In Memoriam: Wes Craven (1939-2015)

I love movies, I think that much is clear from reading this blog. I also love horror films. In recent years it’s been hard to get really exited about the types of horror films that come out, but that does go with the territory. I’ve just seen too many of them, gobbled them up as quickly as possible, and impressing me or startling me, let alone scaring me, has grown harder and harder. But that was not always the case. There are a couple of movies that stand out as horror masterpieces, like Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining. Auteur-led films that transcend their genre and thrill and scare as well as awe. On the other hand there is another important group of horror films that is equally important: the scary and entertaining ones that know exactly what genre they belong to and aim to fulfill the promise of horror movies and do it with glee. Wes Craven was the master of this second category.

Wes Craven passed away yesterday and it’s a sad day for horror fans, because in many ways he represented someone who dedicated his life to the genre, knew what he contributed to it, and hardly ever ventured outside of it – and yet was able to reinvent himself within the confines of horror in the 90s with mastery. I was a real fan of his, even when his movies weren’t the best. I always held out hope that he would be capable of one more great film.

He began his career in the exploitation horror field. His first films as a director (The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left) were dark, macabre, and very gritty. These films appealed to our instincts and to what scares us most, like getting stranded on a trip and encountering something terrifying or worse, being attacked in our own homes. It’s not surprising that both of these movies have since been remade for modern audiences, while so many others of the era have been forgotten, Craven was able to fill them with so much reality and affect the audience with true fear, a feat that is not easy to do, especially on a low budget. Then, in 1984, Craven wrote and directed what would become the film that he is most closely associated with: A Nightmare on Elm Street. Along with Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger completes the pantheon of the terrifying and monstrous film villains of the late 70s and early 80s. Krueger was an inspired idea, and although he has been somewhat sanitized and rendered innocuous over time due to increasingly worse sequels and changes in moviegoers tastes, on paper he was anything but a safe bet for the director. Krueger was a child molester, a burn victim, a terrifying monster with sharp claws who stalked and murdered teenagers. In the hands of actor Robert Englund and Craven he became almost likable even if still scary, which is all the more shocking. And while Jason and Michael were tied to the real world, Krueger invaded people’s dreams and in this realm is where his victims would succumb – nobody was safe and years of audiences’ nightmares were guaranteed. After helming the first film, Craven passed the director duties to others for the many sequels, but he did return to the franchise one other time in 1994’s New Nightmare, which was an attempt to revisit the characters of the original film with a wink to the audience and a meta approach to the film. It didn’t really work, but thankfully Craven would not completely abandon this type of approach.

Two years later, teaming up with screenwriter Kevin Williamson, Wes Craven directed a film that would change the horror genre: Scream. In this film, and in its three sequels, Craven poked fun at the genre that had made him famous, holding a mirror up to itself the movie scared and inspired laughter at the same time – something that is nearly impossible to do, if not in the hands of a master who understands the rules and is also willing to not take them too seriously. Horror tropes were turned on their heads, sequences at once terrifying and hilarious permeated the plot, and old gags and stale scenes were made fresh and completely new again. Scream was exactly the type of movie a jaded audience, and a new and younger one as well, needed to fall back in love with horror.

Craven’s one venture outside of horror produced a film that even managed to receive two Academy Award nominations (his only film to achieve this feat) for actress Meryl Streep and the original song. The movie was Music of the Heart, a film about a woman’s quest to bring and maintain music programs in New York City’s public school systems, specifically in the more low income neighborhood of East Harlem. The film was a commercial disappointment and is not the most memorable, although Craven does bring a lot of respect to the story and the music in it, however he also loses himself a bit in the process, as there are no indications when watching that he is the one behind the camera.

In the last few years he has directed fewer films, including the forgettable My Soul to Take and Cursed. However, there was one last standout that was a very pleasant surprise: Red Eye. Coming out at the end of the summer of 2005, the film was another departure for the director, albeit a much stronger outing than the classical music drama he had directed a few years earlier. The movie was a pure thriller, and not a horror, allowing the director to stretch himself but still staying comfortable in a wheelhouse he was more at home in. The first portion of the film takes place on a plane, and although the setting is static the tension is anything but. When the plane lands the film’s energy reaches even higher levels and the momentum carries all the way through to the very end. It is a very good, yet under appreciated, film and one of the director’s strongest outings.

Craven’s influence in pop culture is undeniable. Most of his movies have been turned into franchises or have been adapted and remade. To this day his work keeps getting refreshed, evidenced by the Scream television series that premiered just a few weeks ago. His movies have thrilled and scared many, and continue to be discovered by new viewers and new generations. His contributions to the world of horror films are indelible and unforgettable. I loved his movies. I will miss not being able to look forward to the next film directed by the horror master Wes Craven.


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