Wes Craven once stated that, “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”
And Craven ought to know, because he is the man responsible for releasing decades worth of remarkably macabre cinematic terror. This week we sadly lost the prolific horror director. On August 30th he passed away due to brain cancer at the age of 76. Presently, many are reflecting back on his impressive filmography and rediscovering what had initially drawn them to his work.
Beginning in the ‘70s with infamous exploitation flicks such as The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, he garnered a reputation for unflinching portrayals of savage brutality. Controversial and often banned, these early ghastly entries remain challenging for the faint of heart. While on the surface they appear to be nothing more than mindless gore, Craven drew inspiration from unexpected sources and intended not only to scare but also to provoke thought. The Last House on the Left was based on Ingmar Bergman’s art house film The Virgin Spring. It was deliberate in graphically tackling the taboo subject of rape and examining whether violence for the sake of revenge can be justified. Coming off the heels of the Manson Family murders, during a time when Americans watched the Vietnam War on television, these movies had a place in the countercultural zeitgeist.
In the ‘80s he boomed with the wildly popular A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, creating an icon of fright in the supernatural serial killer Freddy Krueger. Craven directed the first installment on a relatively low budget. Through innovative techniques he successfully blurred the lines between real and imaginary, disrupting the perceptions of his audience. Known worldwide, many who grew up around this period will recall sleepless nights in which they feared their bed. You’re not safe anywhere, not even in your dreams. Freddy has returned again and again to feature in nine films, a television series, and several graphic novels.
The genre in the ‘90s was revitalized by Craven turning horror on its head in the highly referential Scream series. The film deconstructed slasher flick tropes and put them on display while explaining the rules of a horror movie. It became a colossal hit at the box office, transforming into an instant classic. Serial killer Ghostface asks the important and now well-known question, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” Many would say Scream. The franchise would go on to shape other metafictional films such as Cabin in the Woods.
In more recent years Craven had taken to primarily writing and producing. With some work still not yet released, The Girl in the Photographs and Home, we still have these projects to look forward to in the coming months.
Craven’s horror transcended the silver screen and wormed its way into our nightmares. Though he was most well known for his movies that terrified audiences, Craven commented that, “Horror films are not me, or they’re not all of me. They’re a very thin slice of me.” Regardless of the genre, all of his productions were masterfully crafted manifestations of his artistry and passion. The Academy Award nominated Music of the Heart serves as proof that Wes Craven was capable of being more than ‘just a horror director.’ He was a filmmaker.
Wes Craven’s memory lives on in his work and will continue to do so for many years to come. He has left behind a legacy not only of chilling horror but also of creativity and originality. I don’t know about you, but I think that I’ll dig out my old VHS copy of A Nightmare on Elm Street to watch alone in the dark tonight. Pleasant dreams.