Wes Craven’s 1989 supernatural slasher flick Shocker is playing on my TV screen as I type this, allowing me to simultaneously celebrate the career and mourn the death of one of the most important and legendary filmmakers ever to work in the horror industry; a man who’s work elevated a genre once relegated to the lower bills of regional drive-ins to higher critical and commercial respect. At least twice in his career Craven was responsible for saving the genre when it was on its apparent deathbed, and his work has been incredibly, indescribably influential for nearly five decades – birthing legions of younger filmmakers in his wake. When Craven passed away Sunday night at the age of 76 from the tragedy of brain cancer, the horror genre didn’t just lose a great filmmaker – it had a huge void ripped right in its center.
Shocker is not one of Craven’s better films. In fact, it ranks on the far back end of the estimable director’s career, despite the cult adulation bestowed upon it by a cadre of aficionados (who mostly love it for its soundtrack of late-80s heavy metal tunes.) The movie, about executed serial killer Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi, years before taking on the role of Walter Skinner on The X-Files) supernaturally stalking the teen quarterback (future film director Peter Berg) whose dreams put him behind bars, was a bald-faced attempt by Craven to launch a new franchise monster after being increasingly iced out of any involvement with the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. It’s more than a bit corny and gets more ludicrous as it goes on, but even at his lowest, Craven is never less than interesting. For better or worse, the works of Craven are possessed of a fierce intellect and social conscious, but never at the expense of thrilling and delighting audiences worldwide. Shocker may, for example, feature a scene of a six-year-old girl possessed by the spirit of Pinker trying to kill our hero with a bulldozer, and cameos from the likes of John Tesh and Zsa Zsa Gabor, but it also features trenchant critiques of our TV-obsessed media culture. Lesser filmmakers would settle for the bulldozer.
Craven was the hip college professor of the horror genre. His career began in the golden era of the ’70s – a decade which launched many of our most important filmmakers, in and outside of the genre. (In just horror alone, Craven’s yearbook would include John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, George Romero and David Cronenberg as “classmates.”) And if Craven seemed like the hip professor to Carpenter’s hippie stoner or Cronenberg’s dour intellectual, then that’s because he was one – Craven taught English before stumbling into filmmaking by accident, helping some students with a student film. Craven caught the bug and quit, uprooting his family to pursue a career in Hollywood. It didn’t quite pan out right away – within a few years, Craven was divorced and reduced to driving a cab in between bouts of editing porno movies.
Craven only got into horror after Sean Cunningham, a colleague in the adult industry, convinced him making horror movies would prove more lucrative. Having been raised in a strict, religious fundamentalist household wherein watching any movie that was not Disney was verboten, Craven had little to no knowledge of what constituted a film in the genre. So Cunningham told him to plumb deep, use his repressive upbringing as a resource, and make the most violent film he could. Craven turned around and delivered The Last House on The Left.
The 1972 tale of two girls who are captured on their way to a rock concert and raped, tortured, and killed by a gang of remorseless thugs — who are in turn brutally dispatched by the parents of one of the girls — is still shocking and hard to watch to this day. Though it suffers from some technical amateurishness and wildly innappropriate comedic subplots that butt up uncomfortably with the vile and uncompromising violence, the movie is raw and primal in a way few exploitation films of its era rarely are. More importantly the movie never feels gratuitous — Craven may be the only filmmaker in history to base his grindhouse movie on an Ingmar Bergman movie (The Virgin Spring, which is itself based on ancient Scandinavian folktales.) With Last House, Craven wanted to make a violent movie that showed us exactly how awful violence truly is, as opposed to the romanticized bloodshed of then-contemporaneous fare like The Wild Bunch and Bonnie & Clyde. Filter in critiques of the disillusioned American mood in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, and you get the rare drive-in nasty to remain as potent and shocking today as it did in its heyday.
Last House was a hit, though it failed to launch Craven’s career into the stratosphere. It took him a full five years to make his next film —The Hills Have Eyes— which was also a hit, but was still too violent to make Craven acceptable by Hollywood standards. The filmmaker toned it down for his next features, the religious killer story Deadly Blessing and the PG-rated Swamp Thing — one of the first comic book adaptations — and worked inTV before delivering what may be his most iconic film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, in 1984.
