Wes Craven has died at the age of 76. He had brain cancer. I did not even know he was sick.
The horror community is inconsolable. He was one of the true towering greats of the genre, a guy who made classics of one form or another in four different decades. And though he made a few movies outside of the genre, it is his work in horror that has made him the stuff of legend.
Not every Wes Craven movie was great; as we observed recently on our podcast, his lows were very low. But his highs were also higher than just about anyone else's, and in any conversation about the most important filmmakers in horror his name should always be among the first mentioned. He was a director who felt dangerous because his films didn't follow traditional rules of cinema and because his real-life personality seemed so at odds with the stuff we saw in his movies. It's the quiet ones you have to look out for.
Mike: After watching The Last House of the Left, I wanted to take a shower. After watching The Hills Have Eyes, I wanted to take two showers. After watching Swamp Thing, I fell in love with Adrienne Barbeau. After watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, I tried to stay awake forever. After watching Shocker, I bought the soundtrack immediately. After watching New Nightmare, I was blown away that a director could return to a franchise he created and turn it on its head. After watching Scream, I believed in the horror genre again. After watching Scream 2, I believed in the horror sequel again.
Wes Craven’s movies, whether great or not-as-great, always made me feel something. That’s so rare in a filmmaker and it’s what I’ll miss most about him.
Rest in peace, Mr. Craven, and thank you.
I also remember Wes Craven’s insightful additions to two horror documentaries, Fear in the Dark and The American Nightmare, both of which I used to show in my film classes. Craven observed that “Horror films do not create fear, they release fear. They are a vent.” I was twenty five or twenty six when I first heard those words, and they blew my mind. I later discovered that Craven spent some time as a teacher, and I always wondered if that was one of the reasons he knew so well what scared young people.
R.I.P. Wes Craven. You will be missed.
Years later I found myself living in Wheaton directly across from Wheaton College in Illinois. Among their list of alumni is Wes Craven. For those of you who aren’t aware of this town, it has the largest number of churches per capita in the entire United States and is the epitome of suburban America. I would go out on runs through the town around the big houses surrounding Wheaton and wondered how much of Craven’s inspiration for movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, The People Under the Stairs or Scream was inspired by the images that surrounded him. To this day I can’t drive through that area without thinking about those movies and a college-age Wes Craven.
Melissa Uhrin: On Saturday night we hosted a "drive-in movie night" in our garage and the second movie in our line-up was Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street. The film has always been a favourite of mine, but I had only ever watched it alone. Needless to say, my group experience with a bunch of horror fans made it my favourite viewing of the film to date. When I read of his passing on Sunday, I was so incredibly sad, but appreciative that the legacy he left behind is something that can be enjoyed forever. What better way to honour someone than to wrap yourself up in a lifetime (forty years!) of their best works? That's my plan for this week, all things Wes Craven. Thank you for a lifetime of entertainment.
Erika: I think Red Eye is a bit underappreciated in the Wes Craven canon. It’s basic and straightforward, yes, and it includes a few eye-rolling lines of dialogue (the ending stands out), but overall, Red Eye grabs the audience and takes it on an 83 minute fast-paced roller coaster that reminds us what a thriller can be like when it's actually thrilling.
I once watched Red Eye with a group of high school seniors who had earned a ‘free’ 90 minutes. It was Halloween, and they voted to watch a movie as their reward. But what scary movie is not rated R? What scary movie is school-appropriate? And what scary movie that is not rated R but IS school-appropriate will fit into a 90-minute time frame? Thank you, Mr. Craven. I have never seen students so glued to anything the way they became wrapped up in Rachel McAdams’ character’s experience. I have never seen an entire group of people physically jump at the same time or audibly scream at the same time (followed by laughter – they were simply having so much fun wrapped up in this story). And when a character achieves a goal near the end of the film, well, the whole building could hear the students’ joyous, excited cheers. In a time when directors seem to want all of their films to be three-plus hours long, Wes Craven made a fun, suspenseful movie that plays fair and always keeps the audience's sympathies in mind. While a thriller set on an airplane might seem like bad taste in post-9/11 America, Red Eye is able to play on our fears without ever exploiting them. It may not be the typical Wes Craven movie, but it was further proof of what a talented director and skillful manipulator of an audience he was.
That can't be overstated. Wes Craven was the first horror director whose name I recognized and associated with other films; when the ads for Shocker ran on TV, I knew it was made by the guy who had created Freddy Krueger. And while John Carpenter made a LOT of classic horror films in the '80s, they were movies better appreciated by grown ups. He helped invent what Roger Ebert called the "dead teenager" movie with Halloween, but there was nothing particularly youthful about his work.
Not so with Craven, whose movies were often messy and very adult but had a reckless imagination to them that spoke directly to us '80s kids. A Nightmare on Elm Street is the first rated R horror movie I remember watching (without my parents' permission) and the first movie that really, truly scared me. I was scared of it before I even saw it; my friend's description of the movie's standout moments were enough to give me ulcers at 8 or 9 years old. It has, in the last 10 years or so, become arguably my favorite horror movie of all time despite its many lesser sequels and bad imitations. I can make a case that either the original Nightmare or Romero's Dawn of the Dead is the single best horror movie of all time.
