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September 1, 2015

Wes Craven: A Bright Man and His Dark Worlds

Even his name was scary….WES CRAVEN. A name that could crawl right off the page and strangle you if you read it too long. He was a man whose name, and nightmares, were of such notoriety, that they were specifically referenced in the formal title of a movie, (more on that later). Craven’s impact on pop culture cannot be overstated. Arguably the most influential horror director since Hitchcock, Craven’s films defined and then re-defined a genre for several generations.

Craven was 45 years old at the release of “A Nightmare on Elm St.” Not old by any means,  but a far cry from the film school babies that he is often lumped in with. Craven understood the value of a life lived. He understood that you will have much more interesting things to say about life, in art, if you live it. James Cameron has expressed similar sentiments over the years.  Craven has often attributed his extended success in movie making, to coming to horror, really coming to cinema in general, as an adult.

Long before he brought revolutions to a genre on multiple occasions, Craven was an undergraduate at the strictly religious Wheaton College in Illinois, in line with his upbringing. Interested in becoming a novelist, he eventually hitchhiked to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, eventually earning a master’s in philosophy and writing. He followed that with a teaching stint as a Professor of Humanities at Clarkson College of Technology in Potsdam, N.Y. Potsdam was a small college town, whose fraternity house happened to have it’s address at 18 'Elm Street.' Truly all of Craven’s life experiences informed the creation of his most popular character.  

"Not recommended for persons over 30!" Ha!
Craven had begun his filmmaking career years before 'Freddy.' “The Last House on the Left” (1972)  & “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977), two visceral films that pushed the limits of “acceptable cinema.” Last House on the Left especially shocked audiences and critics, and of course made teenagers NEED to see it by any means possible. It also made for a further estrangement from Craven’s strictly religious family, unable to understand how these gruesome sights could spring from the mind of such a nice boy. ‘Last House’ sparked a bit of a trend in the mid to late 70’s of hyper realistic brutal exploitation films. But of course Craven’s legacy still had further to go.

Freddy came after Michael, after Jason and after Leatherface, While he has from the get-go gotten lumped in with these other icons, Freddy has always been on a whole other platform. In truth Freddy has more in common with Dracula, a monster born of anger, obsessed with vengeance and able to conjure himself in many forms. Craven’s time in intellectual circles fueled the creation of Krueger. Every aspect of the character and story was created purposefully to take the audience through a psychological terror. Even the color of Freddy’s sweater was given specific attention, the colors chosen because the brain interprets these two shades in a way that make the viewer unsettled. I found Freddy at a young age, too young really. Initially an object of absolute unmeasurable fear, I eventually came to love Freddy as so many of my generation did. From the get go though, I always knew the name of the man who created Freddy. Probably the first film Director that I can remember actively being a fan of.

Freddy’s influence is astounding. It took New Line Cinema out of the back room and into the big leagues. Freddy was a bona fide cultural icon. Like Mickey Mouse. He spawned a TV show, video games, comic books, toys, showed up on talk shows. Everything except a Saturday morning cartoon, but I would wager every one of Freddy's father's that one got pitched at some point. The franchise carried on into the next decade.  

The early to mid-nineties though were are a dark time for horror fans. The big boom of the 80’s had petered out, with the big characters either being killed off or being put to sleep with dismal box offices. The formula was broken, but luckily Wes Craven, had a new nightmare.

“Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (which is it’s full formal title) saw the mastermind back in the Director’s chair for a 'Freddy' film for the first time since the original. He contributed as a writer for part 3, but otherwise remained largely uninvolved in the franchise through the 5 sequels, although his name was rarely went unmentioned when discussing the franchise in any way. His approach to New Nightmare was inspired. What if Freddy was real? What if the limited safety net we had as an audience member of, "it’s only a dream," or really, "it’s only a movie," were nullified. New Nightmare managed to provide a fresh take on the character and the property, while at the same time legitimizing the sequels in many ways. For really, you can’t have a story of Freddy being watered down and tired, without the movies that did just that. 

'New Nightmare' is my 2nd favorite of the series, only giving ground to the original, but truly it is every bit as fantastic. I have on more than one occasion indulged in “The Craven Trilogy,” consisting of the original film, ‘Dream Warriors’ and 'New Nightmare.' I think I may do that tonight. "Wes Craven’s New Nightmare" is wholly unique, clever and aware of the where horror had come from and where it was heading. The audience had grown smart enough that the old tricks wouldn’t work anymore and Craven knew that. He had taught them too well. 

Unfortunately the movie did not reach the audience it was looking for. Perhaps Freddy was just way too ingrained in culture, or maybe simply it was still too close to his heyday. I could see the movie playing that much better if it were released maybe 10 years later. While audiences maybe weren’t ready for Freddy to usher them into a new era of horror, they had no problem with his mastermind taking the reins to make them scream.

In 1996 when “Scream” was released, I approached it with my nose in the air. I fancied myself a horror veteran, already maintaining that air of snobbery and close mindedness that genre fans often exhibit. This was a kids movie, and even though I WASa teenager, I had no interest in this fancy sleek new slasher. That was of course until I saw it and realized it was made specifically for me. 

