There are certain people without whom it’s impossible to imagine the horror landscape. From actors, to directors, to writers and even fanatics, there are certain faces that have stuck around, who have made the genre what it is today and without whose input it would not have evolved, or even survived. Wes Craven is a name with which even the most casual horror fan is familiar, a man who was talented, and driven, enough to create not one, but two, iconic horror villains over the course of an amazing career, one which shows no signs of slowing down any time soon, even now, 42 years after the release of his first feature film. Writer, producer, director and all round horror nut, the inimitable Craven is this month’s Horror Icon.
Though his name kind of sounds like that of a genre movie aficionado, Wesley (to his mother) Craven was born in not very horror-esque Cleveland, Ohio, in 1939. After earning an undergraduate degree in English and Psychology from Wheaton College, along with a masters degree in Philosophy and Writing from John Hopkins University, Craven actually went on to teach briefly himself, first English at Westminster College and then as a humanities professor at Clarkson University in New York, the city in which he booked his first film job as a sound editor for a post-production company.
Funnily enough, it was in the directing of pornographic films (always a lucrative business) that Craven cut his teeth, so to speak, something which he later discussed in the documentary Inside Deep Throat. It’s unclear what his role was in the creation of the infamous porno flick, but it’s widely accepted that his earlier work, prior to taking directing duties, comprised mostly of writing and film editing. In 1972, Craven’s directorial debut was unleashed upon the world, the highly controversial The Last House On The Left. Written by Craven also, the film featured the rape and torture of two teenage girls by a gang of thugs, before the tables are turned on them by the victims’ own parents, resulting in unspeakable carnage.
Even to this day, in the wake of the torture porn phenomenon, the film is considered hardcore and extreme, with several very vocal detractors still campaigning against it, along with the similarly-themed I Spit On Your Grave. And, when a remake was unveiled in 2009, on which Craven had an executive producer credit, there was uproar once again – in the end, to no avail, as the film grossed over $45 million worldwide, making it the eighth most lucrative movie of Craven’s career (way above the original film, which grossed about a quarter of that).
Craven’s next big cinematic outing was cult classic The Hills Have Eyes, which was released in 1977, and for which he also had a writing credit. While considered shocking for its time, the tale of a family set upon by murderous savages is tame by modern standards – although it, too, received the remake treatment in 2006, with Craven taking a production credit once again (funnily enough, the modern incarnation was even more tame than the original film). A second instalment followed, entitled The Hills Have Eyes II, while previously, in 1982, Craven dipped his toe into the movie monster pantheon with Swamp Thing, starring the legendary Adrienne Barbeau.
However, it was in 1984 that Craven would really make his mark on the horror world, with the introduction of legendary villain Freddy Krueger in the classic, and arguably his most famous film, A Nightmare On Elm Street, which would go on to spawn sequels, a spin-off, a video game, and a TV series, to name just a few. With the introduction of Krueger, Craven simultaneously ensured his own status as a legend of the genre, as he stopped audiences the world over from sleeping with an exploration of the nature of reality itself as a maniacal serial killer stalked and killed unknowing teenagers in their dreams.
Freddy Krueger is a legend in his own right, but his first outing was remarkable for; the skilled direction, the portrayal of the villain by Horror Icon Robert Englund, the genius use of practical effects, and the killer script, which fused comedy and horror in the most wonderful way possible – a skill Craven would continue to utilise with his second horror series, Scream. Though subsequent films never really captured the magic of the first instalment, fan favourite A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which Craven co-wrote and executive produced after pulling out of directing Beetlejuice, is often noted as an exception, showcasing some of the most gruesome deaths and the strangest dream sequences.
In 1994, Craven would return to Elm Street with the semi-satirical Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which pitched lead Nightmare actress Heather Langenkamp as herself, fighting against Krueger, who, as it turned out, exists in the real world also. A fun, funny, and very clever disassembling of the world which he himself had created, New Nightmare didn’t gain quite as much momentum as it should’ve done, though it has become a cult classic in the intervening years thanks to DVD sales and the release of the classic Elm Street documentary, Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, for which Craven provided several insightful interviews (the doc is a must for even casual fans of the series, offering an incomparable glimpse into the magic behind the series’ creation).