There’s not much I can add to the reams of work written about Elm Street, and we all know by now it’s a visionary classic that launched one of the most beloved franchises and pop culture characters of all time. It also resurrected a dying horror market just as it became oversaturated with too many Halloween clones. Oh, and then it saved New Line Cinema from bankruptcy — without Freddy Krueger we wouldn’t have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Lord of the Rings. And it, of course, turned Craven into an in demand director — something the eternally sturggling maven was not beforehand.
Craven would turn in a series of cult films of varying quality — The People Under The Stairs, Deadly Friend, Shocker, Vampire In Brooklyn, The Serpent and the Rainbow and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare — his triumphant return to the series that made him famous — before once again saving the horror genre, maybe at its nadir in the early 90s, with the ingenious meta-slasher homage Scream. Regardless of actual quality — and more films were good than not — Craven’s intelligence shone through. Craven often toyed with thematic elements involving dreams, philosophical quandaries of death, and, especially the modern American family imploding – the contrasting, duelling family units of Last House, Hills Have Eyes and Deadly Blessing; the evil parental figures of People Under The Stairs, Deadly Friend and Shocker; the lingering secrets and sins of the fathers (and mothers) coming home to roost against the children in Elm Street and Scream.
He gave horror films depth, consideration, something to chew on, rising the from the turgid B-movie morass they would often fall into. For Craven, horror was art, a vessel for detailing his concerns with the malaise hovering over modern life. Even though he longed to make a film entirely outside genre concern, which he was able to only once with the sappy 1999 inspirational teacher drama Music of the Heart (though he also made the Hitchcockian suspense thriller Red Eye in 2005, and a romantic comic segment of the omnibus film Paris Je’Taime), he may be more responsible then anyone in bringing a newfound respect to the genre.
And he was, by all accounts, one hell of a guy. Horror fans and filmmakers get an unfair shake in being seen as weird, potentially psychopathic sickos with a pre-occupation with death and morbidity, an image we admittedly don’t always do ourselves favors with. But Craven has always been known as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood and, with his intellect and cool-dad demeanor, he was instrumental in reshaping the narrative about horror peoples. He was a smart, sweet, ordinary guy, not some lunatic mass-murderer lurking around the corner (even though he made movies about lunatic mass-murderers lurking around the corner) and without him as a public figure, we’d have far fewer people looking at us and going “huh, you are actually pretty normal, after all.”
I am bummed that I never got to meet him and tell him what his work meant for me. Our biggest interaction was a tweet of mine he favorited after he asked people for dumb jokes, but just knowing he saw, liked, and acknowledged my dumb joke was enough for me. Craven was my childhood. Freddy Krueger was the first boogeyman to scare me, even before I saw his movies. The idea was frightening enough – a killer who got you in your sleep. Jason and Michael you could fight off. Run away from. Escape. But you needed to sleep eventually. Freddy was an inevitability. Of course, Freddy isn’t real. Not in the sense I feared. But he was real, lurking in the corners of my subconscious, frightening me to tears, but fascinating me, little frissons of curiosity lingering in my synaptic waves, stoking a burgeoning love of the genre that has, legitimately changed my life and steered its course.
Some people simply love horror. I bleed horror. I am horror. I want to make it my life. I write articles; I’ve acted in movies; I am in the process writing scripts and dream of making them myself. Without Wes Craven, my life may have been much, much different. The grace and elegance with which he managed to make his mark on the genre have only inspired me to do the same. I was never much one to eulogize the deaths of celebrities in the past, but I get it now. Wes Craven was a personal icon to me, and losing an artist who’s work as meant so much to you, who has bled into you, and carried you through the worst times of your life, rips a hole in your chest wear your blackened heart once was. While it will be with a deep sadness that we will never see another work from him again, we will always have his large, important, unusual and influential body of work to remember him by and celebrate him with.
After your battle with cancer, Wes, may you rest in peace. Thank you for your what you have done for us.
May you have sweet nightmares forevermore.