In the summer of 1985 I lived in a small town in upstate New York (and still do) where the local dry cleaners was also the local video store. They didn’t have much interest in policing R-rated titles and my friends and I, a group of 13-year olds, could freely peruse and rent most of them. Standing out in the long row of VHS boxes was a startling image of a young woman stricken with terror and a glove made of knives standing ready to envelop her. We quickly plucked the box from the shelf, brought it to my friends house whose parents were at work, and popped into the trusty VCR.
This would be the first time I saw the New Line Cinema graphic roll across the screen. The first time I saw Johnny Depp, and the first time my group of friends watched an entire film in silence and disbelief. Freddy Krueger wrought havoc on Elm Street for 91 glorious minutes, a body bag inch-wormed its way down a high school hallway and suddenly we all knew who Wes Craven was. This was not CGI, it was not a mindless cardboard cutout character with an axe. This was old school special effects, it was Krueger seemingly stretching through a solid wall to slaughter the unsuspecting and sleeping teenager below. It left you wondering how they pulled that off. It left you wondering who Freddy Krueger had been in life. It left you wondering if you would see him in your dreams later.
This week the film world, not just the horror genre, but the film world at large, lost Wes Craven to brain cancer. Like anyone who loses a childhood icon I was distraught at the loss and found myself reading his now dormant Twitter feed with a sense of melancholy. I realized at that moment what an impact a gifted film maker like Craven can have on entire generations or on an individual who just loves good film. People say icon a lot, so much that it has lost its meaning. But when you think of something, or someone, that’s truly iconic (though it remains a subjective opinion) you can see clearly that Craven fits the definition. For example, if you grew up in the 70’s MASH was iconic, in the 80’s Cheers or the A-Team was iconic, in the 90’s it was Friends or NYPD Blue. What makes them icons exactly? Perhaps it’s because in that 30-year period there were literally thousands of mediocre or failed television shows that no one remembers and that won’t be seen by future generations. The shows that endure the test of time and are enjoyed by people who weren’t even alive when they debuted are properly labeled icons. They survive shifts in prevailing opinions, the latest cultural or moral panics and are not subject to the whims of a pop culture obsessed public. Such is the case with Wes Craven films and particularly Elm Street.
Like many iconic films, Rocky comes to mind, Craven’s breakaway hit Nightmare On Elm Street was a labor of love, one that would start ripples in the pond of cinema for decades to come. Remember that New Line Cinema would later give us Boogie Nights, My Own Private Idaho, Lord of the Rings, Wedding Crasher, Elf, Rush Hour Austin Powers and more. At the time, however, they were a fledgling studio taking a gamble on a project that could make or break them with a horror film maker that had demonstrated flashes of genius but had a few notable box office disasters, i.e. Swamp Thing, on his resume. Craven, like Stallone before him, was basically broke while making Elm Street. In an interview with Film Maker Magazine he recalls borrowing money from the producer of a vastly inferior franchise (Friday the 13th) to pay a tax bill and continue pursuing his Elm Street dreams. On November 16, 1984, Cravens film with a 1.8 million dollar budget hit the theaters and horror fans fell in love. It would finish its theatrical run with more than 26 million dollars in box office receipts, modest by todays standards, but a blockbuster for a horror film distributed by a fledgling studio.
What Wes Craven did with Elm Street is so remarkable that restricting his legend to “horror film creator” seems almost unfair. He was a film maker, a master of building tension and suspense, he created characters and legends and sure, he scared the crap out of a generation. Nightmare on Elm Street came along at the height of the “slasher” film craze and is unfairly lumped in with the likes of low budget cheesy classics like Slumber Party Massacre and big budget soulless franchises like Friday the 13th. Elm Street and other Craven films transcended the slasher genre. They were so much more than a mindless automaton with a hockey mask and machete hacking away at topless teenagers. Freddy Krueger had a deep and rich backstory. Wes Craven created an entire myth, a legend, a story that was as fascinating as it was terrifying. While so many horror films of the 80’s eschewed characterization or plot for cheap jump scares, Craven created an entire myth and put meat on the bones of his movies. He created worlds and just so happened to litter them with corpses.
