Wes Craven: The Master of Modern Horror

It’s amazing to think that Wes Craven was able to become one of the greatest genre directors of all time when you think about his background. Raised as in a strict Baptist family in Cleveland, Ohio, Craven never saw a movie – of any kind – until he was studying English and Psychology in university. Back then, he was never a person anyone would have pegged to create some of the most terrifying films of all time.

Even when he started off as a filmmaker no one would have expected it. Leaving a job as a college English professor, Craven followed a newfound love of making films into the world of pornography. Craven would play coy throughout the more blessed part of his career and never come clean about how many skin flicks he made in his early years (which for him was still later than most filmmakers get their start). But even though he was still technically making movies, nothing would prepare the world for a directorial career that’s paralleled only by perhaps John Carpenter and Dario Argento, eclipses that of Tobe Hooper and modern equivalents like James Wan, and is surpassed probably only by Alfred Hitchcock when it comes to this kind of genre filmmaking.

Craven isn’t just a great filmmaker considering the often derided genre he most often found himself working within. He’s a vital filmmaker and a masterful craftsman; a man who used his literary knowledge to tap into some of societies greatest fears over three decades to create seminal genre product that could speak to audiences on visceral and intellectual levels.

He’s someone that I think – despite not always producing the best films possible – is more than worthy of a full career retrospective and not just a key sampling. But at least in time for Halloween, the TIFF Bell Lightbox will be playing host to Dreams, Screams, & Nightmares: The Films of Wes Craven (from October 3rd to the 21st), an showcase of 8 films, most of which pay homage to a writer and director who created some of the most thoughtful and bone chilling films of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

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Last House on the Left

Naturally, the series starts with Craven’s first major success, 1972’s Last House on the Left (Friday, October 3rd, 9:00pm). Following a previous collaboration with fellow filmmaker Sean S. Cunningham (who would go on direct the first Friday the 13th) where he acted as a producer, Craven made his “proper” directorial debut with a loose adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. A decidedly more visceral experience than Bergman’s already bleak film about the loss of innocence and hard earned revenge, Craven updated Bergman’s vision to a much grittier, stripped down degree.

It seems like simple 1970s exploitation fare even when Bergman’s original story is laid out on the page. Here, Craven tells the story of a young woman and her friend who are accosted in the woods by a band of petty thugs (one very notably played by David Hess, becoming one of the most loathsome villains in screen history) who beat, rape, and leave the women for dead. Then when the thugs take off, they seek shelter at the homes of one of the victims and it’s not long before the parents of the victim turn out to be capable of similarly sadistic acts.

Last House on the Left might be the most painfully intense and unnerving film of the 1970s, even more so than the flashier, glossier, and more heavily lauded William Friedkin film, The Exorcist. Craven’s collaboration with Cunningham more than earned the right to its salacious and now iconic marketing campaign. (“Just keep telling yourself: It’s only a move… it’s only a move… it’s only a movie.”)

For the longest time, Last House was the one film of Craven’s that I couldn’t make it through from start to finish. Not because I found it reprehensible on a moral level or because I thought it was cheap smut, but because it might be the most profoundly terrifying film I’ve ever seen. It might be a loose remake, but the fears are real. It was the first genre film that I saw as not merely revelling in excess, depression, and cynicism, but as a film that distinctly had something to say. It was an eye opener, and I almost couldn’t take it. It looks like an open wound, has pacing that makes you feel like you’re being assaulted from all sides (with the VERY notable exception of a subplot involving some goofy police officers and an off kilter musical score that doesn’t always work), and it’s as uncomfortable as holding your face directly over an open fire only inches from the flames.

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A film that can lend itself to such easily crafted hyperbole was bound to cause a great deal of controversy around the world. It was heavily cut in countless territories around the world – including regional censoring in the US that would lead to no real “uncut” versions of the film surviving intact – and banned in many more. What it was really underlining, though, was an increasingly malevolent US tolerance for violence. The backwoods world of Last House and the heroes and villains created for it are all products of a Vietnam minded society. The free love movement was all but over. Capitalism was winning, even if the war to help spread a false sense of freedom was failing. It’s a world of haves and have-nots where both sides feel privileged and entitled, complacent in their own lives. Only one side should be seen as ostensibly refined, and the other heinous and in need of being stopped.

