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​Wes Craven’s Self-Aware Horror Commentary on American Life

Wes Craven, creator of horror classics 'Nightmare on Elm Street' and 'Scream,' will be remembered for his hack-and-slash self-awareness.
August 31, 2015, 6:22pm

Wes Craven's movies have been there for me, time and time again.

Watching Nightmare on Elm Street 1 and 3 in grade school at the home of my Friend with Permissive Parents, I absolutely lost my shit when the ghostly girls sang Freddy's theme while jump-roping.

Watching People Under the Stairs in my dorm room in college—my personal favorite of all Craven's movies—I was wowed to discover the pulp majesty of Everett McGill of Twin Peaks fame, playing opposite Twin Peaks co-star Wendy Robie, putting on a gimp onesie to chase preteen boys through his house with a shotgun.

Years later, re-watching Craven's movies alongside my wife— Shocker, Cursed, the Nightmare films—in the early delirious days of new parenthood, how soon the surreal and the real became one, our predawn house alive with werewolves and killers that just wouldn't die onscreen and infant cries from the other bedroom.

Wes Craven, who died yesterday of brain cancer in his Los Angeles home at 76, made smart, playful horror, aware of itself and aware of the culture it sought to reflect. His work is meta-commentary—on my life, on yours, on American lives.


After a brief academic career teaching English at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, Craven got his start in porn—ever the auteur, he wrote and directed. Fittingly, he went on to direct the rape-replete, ultra-violent The Last House on the Left, his first feature film, in 1972, which was followed five years later by his second early career classic, The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The former, a brutal revenge parable about the abduction and sexual assault of two teenage girls by a gang of psychopaths, and the latter, a gritty survival tale about a family being marauded by mutant desert-dwellers, were transgressive and bloody films that pandered to shock, lizard-brain voyeurism. They towed the line of exploitation, and both were remade in the last several years.

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Craven became big medicine in 1984 with the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street , which he wrote and directed. Made for 1.8 million dollars and starring someone named Johnny Depp in his first-ever film, the movie follows small-town teens as they're stalked and dispatched by a dead child molester in a dirty striped sweater with razors for fingers who goes by the name of Freddy Kruger (Kruger's inspiration was supposedly a vagrant that a ten-year-old Craven once saw peering in his window). Kruger appears to the teens in their dreams, clawing their sternums while spouting grim stand-up.

Apart from being one of two of Craven's concepts to be en-franchised, A Nightmare on Elm Street also spawned a motif that would proliferate over the course of Craven's career: the surreal and the grotesque's intrusion upon the everyday. And sometimes vice-versa: the everyday's intrusion on the patently unreal. A Nightmare on Elm Street has sequences of horrifying temporal dislocation to rival Fellini or Jodorowsky: a corpse in a body-bag walking a hallway, a bed spouting blood that floods over the ceiling.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), The People Under the Stairs (1991), and Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)—the seventh and only other film that Craven directed in the Freddy Kruger series—would continue to ensure that the line between nightmare and not was as solid as a film-reel border.

As the line between fantasy and reality became increasingly blurred in Craven's mid-career films, so, too, did the separation between character and viewer, between narrative worlds and the world we inhabit. The meta-commentary of Craven's films was never more pronounced than in 1996's Scream, in which teens in a small town not unlike the town in Nightmare are dispatched by yet another killer. This killer, however, is no boogeyman: It wears a ghost costume; it kills with a knife. The teens have gotten savvy, too. They delineate "rules" to "survive [horror movies]." They scream: "No, please don't kill me, Mr. Ghostface. I wanna be in the sequel!"

Not only would Scream go on to spawn another successful franchise—where only the first and seventh Nightmare films were directed by Craven, he took the helm for all four Screams—but it realized the gleeful indeterminacy between fantasy and reality, between narrative and lived experience, that the director had been gesturing at his entire career. Craven's films' hack-and-slash self-awareness laid a track toward innovation: Eli Roth's Cabin Fever (2002), Drew Goddard's Cabin in the Woods (2012), and David Robert Mitchell's It Follows (2014) are all whip-smart horror films; smarter for the fact they know it.

Craven said of the rationale behind the meta-elements in Wes Craven's New Nightmare: "You don't enter the theater and pay your money to be afraid. You enter the theater and pay your money to have the fears that are already in you when you go into a theater dealt with and put into a narrative. Stories and narratives are one of the most powerful things in humanity. They're devices for dealing with the chaotic danger of existence."

Art imitates life as life imitates art. Between the two, there's only credits.

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