RIP Wes Craven: A Pioneer Who Tested The Limits Of Horror

"Keep telling yourself, it's ONLY a movie..."
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Horror directors are often mischaracterised as schlock merchants; exploitative hacks, happy to pander to the basest instincts of a lowest-common-denominator audience. In a genre that regularly suffers from an absence of wit, characters become little more than ciphers, kept alive long enough to lose their shirt, and their virginity shortly thereafter, before being hacked to pieces in gory detail. And the films themselves? Many struggle to pad out ninety minutes, with little in the way of story, dialogue or a compelling motivation for the killer or their victims.

And so it was, in 1996, that Wes Craven decided to bite the hand that had been feeding him for over twenty years, with Scream; a film that managed to assassinate and resurrect this most maligned of genres with one slash of a serrated hunting knife. Unusually for Craven, his role here was as a director for hire - the screenplay was all the work of Kevin Williamson, a young screenwriter who'd grown up on the films of Craven, Carpenter and Cunningham.

An auteur in the truest sense, Craven usually scripted his own movies, but something in Scream (at the time, called Scary Movie) spoke to his frustration with the genre he'd made his own. And although much of the arch dialogue and knowing references bit their thumb at well-established cliches, Craven knew that he was exempt from much of this criticism. Because Craven never played by the rules. He wanted us to believe that the hills had eyes, and that his horror films had a brain.

Wes Craven was never supposed to be a film-maker. His strictly religious upbringing meant he had no access to TV or movies, and only began his love affair with film when he went off to college. Academia seemed more suited to his quietly introspective and intellectual demeanour, which is why he started out a Professor of Humanities. After some behind-the-scenes work with his friend Sean Cunningham, who was later to create the Friday 13th franchise, the pair concocted a low-budget concept for a horror film.

Depicting the graphic rape and murder of two teenage girls at the hands of a gang of drug addicts, and the violent revenge exacted by one of the girls' parents, Last House On The Left was a gruelling and unpleasant experience. But even in those early, lo-fi days, where Craven's ambition greatly outweighed his technical proficiency, critics were aware that there was a thoughtful intelligence behind the graphic cruelty. After all, few low budget horrors crowding the bill at the local drive-in could lay claim to being a contemporary re-telling of an Ingmar Bergman classic.

Last House On The Left was followed in 1978 by The Hills Have Eyes, which depicted a family fighting for their lives against an inbred posse of mutants in the desert. The story was inspired by the Scottish legend of Sawney Bean and his cannibalistic clan, and once again featured graphic violence, dark humour, and a subtle commentary on the nature of 'civilisation.' As in his debut, Craven was keen to explore the tipping point between civility and retribution, since he was fascinated with our own dark reflection. When pushed to the limit, he argued, we all have the potential to become as feral and bloodthirsty as our tormentors.

The early eighties were initially a fallow period, as Craven tried his hand at comic book movies (the forgettable Swamp Thing adaptation) and religious cults (Deadly Blessing), before creating the most iconic horror character of the last thirty years. A Nightmare On Elm Street was dismissed by every studio in Hollywood as a late entry in the already out-of-favour slasher cycle. A relentless barrage of derivative and tedious films had worn out their welcome with an undiscriminating audience with a seemingly inexhaustible hunger for seeing nubile young teens being chopped to pieces by an anonymous psycho in a mask.

Thankfully, Robert Shaye of New Line Cinema, saw something different in Craven's script. There was a teasing surrealism to the dream sequences, strongly written lead characters, and an enigmatic villain with a truly unique weapon - inspired by mankind's primordial fear of animal claws. In Freddy Krueger, Craven had created a genuinely iconic villain who was to Fangoria magazine what Princess Diana was to the Daily Express. The parade of sequels (most of which, with the exception of Part 3, had no input from Craven) may have turned him into the Bob Hope of horror, but Craven's unrelenting original made him terrifying, unpredictable and unforgettable.

Buoyed by his first truly mainstream hit, Craven explored other areas of the genre - rarely recapturing the same level of financial success, but always with the same creative vigour and vision. Many fans argue that 1989's Shocker was probably the low point in his career, as his mandate to create a 'new Freddy' was a little too obvious. As a psychopathic TV repairman with a psychic link to his estranged son, Mitch Pileggi seemed to enjoy his one outing as Horace Pinker, but even Craven's most devoted fans could tell that this was no franchise starter. Even so, Shocker enabled the auteur to pointedly satirise the wasteland of late eighties TV, culminating in an inspired chase and fight sequence that saw hero and villain interrupting multiple broadcasts across a number of channels.

Craven was back firing on all cylinders in 1991, when he turned his disgust at stories of teenage victims abducted and imprisoned in seemingly ordinary suburban homes, into a coruscating satire of Reaganomics. He even cast Ed and Nadine Hurley (from TV's Twin Peaks) as a hyper-real take on Ron and Nancy, literally devouring the urban underclass, when they weren't applying the old adage of 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' with a brutal literalism. The People Under The Stairs failed to find a mainstream audience, but those that recognised the political subtext, could see that here was a master at the height of his craft.

This winning streak continued in 1994 when Craven boldly decided to revisit his most successful creation; this time adding a meta-commentary about the role of horror films in a world with no shortage of real-life terrors. Craven was always a firm believer that the genre offers a cathartic release for audiences, and chose to explore this through a story which saw the cast of the original Elm Street returning to play themselves. Long before Larry David applied a similar conceit to improvisational comedy in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Craven envisaged a heightened reality that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. In the process, he made informed observations about humanity's need to contain evil through story-telling, and managed to make Freddy Krueger genuinely terrifying again. Scream may have popularised the meta-horror subgenre, but Wes Craven's New Nightmare invented it.

In reflection, it's easy to see the appeal of the Scream franchise to someone like Craven. Not only did Williamson's script offer some ingeniously structured set-pieces, it gave him ample opportunity to interrogate the clichés and conventions of a genre that often favoured insides over insights. Once again, he also demonstrated a sharp eye for casting, assembling a surprising ensemble that included Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox and The Fonz. Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns saw the scares dwindle as the glib dialogue increased, but all were shot with ruthless efficiency and a keen eye for staging.

Along the way, Craven also tried his hand at Oscar-baiting melodrama, scoring a nomination for Meryl Streep as a music teacher, an ill-advised vampire comedy with a 'difficult' Eddie Murphy, and a fast-moving thriller shot in almost-real-time. But it's only right that he should be remembered as a master of horror.

Wes Craven passed away at the age of 76, from brain cancer. Part of the reason this news came as such a shock, was that he had shown no signs of slowing down, with novels, TV shows and films still in active development. Still, he leaves us with an incomparable legacy of classic films, that will continue to frighten and inspire future generations.

But even as we look back at his career, it's worth remembering the now-legendary strap line from his film debut. The posters might have screamed "Keep telling yourself, it's ONLY a movie..." But whenever Wes was involved, it was always something more.