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R.I.P. Wes Craven

tn_cravenDamn, I never see these things coming. I sat down tonight to work on some writing and stumbled across the news that a favorite director has passed away today.

Before he directed the dirty, disgusting LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, Wes Craven was a college professor, and I’ve alway thought that made sense. To listen to him in interviews and commentaries he always seemed like the most thoughtful and literary-minded of the horror directors. He was interested in primal fears and ancient myths and where those intersect with modern lives. By directing SCREAM (from the screenplay by Kevin Williamson) he accidentally kicked off the meta era of horror, but I always felt he’d gotten there earlier in his own WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, where he made the played-out no-longer-scary-ness of his own creation, Freddy Krueger, part of the mythology. In that one the ELM STREET movies were just that – movies – but they were also an important tool of humanity because they could keep at bay the primordial force that inspired the character. The real Freddy.

Think about this. In 1972 Craven directed LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, which helped kick off the slasher cycle of horror. In 1984 he directed A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, which started the supernatural slasher movies, and the ’80s era of slasher movie icons. Basically, Freddy became the Hulk Hogan of horror. (Even down to the racism, ’cause he said something pretty foul in FREDDY VS. JASON.) And think of what the Elm Street series meant for special effects makeup, with all those gooey, one-upping dream sequences they came up with each time. That’s why I was always a Freddy guy. I was into all that latex and crazy transformations and shit.

cravenAnd then SCREAM. You all remember what happened with SCREAM. Horror movies had virtually disappeared from the mainstream for a few years. Then everybody loves SCREAM and suddenly it’s horror, slashers, thrillers, most of them cast to be like SCREAM, shot to look like SCREAM, soundtracked to sound like SCREAM, with dialogue trying to be like SCREAM, and toned to appeal to the audience of SCREAM. I revived interest in slasher whodunits and then slasher wealreadyknowwhodunits. It had bad influences and good. But, like the other ones I’ve mentioned so far, it survives all the hype and the copycats and holds up as a great horror movie.

There is not another horror director who was able to have so many massively impactful films during (or in some cases starting) so many different horror cycles.

Fuck Thanos. Freddy is my favorite Marvel villain.
Fuck Thanos. Freddy is my favorite Marvel villain.

And in between he had so many other fun ones. I don’t even have to list them all here and it will be impressive. I love both the original THE HILLS HAVE EYES and its remake, which he produced and seemed very hands on about. He also produced the very good LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT remake and hand-picked its director, based on having seen his Greek language, non-horror movie HARDCORE. Good eye, Craven.

I’ve always had a soft spot for THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS too. It’s got that THEY LIVE thing going of the crazy genre movie that’s subtextually about Reagan’s America. I always thought the figurative part worked better than the literal part, but it’s been a while, I’ll have to see it again. Anyway, it’s an example of Craven having more on his mind than some of the other horrorists.

And he took a couple good left turns: the supposedly reality based voodoo horror of SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, the suspense thriller RED EYE, the absolutely insane MY SOUL TO TAKE (his last movie besides SCREAM 4, it seems). I really can’t understand what he was trying to do with that one, but it doesn’t matter, it’s bizarre and hilarious and kind of impressive in how it combines several different high concepts into one and keeps you wondering what the hell is up. Also he got to work his love for birdwatching into that one. I learned by following him on Twitter that he was seriously into that.

You can’t really underestimate Freddy the icon. A scary child killer turned monster of nightmares who became so popular they made talking dolls out of him – which then got pulled from the shelves, because what were they thinking? He was kinda cuddly, but you take his hat off and part of his skull is broken open to reveal his brain.

