Wes Craven: Nightmare Maker

Suggested Audio Salute

[1] David A. Hess “Wait For The Rain”

[2] Metallica “Enter the Sandman”

[3] Noir Deco “Future Noir”

[4] Pink Floyd “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”

 

It is hard to believe that two years have passed since one of horror’s true leading lights, Wes Craven, was taken from us. As fate would have it, this very day marks the two-year anniversary of his death, thus there seems no more fitting time to honor this great man. I am writing this homage on August 30th, 2017, having just poured my heart out about another tremendous loss for the genre, the passing of Tobe Hooper. That in itself follows yet another body blow from mere weeks earlier as the Godfather of the Dead himself, George A. Romero, took his final bow and none of us saw it coming. I guess it’s right what they say about bad news coming in threes. However, while I wasted little time in paying my eternal respects to both Romero and Hooper, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t extended their fellow American the same kindness. Given that the Cleveland born writer and director was every bit as present during my filmic development, that seems like decidedly poor form on my part but I’m not here to hang my head in shame.

This is where my frightful tardiness actually makes it easier on all of us as, while there will always be that twinge of sadness as with the loss of any loved one, we have had time to process the information and can focus on celebrating his grand legacy, as opposed to making this an obituary. With almost thirty directorial credits to his name over a distinguished career that stretched across five decades, there’s plenty of commemoration to be had. My plan today is to cast an affectionate eye over some of his key achievements in filmmaking as well as a handful of personal darlings from his vast oeuvre. While I make no secret that, with the exception of perhaps A Nightmare on Elm Street, not one of Craven’s works would make my all-time horror top twenty, the amount that would nestle comfortably in my top fifty suggests just how ever-present he has been through my tenure as a self-anointed horror aficionado and I’ve sure been grateful for the company.

When Craven first introduced himself way back in 1972 for his feature debut, The Last House on The Left, it would be fair to say that the industry hadn’t the vaguest idea how to take him. Upon submitting his film to the MPAA for classification, an “X” rating was swiftly branded, and he was left under no illusion that alterations would be required in order to reach the kind of wider audience he was aiming at. He promptly trimmed away ten minutes of footage, then another ten, but still the censors wouldn’t budge. Eventually he tired of all this toing and froing, reinstated the whole lot, obtained an authentic “R” seal of approval from a friend at the film board, and released it himself. However, just over a decade later, the film’s steadily growing notoriety landed him straight back in the dock again as it involuntarily found itself part of an exclusive 39-strong club.

General consensus was that The Last House on The Left was utterly deplorable and should be prosecuted and removed from public circulation, effective immediately. Violence was one thing, sexualized violence entirely another, but it was the spiteful depictions of torture, rape and murder that stuck in many a throat. By the time Craven’s film was banished to the sin bin, he was already an established director and just about to make the transition from young hopeful to highly respected go-to guy. However, I’d like to dial things back to the early seventies, when the world of cinema had no idea whatsoever what had hit them as audiences simply weren’t equipped for the kind of no-nonsense American exploitation this young man from a strict religious background was peddling.

So he was acting out his pent-up frustration then? Undoubtedly yes, Craven himself was always quick to point out that this hard-knocks upbringing very much informed his bleak and uncompromising early output. His father was a violent man, his mother uncompromising, and poor Wes was forced to grow up way quicker than most other kids his age after the death of his pops at the tender age of four. The Last House on The Left was definitely about spiritual cleansing for him and, if this still left him feeling impure, then his next film, The Hills Have Eyes, would soon supply him the clean bill of mental health he hankered after at the expense of the long-suffering Carter family.

His critics may have suspected that his wired-in issues were deepening after spending 89 excruciating minutes wilting beneath the stifling Nevada desert rays while Pluto and pals ran amok, but Wes was now feeling utterly galvanized. The Hills Have Eyes kept the exploitation coming thick and fast, but this was no tale of retribution being told, and instead, heralded from the school of basic human survival.

Taking his cues from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre three years prior, Craven opted for the less-is-more approach with regards to any on-screen brutality, but was sure to emphasize every last bead of sweat on the faces of his ill-fated protagonists just to set our imaginations racing. Where I struggled to establish an emotional connection with The Last House on The Left as its twin lights were extinguished early doors, here there was still hope, albeit dwindling, and unbeknownst to his audience, Craven had cunningly won them over.