It’s a shame that Last House so often gets lumped in with a lot of its slasher movie or “rape revenge” brethren, because there’s actually a fluidity to Craven’s though process here. For anyone willing to look beyond the bloodletting and unending terror, there’s a trenchant message here about how the lines between good and evil have become irrevocably crossed. In many ways, it’s probably Craven’s most openly spiritual film and the only one that bears a sadness for the way the world turned out. At the same time, its cold refusal to apologize for that world comes across as entirely pragmatic and understandable when viewing the film as a text instead of as a series of scares. It’s smart horror that would establish Craven as the most intellectual of his contemporaries.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977) Directed by Wes Craven Shown: Michael Berryman

I guess in a way it’s a shame that his most immediately recognized follow-up The Hills Have Eyes (Tuesday, October 7th, 9:30pm) treads on almost the exact same ground that Last House did in a barely more palatable and audience friendly package. That’s not to say that Hills wasn’t controversial or that it’s without merit, but it’s really just the same view of society as Last House, inbred cannibals in the place of young punks, a desert location in the place of rural America, and a less capable family that remains intact for the onslaught instead of coming apart. It might be a hair less intense than Last House, but this one somehow feels ickier and more like an exploitation film despite once again being rooted in classic literature, this time and updating of Scottish folklore.

It’s effectively scary, and Craven’s sense of breakneck pacing remains largely intact here, but outside of another memorable villain in the form of actor Michael Berryman (who would essentially create a career out of playing this same kind of role over and over again in films from this point onward), there’s not as much vitality to it. If anything, it might be most praiseworthy in being an even more pointed critique of American foreign policy, casting all-American clean cut types as outsiders in a place where they shouldn’t be meddling. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s certainly not top-tier Craven.

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After The Hills Have Eyes, Craven’s career hit a bit of a stalemate. He dabbled in television with Stranger in Our House and Invitation to Hell, cheesy work-for-hire gigs that showcase very little of Craven’s natural talents. In 1981 he would write and direct Deadly Blessing, an Amish country set tale of mysticism and supernatural terror, that isn’t all that successful in its aims, but offers a show of promise for the future talents Craven could display with more money and a bigger canvas. Most regrettably, he wrote and directed a sequel to The Hills Have Eyes that no one liked (Craven included, who would disown it outright and go on the record that he just needed money badly) which sat unfinished until after his greatest career success in 1984 and was cut together from whatever had been filmed without going back to actually complete shooting.

Swamp Thing

During this period, he also made Swamp Thing (Thursday, October 9th, 9:00pm), which is decidedly not good, and considering the films Craven has put his name on I’m flabbergasted TIFF is actually showing it with what they have to choose from. It is, admittedly, one of the first big screen adaptations of a somewhat niche DC Comics character(played here by Ray Wise, which is admittedly pretty awesome in hindsight), and it’s told in a tastefully done, PG-minded way full of aw-shucks earnestness and aesthetics that at times unconvincingly emulates reading a comic. I can’t really recommend it unless your tolerance for irony hovers around the “I want to do mushrooms and write about this for VICE” level.

Nightmare on Elm Street

But something good came out of the relative indifference that greeted bigger productions for Craven like Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing. Craven, after years of courting controversy, nearly slipping into obscurity, and nearly going completely broke, would make his masterpiece in 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street (Saturday, October 11th, 9:00pm). A watershed film for the genre that would give the world the razor knifed boogeyman Freddy Krueger, star making performances from Robert England and newcomer Johnny Depp, and launch one of the most successful independently produced film franchises in history, it’s also one of the best films of the 1980s.

Maybe I’m biased on this one. I make no secret that I believe A Nightmare on Elm Street to be one of the top five films of all time if one were to subjectively rank such things. No matter how you slice it, though, Nightmare on Elm Street is undoubtedly one of the greatest films of the 1980s. Discounting where the series would go from the original installment (the ups and downs would be many and dizzying), there has never been a better snapshot of a community being forced to pay for its own sins and privilege than the one Craven outlined in his most financially successful film of the 80s.

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Inspired by a bully he knew growing up and by reports of young men who survived the Cambodian Khmer Rouge slaughter under Pol Pot dying in their sleep from nightmares so visceral they could kill, Craven told the story of an idyllic Southern California town where a fedora wearing monster has been preying on the local teenagers. Murdered by a group of vigilantes for being a paedophile, Freddy Krueger (Englund, as the best movie monster since Lugosi, Lee, or Karloff) now haunts the nightmares of the kids of the parents who were involved in his demise, including the resourceful and brilliant daughter (Heather Langenkamp) of the local sheriff (John Saxon).

