Wes Craven was born in a small town outside Cleveland, Ohio. When asked in an interview how he captured terror and suspense so well in his films, Craven chuckled and said, “Everything I learned about horror, I learned from where I grew up.”
Craven wasn’t bashing Northern Ohio — okay, maybe he was a little — but he was advocating a rule every neophyte writer, screenwriter and director should follow: Write/direct what you know.
People will know when your art is full of shit.
Craven was also asked how he prepared before writing a new story. Again, his answer was matter of fact: “I read Edgar Allan Poe.” So, future horror writers and directors, what have we learned from Wes Craven, the most commercially successful horror director of all time? Write what you know and read your Edgar Allan Poe.
These are the rules of horror — and from his seminal film Scream — we all know what happens when you break the rules … YOU DIE! Craven’s early career in film was spent in the sex industry. While teaching English at a local college, Craven would spend his nights editing porn films. Hey, it was the 70s — You could actually have a private life back then!
But Craven wanted to make his own films, he wanted to say something about America, more importantly, the Vietnam war and the consequences it was having on our country. Craven’s first film, 1972’s The Last House on the Left, was more than a film about the rape and murder of two naive high school seniors. It was a metaphor for what happens when privileged, elite, handsome members of white society believe they are entitled to enter any part of the world and believe the rules that govern their aristocratic society will be accepted by outsiders with open arms.
As Vietnam ended, America and the military industrial complex learned the hard way that democracy and capitalism wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. America had lost its first global war, the impact of which still stings today. The Hills Have Eyes dealt with similar issues of invasion and rich white folks milling about where they shouldn’t. This time it was the U.S. nuclear family Craven ripped to shreds at the hands of a former group American citizens turned deformed cannibals from U.S. military nuclear (see what Craven did there) testing in the Nevada desert.
Craven’s early films were hell bent on bringing America’s darkest Cold War secrets into the light. As George W. Bush declared on a U.S. Naval Carrier in regard to his war in Iraq, “Mission accomplished!” Craven became a household name when Carter’s 70s morphed into the Reagan 80s.
A Nightmare on Elm Street was instant hit at the box office, grossing 25 million dollars on a modest 1.8 million dollar budget. Elm Street was also Johnny Depp‘s his first film (you may have heard of him). Critics praised the film for elevating the slasher genre above the usual masked killer chases teenager, then impales said teen with blunt object. Elm Street was an exploration of the imagined (or dreamed) vs. the real. Craven was already tackling postmodern issues that would plague America into the new millennium. Craven’s Elm Street also spoke to the decadence and new found wealth America was experiencing because of Reaganomics.
Similar to David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet, Craven’s more palatable Elm Street challenged viewers to scratch beneath the surface of things in their white picket fenced suburbs and not act too surprised when you discover the American dream is really a nightmare. Oh, the film also solidified the new icons of American horror: Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees and Freddy Kruger were officially our new Wolfman, Frankenstein and Dracula.
After Elm Street, Craven made a handful of films, none of which were that good — in art, it’s all about peaks and valleys. Freddy Kruger had become a brand; his costume sold in Halloween stores, his doll peddled in toy stores for kids to play with. Freddy Kruger turned into a raging 80s Capitalist. Not Craven’s fault, not Freddy’s fault, just a product of the times. By the 2nd Nightmare on Elm Street, Kruger was already a sad parody of himself — the chills his bladed fingers sent down our spines were gone.
The genre Craven — along with John Carpenter and Sean Cunningham — helped bring back into the mainstream was dead by the mid 90s and in desperate need of a makeover. Never one to rest on his laurels, Craven reinvigorated and saved the horror genre with the groundbreaking, now meta-classic, Scream. Working from an incredible script by Kevin Williamson, Craven directed Scream, and with some help from the Weinstein‘s — they fought to keep the movie from being rated X — Craven’s newest film became a pop culture sensation in the summer of 1996, grossing 173 million dollars worldwide. Screams budget? 15 million dollars. Never sleep again?! Ha! Try never have to work again!
Scream poked fun at the slasher movies of the 80s, calling out all the cliches in the genre, many of which Craven was responsible for, while still giving audiences a thrilling murder mystery that kept everyone glued to their seat. This time around, Craven saw technology as the greatest threat to daily life in the late 20th century/early 21st century. The scariest part of Scream wasn’t the stunt guy running around in a Ghost Face costume, it was the cell phones the killers used to stalk and murder their victims.
Again, Craven was gazing into the future, recognizing the existential threat of the looming digital age. Craven’s digital nightmare is now our everyday reality. I found out that Wes passed away at the age of 76 while watching the MTV Video Music Awards. Disgusted by what I was watching, I absently checked the Twitter feed on my phone and there it was: “Wes Craven dies from battle with brain cancer.” It was a punch to the gut by Ronda Rousey.
In shock, I refused to believe what I was reading. Not the man who taught me how to build suspense on a blank page! Certainly not the man who taught to me to love and cherish horror movies! My eyes filled with tears, the world of motion pictures had lost one of its greatest American storytellers. There was no God. Can’t we trade Wes for Justin Bieber? Then, through my TV speakers, I heard Kanye West babbling about millennials and that he would be running for President in the year 2020. Life was bullshit.
Wes Craven passed away on Sunday, leaving us in body, but the VMA’s proved the nightmare will continue and it will be worse than anything Craven could have imagined is his beautifully dark and twisted mind.
Yes, Wes is gone, but the onus now falls on us, a new generation of aspiring storytellers, to make sure the nightmare that started in a small Ohio town is never forgotten.
It is on us to continue to subvert the horror genre in fresh, exciting ways, guaranteeing future generations to come will still grab a crucifix before they get into bed, ensuring that their hearts skip a beat when their God, I mean, iPhone, rings.
One, Two, Freddy’s coming for you… RIP WES.
About Bryan Kish
Bryan Kish writes reviews and articles for NID Magazine.