as inducted from the Last House on the Left
by Brian Skutle
In the interest of full disclosure, I feel like I should say upfront that I have not seen all of Wes Craven’s feature films. Unfortunately, this includes noteworthy entries such as SWAMP THING, THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, SHOCKER, and MUSIC FROM THE HEART, where he directed Meryl Streep to one of her Oscar-nominated performances. Having said that, though, there is an affection for Craven as a filmmaker that, nonetheless, makes me feel like I can say something personal and heartfelt about one of the great horror directors in movie history, who passed away on August 30 from brain cancer at the age of 75.
Although Craven’s greatest contribution to cinema was the dream-haunting villain Freddy Krueger from the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise, the film (or films, rather) that I have a deeper appreciation for is 1996’s SCREAM. Written by Kevin Williamson, SCREAM introduced a devious new villain to the world of movie horror in Ghostface, who has a penchant for quizzing his prey on the intricacies of horror cinema before killing them, as we saw in the film’s brilliant opening sequence, with Drew Barrymore as the “teenage girl” who is home alone, and gets terrorized before being killed.
That self-referential tone was a bit disarming, as the film is almost a horror satire as much as it is a straight entry in the genre, which made the backlash after it became a winter season box-office hit all but inevitable. But throughout several times seeing it in theatres, and several more times seeing it at home over the years, it continues to hold up strikingly well, even after 2000’s SCARY MOVIE practically lifted entire pages from the screenplay for it’s straight-up parody. Like other slasher films before (and after) it, SCREAM inspired several sequels, two of which were written by Williamson himself, all three directed by Craven. Different viewers get different mileage out of those films (though I am very much in the minority for being a fan of SCREAM 3), and it’s understandable to see why, because that self-referential tone of the first one (personified by Jamie Kennedy’s Randy, who spouts off all the clichés and “rules” when we need to hear them) is difficult to maintain for one film (let alone four) without getting tortured and tired. In the third and fourth films especially, I get the feeling that Craven and his writers were tying themselves into knots trying to keep the magic alive, but even if you just considered the first two films in the franchise, which came out one year apart from one another, it’d be hard to criticize Craven and Williamson for what they created, and simply marvel at how inspired it all felt. (Full Disclosure, Part 2: My mother was actually an extra during the lunchroom scene where Jerry O’Connell sings to Neve Campbell in SCREAM 2, which was filmed at Agnes Scott University in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a lunchlady in the back of some of the wide shots, and she said, of the shoot, that it was a wonderful, if tiring, day, partially due to Craven’s direction, but also O’Connell.)
Let’s go back to the beginning, however. With his first film, Wes Craven made a big splash with THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, where two teenage girls are kidnapped, and one killed, and the killed girl’s parents plot revenge against the gang that killed her. The film is a raw nerve, like many horror movies from the early-mid ’70s are, and it’s also a remake. Yes, the film was remade in 2009 (with Craven as a producer), but the original film was, itself, based on THE VIRGIN SPRING, from none other than Ingmar Bergman. It’s takes balls to remake any great filmmaker, and even more so to do it with your first film, but Craven wasn’t interested in the existential questions of Bergman but exploring baser human instincts, and his film stands up effortlessly with Bergman’s, and one might even say goes beyond it. His next major horror effort was 1977’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES, and while it’s an extension of the isolated terror he gave audiences in LAST HOUSE, I never really got into it the way I would his first film. After that came a HILLS HAVE EYES sequel, SWAMP THING and DEADLY BLESSING, none of which I’ve seen, but then again, none of them garnered the reputation Craven would earn with his next feature film… A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
I first watched NIGHTMARE in 1986-87 (yes, when I was 9-10) during a slasher movie phase that was predominantly due to the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies and TV series. Even though I had a preference towards Jason Vorhees, and never really would get into the ELM STREET sequels, there’s something about that first NIGHTMARE that I genuinely enjoyed, and made it stand out over the FRIDAY THE 13TH films. Apart from the fact that Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger is a far more interesting villain than Jason, in retrospect, I think it was the way Craven gave some power to his teenage characters (in particular, Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy) over their fate by the end. The way she thinks through the situation to bring Freddy out of her dream world gives her considerably more strength and humanity than any of the faceless victims Jason killed in the FRIDAY films. It’s true that her friends (including a young Johnny Depp, in his first film) didn’t fare as well as her, but with Nancy (and later, Neve Campbell’s Sydney in the SCREAM films), one can make the argument that Craven played as big a role in helping modernize female genre characters, giving them an intelligence and emotional strength that went beyond physical appearance, as James Cameron or Joss Whedon. No surprise, then, that Nancy is also at the center of the NIGHTMARE sequels that stand out best in the long-running series- 1987’s DREAM WARRIORS (which Craven helped write) and 1994’s NEW NIGHTMARE, which turned the series on its head by acknowledging the films AS films, and bringing a self-referential nature to horror that Craven would continue to mine with the SCREAM movies. NEW NIGHTMARE shouldn’t work, and there are times when it almost goes off the rails, but to Craven’s credit, it never veers into the worst excesses of parody.
