There are many ways to explain the impact Wes Craven, who died yesterday of brain cancer, had on horror films, and on the culture at large. But you can boil it down to this: He knew, on a bone-deep level, what scared us. Just hearing the plot of “A Nightmare on Elm St.” is enough to give you trouble sleeping. (It certainly was for me, as I wasn’t old enough to catch up with the series until 1987’s Nightmare 3, which Craven co-wrote and produced by did not direct.) Like “Psycho’s” shower scene or “Poltergeist’s” malevolent tree, the idea of a killer who murdered people in their dreams tapped into a primal vulnerability. Ads for his first movie, 1972’s “Last House on the Left,” may have proclaimed, “Keep Repeating: It’s Only a Movie,” but we knew better.
As much they pushed for raw-nerve shocks, and far more than most horror, Craven’s movies were driven by ideas, and they could be genuinely unsettling in ways that pushed against the boundaries of genre. “Last House on the Left,” with its deliberate blend of the Manson murders and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” set the stage for a career that drew on both visceral terror and the often-humorous deconstruction of it. Quentin Tarantino may have described Craven’s relationship to “Scream” as “the iron chain attached to its ankle,” but it was that weight that kept the movie from drifting off into glib self-satisfaction: Its generation-defining opening scene isn’t just a killer asking Drew Barrymore “What’s your favorite scary movie?” but a brutal, genuinely upsetting murder by an inhumanly swift and strong nightmare given human form.
Duane Byrge and Bryan Tallerico have obits at the Hollywood Reporter and RogerEbert.com. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff names Craven’s Top 5; while BuzzFeed’s Louis Peitzman goes to “12 Essential Films” (He also wrote last year’s “How ‘New Nightmare’ Changed the Horror Game.”) The Playlist collects video interviews with him here.
The first “Nightmare” quickly became a landmark horror movie and what distinguished it then is what still marks it out as a classic now. It’s the sheer twisted imagination of the premise; the idea of lucid waking nightmares bleeding into the real world makes Freddy Kruger a much more formidable and interesting foe than any of his slasher rivals. That Wes Craven was able to rip a film from the headlines (with echoes of the mass hysteria of the infamous McMartin case) and create a solid gold horror premise that is surreal and ambitious even within it’s limited budget, was a masterstroke.
I am thankful for the many movies he left behind, for my tiny part in his last completed film and happy to have got to tell him how much I enjoyed and was inspired by his work. He was a true maestro of genre and a class act.
Rest In Peace, Wes. We willingly give you full permission to haunt our waking dreams forever
Joe Dante (via the BBC)
Wes was a pioneer. Scream was a very self-aware film, and it was one of the first films that acknowledged that the audience knows as much as the characters do, or even more, about horror films and what their tropes are. The “Scream” movies enabled audiences to say “yes, I understand this and I know what the jokes are.” Wes was a former college professor, he was very professorial. He was a very warm guy. He was the last guy you would look at and think he makes horror films. He had great relationships with his actors. Like all of us he yearned to break out of his mould. Luckily, because of the success of the “Scream” films he was able to direct Meryl Streep in “Music of the Heart” — which won her an Academy Award nomination.
Jason Zinoman, New York Times
Mr. Craven was not a flashy or technically virtuosic filmmaker like Mr. Tarantino, although he developed into a superb director of suspense scenes. The opening chase in “Scream,” in which Drew Barrymore is stalked by a crank caller, is a clinic in slowly building terror. But what distinguished Mr. Craven was his knack for tapping into disturbing images that play on primal fears: the father burned alive in “The Hills Have Eyes”; the empty children’s swings in “Nightmare”; the face of the woman in “Last House” who is forced to urinate on herself. These lodge in your consciousness as much because of human psychology as because of cinematic vocabulary.
Robbin Collin, Telegraph
His real legacy is built on that understanding of horror as something that could galvanize you against true fear: at their best, his films were like immunizations, that left you stronger and better-equipped to deal with the real world at its vilest. We may have been his monsters, but we were also his heroes and heroines: bloody and brutalized, but limping out of the killer’s clutches, towards the light.
Anthony Breznican, Entertainment Weekly
Craven’s movies spoke to teens of the 1980s as powerfully as any John Hughes high school comedy. He took their fears seriously, however silly they may seem to adults, and wasn’t afraid to meld them with sex and sarcasm — two other immortal teen obsessions.
Ty Burr, Boston Globe
No one took nightmares more seriously — or, paradoxically, with more tongue-in-cheek wit — than Craven, who died Aug. 30 of brain cancer at 76. An erudite former English professor and devoted birder who was raised in a fundamentalist Cleveland household and who wandered into the film business by way of soft-core porn, Craven went on to give the horror movie at least two more major twists of the knife. In the process, he virtually invented an entire wing of post-modern popular culture.
David Edelstein, Vulture
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 …”
Peter S. Hall, Movies.com
What made Craven a master of horror wasn’t his ability to generate a scare, it was his understanding that the only way to truly process evil is to find something, anything, to laugh at. Craven consistently understood the marriage of horror and humor, which is why even his movies that weren’t grand slams (and there are more than a few) are still more inspired than your average horror movie that doesn’t dare risk having a shred of identifiable personality.
