When “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was released in 1984, horror director Wes Craven wondered whether he might be ready for something a little different. Feeling frozen out of more mainstream fare, he thought he would try something novel — maybe a castaway movie.
“Maybe [“Elm Street”] will be the one that gets me into ‘the club,’” he said. “I’m tired of being out in the cold. I certainly don’t want to do another slasher or man-with-a-knife type of film. … I know in my heart I’m ready for something new. I’m tired of being ‘the granddaddy of the slasher film.’”
Now that Craven, who died Sunday of brain cancer at 76, is gone, it’s clear he never really outran his “granddaddy” status. But he was at least able to escape the claustrophobic upbringing that once made the course of his decades-long career — which led to college classrooms, porn sets and even the Academy Awards — unimaginable.
Born in 1939 in Cleveland, Craven’s childhood came with the trauma necessary to an artist obsessed with the macabre: death and religion. The director-to-be lost his father, an alcoholic factory hand, in his youth, and was raised by a strict Protestant family.
“I came out of a very religious background,” he said in 1984. ”As fundamentalist Baptists, we were sequestered from the rest of the world. You couldn’t dance or drink or go to the movies. The first time I paid to see a movie (‘To Kill a Mockingbird’) I was a senior in college. … My whole youth was based on suppression of emotion. As they say in psychological circles, my family never got in touch with their rage. So making movies — these awful horror movies, no less — was, I guess, my way of purging this rage.”
Craven ended up at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution where he ran afoul of the administration as editor of the literary magazine. Two stories sparked ire: one about an unwed mother, one about an interracial romance.
“I have fond memories of Wheaton,” Craven, who went to the school only because his sister’s fiance was attending, said in 1997. “… I was the first member of my family to attend college, and, frankly, the idea of applying to more than one school never occurred to us. Our worry was that Wheaton College might be too liberal.”
After graduation, Craven drifted east, earning a master’s degree in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and landing a teaching position at Clarkson College in Potsdam, N.Y. Studying European New Wave auteurs such as Federico Fellini and Luis Bunuel while at Clarkson, he left the halls of academe for a grittier profession: pornography.
“For awhile there, it was kind of like the entry-level job that you would do,” Craven said of his time — served pseudonymously — in the industry in the 2005 documentary “Inside Deep Throat.” “You would work on porn. I certainly worked on them. I’m not going to say which ones — but I was around it.”
While Craven’s first mainstream-ish feature wouldn’t enjoy the notoriety of “Deep Throat,” it was much more disturbing. “The Last House on the Left” (1972), produced for peanuts, made millions. A tale of escaped convicts who rape and murder teenage girls is still difficult to watch decades later. It’s also perhaps the landmark horror film of the 1970s — even if it wasn’t immediately recognized as important.
“In a thing (as opposed to a film) titled ‘Last House on the Left,’ four slobbering fiends capture and torture two ‘groovy’ young girls who airily explore the bad section of a town and more or less ask for trouble,” Howard Thompson wrote in the New York Times in 1972. “When I walked out, after 50 minutes (with 35 to go), one girl had just been dismembered with a machete. They had started in on the other with a slow switchblade.” Thompson noted: “The party who wrote this sickening tripe and also directed the inept actors is Wes Craven.”
But what offended the Times in 1972 looked prophetic 30 years later.
“Last House legitimized the real world approach to dread, a concept that would be embraced by both conventional (The Exorcist, The Omen) and independent (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) entertainment elements,” Bill Gibron of Pop Matters wrote in 2006. “No longer was a supernatural situation required. All you needed were the realities of life amplified through the thriller/chiller ideal and – BANG! – instant homegrown horror.”
One of the most famous observations about “Last House” is credited to Academy Award winning director Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain”).
“It’s one of the greatest films ever,” Lee reportedly said upon seeing it for the first time. “And now that I’ve seen it, it should be banned.”
Craven, however, was just getting started. Though he would occasionally venture into the less edgy world of television, he is best remembered for plunging everyday folk into horrific situations that result in bloody mayhem. In “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977) — a film perhaps bleaker than “Last House” — a family on vacation in Nevada is attacked by a family of cannibals.
The director’s tour de force, however, came in 1984: “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
Superficially, the tale of Freddy Krueger is ludicrous, if not incoherent: Krueger is a child murderer burned alive by parents — who then comes back from the dead back to kill nubile teenagers (Johnny Depp among them) with a glove tipped with knives. Oh, right: He kills them in their dreams.
But this was madness with a message.
“The heart of A Nightmare on Elm Street was a ‘how could it happen here’ view of the sanctity of the suburbs,” Gibron of Pop Matters wrote. “Nancy and the rest of her victimized pals are seen as something sacred, the precious commodity of a community that would resort to murder to protect them. Freddy’s fiendish ploys, complete with all their ‘bad touch’ connotations, were seen as the last legitimate threat in an otherwise hermetically sealed circumstance.” The director, Gibron said, “successfully saved the horror film from becoming an irrelevant exercise in tacky teen mass murder.”
“The basis of most of my films is, essentially, true life,” Craven, who credited the idea for Freddy to a newspaper article, said in a 2002 documentary. “… The kind of peak pictures that I’ve made are very much my reading of the current psychological, social situation that I perceived in the world … to a kind of B-movie genre format, but making it as deep as I could.”
“A Nightmare on Elm Street” spawned a franchise that included numerous sequels, a TV show and Halloween costumes. Craven would often turn up in cameos, but wouldn’t direct a Freddy film again until 1994.
“I was watching National Geographic just three nights ago and there was a thing on the African lion being the perfect killing machine and they were talking about the claws being something that would intimidate Freddy Krueger,” Craven said last year. “And I just sat there and was thinking, ‘It’s amazing how deeply into the culture that film has penetrated.’”
But just after he returned to one horror franchise, he sparked another. The ironic, self-aware, less serious — but no less scary — “Scream” (1996) brought Craven to a whole new generation of moviegoers. Four films earned more than $300 million — and were funny.
“I think horror films … are black humor,” Craven said, pointing out that comedy and horror offer the same kind of release. “… Making people laugh is much more second-nature to me than … making people afraid.”
Amid all the dismemberment, Craven did take at least one high-profile swipe at the highbrow: “Music of the Heart” (1999), the tale of a violin teacher trying to reach students in a tough neighborhood starring Meryl Streep, who earned an Oscar nomination. The director may have been following his heart by putting himself in “Lean On Me” mode, but proved to be off his game.
“Though Streep’s performance as real-life teacher Roberta Guaspari earned the only Academy Award nomination ever for one of Craven’s films, the movie earned just so-so reviews and did poorly at the box office,” the Los Angeles Times noted. “After this film, Craven returned to do ‘Scream 3.’”
But even when not courting the Academy, this scholar-turned-schlockmeister tried to keep his feet firmly on the ground. Asked once by a religious group why he put such disturbing images in the world, he got angry.
“The world itself has such horrific elements to it that the criticism of any director that you went too far is to me totally bulls—t,” he said. “… What world do you live in? I want to come visit and maybe live there. Because to me the world is just full of shocking and horrifying things.”