One of horror’s most influential directors passed away earlier this year. The creator of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream” franchises, Wes Craven was a more complicated director than many are willing to believe. What made his films special is that they could both make fun of horror’s most cliché conventions and exist inside of them at the same time. No film better exemplified this than “Scream,” which opened with a tense and harrowing 10-minute murder sequence before evolving into a lampoon of slasher movies themselves.
He liked to involve the audience, as if they were in on the creative process. His fondness for doing so often undercut more artistically-impressive choices he could have made. Many of his later films sacrifice mood for a certain playfulness.
Craven didn’t start off like this, however. His first movie was “The Last House on the Left,” the tale of a woman out for revenge against her rapists. It was a controversial film, especially in 1972.
Most obituaries left out Craven’s “The Fireworks Woman,” his 1975 follow-up. They were smart to do so. An adult film about incest between a brother set for the priesthood and his sister, Craven directed it under the moniker Abe Snake. CHUD has an in-depth review of it, should you want to delve into its particulars.
Craven’s third film, “The Hills Have Eyes” would become more widely known as his official “second movie.” It was no less harrowing or unforgiving than his first feature and continued his reputation for controversial work.
Yet Craven’s career shows an interesting progression. Many horror directors excel when young by making tight films that challenge cinematic convention. Nearly as many horror directors taper off when older. John Carpenter and Italian horror maestro Dario Argento are the two best examples.
Carpenter devolved from making exacting horror films like “Halloween,” “The Thing,” and “Big Trouble in Little China” in the 1970s and 80s to subpar fare like “Vampires” and “Escape from Mars.”
Argento started his career off as the “Italian Hitchcock.” The 70s saw him churn out masterpieces like “Deep Red” and “Suspiria.” He lost something crucial in the 90s and now can barely put together a cogent film from front to back.
Like them, Craven started off as a truly confrontational talent, deliberately using a range of body horror, sexual horror, and graphic violence to terrorize audiences. Unlike Carpenter and Argento, instead of trying to endlessly clone these sensibilities, he evolved.
1984’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” helped cement teen horror more firmly in the mainstream, and it also brought him new opportunities as a director. He chose not to repeat himself. Not all attempts were successful. Shifting into comedy with “Vampire in Brooklyn,” he delivered a dud. Moving into feel-good territory, his “Music of the Heart” earned Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination.
Even when he did return as a director to his “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, he wanted to flip the script on its head. His “New Nightmare” in 1994 asked what would happen if his most famous horror monster, Freddy, ripped his way out of the screen and stalked the very actors who had taken part in making the fictional film that created him.
It’s this evolution that helped him create the delicate balance of terror, comedy, and pure adventure that became the biting “Scream” series. His films had always been profitable. They were made inexpensively, focusing on their actors and using the most practical scares available.
With “Scream,” Craven enjoyed his greatest success yet. The first two films cost a combined $38 million to make. They combined to make $345 million worldwide. Craven could work so quickly that after the first film’s success in 1996, he had the second film in theaters in less than a year. That’s almost unheard of for sequels that aren’t filmed at the same time.
In fact, during production, the entire shooting script for “Scream 2” was leaked online. Craven kept on filming, even while writer Kevin Williamson rewrote massive portions of the movie. What wasn’t written on a day of shooting, Craven would write on the spot, later fusing his portions with Williamson’s.
Even more impressive, Craven had trouble keeping the film to an R rating instead of NC-17. He developed 8 different full edits of the film for the MPAA ratings administration. Despite all this, the film received similar critical praise to the first. In many instances, critics even felt the film was a more successful satire.
Craven’s playfulness never faded, and perhaps it’s what allowed him to evolve so completely over the course of his career. 2005’s “Red Eye,” one of the last film’s he’d direct, famously advertised itself as a romantic comedy before revealing itself as a horror thriller.
Typically, audiences think of Wes Craven as an influential horror director, one whose work doesn’t always hold up to the scrutiny of a modern horror viewer. However, this bottles him into a single genre. He was a director of drama and comedy as well, and launched one of the most successful satirical franchises in film history with “Scream.” He shouldn’t be remembered only for the types of films he made. He should be remembered for his ability to evolve even faster than the industry in which he worked.