The first horror movie I ever saw that truly, deeply frightened me was A Nightmare on Elm Street. I remember sitting on the couch on Halloween night, 9 years-old with a Freddy Krueger action figure from Todd McFarlane’s Movie Maniacs line, watching as Freddy Krueger lurched out of the shadows, arms like an accordion stretched out in search of his prey. It was then, only twenty or so minutes into the movie that I wondered if maybe I should have gone Trick-or-treating with the rest of my family. Cut ahead about fifteen minutes or so and Tina is walking down the hallways of her high school in a body bag, eyes wide in terror. It was then that I shut the movie off, went downstairs, and promptly stashed that Freddy Krueger figure into the bottom of a box where he would remain untouched for several years. It would be even longer before I revisited A Nightmare on Elm Street in its entirety.
Few creators have consistently made such an impact on the horror genre as Wes Craven. He didn’t simply reinvent the rules once, but several times throughout his career. He created icons, helped push the genre out of its drive-in movie status, and pushed the boundaries of filmmaking by being one of the first to experiment with a meta-narrative. He leaves behind a legacy that’s unmatched by any horror-centric director: The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Deadly Blessings, Swamp Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Chiller, The Hills Have Eyes Part II, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Shocker, The People Under the Stairs, New Nightmare, Vampire in Brooklyn, Red Eye and the Scream franchise. Wes Craven refused to simply focus on one element of horror, and instead opted to explore the genre to its fullest. His fascinations, his passions, and his unquenchable desire for knowledge elevated horror and made any self-respecting fan of the macabre all the smarter for it.
A fellow Ohio-native, Wes Craven has long served as an inspiration to me. A man of many disciplines, Craven led the kind of career many can only dream about. While many filmmakers attribute their skills to their keen eyes, distinctive voice, or grass-roots, hands-on approach, Craven’s style came from an internal space. His mind, populated with the ideas and concepts gathered from degrees in Psychology, English, Creative Writing, and Philosophy formed the base of his directorial skills. While few would consider him to be the most technically astute in terms of camerawork, his imagination, backed by his formal education, certainly made him one of the most creative in any genre. His films are overflowing with ideas, concepts traceable to his studies, his experiences as an educator, as a porno writer/director, and a Hollywood filmmaker. Craven left himself receptive to experience, and what we saw on the screen was that experience, shaped, interpreted, and looped back around in order to create a glimpse at a new reality.
Looking over Craven’s filmography, there is a discernible message that runs through most of his films: wake up. Whether he attempted this in the literal sense like in A Nightmare on Elm Street (“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.”), as a means to uncover the reality behind our cultural and pop-cultural fascinations like in The Serpent and the Rainbow (“Whatever happens, death is not the end.”), a reflection on the over-exposure of an icon like in New Nightmare (“I think the only way to stop him is to make another movie.”), or as a means to make us aware of the formula a genre has clung to for decades like in Scream (“What’s your favorite scary movie?”), Craven consistently pushed to make us aware of truths just under the surface. Even his more exploitative, visceral films like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes force us to confront the realities of our civilization. Craven may have bent the truth into something strange but there was never any question that the place it came from was uniquely honest and deeply terrifying.
While Craven’s ability to create unique scenes of gore, and successfully make meta-commentary entertaining, his most lasting impact on horror may just be his sense of humor. Those of you who followed Craven on Twitter know that the man had a fantastic sense of humor, a real love of his works’ ability to not only frighten but create laughter. As sinister as some of his films may be, there’s often a wink and a smile mixed in between the spurting blood and masked killers. And while there are many horror films predating Craven that we may find humor in now days, the kind of intentional, clever acknowledgement that there’s fun to be had in horror didn’t really become prominent until Craven. His contemporaries, try as they did, never could quite match Craven’s ability to find humor in horror without comprising the film or feeling trite or mean-spirited. Craven’s jokes, ranging from those in A Nightmare on Elm Street, A Vampire in Brooklyn. and the Scream series, all seemed written for his own amusement. There’s no question that Craven’s personality comes across strong in all of his films. You can feel the elements that he wrote to scare himself, those he wrote to make himself laugh, and these choices form a greater, and more subtle meta-insertion of himself in his films. In some ways, this makes his passing a little easier to handle. It’s no great revelation to suggest an artist lives on through their work, but when an artist’s personality shines through as clearly as Craven’s does, it does add a layer of comfort.
It seems wrong to me that a man’s brain, especially one so marvelous, so filled with ideas and knowledge, so visible in everything he did, should be the death of him. Just as it seems wrong that a man who woke us up in so many ways, woke a genre up, should now find eternal sleep. While we may see new takes on his characters, new depictions of Freddy Krueger, new Ghostfaces, and reboots and remakes of his work, there will never be another Wes Craven. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to cope with this fact. I can only tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street, and I’ll stop it around twenty minutes in and I’ll think about that cold sweat I felt on the back of my neck, the hollow pit in my stomach, and I remember the first time that I experienced terror, and I’ll thank Wes Craven for that.
Featured Image: New Line Cinema