What followed was a period of transition as Craven continued to learn the tools of his trade with his made-for-TV 1978 frightfest Summer of Fear starring Linda Blair and slow and steady 1981 chiller Deadly Blessing, featuring a breakthrough performance from a young Sharon Stone. A year later, he took a brief foray into the DC Comics universe with cult favorite Swamp Thing, this time acquiring the services of the delectable Adrienne Barbeau and this presented him an opportunity to further showcase his ability to Hollywood studios, with a more extravagant budget than previously.

Craven had it signed, sealed and delivered on time and on budget, which no doubt assisted him in getting his true labor of love off the ground. You see, he’d already began work on a screenplay that had the potential to elevate him from up-and-comer to top-tier terrorizer. That film was A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Astonishingly, several studios rejected his script, including Walt Disney, Paramount and Universal, and their loss wound up the immense gain of the independently run New Line Cinema, who had only ever distributed movies to this point. Things were looking a little sticky there for a moment and it appeared A Nightmare on Elm Street might never see the light of day. However, it did precisely that, turning a tidy profit in the process, and the studio now affectionately refer to themselves as “The House That Freddy Built” out of recognition for just what Craven’s dream master brought to the table. $25.5m in box-office against a budget over a dozen times smaller was certainly not to be sniffed at, but it was the film’s spectacular performance on home video that really brought home the bacon.

Even more critically, it took an existing sub-genre in slasher and turned the whole kit and caboodle on its head. Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th had started cash registers ringing worldwide in 1980 and, four years later, the cash cow was being milked from every conceivable direction. What Craven achieved was to move the goalposts in an entirely different direction, replacing the dormitories and summer camps of slasher old with a far more limitless slayground. It was still all about the children as any adults in the movie were either damaged goods or living in a state of perpetual denial, leaving our teens to fend off the advances of an adversary far more conniving and unflappable than your average mask head. Freddy Krueger was originally intended to be a child molester but this was later changed to child killer out of fear for the censors’ wrath. One thing was for certain – Freddy sure made a lousy school caretaker.

Krueger was different from the cookie-cutter killers doing the rounds at the time. For starters, he was disinterested in the silent treatment and could vocalize his intent to his victims long before subjecting them to his five-fingered fury. In addition, creativity came naturally to a qualified dream weaver such as he, and no two Freddy fuckings need ever be the same. Forget about the zippy one-liners and almost caricatural styling of later incarnations, the original saw him choosing his words wisely, keeping things simple and brutally effective, thus scaring the living piss out of an entire generation of film buffs in the process. Casting Robert Englund as the Springwood Slasher was a stroke of genius in itself and it’s no coincidence that Freddy has gone on to become one of the most iconic and bankable characters in modern horror cinema.

My next cherished Craven memory arrived the following year for the revival of Rod Serling’s sixties TV favorite, The Twilight Zone. He directed four episodes for the first series – Shatterday, Wordplay, Chameleon, and A Little Peace and Quiet – but it was the lattermost that truly captured my imagination. Focusing on exasperated housewife Penny, James Crocker’s tale posed the question “wouldn’t it be nice if, once in a while, everyone would just shut up and stop pestering you?” and imparted the ability on Penny to achieve precisely that. With great power, comes great responsibility and with Wes Craven’s keen eye behind the lens, came one of the most deliciously devious episodes of all 110 commissioned. Indeed, the shattering closing shot alone is still a mental screen saver of mine, over thirty years on.

1985 also saw Craven return to the Nevada desert for The Hills Have Eyes Part 2, although the sequel to his 1977 exploitation classic was actually shot on the quick two years previous before production was halted and the project shelved. Indeed, it only saw the light of day after the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Craven didn’t have enough material for a feature film. Thus he padded out the running time with stock footage from the original. By the time it arrived direct-to-video, knives were already drawn and it wound up literally crucified by critics as nothing more than a cheap and lazy cash-in. While I can’t argue against that viewpoint, it certainly wasn’t as godawful as we were led to believe, although Craven himself later went on to disown it. Deeply uninspired and clichéd it may be but, as far as by-the-numbers eighties slashers go, there were far worse offenders.