There’s no mistaking the parallel between the film’s blistering critique on American family values and Craven’s villain’s scarred up visage and matter-of-fact almost buzzworth cadence bearing a twisted, passing resemblance to then American president Ronald Reagan. If Last House and Hills were films about the current generation being forced to deal with their darkest problems and secrets head-on, Elm Street was about how the next generation was going to be stuck with the repercussions of past ill decsions. The sins of the fathers and mothers are coming back here to haunt the sons and daughters to grave effect. It’s a work of true art: political, economical, and uncompromising, and huge risk for then fledgling independent studio and distributor New Line Cinema.

But in addition to being a great work of art, Nightmare on Elm Street is also the rare example of a perfect horror film. It’s terrifying without ever being lurid or exploitative. It makes the fantastical scary and believable. Most importantly, it’s crowd pleasing, with a heroine that’s more than capable of outwitting a supernatural villain when none of her closest back-up support systems are at all reliable. It’s one of the strongest female characters of all time, and it should have been a star making performance for Langenkamp, as well.

The success of the film needs to real introduction. Freddy would become one of the most marketable characters from any film of the 1980s , almost entirely without a hand from series creator Craven who would get a story credit on the third film in the franchise but have nothing to do with the other four proper sequels that were made until the Krueger was “killed” in the early 90s. It would put New Line Cinema on the face of the map, becoming the highest grossing independent film of all time until it was dethroned by the same studio’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise and later reclaim that spot by their distribution and production of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (shortly before their absorption into Warner Brothers).

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But while Craven was muscled out of the studio he helped to build and their biggest franchise, he was soon given new opportunities. He would dabble a bit more in television, helming a few highly memorable episodes of the rebooted Twilight Zone and doing a couple of other one offs for series and made for TV movies. His first immediate big screen follow-up to his other big success was once again a misfire. The Warner Brothers produced Deadly Friend is better left forgotten except for a memorably goofy basketball decapitation that might be Craven’s most widely YouTubed moment of his career now.

He would do a trio of pictures for Universal that would be a lot more interesting and ambitious in this time. Maybe not so much Shocker, a 1989 effort that Craven still really seems to like starring Mitch Pileggi and a young Peter Berg that was supposed to function as Craven starting a scary movie franchise on his own terms if not for lacklustre box office returns.

The Bill Pullman starring The Serpent and the Rainbow is more of a fascinating curiosity than a great film, but certainly evidence that Craven could create a literate horror film that could cater almost exclusively to adult audiences with nary a teenager in sight. This anthropologically minded thriller about a researcher investigating voodoo in the Caribbean comes based on a true story, and it’s told with a remarkably amount of respect for the cultures it represents. What I’m saying is that it’s a bummer this couldn’t be shown in place of Swamp Thing (which, I remind you, is not a good movie by any stretch).

The People Under the Stairs

In this trio of films lies Craven’s most underrated film and perhaps his best bit of pure political commentary and outward satire, 1991’s The People Under the Stairs (Tuesday, October 14th, 9:00pm). Set in a Los Angeles that was already primed to explode from simmering racial tensions, Craven’s vision of an underprivileged black family placed into opposition with a rich, decidedly evil, and fucked up white family was fresh and new at the time, despite also following in the more immediate footsteps that had already been laid out by Last House, Hills, and Elm Street.

A young boy cheekily named “Fool” can only watch as his parents are evicted from their modest apartment by their nefarious landlords, The Robertsons. Coaxed into robbing the landlords as payback by a career criminal (an early Ving Rhames performance). Quickly, the extent of The Robertsons’ evil and the fate of the children already living within the walls of their palatial, well fortified estate are more terrifying than could be imagined.

While many of Craven’s films have been spoiled by overhype and analysis over the years, there’s still a chance you could go into The People Under the Stairs totally cold, and if you can I highly suggest checking it out. This is easily Craven’s most twisty and tightly packed work, functioning almost as sort of Grimm’s Fairy Tale for the 1990s. It echoes classic literature more openly than any of his other work (unless you count Serpent and the Rainbow’s somewhat botched Heart of Darkness leanings), and it was so thematically successful that this would bridge the gap quite nicely to his next film, a blending of the new and the old that would set the groundwork for horror in the 90s to follow.

