Wes Craven: 1939–2015.
Wes Craven, the maestro horror film director best known for creating A Nightmare On Elm Street and Scream, passed away on Sunday 30 August following a battle with brain cancer. He was 76 years old.
Like many other horror film fans around the world, my perception of horror was forever changed by Craven at the moment of first watching A Nightmare On Elm Street on VHS back in the mid-80s. For a teenager whose horror diet had until that point mainly consisted of classics from the Universal and Hammer studios, this tale of a horribly burnt, razor-fingered maniac who stalked and killed his victims in their nightmares proved to be a quantum shift for me as to what a horror film could be. This wasn’t the first, or indeed the last, time that Craven would change the face of the horror film however.
Born in 1939, to a working class family, Craven initially finished his education and went on to become a teacher. Becoming bored with this work, however, he eventually started to work within the film industry, and during this time went on to meet the young producer Sean S Cunningham (who himself would go on to create and direct Friday The 13th). It was this meeting with Cunningham that would lead Craven to direct his first film – the infamous 1972 exploitation shocker The Last House On The Left. Released at a time when film violence was rather suggested than actually shown on-screen, this tale of a monstrous gang who capture and torture two teenage girls came as a lightening bolt to the genre, its unflinching camera fixing on the violence to a point that had not really been seen at that time. The critically acclaimed film would be heavily censored for release of course, and even banned in many countries, but its power and success announced Craven as a director of great talent.
The 1977 cult horror classic The Hills Have Eyes followed, but it was the release of A Nightmare On Elm Street in 1984 that truly propelled Craven into the public consciousness. The story of instant horror icon Freddy Krueger, who is burned alive by the parents of his victims only for him to come back to seek revenge in the nightmares of the children who remain, found the director once again breaking new ground for what horror film could be. Blurring the lines between the reality of the waking world and that of a nightmare world where anything could happen as Krueger stalked his victims in their sleep, helped to create a film that was as fresh and fantastical as it was scary and visually arresting – and it cemented Craven as one of most important exponents of horror cinema.
The likes of Deadly Friend, the underrated voodoo zombie tale The Serpent And The Rainbow, Shocker, The People Under The Stairs, and the self-referencing meta Elm Street sequel New Nightmare saw Craven continuing to direct horror features into the mid-1990s, when the release of Scream in 1996 once again found him redefining horror. Standing as a natural follow on to the self-reference at the core of New Nightmare, Scream was created as a slasher movie that existed in a world where the characters were not only horror fans who were fully versed in films such as Halloween and Carrie, but were also aware of the many tropes that inhabit the horror movie world. The hip meta-horror proved to be a massive smash hit and Craven went on to direct three more instalments of the franchise – the 2011 fourth edition of which would be the last film that Craven would direct.
Films such as the 1999 drama Music Of The Heart and 2005 thriller Red Eye were among the rare times that Craven would direct outside of the horror world, but it was with horror that he found the large majority of his work. It was a situation that he appeared to have had no issue with, often saying as such in interviews – indeed Craven was a vocal advocate of the rightful legitimacy of horror cinema as an art form throughout his 40-year career.
An intelligent filmmaker of great wit, the loss of Wes Craven is a huge blow to horror and indeed to cinema at large. The influence of his art will continue to be seen for many years to come.