The director Wes Craven, who died at age 76 of brain cancer, did primitive things in sophisticated ways. He spent nearly half a century drilling for fresh nerves. Sometimes — surprisingly often — he hit them. The howls of pain were heard around the world.
He was a man of various and unresolved impulses, which could be a prerequisite for making “personal” horror films. At the end of the ’50s, he abandoned his strict Baptist upbringing for a liberal-arts education and dabbled in academia. He left a job as a humanities professor at Clarkson for New York City — and hard-core porn. He made the leap to the (relative) mainstream the way many do — via the grindhouse.
The Last House on the Left was a seminal ’70s torture, rape, and revenge flick, an unholy revision of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. (Did Craven teach it? He might have.) The movie had two female victims instead of one. Its rape and murder scene was prolonged. The parents’ revenge was sweet and icky instead of stoic. And the religious finale was axed. No spring gushed from the spot where the head of the murdered virgin lay. Craven remained a Baptist in having a far more developed sense of hell than heaven. Actually, he had no sense of heaven at all. In The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and other films, the act of vanquishing demons gave birth to demons.
The Last House on the Left was probably best known for its ingenious ad campaign: plainly sadistic men staring down at what was presumably a woman (we were gazing up from her point of view) and the line, “Keep repeating: ‘It’s only a movie ... It’s only a movie ... It’s only a movie ...’” That line captured everything about the nihilist early ’70s, post-Vietnam, end-of-the-countercultural horror genre. And it would pretty much define Craven’s best work.
When Craven and his producing partner Sean S. Cunningham couldn’t get any non-genre projects going, Cunningham made Friday the 13th and Craven The Hills Have Eyes. It was a vicious, stunningly effective film in which a large family is brutalized in the desert — far from any trace of civilization — by a bloodthirsty inbred cave clan, its mascot the tall, hairless, Michael Berryman (in life a victim of hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia). Beyond the shocking killings of the movie’s two loving matriarchs (one of whom has just had a baby) was the ending, in which Craven lingered on the supposed hero as he ferociously butchered the last of the family’s tormentors. There were no climactic hugs.
Craven would later tell my colleague Bilge Ebiri (in Nerve) that all through his career, he sought to condemn violence, not to cater to it. He had ambitions to explore the origins and ramifications of evil. He said (this was at the height of the Iraq War), “Just the other day, I was reading the blog of a soldier who is in Iraq. He said at the end of one of his posts, ‘I used to wonder how good people can do evil things. Now I wonder how good people can avoid doing evil things.’ I think that maybe films can help us in some way take an honest look at ourselves.”
He had little artistic or financial success in the decade after The Hills Have Eyes, though Deadly Blessing — set among the Hittite community — has a powerful sense of menace connected to religious fundamentalism. His comics adaptation Swamp Thing was a rare and disappointing foray into camp — for which Craven had no gift.
His breakthrough, of course, was A Nightmare on Elm Street, one of the best gimmick horror films of the last 30 years — if not the best. Time has elevated Robert Englund’s Freddy Kruger into the monster pantheon, and he deserves to be (in our first glimpse of him, he slices off his own fingers, and you think, If he’ll do that to himself, what will he do to someone else?). But it’s important to say that the original film was bigger than its ghoul. It was the idea that put it over — the notion that kids (it was always kids, paying for their parents’ sins) could find no escape in sleep. Just the opposite. And if a nightmare could literally kill you, could a horror movie — supposedly a “safe” nightmare — do the same? Watching it, you had to say, “It’s only a movie ... it’s only a movie ...”
The Nightmare series got campier, and Craven (who didn’t direct the immediate sequels) got rich. He became a brand. But he still couldn’t crack the big-budget, “legitimate” arena. A Vampire in Brooklyn with Eddie Murphy was a low point, and genre films like The People Under the Stairs and Shocker weren’t much more effective. But The Serpent and the Rainbow — based on a true story of a Harvard researcher's travels to uncover the roots of zombie lore (“real” Haitian zombies, not George Romero’s marauding cannibals) had its unnerving moments, and Craven got meta with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, an art-spills-into-life horror picture with an unacknowledged debt to the twisty novels of Jonathan Carroll.
Craven got his next and final “franchise” with the ultimate in recursive horror, Scream, in which the genre itself came in for ribbing. But the films weren’t camp. They were too violent and upsetting for camp. The killings were prolonged and agonizingly real, and Craven made sure the sound of big knives penetrating flesh was extra loud. The most notable thing about Scream and its sequels is that they allowed Craven to become a real craftsman. He got playful, teasing, slick. The violence was hard-core, but the technique was a long way from The Last House on the Left or even A Nightmare on Elm Street. His success allowed him to make an okay middlebrow Oscar-bait movie, Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep as a music teacher at an underfunded school full of underprivileged kids. The climax was perhaps Craven’s only glimpse of heaven — though transcendence came via art (and a quest for social justice) and not religion.
Craven didn’t really have a signature style, but with Red Eye he showed some good Hitchcockian moves. Mostly, though, he settled into playing impresario, enjoying his fortune, and marrying for the third time. Although the first Nightmare film is a classic, I’m not sure he died fulfilled — his name was on a lot of crap. But he still grappled with the moral urgency of the genre that could seem a macabre extension of his fundamentalist upbringing. As he told Ebiri, “Horror reflects things about ourselves that are ugly, and people need to deny that, to assume that it’s just coming from whoever made the film and not reflecting human nature,” he said. “They have to think, ‘This is coming from that person,’ so that they don’t confront certain things about themselves. They don’t look around them. But seeing the world around you in a clear way is the beginning of wisdom.”