Wes Cravens New Nightmare

Although it seems unbelievable that someone like Craven could have played at a major film festival outside of a genre program with what’s ostensibly a sequel in a franchise, that’s precisely what happened in 1994 when Wes Cravens’ New Nightmare (Sunday, October 12th, 6:45pm) debuted at TIFF. It’s easy to see the appeal and the booking of the film as something more than Midnight Madness fare represents a viewpoint that there was something decidedly special about Craven’s return to the razor clawed anti-hero.

Now technically “dead,” Craven made peace with the New Line executives who wanted a funnier, snappier, less menacing killer for their franchise, and he was given the opportunity to create a character closer to what he wanted Freddy to act like in the first place. Only he was going to do it under the guise that he was almost being “forced” or “coerced” somehow into making another Freddy film.

In New Nightmare, Freddy himself functions as something akin to the shark in Jaws, something that’s sitting and growing more powerful while waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. But it’s not the remarkable restraint and transitions that makes New Nightmare so effective, but the film’s metatextual concept (which thanks to shooting during the record and earth shattering LA earthquakes, still managed to have a socio-political context).

Almost everyone plays themselves, as Heather Langenkamp is asked by Wes, the executives at New Line Cinema, and Robert Englund to play Nancy one final time in a more proper Freddy sequel than the ones audiences have been given. Understandably uneasy at the prospect of stepping back into a franchise that were equally a boost and a bane to her livelihood, Nancy thinks primarily about the well being of her son Dylan (Miko Hughes, who at this point was kind of the go-to kid for playing someone supernaturally afflicted), who has been seeing visions of Freddy in his dreams. Little does she know that everyone around her has been having those same visions.

There’s a patience and nuance to Craven’s work here that’s the antithesis of his previous films. Instead of being relentless, the tension here gets carefully and exponentially tightened. Picture the film’s pacing as strings on a violin getting slowly overtuned until they snap, one at a time until there aren’t any strings left. Once those strings are broken, the “nightmare” can truly begin. This is Craven going about creating a hyper-realistic world, only to deconstruct it bit by bit and taking away the egos of everyone involved with the film.

It’s actually scarier than his original Nightmare on Elm Street is, and in some ways more thematically interesting, despite being a tad overlong and featuring some filler leading into the final third that’s clearly only there because someone told Craven the film still needed set pieces to succeed. They’re still great looking set pieces and are tastefully kept to a minimum, but the film doesn’t necessarily need them to work. And by the time it reaches its Hansel and Gretel inspired finale (something that acts as the bridge between People Under the Stairs and here), it has earned the right to disappear into another world.

Scream

Without New Nightmare and Freddy, however, Craven’s most unexpected success never would have been possible. The equally meta Scream (Saturday, October 18th, 9:00pm) finds Wes working from a screenplay by Kevin Williamson, who for a brief period would become one of the hottest screenwriters in Hollywood history.

Coming on the heels of a failed horror comedy with star Eddie Murphy called Vampire in Brooklyn (which, for what it’s worth, is so obviously the product of rampant studio interference that it’s impossible to call it the worst film of either Craven or Murphy’s careers), no one really expected Scream to amount to all that much. It was originally christened with the even more generic title of Scary Movie, and Miramax’s genre offshoot dimension released it with only a modicum of fanfare around the holidays of 1996 with hopes that it would offer some counterprogramming options for all the big budget blockbusters and Oscar bait that had been flooding the marketplace. It had a cast of relative unknowns, headed up by TV stars, with Party of Five alum Neve Campbell in the lead and Friends’ Courtney Cox in a supporting role. It also had Drew Barrymore, who was on a bit of a comeback at the time, but considering how little screen time she has (and how spoilery talking about her role would be), it would have been impossible to build a marketing campaign around her presence.

But then, people saw the film, and gradually Scream became an unparalleled success for Craven both commercially and critically, often cited alongside David Fincher’s Seven and Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs by younger, more commercially minded critics as the most terrifying American films of the 90s. It’s a kind of Ten Little Indians tale where a young woman (Campbell) is forced to confront her past while trapped at a house party gone horribly wrong where a ghostface-masked serial killer with an endless knowledge of shitty horror movie clichés has been offing the guests and her friends one by one.

