I didn’t really appreciate Wes Craven until I bought THE HILLS HAVE EYES on DVD. Since I saw it as a very young age, I’ve always loved its primal nastiness, Dee Wallace in an early role, and two brave German Shepherds. But it wasn’t watching his movie that brought on my respect. It was an episode of a cable show called The Directors. Over the course of an hour, the doc discussed Craven’s entire catalogue up to current. But that wasn’t it either. The moment that crystalized it for me was when Craven said he taught college English for a while.
I spent a long time— about 15 years— teaching English in one form or another. I’m an intellectual, and as a horror fan I appreciate intellectual horror. So I’d always had an appreciation for some of Craven’s headier films. Once I realized that Craven was not only an intellectual, but a former teacher such as myself, he leveled way up with me.
Languishing in academia, Craven made the bold choice to leave it and make films. Horror films, no less. His debut, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, is not what I would call an intellectual endeavor on any level. It’s brutal, guttural, a lowbrow affair that revels in thugs making a girl pee her pants. His next film was THE HILLS HAVE EYES, not exactly an intellectual endeavor itself, but it sports all those great qualities I listed above, and the killers are mutants. Right up my alley.
It wasn’t up until A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET that Wes would create his first real brainy film. I saw it back in the 80s and appreciated it, but I had forgotten how well written and well made it is because of all those lousy sequels with Freddy Krueger spraying seltzer down his pants for yuks. But my friend X Chris told me a few years ago to go back and watch it again, that Krueger was a bad dude in the original. I took his advice, and realized what artistry and craft Craven had imbued in the flick, and how he’d made Krueger a nightmarish thing, the evil of bad dreams. He’d also coaxed one great performance out of Heather Langenkamp as Nancy. The character is great, because unlike all those other “final girls” from the early to mid 1980s slashers, she was proactive. Craven wrote Nancy as the girl next door who could think, plan and take the battle to the monster. I loved Craven for this. (And truth be told, I didn’t truly appreciate the first ELM STREET until I saw Langenkamp’s brilliant doc I AM NANCY; her chat with Craven manages to be revelatory and a chat between to old friends at the same time).
And yet, I’m not the biggest Craven fan. My problem with his catalogue is that there are two Wes Cravens. One directs brilliant horror movies that challenge me and reinvigorate my interest in horror with every viewing. The other one directs misguided efforts that are pretty bad, and are only memorable for how whacky they are. For every NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, there’s a PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS. For every SCREAM, there’s a DEADLY FRIEND. For every HILLS HAVE EYES… well, there’s a HILLS HAVE EYES 2. If he had consistently made films on that high end, he’d probably be my favorite horror director. If he’d been consistent on that low end, I doubt anybody would know who he was. Thank God for the greatness on that high end.
Writing this reflection is an interesting experience for me. Unlike so many others who have written on him since his passing a few days back, I’m writing not out of adoration, but out of reverence. Craven came along and influenced the paradigm more than once in his career. He was never afraid to take chances, and he’s probably the only man would ever go so far as to have Adrienne Barbeau romanced by a humanoid pile of leaves. I can even appreciate him speeding up a scene with a robotically returned to life Kristen Swanson dribbling a basketball, and though the damn robot looks silly now, Craven could at least have fun with it. Even when those chances failed, they were memorable.
My one regret regarding Wes Craven is that I never got to meet him. With all the cons I’ve been to, I only remember him being listed for two in my area, and I didn’t make either show. I would have loved even for a few minutes to pick his brain a bit and thank him for giving me some intellectual horror in a field so very lacking in it. The first time I saw him on a guest list, I was still teaching high school English. What a trip that would have been to ask him his opinion on The Scarlet Letter. And then ask him about the dream sequence the dog has in HILLS HAVE EYES 2.
That HILLS HAVE EYES disc vaulted my respect for Wes Craven, and I’m glad it did. From one intellectual to another, I thank him for challenging me to go a few steps deeper, with horror movies that are a little more profound than their contemporaries.