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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1939 – 2015, RIP
matty stanfield, 9.4.2015