This year is becoming a cruel mistress indeed to cinema’s finest, having also claimed this past week horror mastermind Wes Craven. Famous for haunting our dreams with terrifying movie monsters Freddy Krueger and Ghostface, the horror genre will feel a little less chilling without Craven’s clever contortions and maniacal menace.
Despite the very mention of his name being enough to reduce movie lovers to a whimpering puddle of fear, Wes Craven (born Wesley Earl Craven) was, perhaps surprisingly, raised in a strict Baptist family in Ohio. The fear of death was planted in Craven from a very young age; witnessing his father succumb to heavy alcoholism and an unexpected early end led Wes to believe he wouldn’t make it past 40. Leaving his Protestant roots behind him in the 60’s, Craven entered the academic world as an English and humanities professor in New York, though this served only as a brief stint and entry point to the world of filmmaking – during this time he obtained his first 16mm camera and began to shoot his own short movies. Craven worked his way upwards taking sound editing and post-production jobs (training under folk-rock songwriter Harry Chapin), and claims to have directed numerous hard-core pornographic films under pseudonyms in his early days of filmmaking.
Craven’s big break came after co-editing the film Together with Sean S. Cunningham (director of Friday the 13th), which had been a hit for the studio, Hallmark Releasing. Craven and Cunningham were petitioned to produce another horror for Hallmark, for which Craven stepped up to writing and directing duties, delivering his confronting and controversial debut The Last House on the Left. Always believing in the power of facing and thinking rationally about fear, Craven’s filmography remained predominantly within the realms of the horror and thriller genres, though his style evolved from splatter-heavy exploitation films to innovative and genre blending terror designed to blur the lines between reality and the imaginary. Sadly a long battle with brain cancer ended on August 30, 2015; Craven passed away in his Los Angeles home at the age of 76. His career, which helped define and then redefine horror, shall continue to endure as it has for years to come.
To reflect on his rich legacy, here are five of Craven’s best directorial efforts. Special mention must also be made for Red Eye (2005), a gripping white-knuckle thriller featuring stellar performances from Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. One of Craven’s most recent films, he boldly stepped outside his usual horror conventions to prove he could make the more realistic effectively chilling.
- The Last House on the Left (1972)
“To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie… it’s only a movie… it’s only a movie…” so went the iconic tagline featured in the trailer and poster of Craven’s highly exploitative debut, in which two teenage girls heading to a concert for a drug-fuelled evening of sexual discovery are instead kidnapped and graphically raped, tortured, stabbed, shot and forced to wet themselves by a sadistic gang of escaped convicts. A notoriously nasty piece of work, yet undeniably effective given its humble budget; this schlocky splatter-fest was a huge success despite being banned in multiple countries for decades, and is continually cited as a strong influence by first-time horror directors even to this day (witness the remarkable trailer, which served as inspiration for the fake Grindhouse previews).
Classic Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8W9KPhmYYtg
4. Music of the Heart (1999)
Craven’s sole venture outside the horror and thriller genres (excluding his segment for the romantic anthology Paris, je t’aime) is as far removed from his gruesome gore-fests and suburban slashers as possible; instead telling the inspiring true tale of Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep), a violinist who, after enlisting as a substitute music teacher at a troubled New York school, forms a successful string program – only to face sudden budget cuts and unemployment. Guaspari then enlists former students, parents and teachers for ‘Fiddlefest’, a violin concert to raise funds for her program’s continuation. The singular Wes Craven film to be recognised by the Academy Awards (Streep, naturally, received her twelfth Oscar nomination), Music of the Heart displays a rare upbeat, sincerely feel-good nature usually absent from his work – a change Craven felt so passionate for that he would only return to direct Scream 3 if given the chance to make this first.
Roberta’s students perform for their principal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDo0zqTE2Hs
- The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Craven’s second feature is very much in the same exploitation vein as The Last House on the Left – equally gruesome and harrowing; this time the murderous thugs and secluded forest setting are swapped out for an incestuous brood of barbarians who stalk and prey upon a road tripping family stranded in the Nevada desert. Having successfully made his mark with a profitable debut, Craven was granted a higher budget and ensured his script was tighter and more accessible, and – despite a feud with the cast and crew, who strongly opposed his idea that the baby be killed off – became another cult classic. Craven directed a Part II in 1985, which he later disowned due to its overwhelmingly negative reception; a slick remake by Alexandre Aja arrived in 2006, replacing the savages with nuclear mutants (Craven and his son Jonathan returned to co-write the remake’s sequel in 2007).
“Baby’s fat… and juicy…”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lV6OwcvidRI
2. Scream (1996)
Forget the stupidity of the Scary Movie series, Craven’s Scream is unquestionably the defining horror parody. Intended as a comedic and satirical send-up of the slasher clichés disseminated by the Friday the 13th, Halloween and even his own Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, Scream managed all this while still remaining chilling in its own right; carving out its own iconic movie monster (Ghostface’s twisted mask now a fundamental dress-up) and memorable scenes (Drew Barrymore’s phone-call opener resuscitated a derailed career). Scream proved yet another enormous and hugely influential success for Craven, resurrecting the horror genre for the 90’s and even allegedly inspiring a wave of copycat murders. Scream 4 would be Craven’s final feature; he also served as executive producer on MTV’s recent Scream TV series, passing away two days before the finale.
“What’s your favourite scary movie?”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3lSvJ5RXKA
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Some may prefer the slasher-subversions of Scream, but Wes Craven’s true stroke of genius and confirmation of horror mastermind came with the delightfully 80’s gem A Nightmare on Elm Street, arguably the best slasher flick and inarguably one of the all-time great horror pictures. With so many epochal elements, from the debut of Johnny Depp to Robert Englund’s demented depiction of disfigured serial killer Freddy Krueger (famously named after a bully who tortured Craven in school), Nightmare towers above for its transgression of horror itself. Craven had discovered the ultimate way to keep audiences awake at night – creating a monster that could kill you in your dreams. An instant hit, the film made Wes Craven a household name and spawned six sequels (including the superbly self-aware deconstruction of the series New Nightmare), a television series, a remake and a crossover with Friday the 13th in Freddy vs. Jason.
The bathtub scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsbhwxGSxjQ
“The horrors of retirement. These are scarier than any horror movie I can dream up.” – Wes Craven, August 2, 1939 – August 30, 2015. R.I.P.