Now it’s normal, but back then it freaked people out because dolls and action figures were for, you know, kids. So they had to replace the Freddy doll with a Ken looking guy named Maxx FX (not Robert Englund) who dresses up as Freddy. So the kids know it’s just movie magic.

freddy-maxxfx

Also, there is the Freddy Fright Squirter:

freddy-squirter

For squirting fright. And of course the official A Nightmare On Elm Street Freddy Krueger Yo-Yo:

freddy-yoyo

And what’s remarkable about all this is that Freddy could take it all like a Final Girl and survive it. I don’t know about you, but when I watch the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET it still gets me. It brings me back to that cruder, deeper voiced, dirty man whose arms might inexplicably stretch out to scrape along the sides of walls, or who tear the front of his face off and laugh about it. You don’t see him that much and when you do you feel like you’re getting too close. Sometimes you feel safe and you don’t notice that there shouldn’t be farm animals in the school hallway and you might just be headed into his realm. Or you try to run up the stairs and they turn into goo and your feet get stuck.

That’s a masterful movie of atmosphere, paranoia and an absolutely vicious death scene when Tina dies. No matter how many years pass and how much more movies can get away with, you can’t really top the way invisible Freddy wipes her across that ceiling. Shee-it.

Thank you Wes Craven. I know you’ll always be skulking around in the shadows somewhere, but you’ll still be missed.

cravencameo

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Sunday, August 30th, 2015 at 11:04 pm and is filed under Blog Post (short for weblog). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “R.I.P. Wes Craven”

  1. NEW NIGHTMARE really is great.

  2. He was one of those director’s whose body of work fascinated me. His movies were VERY hit or miss, but at least 98% of his hits were instant classics, which is more than most constantly good directors have going for them.

    I always liked seeing him acting, though. Of course his biggest role was in NEW NIGHTMARE, but stuff like his cameo in [Redacted Kevin Smith movie] was always fun. I originally wanted to link to a scene of his guest spot in the semi-obscure 90s sitcom STARK RAVING MAD, in which he played a quiet, OCD ridden horror writer, who was the role model of Tony Shaloub’s character. Unfortunately when he had the chance to meet him, he gets terrorized by a pigeon (because he accidentally destroyed its nest), which causes him to accidentally destroy Craven’s office while he is outside for a minute. But when he returns, he only notices that Shaloub stole one of his pens. (It’s definitely funnier when you see it.) But like I said, the show is semi-obscure and therefore it’s not on YouTube.

    Instead: Here he is as himself in an episode of CASTLE, who seeks advice from him, when he believes that he might be cursed by a video tape.

    Castle 5x17 "Scared To Death" Castle Calls Wes Craven for Help (HD/CC/L-L)

    Castle 5x17 "Scared To Death" Castle Calls Wes Craven for Help. He is the director of many horror movies. At the end of the conversation, Wes Craven's remark...

    R.I.P. Wes and thanks for the always entertaining scares. I will probably watch MUSIC OF THE HEART today. Just because I needed a reason to do so, since I recorded it a while ago. Too bad it’s not a more uplifting reason.

  3. R.I.P. Wes Craven. Thank you for the nightmares.

    Thanks for getting this up Vern. Great work as always. These things happen far too often, but when both Craven and Roudy died yours was the first site I visited.

  4. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is his most disturbing movie that I´ve seen but NEW NIGHTMARE will always be my favourite. Of course the big news site refers to him as “the director of SCREAM”. That movie made more impact on the collective consciousness than any of his other works.Whatever that means.

  5. Sad news. I like New Nightmare a lot too; maybe not as scary as the first one, but really clever.

    Time to watch The Serpent and the Rainbow, I guess, which I’ve never seen before. Oh, how’s Stranger in Our House? Anyone seen that?

  6. I remember liking SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. It´s not a film I have revisited in years. But as a kid the film freaked me out a bit.

  7. “To listen to him in interviews and commentaries he always seemed like the most thoughtful and literary-minded of the horror directors.”

    I always thought the exact same thing, he was obviously a very intelligent guy and his movies had a more thoughtful style because of it.

    THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS was one of the first horror movies I remember watching and obviously A NIGHTMARE ON ELMSTREET is a classic, I also saw RED EYE in a completely empty theater which make it even creepier.

    It’s disappointing he was never quite able to give the 21st century an equivalent of NIGHTMARE and SCREAM, but he sure tried, RIP.

