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Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983

Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983

Marshall McLuhan was a fascinating intellectual. He was also a scholar and philosopher who focused nearly all of his attention to the ways in which media does a great deal more than inform, sell or entertain. Almost 30 years before it was created, McLuhan predicted the concept of a “global village” or and electronic means of communication. In other words, the Canadian Media Theory Philosopher predicted what we now call The Internet.

If you are unfamiliar with the ideas put forward by McLuhan, here are a few quotes that highlight his ideas about the impact of media:

“In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.” 

“Ideally, advertising aims at the goal of a programmed harmony among all human impulses and aspirations and endeavors. Using handicraft methods, it stretches out toward the ultimate electronic goal of a collective consciousness.”

Marshall McLuhan circa 1970 Photographer | Unknown to me

Marshall McLuhan
circa 1970
Photographer | Unknown to me

“One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.”

“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

“The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”

McLuhan emerged as much a critic of media as he was in awe of a power that most could not see or simply seemed to to fully grasp. While “the medium is the message,” that message is continually elevating to newer and more invasive ways.

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects  Marshall McLuhan, 1967 Graphic Design |Quentin Fiore

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects
Marshall McLuhan, 1967 Graphic Design |Quentin Fiore

The continual evolution of medium’s technology is quickly escalating in it’s strength. Humankind is being manipulated in ways beyond the imagination. Individuality was / is losing ground. Is giving way to a formation of something more than “human” in the way we define ourselves.

“In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.” Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, theories, opinions and assertions are almost frightening in the ways one can chart the truth of what he stated in his lifetime. This great thinker died in 1980, yet his ideas remain alive and valid. To say he was ahead of the cultural curve would be an understatement.

As a Media Theorist, he had a great interest in television and motion pictures. Or, rather, an interest into what was actually being conveyed to audiences as they took in the information being “fed” into what was no longer simply the mind of the individual but the shared mind of those who watched and listened. By the mid-1970’s his ideas had well slipped into the intellectual mainstream as evidenced by his appearance as himself in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in 1977.

In the surreal scene Allen’s character is able to invoke the presence of McLuhan to defend his personal opinion to an annoyingly loud fellow cinephile while they wait to see The Sorrow & The Pity:

Wait a minute, why can’t I give my opinion? It’s a free country!
He can give it… do you have to give it so loud? I mean, aren’t you ashamed to pontificate like that? And the funny part of it is, Marshall McLuhan, you don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan!
Oh, really? Well, it just so happens I teach a class at Columbia called ‘TV, Media and Culture.’ So I think my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well, have a great deal of validity!
Oh, do ya? Well, that’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here, so, so, yeah, just let me —” [Allen pulls McLuhan into Gordon Willis’ frame] “Come over here for a second. tell him!

"I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!"  Marshall McLuhan stands up for Alvey Annie Hall Woody Allen, 1977 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

“I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!”
Marshall McLuhan stands up for Alvey
Annie Hall
Woody Allen, 1977
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

While more than a few artists latched onto the ideas of Marshall McLuhan so did Film Theory, Philosophy and Journalism majors at universities across the world. But perhaps no intellectual and no artist latched onto McLuhan’s theories than fellow Canadian filmmaker, David Cronenberg.

Art is anything you can get away with.— Marshall McLuhan

From the very beginning, David Cronenberg pushed the ideas of Grindhouse Horror further than any other. Certainly, George A. Romero was interested in the ideas around how marketing and consumerism were rendering humans to a zombie like need that could never be fully satisfied.

"What are they doing? Why do they come here?" "Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." Zombies roam the mall for live flesh as the new commodity. Day of the Dead George A. Romero, 1978 Cinematography | Michael Gornick

“What are they doing? Why do they come here?”
“Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
Zombies roam the mall for live flesh as the new commodity.
Day of the Dead
George A. Romero, 1978
Cinematography | Michael Gornick

But it was Cronenberg who began to translate McLuhan’s ideas into a literal horror involving not only the way in which we think, but the way in which medium-saturated psychology could possibly morph into our biology.

