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Wes Craven: Horror Master, Avid Birder

Wes Craven: Horror Master, Avid Birder

It’s no surprise that Terrence Malick, whose movies often luxuriate in nature at the expense of their human characters, is an avid birdwatcher — so much so that he simulated the calls of extinct birds for the sound mix of “The New World.” But Wes Craven? Whom no less an authority than “The Exorcist’s” William Friedkin called “film for film… the best horror director”? One doesn’t imagine him sneaking out, Franzen-like, in the pre-dawn light to spend hours scanning the trees with a set of binoculars.

But in the wake of Craven’s death, Craven’s passion for birding has come to light. In the last years of his life, before his brain cancer necessitated a return to Los Angeles for treatment, he moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where he wrote a monthly birding column for the island’s eponymous magazine — called, with a nod to Hitchcock, “Wes Craven’s The Birds.” While others were weighing the impact “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream” left on the world of horror, the Audubon Society remembered him as “an incredible evangelist for birds” who fought for endangered species. (“A Nightmare on Elm Street 2” features a bird being set on fire, but Craven didn’t direct that one.) In a 2008 interview with Audubon magazine, he explained how, even in the grindhouse horror of “Last House on the Left,” birds played an important role:

“I used them almost as orchestration — a long chase through the woods. As the tension rose and the action rose, I just brought up the blue jays. I’ve used the whip-poor-will a few times, probably inappropriately, but it’s such a haunting sound, and I do remember the sound from being a kid in the woods of Ohio and on camping trips. But yeah, I think they’re used a lot in Hollywood. I would be the first to confess that accuracy is probably not the first motivation.”

In the wake of Craven’s death, Martha’s Vineyard magazine has put Craven’s columns online, and they make for fascinating reading. Rather than enthuse over the pristine beauty of nature, Craven conjures a series of dark, whimsical fables about talking animals, presented in a wryly matter-of-fact style. (“Last week at Boston Logan International, while waiting for a Cape Air flight back to the Vineyard, I happened to see a woodpecker, a blue jay, and an Arctic tern walk into a bar,” he wrote in the second installment.)

The eighth and final chapter of “Wes Craven’s The Birds” is a real humdinger, a kind of postapocalyptic blend of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “BoJack Horseman” in which Craven and a handful of feathered friends travel to the future:

“We took off from the Vineyard on a nice day in 2014 and twelve hours later crash-landed outside Baltimore in 2020. The blue jay was dead before he hit the ground – high tension wires. There were hurricane winds, lightning, and driving rain. In fact, the whole coastal area looked like it had been flooded and growing wild for years. There were coyotes and feral dogs everywhere, and they weren’t the only marauding creatures. There was a guy with a shotgun who wanted to eat my guides. I said no, which got both the coot and me shot. But suddenly the osprey snatched the twelve-gauge from the shooter’s hand, swung it head first like a fish in its talons, and pulled the trigger. It wasn’t pretty but it sure solved the problem. 

“I didn’t know a bird could do that!” I gasped.

“Not in 2014,” the osprey said. “But it’s 2030 now. Times are a changing.

There will be no more Wes Craven movies, but at least we’ve got one more piece of work to devour from him before we say goodbye.  “They were sort of these moral fables,” Martha’s Vineyard editor Paul Schneider told the Boston Globe. “They’re hard to describe, and only Wes Craven could have written them.” Too right.

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