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Remembering Wes Craven, the horror master that got into our heads

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As a general rule, those that work in horror don’t get a ton of respect. Part of it’s the B-movie ghetto of the genre itself; part of it’s the indelicate work of plumbing the subconscious. Allowing people to confront the cruel, grisly truths of life through storytelling is an essential form of catharsis, but it doesn’t necessarily make for polite dinner conversation. So when I heard last night that Wes Craven, the writer-director behind movies like A Nightmare On Elm Street and Scream, had died at the age of 76, I jumped online, expecting token mentions and minor blurbs — but I found something else instead.

CNN called him a "visionary filmmaker." The New York Times: a "horror master." "Legend"; "Maestro"; the accolades went on and on.

Then again, Wes Craven never was your typical horror director.

Raised in a strict Baptist household

Raised in a strict Baptist household where he wasn’t even allowed to watch most movies, Craven lost his father at the age of five. It was an upbringing full of rigorous adherence, yet punctuated by death, forming Craven’s sense that the world was a place where violence and chaos lurked just beneath the surface of everyday life. He found himself drawn to writing and philosophy in college, eventually earning a master's degree from John Hopkins and working as a professor. Nursing frustrated creative ambitions, he ended up working on a college short film, and fell hopelessly in love with filmmaking. So he quit teaching, moved his wife and two kids to New York City, and soon found himself getting steady work in the then-flourishing porn industry. There he fell in with Sean S. Cunningham — the eventual creator of Friday the 13th — who encouraged Craven to turn the angst of his fundamentalist upbringing into horror films.

Craven responded to Cunningham’s challenge with The Last House on the Left, a notoriously violent and sadistic revenge film inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, made on the slightest of shoestring budgets. It became an indie horror hit, and Craven followed it up with The Hills Have Eyes, another exploitation flick about a family attacked by a group of cannibals in the Nevada desert.

I first encountered Craven’s work when I developed a childhood obsession with his 1982 adaptation of Swamp Thing. It wasn’t a very good movie — although I can still quote stretches of Louis Jourdan’s overwrought dialogue to this day ("Bruno’s essence was stupidity; timidity. The formula simply extended — amplified — this to ridiculous forms and proportions!"). But there was a certain kind of wondrous, low-budget magical realism in the film that I responded to, and when I discovered A Nightmare on Elm Street Craven became one of my favorite horror filmmakers.

Craven's Freddy Krueger was vicious and cruel; the dark underbelly of suburbia

When you talk to people about Freddy Krueger, they usually fall into two camps: those that remember him as the wise-cracking, Roger Moore of horror that actor Robert Englund eventually became, and those that remember him from Craven’s original. Wes Craven’s vision for Krueger was vicious, cruel; a child murderer that represented the dark underbelly of everyday suburban existence. The original Nightmare was inspired by a real-life newspaper story about a child that actually died of fright during a nightmare; Freddy himself came from Craven’s childhood memory of a drunken man in a fedora and sweater lurking outside his house. But it was the sheer invention of the concept itself that sparked something new in the genre. And while Nightmare often got lumped together with Friday the 13th, it became clear that Craven’s academic roots in philosophy, the subconscious, and cultural mythmaking drove his process more than a mere lust for gore.

The genial father figure of horror

For those of us that grew up on the genre, Craven became the genial father figure of horror; always soothing and comforting in interviews, thoughtful both about the things he wanted to explore in his films, and the importance of purging societal fears through the arts. That’s what made it so painful to watch over the ensuing decade as his work swung unpredictably from the intriguing (The Serpent and the Rainbow) to the awkward (Deadly Friend) to the desperate (Shocker). But despite the fallow periods, there was no denying that his wild imagination had transformed the genre. Not only did New Line Cinema crank out enough Nightmare sequels to burn people out on the character (Craven only directed two of the nine films in franchise), but studios scrambled to copy the surrealism of Elm Street in hopes of creating their own blockbuster franchises. (My "favorite" was something called Brainscan.)

With the slasher craze pretty much dead and buried by the early ‘90s, many filmmakers would have moved on to other topics — but Craven, always trying to understand why things scared us, understood that the next item to tackle was our relationship with horror films themselves. His first step into the meta-terrain was New Nightmare, a sequel revolving around the idea that the people that made the Nightmare on Elm Street films were being hunted by a new version of Freddy. But the idea didn’t truly click into place until 1996.

Craven found himself responsible for yet another horror renaissance

Written by Kevin Williamson, Scream was raucous and fun, a scary movie about scary movies that toyed with the genre’s conventions with a glee Craven hadn’t really shown off before. It was an incredible hit — and just like what had happened 10 years prior, Craven found himself responsible for a new kind of horror renaissance. This time he stayed tied closely to the material, however, directing all four Scream movies and using the leverage of his success to branch out into different genres, trying his hand at drama with Meryl Streep (Music of the Heart) and proving he had straight-ahead thriller chops in 2005’s underrated Red Eye.

Craven was never the most consistent filmmaker, and for every Scream or Nightmare there’s a Cursed or My Soul To Take. But through it all Craven maintained that same welcome, professorial countenance. Always thoughtful and considered; a filmmaker with an affinity for the medium’s great artists, who earnestly tried to bring his best, biggest ideas to the genre in every way he could.

His impact only intensified in recent years

Looking at his credits now, I admit I’m a little shocked to realize Wes Craven never directed a film after 2011’s Scream 4. According to yesterday’s reports, he’d been quietly battling brain cancer, but he never seemed to be anything but busy — developing some SyFy shows here, adapting a graphic novel there — and the impact of his legacy has only intensified in recent years (there’s no Scream Queens or The Final Girls without Craven). I suppose it’s often that way when you grow up admiring somebody and their work; they’re just always there. But everything’s ephemeral, here for a brief moment and then gone the next.

I’m going to miss Wes Craven. I’m going to miss the things I learned from him, and from his movies. We all will, whether we realize it or not.