Cronenberg was also way ahead of the cultural curve, when his low-budget gore-fests like 1975’s Shivers and 1977’s Rabid use the idea of sexual appetite and parasites or viruses merging to spread world-wide pandemics. Shivers is focused on a swinging singles apartment complex, but Rabid branches out into the world. A strange sort of gaping slip of a hole appears in the armpit, and the diseased seeks out sex partners to satisfy a painful urge. …and spread a disease.

A perplexing gape of wound appears on the body beautiful. Iconic Porn Star of the day goes legit as the sexy victim of disease which causes her to aggressively spread her sickness... RABID David Cronenberg, 1977 Cinematography | René Verzier

A perplexing gape of wound appears on the body beautiful. Iconic Porn Star of the day goes legit as the sexy victim of disease which causes her to aggressively spread her sickness…
RABID
David Cronenberg, 1977
Cinematography | René Verzier

As silly as the gore might be in this movies, both carry a cerebral and visceral horror for viewers that remain today. We might giggle at some of the effects, but once these movies end the realization that we have seen two movies that seem to have predicted AIDS is impossible to dismiss. It is of particular interest that Cronenberg sought out the former Ivory Soap Girl turned Porn Superstar, Marilyn Chambers, to play the main carrier of the disease. A once symbol of Purity, Cleanliness & Innocence turned to Hardcore Media Porn Star Sinsation. The medium is the message…

In what can probably be considered Cronenberg’s first truly artistic horror film, 1979’s The Brood offers horror on several levels. In some ways this movie is a horror film about child-like killers. The site of these murderous little demons is delivered in a low-fi but intensely horrifying way.

Brooding literally births avenging demonic child-like killers intent on carrying the medium and message The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Mark Irwin

Brooding literally births avenging demonic child-like killers intent on carrying the medium and message
The Brood
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Mark Irwin

On another level, this surprisingly cerebral film offers a horror film related to the clinging fears left over from the 1960’s/1970’s revolutionary changes regarding individual freedoms and a culture in which patriarchal “control” over sexuality, marriage, children and our own individual minds was giving way to something that many felt sinister.

Oliver Reed’s Dr. Hal Raglan is a brilliant and charismatic sort of Psychiatry Guru (or Psychoplasmics Master) who has established a center for emotionally challenged individuals. A wife and mother with serious emotional issues has sought help, but has become a sort of Cult Slave to Dr. Raglan’s mad science experiments involving psychological anger.

Samantha Eggar broods her rage into full-fledged living beings designed to carry out her darkest violent urges. The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Samantha Eggar broods her rage into full-fledged living beings designed to carry out her darkest violent urges.
The Brood
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Played by Samantha Eggar, this woman has learned to channel her rage into her core biology. Dr. Raglan is the medium. The message is an endless rage which morphs into stunted results of psycho-physcial pregnancies. She is not merely brooding anger, resentment and anger at her husband and a daughter who has perhaps prevented her evolution as an individual. No, she is literally brooding a number of angry beings birthed to carry out her inner insane rages. Under the work of the Mad Scientist, she is birthing the medium that seeks to destroy.

"Thirty seconds after you're born you have a past and sixty seconds after that you begin to lie to yourself about it." Grooming a birth of insane rage... Body Horror taken to a whole new level. The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“Thirty seconds after you’re born you have a past and sixty seconds after that you begin to lie to yourself about it.”
Grooming a birth of insane rage… Body Horror taken to a whole new level.
The Brood
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

The Brood suffers from limited budget, hammy acting and an idea that feels at once brilliant and a bit too silly. But we cannot forget that this is a David Cronenberg. The Brood is more than a partially scary and partially satirical cult movie — it sneaks in under our skin and into our shared thinking. This film lingers long after the comedic elements fade. Esteemed writer, Carrie Rickey, has pointed out that The Brood is also a startling counter-point to Kramer Vs. Kramer.

In 1981’s Scanners, David Cronenberg officially crossed over to mainstream success. No longer limited to Drive-In’s, Midnight Screenings or lower-rate cinemasScanners received a wide release.

