A Tribute to Wes Craven (1939-2015)

08/31/2015  By  Sean Hanson     No comments

When My Soul to Take lurched silently into theaters in October 2010, I was giddy and deranged, high on its badness. I promptly went home and bashed out 1,300 words about how awful it was. I stand by my assertions — chiefly, that My Soul to Take is “the work of a 71-year-old who’s surrendering his last shred of sanity on the way to a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of Hollywood” — and I’ve expended a lot of energy reminding people that a) the film exists, b) it’s every bit as bad as this scene would suggest (watch if you don’t believe me, but this YouTube clip is actually an improvement over the original sequence), and c) this wasn’t an anomaly for Wes Craven, whose films-that-suck-to-films-that-don’t-suck ratio is conspicuously high.

Scream 4 came out a mere seven months later, which seems like an incredible feat for a man who’s in his seventies until you realize that filming on My Soul to Take actually wrapped in 2008 and Ingmar Bergman completed four movies in the three years leading up to his 80th birthday, and it didn’t exactly prove me wrong. Of the two, Scream 4 — a broken machine glued together with the occasional big idea — is more fully representative of Craven’s filmography.

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We’ve seen three remakes of his films, and two of those surpass the originals. (A Nightmare on Elm Street is only worse because it finally rendered Freddy as the child rapist Craven intended … until producers talked him into taking his monstrosity down a notch and describing him merely as a child killer.) His grasp on tone was only slightly less shaky than his grasp on pacing, he was a better horror critic than he was a horror filmmaker, and, despite working in horror for two decades before Scream revived his career, some unknown dude who sat around watching slasher flicks for a few months managed to beat him at the meta-horror game he devised three years prior in New Nightmare.

I know this is kind of a fucked-up eulogy, but I wrote the three preceding paragraphs so you’d understand just how sincere I am when I tell you that Wes Craven was the first filmmaker to scare the everloving shit out of me.

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Freddie Kruger (Robert Englund) gets ready for his close-up in Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Watching some TV edit of A Nightmare on Elm Street with an irresponsible babysitter is among my first memories, and I can’t count how many nights I spent awake in bed through the ensuing years, thinking: yes, the door is inching open and you’re deluding yourself if you think that’s the shadow of a tree outside and not Freddy’s glove. I still think about that scene in which a topless Tina gets slashed across the abdomen and dragged across the ceiling — and the simultaneous titillation and revulsion I felt as an adolescent watching A Nightmare on Elm Street almost weekly — whenever someone brings up sexualized violence and its effects on a heterosexual male viewer. I still remember wondering how Craven accomplished the improbably voluminous geyser of blood spewing from Glen’s bed. It never occurred to me that you could, y’know, just turn the whole room upside down and let gravity do the work. When one of my friends pointed out the piece of wire that guides the sheet around Rod’s neck, I felt betrayed, the illusion shattered. Only later did I realize that every Craven film comes fully loaded with gaffes.

Around that time, Scream became the first horror film I returned to see in theaters as many times as my parents would allow. Several weeks passed between its premiere and when it finally made its way to my small town’s four-screen theater, and as my anticipation built up to almost unbearable levels, I began collecting magazine articles about Scream, gradually falling in love with the way Craven talked about horror — the bewildered love a child might develop for a constantly stoned uncle whose ramblings were strangely poetic, a sublime stream of commentary that was part insight, part self-effacement, part psychology, part philosophy, part criticism, part truth, and part bullshit. Strange, how much of these quotes I remember even though I haven’t read them for years:

  • “[Scream’s screenplay] was so scary and violent, and I’m trying to move away from the genre. […] I sort of sold my soul to regain myself. I’m going to do a picture called Bad Moon Rising, on werewolfism. And once I do that, I get the right to direct a movie I select.” –Entertainment Weekly, Jan. 20, 1997
  • “By my fifth birthday, I’d been exposed to a lot of anger, and to death. It’s never quite left me, that perception that under the surface there’s the potential for violence and chaos and things that are not accounted for by rational thought. […] I made pictures a lot of young people told me were important to them, and that helped me exorcise some of my own demons and fears about what the work is all about. I guess the evil in the films correspond to something local in their lives. God knows what it is — a terrifying father or drugs or gangs.” –The New York Times, Jan. 2, 1997
  • […] That is always a danger with actors that are not comfortable going to the darker places. Women generally know a lot about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of violence — or they can sense it — and you don’t have to coach them much. And as far as dishing it out, I think women have a lot of rage there that’s not that difficult to tap — rage about being a woman in a culture that quite often exploits women and treats them as second-class citizens.” –Newsweek, Dec. 15, 1997
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Craven and an old friend on the set of Scream 4.

