The Man Behind The Screams
As I write this the horror world is reeling from the loss of one of its modern legends – director Wes Craven. The loss of Mr. Craven is a bleak reminder that many of the great horror talents from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s are entering their twilight years. I certainly don’t want to belabor the point because with the loss of Mr. Craven we should celebrate what he gave to the genre and film in general.
Horror has never had a really great reputation. Most actors seem to think they are slumming if they do a horror film. Critics lambaste the genre as trash. Studios treat horror as if it’s a sort of lottery that you play when you need some quick cash – throwing tropes in with pretty young people and some casual nudity once in a while and BAM you may have another franchise to lean on for some extra bucks. Saying all that, horror does have its advocates and its stewards and Wes Craven was most certainly one of those. Looking through his career he was a man that looked deeper than the blood to find what really frightened people. He was interested in the hidden sins of the family, the savage that lurks just beneath our exteriors, and the frailty of suburban bliss. He was a filmmaker that was just as interested in the psyche as he was the visceral scare. Craven molded horror for three decades with Last House On The Left, A Nightmare On Elm St., and Scream and influenced an ocean of imitators and wanna-bes. Last House captured the utter terror of the death of what we told ourselves were the ‘good old days. It was a reflection of the death of free love. It was the horrors of the world, whether it be an ongoing war or monstrous criminals, coming for us in our beds. Nightmare was truly the sins of the past coming back. It was the idea of the old mentality of taking the law into your own hands and rooting out ‘evil’ in a community yourselves. Nightmare was all about how unsafe we really were in the suburbs and how taking revenge has its consequences. It was truly the rot within the American dream. And with Scream you had a reflection of a generation that was too clever for its own good. A generation that didn’t want to be the hero anymore but wanted to be the villain. That wanted fame at any cost and a world that would grant it, if just for a moment.
You see similar themes in his other films as well, his interest in the Middle American suburban nightmare casting a long shadow over his work because it was right in broad daylight that he knew some of the worst monsters chose to live. Man, he understood, was often the worst monster of all. The savage within, waiting to be coaxed out of hiding.
What is fascinating to me is that Craven created two horror franchises that spoke to essentially two generations of teenagers. While he left the Nightmare franchise until the last film it was the first of those movies that set template for what scared kids of the ‘80’s and the Scream franchise rejuvenated the slasher genre and turn it in on itself. I am not sure there are any other filmmakers in horror history that can lay claim to such a feat. It’s not easy making entertainment that speaks to young people but to do it with two franchises and in two different decades is a heck of an achievement. The effects of both franchises are still felt today as they keep trying to revive Freddy from the Nightmare films and there is currently a Scream television series on MTV.
For me, what made him more important to horror than anything though was his thoughtful, intelligent views on horror as a genre and as a natural part of the human experience. There are a lot of very intelligent people working in horror but not many are as articulate and well-spoken as Craven was. He was a gentleman of horror and he portrayed the genre in a much kinder and smarter light than many seem to see it. He was someone who knew his place in pop culture and embraced it.
You have to give him credit too that he got a chance to do films outside of horror – something few directors that make a successful horror film are able to do. And when he did those films he was not one to act as if he had finally ‘made it’ and was always better than horror. No, he returned to the genre to finish out the Scream series, the hope being to end those movies on a high note as he had been able to do with the Nightmare franchise. We fans don’t like to share our creators, especially ones like Craven who have brought so much to the genre, but it’s nice that he got to stretch himself, even if it wasn’t for many films.
Truly, the loss of Wes Craven is something that horror will feel deeply. His influence is one that will be written about, talked about, but more than anything felt. He was a filmmaker that was able to elevate the genre and yet still entertain and most importantly scare. All we fans can hope for is that he understood how much he meant to us and the genre we love and that future filmmakers will look to him for inspiration and not for someone to ape. That is what Mr. Craven deserves, not just the accolades, but to have inspired other fear creators to not imitate but to innovate and to re-invent horror as he did, and it’s my hope that that is what we’ll see.
Thanks for everything, Mr. Craven.