Disturbing but creative art therapy isn't enough for corporate interests... Scanners David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Disturbing but creative art therapy isn’t enough for corporate interests…
Scanners
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

And it not only changed the way we think of Science Fiction Horror, it elevated Cronenberg to a whole new level of artistic acceptance. It can also be closely linked to the ideology of Marshall McLuhan. Although the message is presented to humanity more in the form of 20th Century biochemicals than media. In Cronenberg’s Scanners, Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is not merely a carcinogenic, it has infected fetuses with a new sort of power. Thalidomide not only harms, it too causes a strange psycho-power mutation within infected fetal tissue of mothers treated with these chemicals.

"How do you feel?" "I feel crystal clear." Heads do not roll. They explode. Scanners David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“How do you feel?”
“I feel crystal clear.”
Heads do not roll. They explode.
Scanners
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Suddenly, Cronenberg’s much discussed Body Horror has elevated from human emotion to true biological horror. These infected mothers have given birth to children who have a new horrific telekinesis power. A power that can ultimately be controlled and used as a new kind of weapon. The film is best known for the effect of exploding heads, is actually going much deeper into human fear and horror ideology.

But it would be with Cronenberg’s 1983’s Videodrome that his interests in McLuhan’s teachings and the director’s own personal interest in the horror of the body turning against it’s owner would blend to form the almost perfect mix of Art Horror, Science Fiction, Surrealism and Cultural/Societal commentary.

"First it controls your mind...then it destroys your body" France's marketing campaign focused heavily on Debbie Harry Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“First it controls your mind…then it destroys your body”
France’s marketing campaign focused heavily on Debbie Harry
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Max Renn is the burned-out, bored but still ambitious CEO of a small Adults-Only cable company that seems posed to break big in the growing world of cable TV. Renn markets his cable channel as “The one you take to bed with you.” In 1983, audiences would have linked this fictional channel to the likes of Playboy TV or a wide range of latenight-only cable channels that offered soft porn and other provocative topics to it’s viewers.

Just slightly ahead of the game, the VHS industry was really only just starting to take-off across the mainstream. Players were only just starting to come down in price and the middle class had only dipped a few toes into the video-stream. The battle between VHS and BetaMax had not even fully started.

Cyber-Punk Surrealism or Infected Brain Hallucination? James Wood's is about to receive a whole new kind of "head"  Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Cyber-Punk Surrealism or Infected Brain Hallucination? James Wood’s is about to receive a whole new kind of “head”
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

In the real world, these types of channels were facing a number of obstacles in presenting hardcore sex. It was limited to silly soft-porn movies or carefully edited hardcore sex movies to amped-up R-rated erotica. In Cronenberg’s film Max Renn is eager to push pass the rules. Seemingly latching onto McLuhan’s idea of art being what one can get away with, Renn no longer cares about the rules that restrict him from gaining a competitive edge in the erotic marketplace. His “ethical” stance is flawed. If compared to McLuhan’s concept, Renn has perverted the idea regarding art. For Renn, this is simply business.

Enter the oddly moralistic world of David Cronenberg. Sexuality is a lure that Cronenberg utilizes to pull the audience into his latest exploration in psychological horror. The use of sex is both titillating and perverse. In many ways, Videodrome is  Cyber-Punk Horror that dares to call our erotic desires into both cinematic provocation as well as an almost moral judgement.

Cinematic Provocation. A strange group of people can only find sexual pleasure/release at the time of self-inflicted car collisions take place. The scars become more erotic than the body upon which they inflict.  Rosanna Arquette CRASH David Cronenberg, 1996 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Cinematic Provocation. A strange group of people can only find sexual pleasure/release at the time of self-inflicted car collisions take place. The scars become more erotic than the body upon which they inflict.
Rosanna Arquette
CRASH
David Cronenberg, 1996
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

I stress almost because Cronenberg is expertly exploiting/selling sex as much as he thrusts our prurient interests to a questionable level. This was not the first time nor was it the last that this skilled filmmaker would use sexuality in a perplexing duality of human nature. There is always a strangely moralistic tie in all of Cronenberg’s films. Even in his adaptation of JG Ballard’s CRASH, he would tease the audience with subversive and perverse sexuality to arouse not only very dark eroticism, but to illicit a perverse joy in turning it back on the audience.