Two years later, in the fall of 1986, my friends and I once again saw the now legendary Wes Craven name attached to a film and we set about sneaking into the R-rated movie at the local theater. While it certainly didn’t turn out to be Craven’s seminal work, Deadly Friend gave us the scares, tension and characters we had come to expect. It gave us a young Kristy Swasnon, expanded on the abusive or negligent alcoholic parent character Crave seemed fascinated with and, bizarrely, shocked us with an Anne Ramsey death scene for the ages. Even though Deadly Friend is not a fondly remembered Craven classic, to me, it’s one of his most interesting. The film showed Craven as an early adopter of the “perils of technology” line of thinking that was primarily a tool of science fiction stories and is, even today, pervasive in some circles and expounded on that thought by proposing that scientists would ultimately abuse technology to play God. While not an entirely original premise the technological cautionary tale was masterfully retrofitted from classic sci-fi so that it would blend seamlessly with a more horrific tale. With disastrous results of course. The movie relates the story of a young genius, Paul Conway, who takes the robot he invented to a new town and joins the robotics department of the local university despite being a high school age boy with high school age boy thoughts. Quickly beguiled by the beauty of his new neighbor Samantha (Swanson) Paul develops a crush that ends tragically when her abusive father sends her plummeting down a flight of stairs. On life support and declared brain dead Samantha receives new hope when the young genius sneaks into the hospital and takes the computerized brain of his homemade robot and uses it to help her brain heal and function again. Of course this goes badly because whenever you take the strict programming of a machine and introduce human emotion you naturally produce a monster. The Frankenstein parallels are, naturally, inescapable however the dangers of robotics were in their infancy and, along with Terminator, you have to look back and say Craven was at the forefront.
When looking back on Wes Cravens career it is impossible to not be astonished that he was able to capture the attention and adoration of 3 generations of film lovers. The Hills Have Eyes hit theaters in 1977, quickly garnered a cult following and spawned a remake 30 years later. Last House on the Left, a terrifying tale of 2 girls who go seeking drugs on their way to a rock concert but wind up in the hands of a deranged gang of psychotics, was released in 1972 and hit a nerve with parents and adventure seeking teenagers almost instantly. At its heart its about hyper-sexualized teenage girls and the terror their hormones inspire in dads everywhere. Coupled with pot paranoia, fathers who came up in the free-love 60’s, rock music and strange boys and just like that it’s a horror film for both fathers and daughters alike. It was cheesy, low-budget and devolved quickly into a revenge fantasy that left every father who viewed it nodding his head silently and thinking “Yes. Anyone that raped or hurt my little girl would suffer a fate as dark or darker than that.” But its ability to tap into the fears of the moment, its use of the timeless angst fathers feel about daughter and its unabashed brutality made it into an enduring classic. 35 years later it too would spawn a remake that despite its larger budget felt empty without Cravens signature trepidation at the prevailing cultural mood.
The aforementioned 80’s, of course, gave us The Elm Street franchise, and then in 1996 Cravens genius struck again. On December 20, 1996, Wes Craven took the notion that horror movies cultivated psychopaths, which was leftover angst from panicky 80’s parents who had moved on to condemning video games, added to that the ever-popular notion that bored teenagers are the devils playthings and gave the world Scream. A film that would spawn 3 more like it and is currently enjoying new success with a television series and a remake cycle. A film that took Friends star Courtney Cox from her role as the funny, quirky Monica and made her the cut-throat and bitchy television reporter turned heroine. A role, it should be said, that Craven was reluctant to give her because he did not believe the loveable Cox could play “bitchy”.
And who can possibly forget the 1994 entry, and to my mind one of the most original and clever horror films in history: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. The film was a commentary on the effect Nightmare on Elm Street had on its cast several years later, on the impact it made on Craven himself and on his fans. In the film the actors all play themselves haunted by the character they helped bring to life. It’s a sort of homage to the “if you just believe hard enough it will be real” story line that usually leads to wonderful tales like miraculous cures for disease or Santa Claus, but not in Cravens world. In Cravens world it’s Robert Englunds legendary Krueger that is birthed from the devotion of fans, the genius of Craven and the talent of Heather Langenkamp.
From the teenagers of the 70’s to the teenagers of today, Wes Craven films, or Wes Craven inspired films, have terrorized nearly 40-years of film goers. You can’t find many writers or directors in Hollywood that can stake that claim. My parents knew his films, I grew up with them, and the children of the 90’s who occupied my seat in high school after I had vacated it fell in love with him as well. Hard to overstate the impact Wes Craven has had on film or to estimate how long his works will linger as cultural touchstones.
And so while there are far too many Craven films to mention in proper detail, like People Under the Stairs that so brilliantly captured the wave of “my kid will be kidnapped if I take my eyes off him for a second” hysteria of the early 90’s, it’s safe to say that if I listed them all here you would recognize one or two of them and smile. From my early days of plucking VHS boxes off a shelf so my friends and I could scare ourselves silly away from the eyes of disproving parents to today when my own children can just launch Netflix and cower in the presence of Freddy Kreuger, Wes Craven and his concept of good horror with proper character development, cultural relevance and skilled, tension-building direction and writing perseveres.
This is unabashedly a love letter to the man, the artist, we lost last week and I can only hope that when your children are the proper age you grab a Wes Craven film and scare the daylights out of them. They will remember it as assuredly as I can recall the smell of the dry cleaners that summer day and the way my eyes widened at the iconic Elm Street poster as I took the tattered box from the shelf. You will be missed Wes Craven but as far as I am concerned you will never be forgotten.