Greg Cwik, Indiewire
Though rife with blood – a lot of blood – Craven’s films exist within a literary cadre, one that has as much in common with Horace Walpole as it does John Carpenter. For his 1984 masterpiece “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” Craven exhumed the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe, playing with the ruination of our natural respite, sleep, “those little slices of death.” His contemporaries were more concerned with churning out cheap flicks of masked madmen running around chopping up pretty young things.
Stuart Heritage, Guardian
If you can judge a film-maker’s influence by how many copycats they inspire, then Wes Craven has to be seen as one of the most influential. Three times he changed his mind about what horror movies should be, and three times we were promptly flooded with all manner of dodgy knock-offs.
You all remember what happened with “Scream.” Horror movies had virtually disappeared from the mainstream for a few years. Then everybody loves “Scream” and suddenly it’s horror, slashers, thrillers, most of them cast to be like “Scream,” shot to look like “Scream,” soundtracked to sound like “Scream,” with dialogue trying to be like “Scream,” and toned to appeal to the audience of “Scream'” I revived interest in slasher whodunits and then slasher wealreadyknowwhodunits. It had bad influences and good. But, like the other ones I’ve mentioned so far, it survives all the hype and the copycats and holds up as a great horror movie.
Clarke Wolff, Nerdist
Here’s what I’ve learned from a master of the genre that means the most to me: real, true horror exists in the world and it’s your job to talk about it, no matter how painful or upsetting those facts can be. You are not a victim; you can fight back and, often times, it’s entirely possible that you are the smartest person in the room. Human suffering is a real problem, and it matters that you shed light on it. Who are you going to be at the end of your movie? Wes asked all of us this simple question, repeatedly. And my answer always was: A stronger person for have experienced one of his films.
Scott Mendelson, Forbes
Our artistic heroes may never match the glories that made them into heroes in the first place. But they shouldn’t have to, because it is those peaks that matter when the final tally is counted. Cameron Crowe doesn’t owe us another “Almost Famous.” Sean Connery and/or Gene Hackman don’t have to come out of retirement. Billy Joel has no obligation to follow up “River Of Dreams” 22 years after he swore that it would be his last pop album. And Wes Craven was the director of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (his best film), “Scream 2” (the best pure slasher film ever made), and “Red Eye.” For me, that’s all that matters in the end.
To be clear, film for film, Wes Craven
Was the best horror director. Ever.
And he did it with a sense of humor.
— William Friedkin (@WilliamFriedkin) September 1, 2015
Wes Craven made many great horror films, but he was also the genre’s most articulate defender. He affirmed its social and artistic worth.
— Scott Tobias (@scott_tobias) August 31, 2015
Wes Craven was a very funny, cerebral and gentle man. And on some level, he hated being a horror director, even though he was so good at it.
— Jason Zinoman (@zinoman) August 31, 2015
If it’s anything, Wes Craven’s work stands as a bulwark against brainlessness. His films had ideas, were about things other than makeup.
— Steve Carlson (@LCosgrove) August 31, 2015
Craven’s best films joined ideas to scares in ways that made both stronger. They scared because they provoked thought, and vice versa.
— Keith Phipps (@kphipps3000) August 31, 2015
Every so often, I still dream about the soft-staircase scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Thanks for the cold sweat, Wes Craven. RIP.
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) August 31, 2015
I saw SCREAM five times in theaters, and the last time I just watched the audience. I wanted to know how to make people react like that.
— Keith Calder (@keithcalder) August 31, 2015
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to convey the full extent to which seeing “Last House on the Left” FUCKED UP MY SHIT in the late 1970s
— Glenn Kenny (@Glenn__Kenny) August 31, 2015
Quite honestly, this is the only thing that could possibly inspire me to watch THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT again.
— Bill Ryan (@faceyouhate) August 31, 2015
I thank Wes Craven for introducing me to both Bergman and the term ‘meta,’ thereby contributing to all the pretensions of my early 20s. RIP.
— David Lowery (@davidlowery) August 31, 2015
Thank you for being the kindest man, the gentlest man, and one of the smartest men I’ve known. Please say there’s a plot twist. #wescraven
— rose mcgowan (@rosemcgowan) August 31, 2015
Was there a horror director with the resilience & continued relevance of Wes Craven? He made major films over five decades.
— Bilge Ebiri (@BilgeEbiri) August 31, 2015
RIP Wes Craven, my director, my friend. A brilliant, kind, gentle and very funny man. A sad day on Elm St and everywhere. I’ll miss him.
— Robert B. Englund (@RobertBEnglund) August 31, 2015
Today the world lost a great man, my friend and mentor, Wes Craven. My heart goes out to his family. x
— Courteney Cox (@CourteneyCox) August 31, 2015
To Wes Craven, thank you for the nightmares. Both the ones that you made and the ones you gave me. You earned your rest.
— Timothy Simons (@timothycsimons) August 31, 2015
Wes Craven has died, and in a better world this would mean that inevitably he would arise to kill again.
— Christopher Bird (@mightygodking) August 31, 2015