Wes Craven, a writer and director who created definitive horror films for generations of fans and fellow artists, passed away Sunday after a battle with brain cancer. He was 76.
A native of Cleveland, Craven grew up in a strict Baptist household in which the wonders of cinema were closed to him, but as an adult he fell in love with the craft, and eventually left his position as a college professor to make movies. In the beginning, Craven worked in porn, writing and editing films under various pseudonyms until teaming up with producer Sean S. Cunningham to work in a genre he knew very little about at the time: horror.
Craven and Cunningham’s collaboration produced The Last House on the Left, a low-budget revenge story so violent and depraved that it was ultimately banned in the U.K., and heavily censored elsewhere. Last House reveals Craven’s promise as a horror director in a very raw, confrontational way. He has an unflinching eye for the heart of human darkness, and in that film he revealed it in ways that are still hard to watch.
Craven’s second film, The Hills Have Eyes, didn’t come until five years after Last House, but Craven’s creativity only gained steam in the interim. Hills is a classic, and from then on he worked constantly as a director, writer, producer, and occasional cinematographer and editor.
In 1984, Craven wrote and directed A Nightmare on Elm Street, his most important film, and redefined both the slasher subgenre and horror cinema as a whole. Nightmare deconstructs and elaborates on many of the slasher genre’s already established tropes, while also building a thriller atmosphere in which we can almost never be sure if what we’re seeing is “real” or a dream. The film is a landmark in horror movie history, and established Craven as one of the genre’s great masters. Then, in the ‘90s, he redefined horror cinema again.
With 1996’s Scream, Craven poured all of his accumulated horror knowledge into what is simultaneously a spoof, a treatise, and a really scary picture. Scream is a film about a group of kids who are literally trying to survive a slasher movie while playing by the rules of slasher movies they’ve already seen (some of which Craven himself made), right down to the shocking reveal at the end. The film spawned three sequels (all of which Craven directed) and an MTV series that was just renewed for a second season.
Craven’s filmography, though flecked here and there with flops, is a collected masterclass in how to scare (apart from his occasional efforts outside of horror, like Music of the Heart), unnerve, and infect the human psyche with terror. He had a master’s degree in philosophy and writing, and it shows in his films. He plays by horror movie rules, just like his fellow masters, but Craven also subverts them, creating a cinematic environment in which we’re often not sure what we’re seeing, even as it terrifies us. His exploration of dreams, hallucinations, and reality in Nightmare on Elm Street and films like The Serpent and the Rainbow (which, I’d argue, is the best movie he ever made) is spectacular, and likely influenced everything from The Sixth Sense to this year’s breakout horror hit It Follows. He could scare us with simple primal horrors, as in Last House, or with elaborately constructed living nightmares.
What’s perhaps most striking about Craven’s remarkable career, though, is that it not only never stopped, but never really slowed down. In his mid-70s and battling brain cancer, he just signed a new overall TV deal with Universal, and was developing several projects at the time of his death. As he said during an interview with fellow horror director Mick Garris last year, he was just happy to get to play in this sandbox.
“I come from a blue-collar family, and I’m just glad for the work,” Craven said. “I think it is an extraordinary opportunity and gift to be able to make films in general, and to have done it for almost 40 years now is remarkable.
“If I have to do the rest of the films in the horror genre, no problem. If I’m going to be a caged bird, I’ll sing the best song I can.“
So long, Wes Craven, and thanks for the Nightmares.