By all accounts, Wes Craven was a lovely human being: a mild professorial type who made the people around him comfortable. In interviews, he came off as an excellent teller of dad jokes, and did not have an intimidating or particularly unsettling presence. But in three successive decades, the writer/director/auteur discovered new ways to creep into people’s heads and play around with their nerves, pointedly changing the entire horror-movie game thrice: first with the sheer brutality of 1972’s The Last House on the Left, then with the iconic villain of 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, and finally by creating a new meta-horror cult with 1996’s Scream. Last night, as news spread that the 76-year-old horror savant had died of brain cancer at his home in Los Angeles, my immediate response was that of disbelief coupled with that weird rush of gratitude you have when someone who made great things passes away. Craven fucked with our heads so gleefully and mercilessly so many times over the years. How could he just ... die?
Even before Last House on the Left—the first movie Craven ever directed under his own name—he’d drifted from the strict Midwestern family values he grew up under. In his early twenties, he was an academic, teaching humanities classes in upstate New York, but a few years later, when he discovered that he could make more money doing something more fun, he became a filmmaker in the embryonic early-’70s porn industry, working under pseudonyms and taking ownership of nothing. We still don’t know which early pornos Craven made, precisely because he’s never wanted us to.
If Last House on the Left was the only movie Craven ever made, his place in cinematic history would be assured, if only because he created something that crawled inside audiences’ brains and wriggled around in there. This was a nasty, unrelenting story about psychopaths raping and murdering two teenage girls, and the torturous payback that followed. “When it first showed in Boston, we heard that there were fistfights, that somebody had a heart attack, that people were trying to get into the projection booth to destroy the print,” Craven told The New York Times in 2011. To this day, the mere mention of the title is enough to make some people’s blood run cold.
For all its well-earned, this-movie-will-destroy-you reputation, though, it’s also a shining example of cinematic resourcefulness, made for five figures and earning back its budget many times over. The genius of Craven was his ability to pull off that trick over and over: finding cheap ways to realize his deeply nasty visions. He came from the latex-gore era, but some of his most memorable (and nasty) visions weren’t even effects. Consider, for example, his casting of Michael Berryman, an actor whose bald and misshapen head came from a birth condition, as one of the villains of 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes. This was a story about mutant cannibals, victims of nuclear testing who go to war with a lost family in the desert. It’ll squish your guts up, but it has some sense of fun about it, too, as the movie’s villainous monsters are comically shown bickering just like any “normal” family. That was our first taste of Craven’s cutting sense of humor, which would go on to define his best films to come.
A few years later, he came up with something even more iconic, giving the world maybe the most instantly recognizable movie monster since the Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff era. There were high-school slasher movies before A Nightmare on Elm Street, but the movie did things that none of the others had done. While teen victims in other movies had tried to go to disbelieving, uncaring authority figures for help, this one set things up so that the parents were actually the problem to begin with: They were the people who’d committed the crimes that their kids were dying for. Adults became accessories in the deaths of the kids they were supposed to protect. If John Carpenter’s Halloween had taken place in some unreal dream world, Nightmare pushed that sensibility into full-on, tripped-out surrealism. Freddy Krueger wasn’t a killer limited to the physical plane; through sheer imagination, he could pull Johnny Depp’s body down through his bed and turn him into a fountain of blood.
Now, more than 30 years after that movie first came out, kids too young to watch it are still dressing up like Freddy for Halloween. He was a serial killer with swagger and charisma, a monster way more interesting than his victims. While Craven’s initial Nightmare was a genuinely creepier movie than the cheap and silly (but still awesome) schtickiness of countless sequels (he walked away from the franchise after too many clashes with studio heads), Freddy’s reputation was built to last, right from the start: He was a deadly clown, an endlessly watchable asshole who cracked wise and toyed with his victims before killing them. The later Nightmare directors didn’t have to change much to keep selling tickets; they just had fun coloring in the outline that Craven had already drawn.
His mastery of his villains is no more apparent than in 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, an amazing self-reflexive headfuck of a meta-movie, and the only sequel in the series that Craven directed himself. A decade after the original, he reinvented Krueger as a free-floating demon who preyed on people’s fears and [comically?] had no choice but to bust into the real world when the movies about him stopped being scary. It stars Heather Lagenkamp, the star of the first Nightmare movie, Craven, and Robert Englund (who played Krueger) as themselves, and takes place in the “real” world, which means we see horror conventions dumbing out at the sight of Englund-as-Freddy. But then, surprise!, it also has Freddie showing up and killing people. Eventually, you completely lose track of what’s meant to be real and what’s not. It’s a rare and beautiful thing: a cheap horror B-movie that’s exponentially smarter than it had to be.
In a lot of ways, New Nightmare was a dry run for Scream, the movie-about-movies that defined its horror era the same way The Blair Witch Project and The Ring and Saw would later define theirs. Scream launched about a million copycats full of fresh-faced UPN soap-opera stars being gutted. But even with all the goofiness that followed, you can’t blame it for bullshit like I Know What You Did Last Summer or Urban Legend. After years of horror movies making no impact on the mainstream, suddenly Craven was speaking to the zeitgeist; it’s the kind of movie that practically exists to spawn imitators. And anyway, Scream had a better cast than any of the movies that followed, and it was also a more effective movie: funnier, more clever, genuinely scarier. Which is, perhaps, why Craven stuck with this franchise and directed all three of its sequels. He was having fun with the mythos he’d created, telling jokes about the horror conventions that he’d helped to codify.
That’s not to say there weren’t misses in his filmography: Swamp Thing, Shocker, Vampire in Brooklyn. But there are some underrated gems in there, too. Take Red Eye, the fast and unpretentious and deeply fun plane-hijacking thriller he made in 2005. Or his ventures outside of horror, like Music of the Heart, a 1999 Meryl Streep drama that earned her an Oscar nomination, and one segment in Paris, Je T’Aime, a 2006 anthology that features mostly European directors. He published a novel, a cloning thriller called Fountain Society that came out in 2000. He got really into birdwatching. He did things.
Still, it seems appropriate that his last movie was 2011’s Scream 4, a seemingly obvious cash-in movie and probably the weakest film in the franchise, but also a deeply watchable piece of work, full of twists and gratuitous cleverness and moments of real tension. It’s a movie that was happy to kill its most likable characters in throwaway scenes—an example of that sadistic willingness to hurt audiences’ feelings that Craven had shown ever since The Last House on the Left. And if it was just the guy dicking around in the playground of his previous movies, fair enough. He did, after all, build that playground to begin with.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Lead image taken from www.wescraven.com.