There’s a famous anecdote often referred to by film critics about the time that Wes Craven walked out of a film festival screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. According to legend, Tarantino was exasperated, claiming that he “couldn’t believe the man that made Last House on the Left” had walked out of his film. Craven simply replied, “but that violence meant something”.
Wes Craven was by no means the first horror filmmaker to introduce substance as well as terror; you can find that earlier in Romero, Friedkin and Polanski. However, there is no denying that time and time again, Craven mastered the art of horror franchising with subtext. Craven’s legacy will always be overshadowed by Freddy Krueger’s clawed figure, but the ways in which he manipulated tropes he had helped to create revitalised the tiring slasher genre.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare boasted a postmodern edge through which Craven was not only able to reimagine the tired commodification of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, but in turn satirise the profitable Frankenstein he had created, scaring audiences that were desensitised to Krueger. The self-reflexivity he had mastered with New Nightmare was the catalyst for Scream, perhaps his most famous work – at least to millennials. Scream is perhaps a masterclass in balancing tone. Watching the movie, you’ll laugh just as many times as you cry, and Craven’s acknowledgement of tropes (while at the same time adhering to them) gave the slasher genre a true breath of fresh air. Young audiences flocked to multiplexes once again, ready to be scared.
In writing this, I accept the futility of attempting to sum up the breadth of someone’s career in a few paragraphs (especially someone that I did not know). The best way to know the importance that Wes Craven had in horror cinema is simply to go back and watch his most famous films. I remember being twelve years old, and somehow managing to get a hold of the Nightmare boxset from HMV (I guess my local branch didn’t know the difference between 12 and 24).
I remember sleepovers with my friends, where we would cackle through Johnny Depp’s early acting and some of the sketchy special effects in the first film. Then, one image, which remains forever inscribed into my brain. Nancy, finding class at school boring, falls asleep despite the horrific death of her friend Tina the previous night. It is at this point where, even to this day, I almost fast-forward, but bring myself to watch the scene through my fingers. A body, more specifically, the body of Tina arrives at school – bagged and bloody, somewhere between dream and nightmarish reality, and begging for help. Did she leave a trail of blood as she walked down the hallways? I can’t remember. It was so frightening that the images began to manipulate themselves, and I began to manipulate them.
Let’s all just hope that Wes Craven is safe in his own dreams, or perhaps he prefers nightmares.