This was a horror movie where the characters were my age and they were motivated by their love/fear of 80’s horror movies. The movie was rampant with self-referential winks and movie references that these days permeate every aspect of pop culture. By Craven’s own account, he was not a child of the movies. Raised as a fundamentalist Baptist, he cites “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) as being the first movie he recalls paying to see in a theater…as a senior in college. That did not stop him from observing a culture that was raised on movies, movies of a certain genre, his OWN movies at that. It all seemed so fresh, so clever and I ate it up. Wes Craven, without any hyperbole, had ushered in a new generation of horror. For me it was only fitting that the man who defined the genre for a generation of young people, did it again. Craven was 57 at this time.

The impact of Scream was enormous. For better or worse copycat movies littered theaters to varying levels of success for the next decade. Even the old ghouls like Michael Myers tried to jump on the bandwagon to get “Screamified.” The remake/reboot trend started to creep out it's ugly head in the early aughts and that has more or less carried us to the present day. Craven went back to the Scream well himself 3 times in serviceable sequels, the last of which being in 2011. “Scream 4” attempted to send up the remake trend that had become some rampant, but it didn’t spark the revolution that maybe some of us hoped. Two cultural revolutions for one man will have to suffice (3 counting 'Last House'). Craven himself was guilty of cashing in on the remake bandwagon being hands on with the big screen reboot of his ‘Hills Have Eyes’ property. Craven collaborated with his son Jonathan on the films, and they are widely regarded as being on the better side of the remake onslaught.

At times, early in his career, he displayed frustration with being labeled a horror Director, even wrestling with the idea of continuing after ‘Last House’ had made him so notorious. A friend at the time encouraged him to “get rid of that Protestant guilt and don’t be ashamed of what you do well.” Craven listened and honed his craft over the next 4 and ½ decades.  Not every film Wes Craven had his name associated with bore the standard of excellence that his high profile works did. Although, even his lesser known works always had charm and wit.  1991’s “The People Under the Stairs” is one of the most unique and curious offerings of the era, presenting a deranged Alice in Wonderland like scenario in a suburban home. It’s one of my faves. “Shocker” (1989), “The Serpent and the Rainbow” (1988), and “Red Eye” (2005) all stand as examples of a filmmaker capable of producing entirely different experiences while still working in the same broad genre. He had one of the early big screen comic movies with "Swamp Thing" (1982), which wasn't well received by and large, but is one movie I wore out on VHS. He also dabbled in non-genre fare such as “Music of the Heart” (1999), which earned multiple Academy Award nominations. His most recent endeavor was overseeing the production of a TV series based on "Scream." Admittedly I haven’t had much interest, but it’s doing well and I have heard some good things so I may have to give it a shot. For nothing else I am glad there is a generation enjoying a product that has the DNA of Wes Craven in it, even if it’s not really for me anymore. While some of his outputs haven’t been met with the warmest receptions, there was always a little bit of excitement whenever he was rumored to be involved with a project, as if at any moment he could easily springboard to the head of the line and lead us into a new chapter of terror. Even when the recent rumors cropped up of yet ANOTHER ‘Nightmare’ movie, there were hopeful rumors that Craven may decide to dip his toe back in.

His private life was mostly just that. By all accounts he was a quiet, soft spoken man. Known for his calm, almost reassuring manner of speaking and his constant professional demeanor. Always neatly, conservatively, dressed, Craven was often met with surprise by the press and fans as they expected some sort of dark, silent, imposing horror maestro. He was an avid bird watcher, a few years ago joining the Audubon California board of directors, a group that is devoted to the conservation of birds and habitat. 

I have long admired,"Wes Craven". Being a fan of his work and learning about it, also led me to learn a lot about the man behind it. I always enjoyed his interviews and commentaries. He seemed like the kind of guy who would be fun to have a drink with in the corner an old pub. He appreciated hard work, the application of knowledge and didn't let societal guidelines impact his work. Perhaps most importantly from a personal level,...took a genre seriously that was oft overlooked for being hokey, and made something that impacted countless people. He made horror, frightening, thoughtful, subversive and at times legitimately dangerous. He made horror "art."

I will leave you with this quote from the man himself, when asked why he thinks birds matter….

“One could cite facts like, birds eat lots of harmful insects, charm us at our feeders, or challenge us to learn their field marks, molts, and names both common and scientific. But perhaps the answer lies deeper. Since the beginning birds have lifted our eyes to the skies. They’ve shown us we’re not gravity’s slave, that flight is possible and limitless. It can hover and soar, dive and display, and take us from one end of the planet to the other in a single, impossible burst of energy and purpose. Inspiration is the gift birds have given us from the start. But now they give us a question as well. Like the canary in the mine, they hold the planet up to us like a mirror and ask: “Can you not see that if we pass away, soon you will as well?” That’s a good question, and since birds pose it, they matter a lot.”

Mr Craven, thank you for your time. You are forever in my nightmares.


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