Monday, August 31, 2015

Tribute: Wes Craven (1939 - 2015)

I woke up this morning to learn the terrible news that horror movie director and legend Wes Craven has passed away.

Way back in 1996, I wrote my first horror-themed book -- The Art of Horror -- about the films of Wes Craven.  Broadly speaking, my thesis was that Wes Craven's imagination and ingenuity turned -- or pivoted -- American horror on at least three crucial occasions.. 

First, Craven helped (along with Hooper, Peckinpah and Boorman) to move the genre away from Hammer-style supernatural horror (vampires, werewolves and the Frankenstein Monster) towards real life horror -- the Savage Cinema -- in works such as The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Then a decade later, Wes Craven invented the incomparable Freddy Krueger for A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the genre pivoted away from its infinite repetition of the naturalistic slasher film towards monsters and narratives of a rubber reality nature.

Finally, Craven directed Scream (1996) -- a worldwide smash written by Kevin Williamson -- that revived 1980s-type horror slashers, but this time with a self-reflexive bent.  That brand of sardonic, literate, post-modern horror film dominated the latter part of the 1990s.  Craven had been on this track of Pirandello-esque self-reflexivity earlier, with his brilliant New Nightmare (1994), but Scream caught fire with the pop culture and became a franchise that extends to this very day.

Yet I love and admire Craven's work not merely because he was always a pinch-hitter for a genre that found itself in trouble, or stagnating. No, I love him because his cinematic works often feature a humanistic or moral bent, despite what people may consider instances of extreme violence.  

The Last House on the Left -- perpetually perceived as immoral -- is actually one of the most moral, anti-violence horror efforts ever made. It reminds audiences that revenge accomplishes nothing, and that, contrarily, it debauches even those who feel justified using it. As a composition in the film notes, trenchantly: "The road leads to nowhere. And the castle stays the same."

Meanwhile, The People Under the Stairs (1991) was one of the first horror films to explicitly take on the unquestioned ethos of "greed is good" in the eighties (after They Live [1988]). It noted that trickle down economics doesn't actually work, and worse, bleeds a community dry.

Even A Nightmare on Elm Street, with its lead character, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) -- the Hamlet of horror films -- concerns something important about American culture of the time; the way in which the older generation burdens the young with its mistakes and neuroses (not to mention national debt).  For taking this tack, and championing Generation X when others were decrying its "immoral" love of "dead teenager movies" and death metal, Craven was referred to as a "generational turncoat."  For believing in Generation X -- my generation -- at a time when few other directors did, Craven earned my trust and respect. 

Naturally, not all of Craven's films turned out great. 

Deadly Friend (1986) was an uneasy combination of horror and teen sci-fi, in keeping with its historical context, and A Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), an Eddie Murphy vehicle, couldn't seem to find and maintain a good balance between horror and comedy.  

But for every misfire like those, one could gaze at Craven's catalog and find a Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), or an underrated jewel like Deadly Blessing (1981), which concerned religious fanaticism.

Mr. Craven's work extended far beyond film. He directed a number of TV-movies for the genre, including A Stranger in Our House (1978), starring Linda Blair, Invitation to Hell (1984), Chiller (1985) and Night Visions (1990).  He also directed segments of the 1985 remake of The Twilight Zone (1985), and created the short-lived TV series Nightmare Cafe (1992).

The father of Freddy Krueger and Horace Pinker (Shocker), as well as the "presenter" of the djinn in Wishmaster (1997), Wes Craven's contributions to the horror genre from the 1970s through the 1990s are truly unforgettable.  He leaves behind for us, his fans and students, a lasting presence and influence on horror.

Wes Craven will be missed, and yet his influence on scary movies will be studied for years and decades yet to come.


  1. woodchuckgod10:19 AM

    Well said.

  2. I equally was saddened by the news. A film GIANT has left us. R.I.P

  3. Splendid writeup, John. He really was, as you say, a pinch-hitter when the horror genre needed a kick in the pants.

    It's impossible to overstate Craven's importance to horror. I can't imagine where the genre would be without him. He was an imaginative, articulate voice who brought depth and intelligence to his work.

    On a personal note, I've always found his life story inspiring and not just because I'm originally from Cleveland, too. Here was a man who grew up in a home where he wasn't even allowed to watch movies (aside from Disney stuff) and who worked as a college professor before going into filmmaking. It's never too late to find your passion.

  4. Trevor7:25 AM

    I was very saddened by this news too and I've been revisiting lots of Wes Craven's back catalogue on DVD. I also got hold of a copy your Art of Horror book. What a great & informative read. Any plans to republish an updated version covering Wes' movies post Scream 2?

  5. I very much appreciate your tribute to Craven . . . it is lovely.

    I'd like to add that Craven, perhaps more than any other horror/thriller director in the 1980s-early 00s, presented us with female protagonists who could think on their feet and survive victimization. Nancy, Sydney, Lisa (from Red Eye) afford us a female pov and a (mostly) feminist sensibility.