One of our first opportunities to understand this character is when we see him as a guest on a local channel chat show. The chat show host is clearly uncomfortable discussing the ever-expanding level of sexual explicitness on television, but she grins and bares it. Max is one of three guests. The second guest is Nicki Brand, played with a gleeful level of subversion by Cultural Icon, Debbie Harry. Nicki, like Max, sells sex. She is selling herself as a sort of Post-Feminist erotic answer to the “outmoded” concepts of Feminist Theory formed by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Her mode of medium is talk radio in which she dishes out pseudo-pop-psychology sexualized advice.

"What about it, Nicki? Is it socially positive?" "Well, I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it's tactile, emotional or sexual."  Feminist Theory gets a kink-reboot with Debbie Harry as Nicki Brand. Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“What about it, Nicki? Is it socially positive?”
“Well, I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it’s tactile, emotional or sexual.”
Feminist Theory gets a kink-reboot with Debbie Harry as Nicki Brand.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Debbie Harry, at her own erotic prime and fame is the perfect actor for this role. At once intellectual and also a rather edgy erotic tease, she is like cat-nip for Max Renn. As the chat show host pulls them into a debate about the dark side of eroticism to the masses, it becomes clear that Nicki Brand isn’t really looking to counter-point Max Renn as much as to simply admit that she is fully aware of the “dangers” but not that concerned with falling prey. As she informs the host, “We live in over-stimulated times.” As Max begins to openly flirt with Nicki, the host is left in an even more comical unease.

She then turns away from her two sex-fueled guest to her scientific expert who refuses to appear on any other media than the television. Taken to a truly literal perspective, Professor Brian O’Blivion appears on a TV sitting on a coffee table by the host. As the increasingly nervous host attempts to interview O’Blivion it quickly becomes apparent that he is not going to fully connect with her.

Marshall McLuhan deconstructed: Dr. Brian O'Blivion only seems to respond... Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Marshall McLuhan deconstructed: Dr. Brian O’Blivion only seems to respond…
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

He seems to be watching her other two guests, but moves into a sort of intellectual rant about the powers of television media: He begins to offer an almost religious sort of speech that television will soon replace “our” reality. Completely ignoring his host, he begins to almost preach through the screen of his own TV image:

The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye.

David Cronenberg was very clear that his created character of Dr. Brian O’Blivion is based soley on Marshall McLuhan and the esteemed Media Sociologist’s ideas. McLuhan’s teachings, ideas and concepts are all brought to the forefront of this highly entertaining and often disturbing film. While Cronenberg lays it all out in literal and visceral visual terms, nothing actually strays too far from the recently departed McLuhan.

James Woods' Max Renn develops an odd itchy rash as he watches... Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

James Woods’ Max Renn develops an odd itchy rash as he watches…
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Played with simultaneous sexy swagger and icky slimed confidence by James Woods, Max deals with the European Erotica Market as well as underground networks of slightly harder-edged porn from Asia. We catch glimpses of the new work he is considering for his channel. From his European connection, the work seems innocently decadent. From the seemingly illegal importation from Asia, the work seems to be a sexualization of ethnic stereotypes that are pushing toward sadistic erotic pleasures. For Max, these new erotica films might offer a bit more in the way of erotic explicitness and controversy — but they are not enough. He is looking for something more “dangerous” and “risky.”

Enter Max’s pal and tech wiz, who manages to catch a Malaysian signal of what appears to be very realistic torture porn. So realistic in presentation, there is a suspicion that what Max is seeing may be a true filming of snuff human cruelty. It is never fully clear to us if Max is fully “OK” with what he sees on a show that seems to be called Videodrome, but it is clear that the sadomasochistic is most definitely turning him on.

