In Hollywood’s world of horror, there would be few who could claim to have done more for the genre than Wes Craven. Sadly after having directed more than 20 full-length feature films in a career that spanned for almost four decades, Wes Craven departed for his heavenly abode on 30th August this year. He was 76 and had battled brain cancer.
Wes Craven was a master story-teller when it came to working with horror films. Some of his best works stand out as a masterpiece in this genre, having created new standards for other film-makers. It was not about supernatural beings popping out of the dark to give the audience a scare – that was not how a Wes Craven movie usually worked. There was always something deeper, something psychological in its approach which got the audience hooked, a story arc which did justice to its characters. And yes, there were a lot of scary moments too. It is a horror film after all! Wes Craven did try his hand at something different at times : in 1999, he directed the music-drama film Music of the Heart which earned Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination, and in 2005 he directed the non-horror thriller Red Eye starring Rachel McAdams which was quite successful. But Wes Craven always came back to what he did best, which was to make the audience scream! I have not seen the entire body of work of Wes Craven, but these three horror films stand out in his career, and will remain immortal in Hollywood’s history.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
This is where it all began. The directorial debut of Wes Craven was a movie about two female teenagers who are taken to the woods and tortured by a group of thugs who have escaped from prison. Wes Craven wrote the story, and then directed and edited the film. It is not a movie for the faint-hearted, and should be seen with caution even by regular horror film goers. It is gory and chill-inducing, but more so, it can get disturbing. The violent scenes in the movie had led to heavy censorship at the time of its release and even got it banned from a few countries. Nonetheless, as a piece of work in the horror genre, The Last House on the Left is quite a masterpiece. It is realistic in its depiction of violence (and hence disturbing), bold in its approach to terrorize the audience, and its story has a natural flow that makes it captivating. The movie made on a small budget of $87,000 was commercially successful earning $3.1 million at the box-office. A remake followed in 2009, with Wes Craven as one of the producers, though the remake is a shadow of the original.
A Nightmare on the Elm Street (1984)
The movie that got Wes Craven to everyone’s attention was this classic of 1984, which marked the beginning of the Nightmare on the Elm Street franchise. The movie released in the post-Halloween and Friday the 13th era, but still stood out amongst slasher flicks because of the richness of its story. The movie was set in the fictional Midwestern town of Springwood, Ohio, where teenagers are being killed in their dreams, and are found dead in reality. And who is this serial killer? The now legendary character of Freddy Krugger played by actor Robert Englund. A Nightmare on the Elm Street used the much-loved idea around where dreams end and where reality begins, though instead of a sci-fi flick, Wes Craven introduced a ruthless killer in the midst of that idea which results in a thought-provoking slasher film. The movie was a big success, earning $25 million at the box-office as against its production budget of $1.8 million. This was the beginning of a massive franchise though Wes Craven returned to it only in 1994 with New Nightmare that spun away from the on-going franchise and told a different story about a different looking but equally ruthless Freddy Krugger. Many consider New Nightmare to be the second best film in the series after the original. Oh, and do remember, the 1984 A Nightmare at the Elm Street also marked the debut of a certain Johnny Depp!
After directing New Nightmare in 1994 and Vampire in Brooklyn in 1995 (starring Eddie Murphy), Wes Craven changed the landscape of horror films with Scream that has become a part of pop culture now. The villain was no longer a physically intimidating person, the kills were no longer about ruthlessly drawing the victim’s blood, the setting was no longer in abandoned remote areas. Scream refreshed the horror genre by having the setting in a modern-looking city, with a killer that wore a not-so-dangerous looking mask (which is now as famous a symbol as any in Hollywood), and allowing its teen characters to control the film. The movie moved away from a killer chopping off strangers owing to one obsessive reason, to a crime mystery that had to be unraveled. At the same time, Scream has all the chills and thrills that are required in a horror slasher flick. It has its moments of tension, its moments of mystery, and its moments of fun. By casting popular actors of that time, something usually not done in horror films (even now), Wes Craven got the attention of a wider audience which paid off rich dividends. Scream became one of the biggest hits in Craven’s career, earning $173 million worldwide on a budget of $15 million. The director worked on the subsequent three sequels of the film, with Scream 4 of 2011 being his last directorial venture.
RIP, Wes Craven! Thank you for all the screams!