  8. NEW NIGHTMARE is amazing. I had rewatched it a couple of weeks back along with the original and the Craven plotted DREAM WARRIORS. It still holds up so damn well. I’d say better than a lot of horror that came after it actually. Then again it’s one of the better Craven’s and when the man was on his game he was simply the best at what he did.

    R.I.P.

  9. The Original... Paul

    August 31st, 2015 at 3:30 am

    I thought he always came across as a very intelligent, likeable personality, even when talking about his less successful stuff (although I will always have a soft spot in my heart for MY SOUL TO TAKE). Rest in peace Mr Craven. It is a sad day for movies.

  10. I always though it was weird how relatively obscure NEW NIGHTMARE is considering how clever it’s premise is, but I can only assume the reason it didn’t catch on more was because well, it was 1994 and the general public was over the slasher icons of the 80’s at the time. (I think one reason SCREAM was a big hit was precisely because it featured an all new killer).

  11. This news was like a punch in the gut. I stopped what I was going and immediately stayed up too late watching the first NIGHTMARE, which, fuck, man, what a great movie. I knew all about Freddy long before I had the guts to watch a real grownup horror movie, and when I finally worked up the courage, the first one I watched beginning to end was SHOCKER (the real start of his meta period). This man’s work was ground zero for my love of horror that has been a constant in my life ever since. “Do you like scary movies?” Yes, and I have Wes to thank for that.

    I remember thinking not too long ago how lucky we were that all the great classic horror directors of my youth were still around and still awesome, entertaining people even if they weren’t all making movies anymore. I knew they were getting up there and that the Justice League of horror legends couldn’t stay complete forever. But I never thought Wes would be the first to go. (Not trying to jinx it but Carpenter’s omnipresent cigarette had me worried.) He always seemed so vital and engaged. This feels like losing an old friend I hadn’t seen in many years.

    All I know is Johnny Depp better say something today or I’m losing all respect for the man.

  12. I guess I’m the only one who loves Cursed. The scene where the werewolf gives everyone the finger is hysterical and should be mentioned in the same breath as the basketball scene in Deadly Friend. Craven is one of the few geniuses we had in the genre. Even his failures are equally fascinating as his classics. He will be missed.

  13. Good call Majestyk on the meta-liteness of SHOCKER. It wasn’t that memorable to me as a horror, but Craven seemed to be playing on the evil-guy-coming back-from-the-dead, even if this time he was executed ‘legally’, unlike the Elm street vigilantes who offed Freddy. Another thoughtful theme from Craven, making the justice system accountable. I could be totally off on that since its been over twenty years since I saw it, so a rewatch is in order.

  14. Yeah, this one hurts.

  15. Mr. Majestyk I too got into the horror in a major way thanks to the original NIGHTMARE sometime around 1987 or so. After that and then THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW and THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS I was a certified Craven fan.

    This was a great piece but I do feel that Vern probably shouldn’t have omitted his contributions as a producer outside of the remakes (which I do agree were both entertaining). Because even in that role you could still spot his fingerprints all over his productions. I mean WISHMASTER and MIND RIPPER to me were always pretty damn cool partly because of their Cravenisms and they both have a notable cult fanbase especially WISHMASTER.

    Am I the only one who kinda liked VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN? I mean considering how much of a pain in the ass it was for Wes to make it still comes across as very competent and well put together. Or maybe that’s just a testament to how much of a pro he really was.

    I still haven’t seen MY SOUL TO TAKE but you guys got me curious about that one. The last Craven joints I saw before SCREAM 4 were RED EYE (which I liked) and CURSED (which I didn’t like) and I figured it’d be more in the CURSED vein. Especially the way some people reacted to it. But I like crazy as much as the next guy so I think that would be my choice of film as a tribute to his contributions to the world of horror cinema this weekend.

  16. Broddie- It’s been a while, as Adam Scott might say, since I saw it but I liked VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN. I thought it was one of the better uses of “Eddie as fifty different people!” and I thought Craven’s stylistic qualities stayed relatively intact. I particularly liked “this is my heart. This is my chest. This is my heart. This is my chest”

  17. AnimalRamirez1976

    August 31st, 2015 at 8:21 am

    Saw this news on my way to the airport. I was really taken aback. The Nightmare movies were a big part of my childhood. My mom disapproved of anything that was too scary or intense but Dream Warriors struck her as pretty family friendly. Craven broadened the appeal of these movies tremendously.

