Wes Craven found fear in ideas. 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.
“Elm Street” doesn’t rely on stupid teenagers tripping on sticks in the woods (though Johnny Depp’s Glen probably isn’t the brightest kid on the block). It manipulates scenery and settings deviously, depicting the world not as it exists but as characters perceive it while trapped in their dreamscapes.
Craven created one of the iconic slashers of the decade, one that eventually gave rise to the ghoulish slapstick of countless sequels — yet the original Fred Krueger preyed not on the follies of youth but their unconscious terrors, torturing and slaughtering them not for anything they did but for the sins of their parents. When the abysmal sequel “Freddy’s Revenge” had Freddy run around at a pool party, rendering the mutilated demon man in entirely parodic terms, Craven eschewed scares and went for fun. The third entry was an improvement: “Dream Warriors,” which Craven wrote, makes its special effects the main attraction, all those youthful anxieties now manifested as corporeal menace. This exploration of fantasy bleeding into reality, the actual mingling with the imaginary, is the central motif of Craven’s career.
Craven, who died Sunday at 76, taught English at Westminster College before pursuing a more lucrative career as a pornography director. One has to imagine what a master of horror could do with sex — and where his career might have wound up if he had stayed on that path.
But the porn beat didn’t last, as he soon turned to murder. At his best, Craven extrapolated cultural anxieties and fed them into that mordant framework. For his 1972 debut feature, “The Last House on the Left,” he took Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” — a stoic, unnervingly pensive depiction of good and evil — and defiled it, chewed it up and spat it out. The sordid result was a rape-revenge film that managed to make Sam Peckinpah look timid. It wasn’t like any other form of entertainment in theaters at the time. His 1977 “The Hills Have Eyes” channeled the ideas of atomic age drive-in flicks and the pulpy grotesqueries of Universal monster movies while operating within the vein of New Hollywood and exploring lingering nuclear fears.
From there, body of work is, to put it kindly, patchy, with the last two decades being particularly shoddy. Then came a mild improvement: “Shocker,” with “The X-Files” star Mitch Pileggi as a murderer who – I’m not kidding – gains the ability to become electricity after dying in the electric chair. Despite the silly premise, Craven explored the notion of television as a portals for murderous intentions, which is typical of his critical mentality.
After “Scream 3,” it took five years to produce another film. That would be “Cursed,” written by “Scream” scribe Kevin Williamson. The movie feels like ersatz Craven, though it does have some camp appeal. The thriller “Red Eye” has its moments, particularly when Craven harkens back to Hitchcock by keeping his hero and villain confined in a plane, but things go awry when they land, and missiles overwhelm the plot. “My Soul to Take,” the first film Craven wrote since “New Nightmare,” contains a lot of its progenitor’s ideas and themes, but Craven just seemed tired by this point. The film commits the worst horror sin by being boring.
For all the underwhelming achievements populating Craven’s filmography, his contributions to horror remain undeniable. The veteran filmmaker reinvented himself by going back to the source of his inspiration. “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” and the “Scream” movies did meta before meta was a word dropped by every kid who took an English class. Craven crafted a series of horror movies about horror movies, like the slasher world’s version of Robert Altman’s “The Player,” but with horny high schoolers and a scar-faced demon who has knives for fingers replacing Tim Robbins and Vincent D’Onofrio.
It’s beguiling, and a little unsettling, seeing Craven play himself in “New Nightmare.” For all the visceral terror and eerie nightmares populating his films, his mind seems to be always reeling, always uneasy, but his demeanor is oddly placid. The serene way he explains Fred Krueger to Heather Langenkamp belies the violence throughout his films. He returned to the horror of the original “Nightmare,” before Fred got cutesy and coy. He reformatted the blurring of fantasy and reality for the post-Freddy age.
“Scream” skewers the idea of violent entertainment turning kids violent by presenting its villains as two sociopathic kids who watch too many movies. Kevin Williamson’s script provides the references, and references to references, and movie-derived hijinks, but Craven made the movie scary. The opening scene, possibly the best of his career, starts playfully before arriving at a grisly murder scene not too far removed from the ones populating his debut. It’s clever, of course, but also displays a brutality that Craven hadn’t shown since his early days.
Drew Barrymore gets maimed – stabbed, choked, gutted and strung up in a tree. It makes the subsequent jokes about violence and horror feel slightly less funny, but considerably more incisive. That’s Craven’s great contribution to American horror: Reminding us it’s only a movie… only a movie…until it’s something else.
Editor’s note: Because an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the release date for “Shocker.” The film was released in 1989.