If you look at the pantheon of great horror movie auteurs, a surprising number of them came into their own during the genre’s second Golden Age in the 1960s and 1970s: George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter among others. But while all of them found their voice in that period and then commenced exploring its limits, the other great member of their ranks – Wes Craven, who died this past weekend – proved more effuse. He didn’t have the same distinctive stamp that they did. His works wandered farther afield, he proved more willing to bow to prevailing tastes, and his subject matter never quite found the singular point of view that his contemporaries showed. And yet he remained every bit their equal: in part because his films often did much better at the box office than theirs but also because so many lesser filmmakers ended up following his lead. And having helped the others cement the post-Vietnam nihilism that defined horror in the 70s, he went on to resolutely set a new pace for two more decades. The others, while truer to their hearts, could never claim such far-reaching influence.
It didn’t start out that way. Having begun his film career as an anonymous but well-paid director of pornography, he had few problems switching gears to the grindhouse. His first “legitimate” effort, The Last House on the Left, felt on the surface like any other exploitation fare: horribly violent, with characters written on cardboard and the heaviest kind of crude moralizing beneath them. But it also held undeniable power: retelling Bergman’s The Virgin Spring with a surprising understanding of its predecessor’s psychological insight and hinting at brutality that had nothing to do with the overt violence onscreen.
That trend continued through subsequent films like The Hills Have Eyes and Swamp Thing. His works just seemed a little smarter than his competition: assembled with a little more care and concerning themselves more with why certain things scared us than just trying to pound us over the head with them. And as he gained confidence as a filmmaker, that helped him – quietly and with profound subtlety – change the entire genre in 1984.
Slasher films were all the rage in the wake of Halloween, pitting hordes of nubile teenagers against one-note killers with barely serviceable gimmicks to distinguish them from the pack. Craven looked through all of that to the fears they were crudely swiping at: the boogeyman in the dark that waited for us terrified children when we were alone and vulnerable. Jason Voorhees and the rest of his ilk tried to evoke that without any real idea of what they were doing. But Craven understood what they were getting at, and decided to cut to the chase.
The result was the original Nightmare on Elm Street, a film that didn’t attract much attention on its first release, but turned into a monster hit on video and subsequently became the flagship for horror films in the 80s. And “monster” was the operative term. In Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger, Craven created the perfect distillation of everything those other movies couldn’t quite articulate. Krueger was primal, effuse and utterly hypnotic. More importantly he got us when we were at our most vulnerable, and during a state we couldn’t avoid no matter how hard we tried: when we fell asleep. Not since Psycho had a filmmaker put his finger so succinctly on when we felt most helpless, and in one fell swoop, a cultural phenomenon was born.
And when that happened, Craven again took steps to separate himself from the pack. Rather than diving into sequels from the franchise he created, he used his influence to make The Serpent and the Rainbow, a quasi-factual look at zombies and voodoo that remains he best work. (He also helped get the 1980s TV reboot of The Twilight Zone off the ground, directing its inaugural segments and adding a few more in the midst of its brief but notable run.) Here was a guy sitting on the most profitable movie monster since Boris Karloff, and he set it aside to do something completely unexpected.
Even more: he repeated the feat a decade later, starting with New Nightmare, which untangled his complex feelings about setting a demon like Freddy loose on the world. He followed it up more intensely with the Scream franchise a few years later, and once again, the entire genre suddenly had to keep up with his lead. I’ll be honest: I never cared for the Scream movies. They hid veiled contempt for the horror fans they professed to love and their smug, too-hip attitude grated on the nerves far too often. But no one can deny that they defined horror in the 90s as much as Nightmare defined horror in the 80s, while bringing an elegant sense of closure to the slasher genre he helped reinvigorate.
It was a remarkable feat, made all the more impressive because he managed to duplicate it. None of his fellow masters ever matched that one-two punch, and if Craven couldn’t quite make the hat trick, he again used his renewed clout to make something a little more off the beaten path: the underrated Red Eye, which sits alongside Nightmare and Rainbow at the top of his pantheon. He even tried to break out of the horror rut a couple of times, most notably with 1999’s Music of the Heart and a lovely little vignette in the Paris je ’taime anthology.
And he did it all without ever tipping his hand, without wearing his auteurial distinction too proudly on his sleeve, and without ever talking down to his audience. When he died last week, you felt a weight press down on the genre, and the sheer overpowering influence he had on it hit us the way no single film could. You have to step back and look at his work in totem. When you do, it becomes apparent that he did things that no one ever had before or since. His legacy lives on in filmmakers like Ti West and Guillermo del Toro, but it’s hard to imagine anyone affecting the entire genre the way he did. The man literally gave new meaning to the word nightmare. And now that he’s gone, ours won’t ever be quite so terrifying again.