, the as-yet unidentified caller asks Drew Barrymore – a hugely controversial but popular actress at the time – what her favourite scary movies are. Here is a major motion picture, the type of movie intent on verisimilitude and puffed-up realism, not only directly discussing other examples of the genre, but also being surprisingly self-aware: on Craven’s own A Nightmare on Elm Street series, three of which were directed by Craven himself, Barrymore says “Well, the first one was [scary] but the rest sucked.”
Hip, dialogue-centric, pop culture referencing comedy, two years after Pulp Fiction demolished the box-office – so what? But then Scream takes a dark turn, faster than one might imagine; the caller says asks Barrymore her name so he can know who he’s looking at, a line seasoned with a twitch of ghostly music and a shiver down the spine. Immediately, things start to get ugly as the music intensifies, the caller becomes increasingly monstrous, and the filmmaking switches between uncomfortably spacious wide shots of the house and close-ups of small details (such as the popcorn). Scream hasn’t wasted time, but rather it’s concisely established that it’s a very contemporary film zoning in on the zeitgeist, shortly before lurching into the highly effective stalk’n’slash movie the posters promised.
And then? It dares to pull the Psycho card. It’s not unusual for a character to be killed off in the cold open of a horror flick, but it’s downright ballsy to have a star stabbed, hanged, and gutted less than fifteen minutes in.
Keeping up the momentum, style and themes of a strong opening over the rest of the film turned out to be the right move; Scream grossed nearly $175m internationally, and inspired countless slasher flicks and franchises, creating enough demand to provoke studios to remake basically all of the established horror classics of the 70s and 80s, starting with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003 and continuing on to this day. (Most people complain about this, but it’s still great to see the genre supported financially on such a large scale). Three increasingly self-referential Scream sequels were made, and it also inspired comedy (well, “comedy”) in the Scary Movie franchise. Furthermore, it’s one of the only horror franchises to create highly popular merchandising brand, so now every Halloween it’s possible to see a Ghostface mask at least once every twelve seconds. Its cultural impact cannot be understated, and it’s a testament to Craven’s immeasurable talents as a filmmaker that he created not only a great scary movie, but also resuscitated a genre that was ailing as a mainstream moneymaker. And it took him fifteen minutes of screen time to do it. Talent such as that is devastating to lose.
- L. G. Ball