In 1983, it was shocking when Debbie Harry is suggested to supply a little bit of BDSM to get Max's changing body stimulated. In 2015, this medium of BDSM has already become passively engrained within the cultural mind.  Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

In 1983, it was shocking when Debbie Harry is suggested to supply a little bit of BDSM to get Max’s changing body stimulated. In 2015, this medium of BDSM has already become passively engrained within the cultural mind.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

He pushes his tech engineer to find the true origin of the Videodrome signal which turns out to be coming from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Comforting himself by insisting that what he is seeing is a “pretend” electrically-charged clay wall and orange/red floors upon and against which acts of brutal sexual assaults and murders are carried out in realistic but fake ways. Max essentially threatens his libidinous European contact to find the creators of Videodrome to help him secure a deal to air their show. Soon later, his contact tries to soft talk him out of the idea. She advises that what he has been seeing is more than erotic entertainment.

She leans in as informs him that Videodrome has a philosophy. Videodrome is real. 

At first Max refuses to believe it. His sexual relationship with Nicki is one linked to pain and punishment. It is all-the-more-hightened by a viewing of Videodrome. In a clever bit of Surrealism, Max and Nicki’s sexual blood-letting morphs out of Max’s condo and onto the wet red floor of the Videodrome set. Hallucinations give way to very real altercations in which Max’s body seems to be changing to fit into the psychology of Videodrome.

"Open up, Max. We have a tape we have a tape we need to play..." Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“Open up, Max. We have a tape we have a tape we need to play…”
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

In one of the film’s many mind-bending special effects, Max begins to develop an itch resulting from what appears at first to be a an enflamed vertical line traveling down his “happy trail” that quickly emerges into a yon-like flesh entry point. Wet and wanting to be fed, this vaginal sort of “wound” becomes a portal in which Max and insidious Bad Guys place guns and breathing-infected videotapes. The pain of this “fleshy slit” also seems to deliver a source of uncomfortable pleasure. Eventually this body morphing develops teeth.

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is a repulsive, intense and surreal Art Horror masterpiece that must be experienced to fully understand and enjoy. With each scene, the Videodrome transmissions seem to infect Max’s psychology, perception and ultimately his body.

A new point of entry to Max Renn... Body Horror taken to a whole new level. Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

A new point of entry to Max Renn… Body Horror taken to a whole new level.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

The ultimate body horror show, Max must either destroy the evil that is Videodrome and accept the new flesh it has created and take it forward to the next logical step. Many viewers interpret the film in different ways — particularly it’s apocalyptic ending. But it seems to me that David Cronenberg is pushing Marshall McLuhan’s ideology in very literal way. Fully infected by media’s disease, Max must refuse to submit to a vile corporate plan. He must take back what the medium has communicated into his very being.

“Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!”

The Medium turns against you... Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

The Medium turns against you…
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

David Cronenberg has not only gotten away with creating a powerful and lasting work of film art, his horror film navigates the audience into a whole different sort of human universe. Video/Analog may have given way to HD/Digital, but the message of the medium is still every bit as worrying to us in 2015 as it was in 1983. The power of media is inescapable now more than ever. Paranoia and the threat of disease is at all time high.

Vidoedrome is far more than a Cult Horror Film Classic, it is a very warped, twisted and disturbing cinematic philosophy not to be be forgotten.

"Death to Videodrome. Long live the New Flesh." Now, come to Nicki... Debbie Harry Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“Death to Videodrome. Long live the New Flesh.” Now, come to Nicki…
Debbie Harry
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Matty Stanfield, 9.28.15

On Monday, August, 31st The New York Times shocked me. It was there that I read Wes Craven’s obituary.  Another of the most culturally important American filmmakers was gone.

“Wes Craven, a master of horror cinema and a proponent of the slasher genre who was best known for creating the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises, died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 76.”

It is always sad when someone dies. Family and friends lost someone far more significant than an iconic filmmaker. Mr. Craven was a father, husband and friend. For the rest of us who did not know him, the loss is far less, but all the same impactful sad blow.