    And it is hard to overstate how huge am impact Scream and New Nightmare had on me. I thought they were the most brilliant films ever. Really blew my mind how smarty they were.

    The analogy between Freddy and Hulk Hogan is pretty brilliant. It raises the question of which wrestler Micheal Meyers is. I’ll guess Billy Graham: a a few years ahead of his time. That may be too obscure however.

  18. AnimalRamirez1976

    August 31st, 2015 at 8:21 am

    Saw this news on my way to the airport. I was really taken aback. The Nightmare movies were a big part of my childhood. My mom disapproved of anything that was too scary or intense but Dream Warriors struck her as pretty family friendly. Craven broadened the appeal of these movies tremendously.

    And it is hard to overstate how huge am impact Scream and New Nightmare had on me. I thought they were the most brilliant films ever. Really blew my mind how smarty they were.

    The analogy between Freddy and Hulk Hogan is pretty brilliant. It raises the question of which wrestler Micheal Meyers is. I’ll guess Billy Graham: a a few years ahead of his time. That may be too obscure however.

  19. AnimalRamirez1976

    August 31st, 2015 at 8:23 am

    I also kind of liked Vampire in Brooklyn. Spey about double post.

  20. I want to chime in to say I also like Vampire in Brooklyn. It has Craven’s most stylistic direction, and may not have found as interesting a horror/comedy balance as Scream did the next year, but it’s a lot of fun, and rarely gets any support.

    RIP Craven

  21. Sad news. The first NIGHTMARE was the first scary movie I was able to watch. Before that I had seen parts of CUJO, SALEM’S LOT, AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON & POLTERGEIST, but they all scared the piss out of me and I couldn’t watch the whole thing. Still to this day there are probably scars on my psyche that can be traced back to those movies. But then NIGHTMARE came along and I was old enough to appreciate the brilliance of a good scary movie. Thanks, Wes, you’ll be missed.

  22. Boy… a real punch in the gut to hear this news last night. Did any genre director have as many different and influential careers acts as Craven did? He reinvented cinematic horror, by even the most conservative count, twice. I’d venture to suggest that between he and Carpenter, you can trace the origins of 90% of Western horror cinema since the 70’s. And even when he wasn’t revolutionizing things, he was creating fascinating movies — I think PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, for example, is an absolute classic, and it’s totally unique in his filmography.

    Looks like he still has two films as a producer coming out — “The Girl in the Photographs” later this year and “Home” next year. Hopefully we’ll see a little of his personality in those two, and get one last chance to experience Craven’s particular, imaginative genius.

  23. I was in my first year of high school when NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST came out. During *activities week* we were given about half a dozen choices of things to do – ski trip, camping, shit like that. Down the bottom of the list was *cinema excursion*. One guess where my chubby little adolescent arse was for that week. So it was just me and this other guy the whole week seeing different movies in the city, and NIGHTMARE was the first one we saw. Blew our minds and browned our shorts. Thanks Wes. Good times, good times.

  24. Oh yeah, all we needed to get in to an R rated movie at that age was a signed permission note from a parent saying we were allowed to attend activities week, and the fucking teacher bought our tickets for us at the box office. God bless the education department for that one.

  25. I really liked a lot of his work. A huge Freddy fan in my early teens, which led me to subscribing to Fangoria and being introduced to so many other films and directors to check out.

    I was thinking about Craven last week after reading the Tarantino interview where he specifically criticised Craven’s direction of Scream whilst also complimenting It Follows’ concept. It rubs me up the wrong way when he digs at other directors, even though I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of Scream, but his saying that It Follows had the best concept he had seen in a horror film got me thinking back to Elm Street for the first time in a while. Nightmare On Elm Street had such a great premise that none of the other slashers of the time (or even now) could really compete with.

    Also, The Serpent And The Rainbow will put you off having nails through your scrotum for life!