Even in a retrospective of the filmmaker’s career after his death, however, it’s important to note that while it’s easy to canonize him for the films that made him a popular voice in the genre, Craven was far from perfect as a filmmaker. The first movie of his I simply couldn’t get behind was 1995’s VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, with Eddie Murphy and Angela Bassett. I haven’t seen it in about 20 years, and I do want to try again with it, but in my early years of real movie watching fandom, it didn’t work as either horror or comedy, let alone both, and was a misfire for both director and star, both of whom would recover nicely the next year (Craven with SCREAM Murphy with THE NUTTY PROFESSOR). It’s hard to fault Craven for trying something different, however, especially considering the long, awful slog towards release his 2005 thriller, CURSED had a decade later. Written by Kevin Williamson, the film tried to bring the SCREAM sensibility to a werewolf movie, and after years of rewrites, reshoots and recastings, the film finally hit movie theatres, but by that point, whatever potential the film had was gutted and replaced with wretched clichés that ripped out whatever soul the film might have had. It’s so bad that one imagines the only reason Craven and Williamson didn’t have their names removed from it was because of the internet age where any nugget of news on a films hits computer screens the moment it happens. As with the aftermath of VAMPIRE, however, Craven recovered smoothly by bringing his professional craft to a character driven thriller called RED EYE. Starring Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy, the film would be a forgettable, derivative work mimicking Hitchcock were it not for the chemistry Craven brings out of McAdams and Murphy, and some clever craftsmanship that made the film stand out as a late-summer gem. It didn’t pretend to be anything more than it was, and it didn’t forget to root the suspense in character and story rather than manufactured thrills. RED EYE is arguably the best film Craven made in the 15 years after SCREAM and is the one I’d prefer to stop with, since the only two features he made after it was another dud (2010’s MY SOUL TO TAKE) and 2011’s SCREAM 4. The fourth SCREAM movie isn’t bad (filmmakers have had worse swan songs), but it fell victim to a lot of the clichés the first two films made mincemeat of so effortlessly even as it tried to reinvigorate the series for a new generation, leading up to a TV series that Craven developed in his later years.
Wes Craven could be one of the most erratic filmmakers within the horror genre in terms of quality, especially in his last decade of his career, but that doesn’t diminish his importance within the genre. Freddy Krueger and Ghostface are his greatest legacy to the world of horror cinema, but his inventiveness and craftsmanship helped elevate even some of the most routine material into terrific entertainment that could appeal to both die-hard genre fans, as well as more casual moviegoers. There are still many of his films I have yet to watch for myself, but since I know we will never get another original one from the filmmaker, I feel more obligated than ever to dive into the rest of his work, and hopefully, dig deeper into what make him not only a great purveyor of horror cinema, but an all-around talented storyteller in modern moviemaking.