Craven also took a writing credit on 2003’s Freddy Vs Jason, which pitched Krueger against fellow iconic villain Jason Voorhees. Once again, Englund took the role, but was unceremoniously replaced for the 2010 Nightmare reboot, which was universally panned upon release, as a pale imitation of the classic eighties original. Tellingly, Craven was only credited for his characters in the remake. His next big moment came in 1996, with the introduction of another iconic horror villain, Ghostface, in the seminal slasher movie Scream, which became instantly infamous for killing off its highest billed actress in a thrilling, bloody opening sequence.
A bizarre mixture of gore, frights, laughs, and self-referential nods to classic horror movies, the film employed a cast of know-it-all horror nerds who, upon realising they may just be dealing with a real-life serial killer, find themselves unable to escape in spite of their vast knowledge of the genre and its many, often obvious, traits. The film was a massive worldwide success, grossing over $173 million – Craven’s highest box office take to date – and spawning three sequels, of varying quality. Scream 2 is widely regarded as a decent follow-up, while the third instalment, the highly meta Scream 3, is considered a bit rubbish, though fans still hold it close to their hearts. It is believed that the third outing for Ghostface suffers mainly thanks to the script not being penned by usual series collaborator, Kevin Williamson, who took writing duties on the first two, and the fourth, which marked a return to form, for the series.
Scream 4 was Craven’s biggest shocker to date. Arriving in theatres in 2011, to little fanfare, it was assumed that life couldn’t possibly be breathed into this old, presumed dead, series, which wouldn’t fit in the confines of a hugely changed horror landscape. However, the film was a clever, frightening and very, very entertaining return to form, pitching Ghostface against a new breed of social media obsessed teens, alongside the old reliables (Courtney Cox, David Arquette and Neve Campbell all reprised their roles), who seem to have even less of a clue what’s going on ten years later. The film was a massive success, marking it as the fourth highest grossing of Craven’s career, after the first three instalments. It seemed like a miracle, but Ghostface had been reinvented for a new generation, and the idea that this was the beginning of a whole new trilogy suddenly seemed more attractive than ever before (though the latest news is Scream: The TV Series, so take from that what you will).
Elsewhere, Craven has also made his mark on the world of horror with a variety of other films, including Cursed, a vampire tale on which he also collaborated with Kevin Williamson, the creepy My Soul To Take, raucous Eddie Murphy vehicle Vampire In Brooklyn, cult classic The People Under The Stairs, and, more recently, 2005’s rather enjoyable Red Eye, which pitched an unlucky passenger against a psychopath while stuck on a plane. He also contributed several Twilight Zone episodes, along with production duties on a couple of the aforementioned remakes of his own films.
Not content with movies, Craven has also collaborated on a graphic novel entitled Coming Of Rage, alongside 30 Days Of Night writer Steve Niles, which has also been slated for a possible film adaptation. He has also made some rather memorable cameos, for instance as a janitor bearing a remarkable resemblance to Freddy Krueger in Scream, and in Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, as himself, supposedly mid-shoot for an unnamed Scream sequel which utilised a monkey as Ghostface. Interestingly, though the film was released in 2001, a year after the release of Scream 3, it would be another ten years before Craven would actually reboot the series with the fourth instalment (which did not feature a monkey, and was also surprisingly well-received).
Wes Craven’s incredible contribution to horror is undeniable. Most directors would be glad to create one iconic villain, let alone two – both of whom still pull in the punters decades after their inception, too. Craven has a slick, very distinct style, that is all his own, and an unshakable passion for utilising practical effects to make his movies look and feel more realistic. Who could forget the rotating bedroom, used to make Tina’s bloody death in the original A Nightmare On Elm Street, that much more memorable, or Drew Barrymore’s very realistic gutted corpse hanging from a tree in Scream?
Craven has a tendency to deal with the nature of reality in his movies, from the consequences of dreams in Nightmare, to the self-referential characters in Scream, and it is this knowledge and ability to exploit that fear, that make him a master of frightening audiences time and time again. His contribution to the Elm Street documentary exhibited an open, honest man with a passion for filmmaking who understood his audience and knew how to make them laugh and scream, sometimes simultaneously. There are a million reasons why his films have stood the test of time, and we’re probably still going to be watching them in twenty years (if he hasn’t made even more, of course). He made a generation of kids terrified to go to sleep, another to answer the phone, and yet another to watch movies home alone, to name but a few. His villains are terrifying and memorable, his heroes believable, well-drawn and realistic.
Wes Craven is one of a kind, and long may his incredible reach over the world of horror continue. It’s truly impossible to imagine today’s landscape without him.
5 Essential Craven Flicks
1. A Nightmare On Elm Street
3. A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
4. The Last House On The Left
5. Scream 4
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