Craven’s post-Elm Street slump continued in 1986 with another film savaged by critics, Deadly Friend, although its failure to stand out from the crowd was more a result of too many chefs than anything else. Originally titled Friend and based on Diana Henstell’s novel of the same name, Craven was looking to make a PG rated movie similar to John Carpenter’s Starman but his fast-growing reputation as a horror director worked against him here as test audiences bemoaned its lack of violence and Warner Bros. insisted that he shoot additional gore scenes to cater to their demands. It also didn’t help that he was going through a messy divorce at the time and the last thing he needed were twenty producers meddling with a product he had high hopes for initially and changing its complexion entirely. After a troubled post-production, the film secured its theatrical release, but was pronounced dead on arrival and promptly disappeared without trace.

Things started looking up in 1987 after Craven was talked into returning to Elm Street and co-writing its second sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. New Line Cinema were desperate to turn this into a franchise and, after Jack Sholder’s first sequel was torn asunder by critics, were looking to take the series in a fresh direction. This time it was Chuck Russell on directorial duties and Craven and Bruce Wagner came up with the first draft of the script.

Russell and Frank Darabont then rewrote the screenplay, making a number of significant changes, but it actually turned out rather well as the film was a hit at the box-office and has since gone on to become the most cherished of all the sequels and a highly respected movie in its own right. It also heralded a return for original cast members Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon, not to mention introducing us to the colorful and courageous Dream Warriors. It all could and should have ended in tears but, to Russell’s eternal credit, the stars aligned rather exquisitely.

Things were now back on the up and Craven’s next film, The Serpent and the Rainbow, is widely regarded as one of his finest works. Loosely based on ethnobotanist Wade Davis’ non-fiction book of the same name, it packed us off to Haiti where voodoo magic was running rife. Boasting stellar performances from Bill Pullman and Cathy Tyson, not to mention an utterly terrifying turn from Zakes Mokae, Craven’s film delivered us to some decidedly dark places and placed its lead in some decidedly uncomfortable spots of bother. The scene where Dennis had a rusty nail hammered through his scrotum was the absolute epitome of excruciating viewing but things got even worse for our hapless anthropologist after he took an involuntary cat nap and came to in something of a tight spot.

For those who suffered from claustrophobia, waking up six feet deep in a dusty sarcophagus was pretty much the personification of their worst nightmare, while any arachnophobes were forced to contend with the rogue tarantula placed inside his cramped coffin some way less than affectionately, just to keep him company while it filled up with blood. Craven’s uncanny knack for creating a nightmarish scenario paid huge dividends here and the result was one of the most memorable and unsettling scenes in eighties cinema. More critically, after a stuttering run of recent form behind the camera, it appeared that Craven was well and truly back in the ascendency and all eyes were on him to deliver on his next project.

By all accounts, Shocker wasn’t such a disaster, despite the unfavorable reception it received from critics. Arriving in the hot seat months after James Isaac’s The Horror Show sent convicted serial killer Max Jenke to the electric chair and only succeeded in giving him a hard-on, his brother from another mother Horace Pinker was fed the same kind of high voltage and Craven used his fresh powers of televisual transference to tune in to the MTV generation, with reasonably profitable results. Mercilessly cut by censors, it was anything but static, rattling along at a fair old clip and barely pausing for breath. One thing it certainly wasn’t light on was meanness of spirit and a gloriously animated performance from Mitch Pileggi as the alternating current of the title ensured that it didn’t all end in blackout.

1991 saw the release of The People Under the Stairs, another tidy little cash spinner that has since gone on to amass a huge cult following. Demonstrating once again that, while unquestionably a horror director, Craven’s visions were nothing if not diverse, it penned us into close quarters with a pair of sadomasochistic siblings whose secret perversions spelled harassment with capitals S & M for a brace of bungling burglars. Quite unlike any movie in existence, it also benefited tremendously from another presence that tenuously existed beyond the wall cracks. Hilary Swank actually auditioned for the role of resident ragman Roach but it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Sean Whalen making us wish to hug and scrub him quite as effortlessly. Loopier than a box of frogs, it also possessed an abundance of charm and is recalled so fondly with good reason.