A key member of the innovative and creative Film Masters of his generation who managed to lift their cinematic work higher than the genre or audiences anticipated. Wes Craven’s early films appeared to be in line with typical Grind House or Drive-In horror movies of the time, but they offered something far more artistic.

Robert Englund is ready for his close-up A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Robert Englund is ready for his close-up
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

The goal was to scare us with a degree of cinematic intelligence that was unheard of for low-budget horror at that time. Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, George Romero, Argento and Tobe Hooper were also among this group. They made movies to attract this audience base, but with artistic intention that lifted them and the genre of horror to a whole new level.

After reading the shocking news in The Times, I found myself thinking of how Craven’s films had impacted my life and my psyche. And those of my childhood friends and our culture. Despite the fact that art takes up most of our spare time and conversations, all too often we forget just how much art has seeped into our beings.

Walking through a department store a Muzak version of an old pop song plays above us as we navigate toward a register. Even the poor “revisit” of a great song can momentarily transport us back in time. We scroll through movies available via VOD and spot an old film that resonates on multiple levels. These are two minor examples, but so much art is tied to our past, our experiences (individual and shared) and often serve as some cathartic or even healing emotional source. Sometimes there is light to be found in the dark.  

The first time I was aware of Wes Craven’s name was in relation to his iconic A Nightmare on Elm Street. Back in 1984 on a crisp November Friday afternoon it opened in my hometown. some friends and I decided to ditch the second half of the school day to make our way to a cinema long since gone. We were off to see a historic movie.

Can you remember when movie posters were still works of art?  A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984

Can you remember when movie posters were still works of art?
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984

This cinema was one of two that was strict on “carding” to follow the “R-rating rule” and not all of us were yet 17. We took a few hits of weed to work up our “courage” and act like we owned the bodies of 18 year olds. It worked. The lady sold each of us a ticket.

We had seen ads for A Nightmare on Elm Street on TV, but none of us really knew what to expect or what we were about to see. This is an aspect of The Film Experience that has long since faded away. It is almost impossible to attend a screening of any movie in the 21st Century without knowing every single aspect of the casting, the production, the plot and an often  anticipated idea of how the movie is “supposed” to make us feel. Even before the movie starts we are usually forced to sit through “making of” commercials for new TV shows or upcoming movies.

For those of you too young to know what it was like before social media and 24/7 marketing, going to a movie was often a serious proposition. While all of us worked part time, a $4.75 matinae was a gamble. Of course if the movie sucked, we could always spend an hour or two playing on video games in the lobby. PacMan, Space Invaders, Centipede and pinball were always a fun compensation. (you just needed to have a friend with drilled-string coin and you were golden)

As A Nightmare on Elm Street started it was clear we were in for something different.

Um, your slasher horror movie just took a very strange new turn... A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Um, your slasher horror movie just took a very strange new turn…
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

This was a slasher movie, but it was deeply demented and Surreal in the way it pulled it’s characters to their ends or limits. It also had a very sinister subplot for the monster, Freddy Kruger. This was some sort of paranormal being who had been a serial pedophile rapist and murderer. Despite all of this, the movie was still fun. We jumped, we laughed and teased each other as we left the cinema to head to our respective jobs or homes praying that we would not be caught for skipping school. But that night I could not sleep. For whatever reason, I was haunted by the way Freddy killed “Glen.” The dude had been lying on his bed with his headphones on. I had a whole lot of trouble falling to sleep that night and for several nights to

Glen just wants to chill on his bed with some music. Freddy has other plans... Johnny Depp A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Glen just wants to chill on his bed with some music. Freddy has other plans…
Johnny Depp
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

come.  I didn’t know “Glen” was Johnny Depp. That hadn’t clicked on my register yet. This was largely a cast of unknowns which created a somehow more shocking vibe. Back then I had a habit of lying on my bed with my clunky “Radio Shack Realistic” cushioned head phones and listening to music. This was how I feel asleep. At this time that music was usually Pink Floyd, The Who or Led Zeppelin. But all I could think of were those blade fingers grabbing me down into Hell with my blood and guts spewing out all over my room. I believe I changed to Fleetwood Mac for the next week or so. It is funny to think back to that feeling, but it was real to me. My friends had similar reactions. Two others admitted to sleeping with the lights on.

