On Sunday, Wes Craven died of brain cancer. He was 76.
Craven is best known, and rightly so, for spawning Freddy Krueger with 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, and reinvigorating the teen horror flick with 1996’s Scream. He also directed the drama Music of the Heart, in 1999, which led to an Oscar Nomination for Meryl Streep.
By the time Craven got around to Nightmare, he had already built a reputation as an original directoral voice in horror cinema. His early credits include 1972’s The Last House of the Left, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, and the 1982 adaptation of the DC Comics book Swamp Thing.
But he will always be the man who gave us Freddy. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s meant knowing intimately the nightmare that was Freddy Krueger, a character that would have cemented Craven’s reputation if he had made only A Nightmare on Elm Street and no other films. Krueger, a serial killer who murders people in their dreams, is indeed a nightmare creation. One that has surely cost humanity untold nights of sleep (I know he kept me awake for days after seeing my first Elm Street picture). Craven would not direct Freddy again until the
sixth seventh appearance of the character, New Nightmare, which saw Freddy enter the real world and targets the makers of his movies.
If Freddy Krueger was the nightmare of my generation, his Scream series was the logical follow-up. Scream was at once an homage to the slasher movies of the past (including Craven’s own) as well as a send-up of those very movies. It exploited the audiences familiarity with the genre, while exploiting audiences fears at the same time. Today, the contribution that Scream made to modern horror is easy to overlook. But it was one of the most popular films on 1996, and returned teenage horror films to the mainstream in way not seen for more than a decade. Craven would direct 3 sequels.
Craven’s other titles show he had more than just slasher movies up his sleeves. 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow is a mystical, voodoo zombie thriller. He made the 1991 camp-horror-mystery The People Under the Stairs (my personal favorite of Craven’s). People is a dark, sick, comedy horror that is as unique a contribution to a very common genre that I have found in the 90s. He would also make the Eddie Murphy comedy Vampire in Brooklyn, and proving that he had a sappy side, directed the 1999 drama of urban music teaching Music of the Heart.
Craven was working on the MTV series Scream at the time of his death, which is just finishing up its first season.
I had the pleasure to meet Wes Craven, briefly, at a Horror Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2001 at which I volunteered. A Nightmare on Elm Street and New Nightmare were both screened. Craven attended both showings, and afterward sat for an audience Q&A, happily fielding questions about Freddy’s sweater (too Christmasy), working with Johnny Depp (an eager kid, then), and what its like to live a life in horror movies (very happy). He was generous and kindspirited, even taking a a few minutes to thank those of us who put on the event.
The work of a horror master can be sometimes undetected by new generations. Horror, as a genre, tends to age poorly, and what made something truly terrifying thirty years earlier can seem laughable today. No doubt, some of Craven’s early work fits this bill. All his films are not great, some of are in fact terrible. But Craven brought a new life to the very concept of the slasher film, as well as one of the genre’s most iconic, and terrifying characters. HIs eye for splatter was matched by his eye for a shot. He directed films as a whole in a genre that sometimes concerns itself with too little of the cinematic landscape.
Wes Craven will be missed.