The monsters under our beds have been a little bit quieter since Wes Craven, a member of horror’s royal court, died August 30 aged 76. I’ve been sitting here staring at my computer screen for over a week now, trying to find the words to say what I feel I need to say regarding Wes Craven. They say never meet your idols, and it’s a good rule to live by. But I still would have loved to have shaken this man’s hand. Wes Craven is a name synonymous with horror movies, and he succeeded in personally reinventing the landscape several times over. He was not only a trendsetter, but a gold standard.
There is so much to say about him, so much I want you to know: That because we are both from Ohio, that propels him instant god-like status to me; that he originally was a college professor making 16mm shorts in his spare time; that he gave it up to start making his way in film, starting with adult films in the 70’s. He even worked on the classic Deep Throat, although under one of many pseudonyms he used in the porn industry. I could tell you how he never intended to become horror movie royalty.
While working in the X-rated world, he met a man by the name of Sean Cunningham. Cunningham was producing the visceral experience better known as The Last House On The Left, and the project needed a director. The movie’s disturbing content and infamous reputation propelled both men into the spotlight. Cunningham went on to create Friday the 13th, while Craven made A Nightmare on Elm Street, effectively making these hetero-lifemates the parents of 2/3 of the “Three Tremors,” Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. Later, their sons would face off against each other in the much-anticipated movie Freddy Vs. Jason in 2003. You can also thank these men for the discovery of Kevin Bacon and Johnny Depp, respectively.
In the documentary Never Sleep Again that chronicles the life of Krueger, it is clear to see that despite the rocky relationship with New Line Cinema’s Robert Shaye that Craven always loved Elm Street. He wasn’t the biggest fan of every single one of the films, preferring to have Freddy continue to terrify than just rake in cash. Craven strove to have his movies connect with an audience. If a movie really didn’t have much to say, he simply had no interest. He wanted to creep under the skin of an audience. What Wes Craven loved to do was bring reality into the fantasy of things, and make day-to-day events terrifying. Everyone has to sleep. Everyone watches movies. People move into old houses, or have a weird neighbor no ones talks to. These are the things Wes took from our otherwise mundane lives and destroyed. He taught us that we should revel in each moment, no matter how quiet our lives seem. Because even the smallest change can bring a whole new dimension to our existence. You never know who might call when you’re home alone, or what your parents might have done before you were born. The world is out there, big and scary, and if Wes taught us anything it was to enjoy life while you can.
But as I mentioned before, he never intended to become known only for horror films. He had the opportunity to branch out from time to time, and although his forays into other genres didn’t stay in as many audience’s memories, (Music of the Heart, Red Eye,) he never strayed from his core beliefs in storytelling, and made his mark in the dramatic world as well. A little-known fact is that he is one of the 22 directors responsible for the film Paris, je t’aime, in 2006.
But what really has gotten me stuck about the loss of this great man is not his credits, but his impact on little old me. I was terrified of Freddy before I ever even saw a movie, which ended up being in my teens with the original Nightmare. When I was younger, I would stay away from the boys in my classes who dressed up as Freddy for Halloween, or would come at me with pencil-claws quoting the films. But even as a kid I was fascinated, scared stiff but hungry to find out more. Voorhees and Myers I got. Strong, silent mega-killers. All you had to do was get out of Haddonfield or Camp Crystal Lake and your odds of being eviscerated dropped dramatically. But Freddy would never stop. And there was nowhere to hide. No matter what you did, no matter how hard you tried, you always had to sleep and that was his playground. He knew what scared you. He knew your weaknesses. It was never a question of if you’d survive him, but how long you would last against him.
It was never a big desire of Craven’s to franchise his movies, either. Some of his lesser-known but creepy fare is The Serpent and the Rainbow, where one guy on the production team thought he got put under a legitimate voodoo curse, The People Under The Stairs which makes you second guess every creak in your home, and the radiation-soaked road trip known as The Hills Have Eyes. People have attempted to remake several of his films, and although some of them can earn a little honorable mention, (the remake of The Hills Have Eyes actually does the 1977 original some justice,) not all of them have succeeded. Just ask about Jackie Earle Haley and the 2010 remake of Nightmare. Don’t watch it. Just ask someone about it. Trust me.
Wes never slowed down, either. Just when horror would start to lag in box office, Craven had the uncanny ability to show up with a whole new angle to get people screaming. And usually, those screams would help spawn a whole new dynasty of horror movies for that given decade. With the over-popularization of characters such as Jason, Michael and Freddy and the slasher genre puttering out, Wes Craven went meta. Fresh on the heels of his re-imagining of the Elm Street saga with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Craven created Scream, where all those horror dweebs who had studied and classified each and every movie of the past 15 years became the main event. Audiences not only got a fresh angle, but were in a way repaid for their loyalty to the genre by getting put into the film itself. The characters were self-aware and operating in the way any teenager of the time would have reacted to a mass murderer going after them; with an eye-roll, and running out the house instead of up the stairs.
And much like his return to Elm Street time and again, he re-invigorated the Scream franchise with Scre4m, a film that fans received with an overall positive response from audiences, and even a Scream television series currently playing on MTV. The show aired a remembrance to him on their September 1 finale of season one, simply saying “Thanks for the Screams,” which is a more than fitting goodbye to a man who has given us freaks and weirdos so much.
In Never Sleep Again, Craven laughs, eyes twinkling as he says, “You know when I die, it will be in the obituary, ‘Probably best known for inventing Freddy Krueger.’ You know? It will be something like that, that will summarize my entire career.” Well Freddy may have carved a huge part out of my psyche, but Wes, you did so much more. You helped carve me into the person I am today. And I am better for it. Thanks for digging deep into the world’s dark places for us, Mr. Craven.
What has always spoke to fans and colleagues about Craven is his quiet demeanor, and humility. “I have a very sort of ambivalent view of myself as an artist or as a filmmaker,” he says in a special feature found on the Nightmare on Elm Street DVD box-set. “Somebody once when I was first starting in films in New York said, ‘If you want something on your gravestone in the film business, I think the best thing is filmmaker. If you can honestly say that, that’s all you need to say.’ I think I would like that on my gravestone, that and ‘Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.’”
We will see you in our dreams, Mr. Craven.
Wes Craven RIP
August 2, 1939 – August 30 2015