Craven redefined horror film genre
WES Craven was a prolific writer and director who redefined the horror genre not once but twice in his filmmaking career.
Craven ushered in two distinct eras of suburban slashers, first in the 1980s with his iconic Nightmare on Elm Street and its indelible, razor-fingered villain Freddy Krueger. He did it again in the 1990s with the selfreferential Scream.
Both reintroduced the fringe genre to mainstream audiences and spawned successful franchises.
Perhaps it was his perfectly askew interpretation of the medium that resonated with his audiences.
“Horror films don’t create fear,” Craven said. “They release it.”
Robert Englund, the actor who brought Freddy Krueger to life, wrote on Twitter that Craven was a “rare species ... brilliant, kind, gentle and very funny man. It’s a sad day on Elm Street and everywhere.”
“Wes will forever be remembered for keeping generations of moviegoers on the edges of their seats, defining and redefining the horror genre with each passing decade,” Directors Guild of America president Paris Barclay said.
Craven didn’t solely deal in terror. He also directed the 1999 drama Music of the Heart, which earnt Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination. But his name and his legacy will always be synonymous with horror.
Craven was born into a strict Baptist family in Ohio. He earnt a master’s degree in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University and briefly taught as a college professor in Pennsylvania and New York, but his start in movies was in pornography, where he worked under pseudonyms.
Craven’s feature debut under his own name was 1972’s The Last House on the Left. Made for just $87,000 the film, though graphic enough to be censored in many countries, was a hit. Nightmare on Elm Street, however, catapulted Craven to far greater renown in 1984. The Ohio-set film is about teenagers, including a then unknown Johnny Depp, who are stalked in their dreams. Craven wrote and directed, starting a franchise that has carried on, most recently with a 2010 remake.
The concept, Craven said, came from his own youth in Cleveland – specifically an Elm Street cemetery and a homeless man that inspired Krueger’s raged look.
According to his website, Craven always had an eye for discovering fresh talent, something that contributes to the success of his films.
Besides Depp, Craven cast Sharon Stone in her first starring role for his film Deadly Blessing. He even gave Bruce Willis his first featured role in an episode of TV’s mid-80s edition of The Twilight Zone.
Along with John Carpenter’s Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street defined a horror tradition where helpless teenagers are preyed upon by knife-wielding, deformed killers in cruel morality tales. Usually promiscuous girls were the first to go.
Director Edgar Wright, who counts Craven as one of his influences, reflected on the legacy of his films in a tribute on his website. “The first Nightmare quickly became a landmark horror movie and what distinguished it then is what still marks it out as a classic now,” Wright wrote.
“It’s the sheer twisted imagination of the premise; the idea of lucid waking nightmares bleeding into the real world makes Freddy Krueger a much more formidable and interesting foe than any of his slasher rivals.”
The formula would work again for Craven with Scream, albeit with an added layer of self-aware spoof.
By 1996, the Craven-style slasher was a well-known type, even if it wasn’t always made by him. He had no involvement with many of the Elm Street sequels.
Scream, written by Kevin Williamson and starring a cast including Drew Barrymore and Neve Campbell, played off of the horror cliches Craven helped create. It hatched three sequels, all of which he directed. The film, which sparked the phenomenal trilogy, was the winner of MTV’s 1996 Best Movie Award and grossed more than $100 million domestically, as did Scream 2.
Craven again pushed his genre boundaries with the 2005 psychological thriller Red Eye.
He was a published author with the novel The Fountain Society released in 2000. He also was an ardent bird conservationist, serving as a long-time member of the Audubon California board of directors. He recently wrote a monthly column “Wes Craven’s The Birds” for Martha’s Vineyard magazine.
Craven had several television projects in development at the time of his death including a new Scream series for MTV. He was an executive producer of the upcoming film The Girl in the Photographs, which is to premiere this month at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Craven’s first marriage produced two children. He is survived by his third wife, producer Iya Labunka; his children and a stepdaughter.