page contents

Farewell Professor:
Wes Craven

Writer and Director Wes Craven, who died this week at the age of 76.  

Writer and Director Wes Craven, who died this week at the age of 76.  

“I don't paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.” - Frida Kahlo

If Wes Craven had only ever created Freddy Krueger, his death would still strike us as a profound, difficult loss. Jason, Michael, and the other boogeymen of Krueger’s era are scary, but there’s a certain amount of manipulation there. The films have to create certain circumstances. They have to establish the right atmosphere of dread and danger. The thing that distinguished Freddy from any other horror movie icon was the dreamscape factor. You could get away from Michael or Jason. You could avoid Pinhead by not solving that fucking puzzle box. To get you, Freddy simply had to wait until you fell asleep. As fantastical as the Elm St. films could be, something about the notion of knowing that you had to fall asleep eventually struck a chord. Coupled with Robert Englund’s peerless performance, A Nightmare on Elm St. remains terrifying for appealing to the base fear that when we enter the vulnerable state of sleep, all bets are off.

Although Wes Craven was not the first person to suggest that falling asleep could have deadly consequences, even for the healthy, no one connected us to that fear with more insight and precision. Basing the screenplay on real life current events, Craven wrote a story that shook us with a fear that suddenly felt tangible. He then added a cruel, miserable guardian to this fear he made so intensely relatable. Freddy would become diluted through subsequent sequels and remakes, but the core concept as it stands in the first film is a powerful one.

If the recent reboot proved anything, it’s that you just can’t follow the recipe, and expect the same results. By the time A Nightmare on Elm St. came out, Craven had already established his enormous capacity for creating fear that had the ability to make you feel as though you had been infected by the ideas of a dangerous man. Both Last House on the Left (a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) and The Hills Have Eyes remain worth watching for their respective depictions of savage, monstrous carnage. Yet both films are clearly the work of a man who had a singular understanding of terror. He could imagine an idea that a wide range of people could relate to in the basements of their hearts. He could then present that idea in a way that left us feeling as though we had been stripped bare, and left to die in an endless, vicious wilderness. His best work accomplishes this with old and new fans alike. The list of artists who could truly shock and devastate the masses is smaller than you think. We feel the loss of Wes Craven so distinctly because he was a member in good standing of that list for over forty years.

That isn’t to say that Craven only dealt in horror, or that all his films were effective, but his successes are far more potent than his failures. Of all the filmmakers who changed the game for horror between the late 60s and early 80s, only two filmmakers remained truly successful beyond those crucial years. One is David Cronenberg. The other is Wes Craven. With Craven, even his misfire attempts at other types of stories (A Vampire in Brooklyn and Music of the Heart) are at least interesting. His career suggest that he never settled for one type of success. Even in the fairly average Scream 4, he didn’t settle for going through the motions. He remained committed to telling a fresh, engaging story. The movie isn’t great, but Craven’s direction is that of an old master who was still enthralled with his creative arena of choice. There is nothing to suggest that he was simply going through the motions. There is very little from his diverse body of work to suggest that.

Craven himself will be missed for not only his work as a filmmaker, but for his authoritative voice on subjects such as horror and human psychology. It makes sense that his background is that of a teacher. Even after he moved into filmmaking, he remained something of a professor, with perhaps a degree in the macabre. There is a lot to learn from his movies, but there is also a lot that can be enjoyed and absorbed from his appearances on documentaries and elsewhere. I recommend any documentary or audio commentary that features Craven waxing on subjects like the nature of terror, the human mind, or filmmaking. He spoke quietly, but he often spoke with engaging acumen into those subjects and others. He also had a wonderful sense of humor. As I write this, I find myself wishing that he had taught a long course of human psychology and/or film. I would give anything to have sat through such a series of lectures.

When I miss Wes Craven, I won’t just miss the films. I will miss someone who was capable of peering into the void of what humanity is indeed capable of, but could also be delighted in the absurd. If there is anything unfortunate in the Wes Craven filmography, it’s the fact that he never quite expressed his wonderful sense of humor in one of his films. The People Under the Stairs comes close, but I don’t think it quite makes it. Nevertheless, if you haven’t seen that movie, do something about that. Craven’s body of work goes far beyond the impressive confines of Elm St.

Certainly, the best of the Scream series combines humor with well-made suspense. Craven was the perfect fit for the first film, and we’re lucky that he directed all four movies in the series. Even the mediocre entries at least have the benefit of being well-made. I suppose then what I am mourning is the fact that Craven never got to combine horror with comedy in a way that was more personal. The Scream films are very distinctly the product of someone who understands how to build and maintain tension, but they were still based on another person’s ideas. Craven never quite combined his own ideas of comedy with his own ideas of horror. That’s a shame, but in the end, it’s a minor disappointment. With a range of films that prove he was one of the masters of cinema, there is much to celebrate in the aftermath of his jarring death. We have to hope that at some point in his life, he reflected on his accomplishments as a writer and director, and felt good about what he had imparted to the world.

Brilliant people will continue to embrace the horror genre. They will prove why horror is such an enduring type within the larger world of cinema. They will push boundaries, and they will find ways to foster organic, genuine disquiet in the constant audience. All of them will owe a debt to Wes Craven that cannot be measured or fully appreciated. No one will ever compel us to sleep with the lights on in quite the same way. 

“All of us have our individual curses, something that we are uncomfortable with and something that we have to deal with, like me making horror films, perhaps.” - Wes Craven