This was the interesting power of A Nightmare on Elm Street. In 1984 it was a completely new approach to horror. It was a horror that came in dreams in a very disturbing way. The cinematic trope of Surrealism was not fully formed in out minds. We were not yet sophisticated enough to notice the admittedly low-fi effects.  At that time, they seemed pretty real.  It is also important to note that we all laughed throughout the movie. It was funny. But it was also horrifying and intense.

Poor Nancy. She better wake her ass up! The experience of relaxing in the tub was about to change for a while... Heather Langenkamp A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Poor Nancy. She better wake her ass up! The experience of relaxing in the tub was about to change for a while…
Heather Langenkamp
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

It worked its way under our collective skin. It was like riding a really dark roller coaster. It was cinematic magic.

In the coming year or so, Freddy Krueger would somehow become a rather disturbing “anti-hero” — the sequels were not of interest to me or most friends. They were more like dark comedies than horror movies. And gradually, A Nightmare on Elm Street would become a sort of twisted comedy.

Watching it now it still amuses me. But I now can see the imperfections of low-fi special effects. “Glen” is now Johnny Depp pre-stardom. Ideas of his later career cloud my ability to access the movie in the same way. The idea of Freddy Krueger has become tainted for me. Children dress up as Krueger on Halloween. This pedophile sadist character has become a sort of family-friendly cartoon that I find more than a little worrying.

But long after the blu-ray has been ejected, replaced in it’s blue jewel box and I’m drifting off to sleep, a creepy thought crosses my mind: “Oh, fuck. I hope I don’t dream of blade fingers pulling me into my mattress!

Painting the bedroom "Glen" A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Painting the bedroom “Glen”
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

That teenage thought still comes up.

Mostly, however, the movie brings me back to a time long gone. This odd, gritty and iconic movie is forever seared into my brain. Like a great rock song, it brings me back to a time in my life when drugs were not a problem, sex was still an idea, all my friends were still alive, my heart had not yet been broken, divorce had not altered my views on life and one could see a movie at the cinema for under $5.

There were of course a great many other horror movies we saw and enjoyed. But Children of the Corn, Splatter University, Fright Night, Pieces, Christine and Sleepaway Camp were all easily forgotten. Nancy her creepy mom (Ronnie Blakley of Nashville fame) and their tormentor has never left my mind. As Freddy snatches up Nancy‘s mom it is both comical and oddly disturbing. Craven was smart enough to tie it into dream logic.

Robert Englund teases before he strikes... A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Robert Englund teases before he strikes…
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Craven, De Palma, Carpenter, Romero, Hooper, Argento and Cronenberg created films that will forever hold a place in our collective psyche and memory. Wes Craven was particularly solid with casting and creating situations that tied into the culture of the day. This is not to say that the others didn’t. All of these filmmakers created and create work impossible to forget. But Wes Craven had a unique ability to approach horror with a skewed sense of humor without sacrificing the scare element.

It would be not too long after A Nightmare on Elm Street that I would see Craven’s directorial debut, The Last House on the Left via VHS. The slightly out-of-focus and cropped VHS appearance added a strange sort of disturbing element. Another thing of the past. Though, to be honest, it is nice to not wonder what was lost in those non-anamorphic versions.

"To avoid fainting..." The Last House on the Left Wes Craven, 1972 Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

“To avoid fainting…”
The Last House on the Left
Wes Craven, 1972
Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

I first saw it at a friend’s house while his parents were out of town. There were about five of us. Once again, we really didn’t know what to expect other than this film was from the same director as A Nightmare on Elm Street.

We had no idea how dark and grim this mean little movie would be, but we soon found out.