But Craven didn't just rest on one masterpiece, and he never shied away from working in horror but instead embraced it, becoming one of the genre's greatest and best-spoken ambassadors. And his movies continued to speak to us '80s kids, whether it was the doomed Young Adult love story of Deadly Friend or Shocker, a horror movie entirely about heavy metal music and television, two of the biggest obsessions of our generation. Just when he had gotten away from making movies that speak directly to young audiences -- New Nightmare is a great, great film but plays more like a graduate thesis with its big ideas and cerebral pacing -- Craven directed Scream in 1996 and introduced a whole new generation to the magic of the horror movie. Just as there are so many of us '80s kids who love horror because of A Nightmare on Elm Street, there are just as many '90s kids who have Scream (and the rebirth of studio horror it inspired) who discovered the genre because Wes Craven reinvented it.
It never occurred to me what it might feel like when Wes Craven died because it never occurred to me that Wes Craven would die. He and his work have been a part of my life almost since I can remember. I can't stop thinking about his soft-spoken demeanor and his incredible intelligence and the way those things often seemed totally at odds with the nastiness and insanity that found its way into his films. He's a guy who exorcised his demons on film. He saved his nightmares for the screen. We're so lucky that he shared them with us.
I know that’s not necessarily an eloquent way to begin a tribute to one of the greatest Masters of Horror of all time but that’s really all I can think right now. How do I even begin to write about the genius who made so many films that for the most part, had a hugely profound influence on me as both a fan and as a writer? I can’t, but I’m going to do my best to try.
I can remember the very first time I saw Freddy Krueger. A Nightmare on Elm Street had just come out on VHS and my best friend Jenna’s parents rented it so that they could watch it with friends. Of course, us kids weren’t invited because while we were allowed to watch a lot of horror movies, the rule was that our parents had to see it first to see if we could ‘take’ it. The thing was...we couldn’t wait. So I remember that night, Jenna and I crawling on the floor from her bedroom out to her living room (a good 25 feet away), sneaking into the room behind the couch, and peeking out from behind it to get a look at what all the fuss was about.
And what we saw absolutely terrified me, but also intrigued me. It was the scene where Nancy is desperately trying to run up her stairs and Freddy wasn’t too far behind, wearing a fake face and mocking this poor young girl. It was truly the things that nightmares were made of, especially for me at age 7, and yet, I knew I HAD to see this movie. So imagine my dismay when I was informed by my mom that I wasn’t allowed to see Nightmare and so I probably spent the next six months or so bugging the hell out of her about watching it.
She finally succumbed and I finally was able to see A Nightmare on Elm Street for myself at my babysitter’s house (as part of a double feature with Children of the Corn -- certainly a messed up day for me) and I honestly don’t think I slept more than an hour that night. Freddy had infected my brain.
But over time, Freddy became something completely different than a symbol of fear to me (which is kind of messed up when you consider that in the original film, he is a pedophile). He was a constant figure in my childhood that had a lot of ‘inconsistency’ to it. I can’t really explain it, but somehow I found Freddy comforting and it’s still that way even now, 30 years later.
It’s remarkable that Freddy was just one of many notable creations from Craven’s illustrious career as a filmmaker, especially considering the fact that the dreamstalker is just as popular now as he was back in the 1980s during his heyday. And as we all know that Craven influenced the genre with more than just A Nightmare on Elm Street; he created Ghostface, gave us incredible films like The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People Under the Stairs, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Red Eye and the truly revolutionary New Nightmare. Even his ‘lesser’ films (lesser by other folks’ standards, not mine, as I recently chatted about on the podcast I did with Patrick) like Shocker, Vampire in Brooklyn, Deadly Friend or My Soul to Take all have redeeming qualities to them and show strokes of Craven’s genius throughout.
I know Patrick asked us to write about one of our favorite Craven film’s, but honestly I couldn’t choose just one because so many of my cinematic milestones involve his work so it’s hard for me to choose just one film specifically to focus on. The man shaped my childhood and my adulthood, and for that I’m forever grateful. Tonight, my soul feels like it shattered into a million pieces because we lost a true legendary talent, a man who always seemed to be creating films that were ahead of their time and just a few steps ahead of the rest of the horror genre. I don’t even know how you try and summarize the impact of someone like Craven, and so I think I could write this piece a hundred times over and still feel like it’s inadequate in the end.
So I’ll just finish off this piece with this: thank you, Mr. Craven for sharing with us your wry sensibilities, your penchant for creating terror, your ingenuity and your innovative spirit and above all else, your horror-loving heart for over 40 years. There have been a lot of greats in the world of horror, but Craven and his talent are truly legendary and wholly one-of-a-kind.
And while this isn’t something I’ve necessarily enjoyed writing, I do hope the silver lining to all this is that maybe now Scream 4 will finally get the love that it has so justly has deserved these last four years.