It was no secret that Craven had grown frustrated over the gradual decline of his Elm Street franchise and, in 1994, he decided to get pro-active and dial things back to their origins. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare took a meta approach to the Freddy folklore and was a far more cerebral experience than the last few harebrained entries. It also reintroduced final girl Nancy to the fray, only this time, she preferred to be called Heather. Gone were the comical quips, and in their place, was a slither of the murky menace that made Krueger such a firm crowd favorite in the first place. Taking place in the “real world”, Craven’s film tore down our fourth wall and finally restored some credibility to a franchise that had long since floundered. If you want a job done, you do it yourself right?

Alas, the following year didn’t turn out quite as well. It doesn’t matter how revered you are by your loyal legion of followers, sometimes it’s necessary to feed the monkey and Vampire in Brooklyn represented one such primate’s banquet. Alas, the only thing this fed was ammunition to the naysayers and, despite coining it in to the tune of almost $20m, it fared considerably less well with anyone who paid their money. With comedy legend Eddie Murphy donning the fangs and the up-and-coming Angela Bassett as his mortal love interest, the result really should have been something memorable. It was, albeit not for anything like the right reasons. Murphy wasn’t enticed by the prospect of playing a servant of pure evil and the end product suffered markedly from his resistance. More to the point, the entire film just felt agonizingly anemic.

The nineties were a positively wretched time for horror and it would be fair to say that nobody, but nobody saw Scream coming. Craven’s subversive deconstruction and reinvention of the slasher gave the ailing genre just the shot in the arm it so badly needed and Kevin Williamson’s whip-smart screenplay, working title Scary Movie, used self-reference and irony to flog this dead horse back to its feet. The first thing it got right was to yank the carpet from beneath its audience barely ten minutes in, when poster girl Drew Barrymore was subtracted from the equation with a severe dearth of kindness.

Meanwhile, the trip hazard prone Ghostface was far from the hulking juggernaut of his eighties counterparts, and indeed, had the ability to be in two places at any one time, a snazzy trick even Jason Voorhees hadn’t mastered. Billy and Stu may have surrendered a little of their authority when revealing their intentions in typically Scooby Doo style. But by that point we were 100 minutes in and had been catered for rather splendidly with all manner of horror trivia and knowing nods.

To a slightly lesser degree, Scream 2 continued this resurgence, although Craven had unwittingly opened the door for every Tom, Dick and Harry in his homeland to leap straight onto his coat tails. The likes of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, Cherry Falls, Final Destination and Valentine were just some of the bi-products of the “teen slasher” monster he inadvertently created and, while most were decent enough movies in their own right, they flat-out ignored the new slasher rule book he had painstakingly devised. To be fair, he’d even fallen into his own trap by the time Scream 3 underwhelmed the masses in 2000, but credit to Wes for providing a rare bright spot in an otherwise disgraceful decade.

I shall purposely wind things down around this point as Craven’s post-millennium output makes for far less enthusiastic recollection, but not before supplying a brief tip of the fedora to his tense 2005 pot-boiler, Red Eye. This marked something of a departure for Wes as it eschewed out-and-out horror for something far more tailored for a mainstream audience. The tangible chemistry between well-meaning workaholic Rachel McAdams and fishy flyer Cillian Murphy, coupled with his increasingly psychotic performance, lent an otherwise lightweight thriller the white-knuckles it required to touch down safely at the box-office. Almost $100m in receipts was the prize and, while the film failed to live long in the memory, you certainly can’t quibble with those kind of economics.

Glancing back over the past 3500 words or so, it suddenly becomes crystal clear just how omnipresent Craven has been through my time as a captive viewer. He may have never quite made the one movie that elevated him to the dizzy heights of the Romeros, Carpenters, Hoopers, and Argentos of this world, at least, in my own humble opinion. But the sheer wealth of his cinematic harvest alone ensures that he very much deserves his seat at the very top table. Seldom has a filmmaker stuck so tirelessly to his brief through so much meddling and disappointment and the world of horror has been all the richer for his perseverance and effort. Somewhat spookily, I had absolutely no inkling that today marked the two-year anniversary of his passing and, in honor of the great Wes Craven, I like to believe that the idea came to me during a nightmare. Seems fitting don’t cha think? Sweet dreams fellow dream warriors and thanks for the memories Wes.

 

 

 

 

GREY KEEPER FRAME

2 Comments

  1. Excellent retrospective, Rich! Wes was one of my favorite directors. I also loved Music of the Heart with Meryl Streep. Very thorough look at a lengthy career of a talented man. Bravo!

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