WWAC Reflects On Wes Craven’s Smart Subversive Horror
Wes Craven died August 30th, at 76. During his long career in film he directed over 20 films and wrote even more, many of them revolutionary. With his first film, The Last House On the Left (1972), he joined the wave of New Horror directors like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, finding the monstrous in ordinary and innocuous settings and people. His enduring Nightmare On Elm Street and Scream series made meta-horror a thing and gave us two final girls, created ten years apart, who transcend that role–Nancy/Heather and Sydney. Craven’s films are variously terrifying, disturbing, hilarious, and reassuring. Good does often triumph over evil, though never permanently, and his heroines are more than Strong Female Characters, or hapless, nubile survivors–they’re human.
His work has had a lasting impact on WWAC’s horror fans and on so many others.
What was your first Wes Craven movie?
Desiree: The first Wes Craven movie I ever saw was Scream, after that followed the terrible sequels that were from the Nightmare on Elm series, until I saw the original Nightmare on Elm, Hills Have Eyes, and the rest of the Scream franchise.
Insha: My very first Wes Craven movie was Last House on the Left. It was a deeply disturbing movie the first time I watched it, but then it easily became my favorite movie after a while. After that, I dived deep into some of his movies especially Serpent and the Rainbow and the Nightmare on Elm St movies.
Kate: My parents had a very firm no-scary-movies policy when I was growing up, so even though I grew up in the age of Freddy Krueger and remember seeing little kids dressed up like him every Halloween, it wasn’t until Scream came out that I was old enough to see one of his movies in a theatre.
Birdi: Like so many others the first Wes Craven movie I saw was Scream. While the Drew Barrymore scene is iconic what really set the tone of the movie for me was that ominous Nick Cave song, “Red Right Hand,” playing while the camera panned over the streets of Woodsboro. Scream is iconic and and really breathed life back into a stale horror genre. While the rest of the franchise is lacking the first Scream hooked me. And while Scream was the first Wes Craven movie I saw, Red Eye is among my favorite horror movies. If you haven’t seen it, drop what you’re doing and watch it!
Megan: My first Wes Craven movie was Nightmare On Elm Street. I started watching horror movies in grade school. My brother and I would turn them on whenever we could get away with it, and when we were deemed old enough to rent movies on our own, we’d walk over to the local video store and come back with armloads. We watched all the Elm Street series in a long junk food-fuelled binge watch. We gave Scream the same treatment, even though it lacks the deliciously goofy gore from Nightmare. Discovering that Craven was also the director of The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House On the Left was…uncomfortable. They’re harsher films, much darker than anything to be found in Nightmare or Scream. The guy who made Vampire In Brooklyn made torture porn? But I see the films differently these days, given their role in shaping the horror landscape, the boundaries they pushed in terms of defining on screen evil.
How did Craven’s work inspire or affect you?
Desiree: When Craven nailed a story and movie, he nailed it hard. The first Scream was brilliant; it was what Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods tried to be but couldn’t quite pull off. The original Nightmare had some of the best horror visuals I’ve ever seen. A certain creativity was used in depicting the various horrors heroine Nancy had to endure. Done so in such a way that was unique–even by today’s modern day special effects–and entertaining. Craven was able to create characters and settings that were both fantastical and horrific without–most of the time–overly simplifying the violence within the story.
Something as simple as Nancy’s footsteps falling into the gooey stairs in her nightmare, set a great tone for Nightmare on Elm. While baby-faced Johnny Depp who hadn’t experienced any visits from the fiendish Freddy is pulled into his bed where a geyser of blood follows. Sidney Prescott is the horror movie heroine. Existing in a world of damaging horror tropes and cliches the story told in classics like Friday the 13th and even Craven’s own Nightmare are subverted.
I’d say Wes Craven helped me love horror movies, appreciate what they could be, and set a standard–even for his own work–for what they should be.
Insha: Wes created some of the BEST female horror characters I’ve ever seen. They weren’t meek and mild, having sex (or sometimes they were, no judgements) and waiting for the monster to come and get them. They took action and completely dominated any situation that came their way. The two female characters that really had an effect on me were Nancy Thompson from Nightmare on Elm Street and Estelle Collingwood from Last House on the Left. These girls are obviously very different in age, Nancy is a high schooler while Estelle is a mother, but they were the single greatest thing in those films. They were strong and not afraid to do what they needed to do to stop the monster that had done something to them.
Another thing that got me about Wes was his ability to make a story out of any headline. Nightmare on Elm Street was taken from the story of this kid trying to stay awake and not wanting to go to sleep, for fear that something would get him. He was later found dead and he had a pot of coffee in his closet to just try to stay awake. Wes had the ability to take something as simple and effective as that and turn it into a single-minded creature that haunts people in their dreams. That’s the genius of powerful storytelling and he should always be remembered for that.
Kate: I did really enjoy the first Scream, because it was the first meta-movie I’d seen, and I loved that I didn’t have to know all the horror movie tropes in order to enjoy it, because the movie itself explained those tropes to me. It was the perfect movie for the perfect moment, and it made me realize that I could enjoy some horror movies when I’d previously written off the entire genre.