After Scream 2, Craven began to change, and so did I, which probably explains why I consider it the last great film from a director who only had a handful of great films during a 40-year career. As these quotes attest, he clearly wanted to break out of the box we’d put him in. His next film was Music of the Heart, a clear demarcation between his wildly uneven labors of love and his wildly uneven labors of servitude, more beholden to his fans than his passions and ideas. He was no longer setting the pace, in terms of either violence or ideas.

Meanwhile, I was growing up and branching out — no longer confined to the handful of horror flicks at the mom-and-pop video store thanks to Netflix, I was branching out, exploring new directors, watching Craven films I didn’t know existed, realizing how few of them actually lived up to their premises. Soon, I preferred A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors to A Nightmare on Elm Street; New Nightmare felt like a crude pre-Scream exercise, lacking the latter’s wit and clarity; Scream 2 felt like a tighter, more playful sequel anyway; I could articulate why I’d found The Last House on the Left goofy and sickening, but not horrifying; and I appreciated Craven’s genre-bending, as exemplified by his race-conscious political horror/comedy The People Under the Stairs and his adventure/zombie flick hybrid The Serpent and the Rainbow, more than I appreciated the Craven films that conformed to or defined the horror genre.

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Craven poses with his son Jonathan Craven and fellow horror-master Steven King at a promotional event for The Hills Have Eyes 2.

In a sense, my list of favorite Craven films collapsed at around the same time I began to feel like he was an interesting — but rarely effective, unless you managed to see his films as a five-year-old — horror director whose films usually cleared a path for better films to follow years, if not decades, later. Then Scream 3 came out, and it was OK … and Cursed came out, and it was unwatchable … and My Soul to Take came out, and it defined “bad Wes Craven film” in spectacular new dimensions … and Scream 4 came out, and it was only slightly worse than Scream 3 … and now he’s dead after 43 years of pushing horror in fascinating new directions while establishing or legitimizing new subgenres along the way. The rape-revenge thriller, the teen slasher film, political horror, hillbilly horror — even the darker superhero epics of the last decade — and especially recent meta-horror films like The Cabin in the Woods and The Final Girls all owe Craven a tremendous debt, even if his films were rarely the best examples within their various canons.

Similarly, I rarely acknowledge how Craven’s statements about horror have fueled my own love/hate relationship with, and academic interest in, the genre. By watching, evaluating, re-watching, and re-evaluating Craven’s films — considering where they failed and, more importantly, where they succeeded, and how a film like A Nightmare on Elm Street can be scary and rough around the edges — I began thinking critically about horror long before I set foot in a college classroom and learned the language required to express those thoughts. In some small way, Craven is, like Ebert, one of those people whose work pushed me into pro-am film criticism.

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Wes Craven can’t be held by police tape.

Perhaps it’s selfish, but I’m not as saddened by Craven’s death as I am disappointed: disappointed that My Soul to Take will go down in my personal history book as the only Craven film I got the chance to review when it was in current release, disappointed that the man who made the Reagans monstrous in The People Under the Stairs won’t be around to mount a comeback sequel should Donald Trump win the 2016 election, and disappointed that the genre has lost one of the few directors who could so effortlessly bend horror in new directions. Even if Craven hadn’t accomplished that feat since 1997, the possibility was still there, damn it, and that possibility is dead now. And, because of the demands we placed on him, I’m disappointed that he never got the chance to make that small film about growing up fundamentalist — on that note, I’m disappointed that horror is bereft of the only filmmaker who would openly admit to caring about the pain he caused his mother while consistently pushing the boundaries of what’s considered acceptable within the confines of mainstream horror.

Most of all, I’m disappointed that a man who left a prestigious teaching post to learn the craft of filmmaking while apprenticing on porn sets under the moniker Abe Snake isn’t immortal after all. With other filmmakers, it’s either loathe or love, but Uncle Wes was one of the few directors who occupied some space between. He really was, as I made sure to mention in my entirely negative review of My Soul to Take — after spending 1,300 words questioning his waning abilities as a filmmaker — “a helluva guy.”

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