Remembering Wes Craven: Horror’s Guiding Voice

Without Wes Craven I might not have gotten into horror. I probably didn’t know it at the time. I was four and the idea of directors and writers wasn’t really […]

Without Wes Craven I might not have gotten into horror.

I probably didn’t know it at the time. I was four and the idea of directors and writers wasn’t really that prominent in my brain. What was prominent was a snarling one-liner spewing killer that was everywhere at the time: Freddy Krueger.

If you ask me, Freddy Krueger is easily the best of the well-known slasher monster as well as the most accessible. If you want any proof, just look at the Freddy mania that gripped America in the late eighties and early nineties. Even now he’s a household name, occupying the same mental space as Frankenstein and Dracula. Not only does the brilliant presence of Robert Englund provide not just the menace of other slashers but the charisma of a rock star and a gleeful bully. Freddy Krueger was someone who fascinated kids as much as he terrified them.

Wes Craven was his creator, taking the boom of cheap slasher movies and bringing a slick Hollywood sensibility as well as a supernatural twist to finetune the genre. At a time when magical creatures like vampires and werewolves seemed played out and hokey, Wes Craven came along and decided to attack us in a place we could never defend: our own dreams. While it’s true the similarly horror characters like Dracula existed, they were all pacified by a century of family-friendly cameos. Freddy Krueger was raw and he was here to stay. His grisly murders made even the concept of falling asleep terrifying, as he took vengeance on the children of the people who murdered him by burning him alive. Initially the reason he was burnt up was due to being a child molester, but after the news was swept with a similar story, Craven decided to simply make him a child murderer to keep the film from being cheapened by a ‘ripped from the headlines’ feeling.

Nightmare on Elm Street is Craven’s most successful film but it’s far from his only great one. Craven has always been at the center of horror and its trends and you can see a good deal of copycats with what he did. Last House on The Left, Nightmare, and even Scream -which I am not a big fan of- all set new trends in horror films, even if not always for the better. I can defend Last House until I’m blue in the face but it also kicked off the shameful rape-revenge genre of horror for awhile. Similarly, I would consider Scream the least of Craven’s horror pieces even if it had not caused the proliferation of self-aware, needlessly winky horror films of the nineties as well as a television show I will never watch. As is, I find that movie an utter sin.

Wes Craven on the set of Vampire In Brookly (1995)

Even so, it speaks to the influence Craven invisibly pushed into the pool of the genre. It’s easy to scoff with derision at the fact that the Wayans Brothers made Scary Movie to be a parody of Scream which in itself was a parody. When you look beyond the obvious, there’s a clear statement there. Scream was horror in the nineties. This is what horror had become and that’s what Wes Craven had made it.

Craven’s career hasn’t just been genre-defining though. He has also created some overlooked gems and laughable misfires. I’ve never seen Craven’s adaptation of the classic DC Comic Swamp Thing but I do think it’s a shame that The People Under The Stairs is not a better-known film. The exclusion of black people in horror has often been pointed out, and this was a movie where the film starred an impoverished black child that was played in an utterly sympathetic role. The People Under The Stairs operates something like the reverse of a home invasion movie, with a poor black boy deciding to go into a nearby decrepit house to steal money to support his ailing family, only to find much more terrifying secrets.

The People Under The Stairs is one of the many movies that shows why Craven’s horror is so resonant. Everything he wrote operated in our world and looking through our world with a more critical lens. They aren’t films about how we’re actually demons, but asking what we did to create these demons. The Last House on The Left could be argued to be a direct response to other revenge films of the era such as Deathwish where violent retribution leads to nothing but more hollow feelings and pain. A Nightmare on Elm Street deals with a protective but aloof parents in a modern society that hoped to shelter their children from the evil in the world by not allowing them to know about it. Even Scream is talking about the jaded nature of the MTV generation and their self-congratulatory jaded self-awareness. It’s pretty clear that the reason Craven’s films succeeded is because they struck a chord with the events of the times. They weren’t quite films that utterly caught the zeitgeist, but they were films that could peer into corners of us that we didn’t necessarily want to see. Uncovering the curtain on those realities is the makings of great horror.

Wes Craven is a juggernaut in the horror genre. He’s made films I’ve loved and made films I’ve hated. He’s also made films I haven’t seen. The Hills Have Eyes is a pretty big blind spot in my repertoire of horror films. On the upside that means I still have Craven films to watch and be surprised and enthralled by. Craven’s work was clever, chilling, and even insightful. For a good deal of people growing up with his films, whether or not they knew he was horror itself.