I learned that they didn’t always have to be scary, which was a relief, because I’m not a scary movies person. I do love suspense, though, and the intersections between horror, the supernatural/paranormal/unexplained, and human psychology, which is why even though I’ve never seen many of his movies, My Soul To Take is one of my favorites. I’m not sure if it’s officially the last one he ever wrote and directed, but it came out in 2010 and based on the previews, looked incredibly uninspired. I’d completely written it off as just another horror movie. And then a friend of mine sent me this video:
One of the oldest comedy sketches in the world suddenly became something scary. It’s the definition of the uncanny, Das Unheimliche, in German, or “un-home-ly,” the taking something familiar, and making it unfamiliar, and that was Wes Craven, at his best, in a nutshell.
Birdi: Craven’s work is so delightfully era-specific, yet his work stays relevant and manages to transcend genre trends. I remember seeing Scream in the theater with my father and while only my eyes peeped out of my adidas puffy jacket I wasn’t fully scared but more confused, interested, curious. How could this movie enrapture me in a way that made me gasp with concern and thrill but also laugh at the absurdity of Ghostface’s reason to terrorize Sidney Prescott? How could Jackson Rippner in Red Eye appear so menacing and calm? I have always been intrigued by process, the process is more interesting to me than the product. Craven’s process is clearly methodical and detailed, character development is at the base of his work. This type of process affected how I watched, how I critiqued films and television. While his work is not without its problems but really what body of work is not clear of issues and some of his films are far better than others (I’m looking at you The Hills Have Eyes) He does tackle how we view and connect with characters and why. How we understand process, that has stayed with me.
Megan: Yes, Kate! That’s one of the principles driving his work, I think, making the familiar feel unfamiliar; making something feel unsafe. And while he loves contrasting the mundane and the fantastic–the sheer special effects extravaganza of the Elm Street series–he’s finding and exposing the fantastic in the mundane, the horrific in the homely. His work had a tremendous impact on how I analyze and experience genre, and in finding a place in the horror fandom. Craven helped to make horror seem like a place I might be welcome as a fan and critic.
How do you think Craven’s work affected the industry?
Desiree: He’s shown the industry how a horror movie should be done. As I stated before, Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods is basically the same concept as Craven’s Scream, but with more twentieth-century violence and special effects. He also helped solidify the horror movie trope of “the final girl” but to much better results than other horror movie directors and writers within the market. Comparing the original Nightmare on Elm Street to the 2010 remake produced by Michael Bay, the differences in quality are clear. Not saying Craven didn’t have a few bombs–Scream 3 was horrible instead of horror, and Nightmare on Elm: Dream Warriors is just hilariously awful–but he helped solidify the iconic “slasher film” style. Even going as far as subverting the very tropes of the slasher genre that he helped create in Scream.
Insha: I have to agree with Desiree. I don’t think the industry knew how to make a horror movie until Wes Craven came along to show them how. He showed them that the women in horror movies don’t have to be these ditzy girls running around after boys. They can be strong, powerful, imaginative, aware and beautiful while being “final girls” in the end and defeating the monster (maybe … Freddy just wouldn’t die back then). He showed the art of showing people their worst fears and turning it on their head in a creative way that highly affected people after they come from the theater.
Kate: It’s amazing to me that so many things Wes Craven has done have been remade. I can’t think of a single creator, in any genre, whose work has been remade within his lifetime to the extent that it has with Craven, and I doubt that we’ll see those kinds of numbers again. Craven had a way of being both for hardcore fans of horror, and for the scaredy cats, like me, and I think that’s what makes his work the standard against which the entire genre is measured.
Birdi: I find horror oddly comforting to watch. I am both bothered by and intrigued by the process of writing and directing such gruesome stories. Craven really nailed the gruesome, the terror while still having a sense of humor. He managed to recognize the imaginative element, the camp of horror, while still retaining the integrity of horror itself, bringing our fears both outlandish and realistic to life in a way that feels both threatening yet safe. Woodsboro is a Sweet All American town with Sweet All American teenagers but under the surface they’re all flawed. Some more terrifyingly, irrationally flawed than others but that’s the safety, the sweetness and irrationatial mixing. Wes Craven took the flint of the fire and built it into a roaring flame. So many modern films and series have been inspired by Craven’s work. For that we owe him at the very least a Halloween full of Ghostface and Dewy costumes.
Megan: I wouldn’t say that Craven showed everyone how it was done, because he’s had so many incredible contemporaries and collaborators throughout his long career, but his impact on fans, casual moviegoers, and the industry has been tremendous. This is borne out in the incredible number of remakes we’ve seen of his work, how many great films have borrowed from his. Craven was a smart storyteller and not one to hide his influences–you can trace the Bergman in Last House On the Left, for instance–or shy away from heavy-handed metaphors, which he usually managed to deploy with grace. What we can trace back to him in today’s horror is humour as a leavening agent, self-awareness, character-driven endurance horror, and most of all, horror heroines who aren’t “good girls” or “bad girls,” but just girls you should never fuck with.