Set 1972 upstate New York, this movie presents two pretty high school girls off to the city to see a rock concert. Their paths cross with four sociopaths who lure, brutally rape, torture and kill both. The special effects are low-fi, but this film was truly shocking to our eyes at the time. We were all kind of stunned at what we were seeing. None of us said anything. We simply watched in silence as the brutality took place. When the film’s main protagonist manages to say a prayer and slip into a lake, the leader of this gang shoots her dead.

It is not “scary.” It is horrible.

This is not a horror film, this is a film about horror... The Last House on the Left Wes Craven, 1972 Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

This is not a horror film, this is a film about horror…
The Last House on the Left
Wes Craven, 1972
Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

Craven didn’t stop there. The atrocities committed by these vile people are about to be met with an untethered parental vengeance that knows no bounds. Their vengeance is not cathartic. It is actually as bleak as what has been done to their daughter and her friend.

The film ended. The FBI warning on the VHS tape came up.

I’m not sure any of us actually discussed the film beyond the basic “Holy shit!” “What the fuck?” kind of reactions we would normally shared.

The truth is we were not scared, we were horrified. None of us knew how to even articulate what we had just seen. One friend commented, “Man. That was some hardcore shit.

This must have been in 1985. I had not yet become the full-throttle film snob I am today. But I knew a good deal about movies even then. It was clear to me that this low-budget Grind House movie was a very warped retread of Ingmar Bergman’s tragically beautiful, The Virgin Spring. And it was also clear to me that this film had an agenda.

The Last House on the Left Wes Craven, 1972 Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

The Last House on the Left
Wes Craven, 1972
Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

Comparing Craven’s film to The Virgin Spring is a futile effort. There was nothing “beautiful” about The Last House on the Left. Most importantly, there was no hope. I can remember wanting to point this out, but opting not to do so. This was Beaumont, Texas. Having knowledge of foreign film was not exactly cool in this circle of stoners.

Not too long ago I saw Craven’s The Last House on the Left again. This must have been shortly before the lame “remake” was released. Unlike A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Last House on the Left still carries the same gut-punch as it did when I saw it in 1985. It is a bleak and disturbing vision. Wes Craven pushes the envelope just far enough without the film turning into a perverse celebration of human cruelty. It remains a brutal depiction of just how horrible human nature can be.

This angry little movie is neither cautionary or drenched in cultural commentary. It is what it is: a study in human cruelty.

As in life, this film presents a story in which the human capacity for inhumanity knows no bounds. It may not be a fun viewing, but it is a very powerful one. The Last House on the Left is a deeply disturbing and important film of note.

Craven never stopped making great movies. 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow still stands it’s surreal and creepy ground.

"There is no escape from the grave." The Serpent and the Rainbow Wes Craven, 1988 Cinematography | John Lindley

“There is no escape from the grave.”
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Wes Craven, 1988
Cinematography | John Lindley

Around the time of David Lynch’s iconic TV series, Twin Peaks, Craven would make borrow two of Lynch’s more memorable supporting cast members for The People Under the Stairs. A darkly funny horror film which is really a comment on racism.

His Scream franchise would reach a whole new generation of viewers.

Drew Barrymore is given yet another iconic screen moment... Scream Wes Craven, 1996 Cinematography | Mark Irwin

Drew Barrymore is given yet another iconic screen moment…
Scream
Wes Craven, 1996
Cinematography | Mark Irwin

Mixing comedy with horror like only he could. Drew Barrymore’s small role is every bit as unsettling now as it was then. I think it is worth mentioning that Craven even ventured into the more “respectable” when he directed the successful Music of the Heart staring Meryl Streep for which she and the film’s music received Academy Award nominations. I didn’t care for this film, but it speaks a great deal to Craven’s skills that he could so seamlessly move into an entirely different genre with such success.

Wes Craven is gone, but his work will continue to live, inspire, be copied, remade and scare the hell out of someone at any given time.

Freddy snatches up Nancy's Mom.  Ronee Blakley A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Freddy snatches up Nancy’s Mom.
Ronee Blakley
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

 Wes Crave

1939 – 2015, RIP

matty stanfield, 9.4.2015