  26. Nightmare had an incredible slasher concept. In modern times, Final Destination also had a good one, in my opinion, but it never bothered taking the premise to a higher level in the sequels.

    I read the Tarantino interview and sort of know what he means (Craven is often more of an ideas man than a great stylist). Or maybe he just harbours bitterness at Craven for walking out of Reservoir Dogs at Sundance, and then saying he thought the ear scene was repulsive because it was too cute. Oliver Stone has said similar things about Tarantino’s use of violence. These guys were the original Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus.

    It’s the kindness of Craven’s worldview that’s often overlooked. There’s a lot of innocence in Scream that’s more apparent when viewed today, now that meta-commentary is the primary language of the internet. Even an underdeveloped narrative like My Soul to Take, which doesn’t coherently explain itself, is disarmingly sweet. Craven liked and believed in his young characters even when they met vicious ends.

  27. Interesting FINAL DESTINATION comparison, considering that the FD series kiiiiiiiiiinda went the Freddy route too. While part one tried to be a legitimate horror movie (yet with a certain amount of dark humor), the sequels dodged all attempts of being actually scary and just tried to come up with most hilarious gruesome deaths possible. In a way, death became stand-up Freddy, without ever saying anything or appearing on screen.

  28. I’m getting old.

    This one hurts.

  29. Just gonna go ahead and ramble a bit here.

    I’m not so much a Craven devotee as a huge Freddy fan from way back. It’s a testament to Craven that he created such an iconic character. Such iconography in that character and his look and backstory, his boiler room, his physicality, his sadistic wit.

    Freddy and the NOES films were a huge part of my childhood, from an inappropriately early age. I remember watching part 1 and 2 back to back on HBO. They were so weird and so tonally different, and yet Freddy and that house tied them together. I still remember convincing my mom to get me in to see Dream Child at the theater at age 11, and then my only friends-invited birthday party I can remember was to see Freddy’s Dead in 3-D on opening night. Freddy’s Nightmares in syndication. These were probably the creative low point (and no Craven involvement), but the point is that, on the strength of this amazing character Craven had invented, I was down for any crap New Line wanted to sell me, I just wanted to see more Freddy, explore the mythology further. Man, as much as they compromised the scariness of the character, I was a sucker for every ridiculous Freddy set piece, like Freddy as meatballs or Freddy glove as Jaws fin, or baby Freddy, or marionette, giant creepy snake Freddy, and on and on.

    Part 1 and New Nightmare are like the Rocky and Rocky Balboa of modern horror. Perfect bookends, returning to the tone and overall quality of the originals, with some neat parallels and callbacks but also not afraid to go in some new directions. In each case, the final chapter stands on its own as a worthy story of its own, honoring and breathing new life into the characters and giving them a fitting send off, as opposed to merely coasting on the fumes of audience goodwill. As much as I had grown fond of goofball Freddy, I loved that Craven found a way to make Freddy shadowy, mysterious, and scary again with New Nightmare. That trailer where Freddy pops out of the closet with that “Miss me?” line–just chills, bro.

    The Scream movies were fine for what they were, but they were almost by definition derivative, and whereas they ushered in a kind of ironic, wink-wink, on the nose meta, New Nightmare was a different kind of meta. Aimed at an increasingly adult and middle-aging audience who had grown up with Freddy. Truly weird and exploring connections between dreams and reality, art and life, and this sort of weird quasi-Jungian view of history and storytelling and collective psychology. Looking back at how different it was, not just from horror films generally but even from all the other NOES films, and then considering that it was a relative flop and how there was no real need for Craven to revisit it, it’s a true gift that this film got made. A fitting end to the series (with FVJ just being kind of a one-off, goofy romp of an event movie.)

  30. Really not a horror guy so I can’t say much about his work. Except that I liked the trailer for RED EYE that shifts considerably in tone once his name appears on screen.

    Dean Jones also passed away. When I was a kid, my favorite Disney movies were all the Love Bug movies. So he’s one of those faces immediately recognizable to me despite not having seen him in much else, except his cameo in CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER.

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