It’s a great parlour trick of a movie, highlighting Craven and Williamson’s keen ability to purposefully misdirect their audience. It’s told with wit, and admittedly more technical style than Craven has achieved as a filmmaker (although, honestly, this film’s simultaneously underrated and overstuffed Scream 2 is his best LOOKING and most technically involved film). It’s one of those films that exists almost entirely for the catharsis of the reveal and the core mystery, and it’s easy to see why horror starved audiences of the 90s were more than ready to buy into something that could adequately tap into their nostalgia for the “not all that great” days of horror cinema without being talked down to for liking “good trash.” (A term that you’ll all probably hear a lot of when people start talking about David Fincher’s Gone Girl this week.)

But after Scream 2, things admittedly go downhill quite dramatically for Craven up to the present, which makes talking about “late Craven” (although he’s still alive and has the chance for a comeback still) problematic. Scream 3 was a troubled, rushed, over-thought production that substituted Reindeer Games, The Ring, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen scribe Ehren Kruger for Kevin Williamson with noticeably diminished returns. Scream 4, coming six years after everyone was thought to be done with the franchise, was an admittedly admirable stab at rekindling a flame, but it still wasn’t particularly memorable or noteworthy.

As part of his deal with the Weinsteins and Miramax to make the second and third Scream entries, Craven was allowed his first chance at making a prestige picture in 1999 with the decidedly unterrifying, but surprisingly strong tale of an inspirational music teacher in Music of the Heart, which he was also given Meryl Streep to star in. It was a shame he couldn’t have continued in that direction outside of helming one of the best shorts in the anthology film Paris, je t’aime.

His other attempts in the horror genre were both among Craven’s lowest points. Much like with Vampire in Brooklyn, Craven’s team up with Williamson for a reinvention of the werewolf mythology in Cursed was hacked up, reshot, and rewritten virtually into oblivion and remains one of the craziest stories of a revolving door production I ever hear of. It’s a miracle that film got completed, let alone released, but even in any sort of director’s cut or unrated format, it’s clear the film got to a point where it was far beyond salvaging. That’s a shame because there’s a decent move buried somewhere in there that wants to get out.

As for My Soul to Take, there’s not much to say about this tale of the spirit of a serial killer hunting and possessing teens born on the night of his execution except that it’s uninspired and it sucks. It’s probably an even more desperate attempt of Craven taking a stab at creating one last franchise than Shocker was. It’s nonsensical, lazy, and feels like it’s on autopilot, despite it being one of Craven’s better looking efforts… something that was ruined by one of the most unnecessary and ugly looking 3D conversions of a 2D film ever attempted.

Red Eye

But there is one bright spot in Craven’s recent filmography, and it’s nice to see its inclusion in TIFF’s series. Red Eye (Tuesday, October 21st, 9:15pm) is a wonderfully unpretentious Hitchcockian throwback where Craven gets a chance to develop characters slowly, play a 30 minute stand off between a hero and a villain told entirely through dialogue and very little action on board an airplane, and then stage a cat and mouse action film. It’s a thriller, sure, but it’s also not one, but three films Craven has never made before all rolled into one incredibly compact and highly entertaining 85 minute picture.

This tale of a harried hotel manager (Rachel McAdams) who’s goaded, coaxed, charmed, and eventually threatened into helping a charismatic killer (Cillian Murphy) into helping to carry out a political assassination doesn’t take its premise very seriously, but it certainly takes the characters and what they’re saying to each other at face value. Craven isn’t being too flashy, and for once viewers get to see what he can do with great, established actors that he has time to work in tandem with. Both McAdams and Murphy give some of the best work of their careers here, and that’s all because Craven wisely understands that the film wouldn’t be anything more than a decent time waster without two charismatic leads to pull it off. It’s a fine ending to the series, and something different from Craven at the same time.

Whether or not Craven makes another film in his career remains to be seen.  He has a few films that are currently gestating in development hell, and he’s no longer attached to direct the pilot of the TV version of Scream. He’s getting older, and one would hope when he comes back he still has some of the bite he had in his previous work. If the ups and downs of his career are any indication, he just might have another great one in him still. At least this mini-retrospective will help bring everyone up to speed and showcase just what a talent he has been for quite a long time now.

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