Wes Craven was a name that nearly everyone knew. Even if you weren’t a huge fan of horror, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’d heard his name at least once in your life. He exuded a passion for film that was evident in his work, even if the finished article was not something you’d watch again in a hurry. He’d started out with horror in the 70’s when he made the controversial ‘The Last House on the Left’. The movie detailed the story of two young girls murdered at the hands of a sadistic gang. When the gang take shelter in a house, they find it to be occupied by a couple who may prove to be their undoing. It was a movie that would be banned in the U.K, and wouldn’t be released until 2003, with 31 seconds of cuts. The film wouldn’t be released uncut in the U.K until mid 2008. It’s a movie that is quite brutal in places, but as we as film goers have become more desensitised with the passing of time, it has lost some of its initial shock value.
Wes Craven then set his sights on his next project ‘The Hills Have Eyes’. However in order to drum up the required funding, he would make a porn movie titled ‘The Fireworks Woman’, under the pseudonym of ‘Abe Snake’. It’s not a movie that is readily available, as it was only ever released on VHS, so you may struggle to find a copy should you want to satisfy your curiosity. Wes would go on to follow ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ with ‘Deadly Blessing’. The film stars a young Sharon Stone in a supporting role and is about a young woman who falls prey to a religious sect. Following that was ‘Swamp Thing’, which was based on the comic book of the same name. That had a small role for David Hess, who starred as the nefarious Krug in Wes Craven’s first movie.
It was in 1984 that Wes Craven reinvented the ‘horror wheel’ with the fantastic ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’. With that, Wes created a character in Freddy Krueger that would go down in history as one of the most memorable bogeymen to grace our screens. Robert Englund who had had small roles on T.V in shows such as ‘CHiPS’ and ‘V’ and movies such as ‘Big Wednesday’ and ‘Death Trap’ aka ‘Eaten Alive’ in which he played the role of the slimy character ‘Buck’, starred as Freddy Krueger. Krueger was a notorious child murderer that was killed by the parents of Elm Street. Now he exacts his revenge by stalking the dreams of the grown up children who live in Elm Street. Freddy’s power comes from the fear he strikes into the kids he haunts. Their parents claim Freddy is dead and can’t hurt them, but they know that not to be true.
With ANOES, Wes Craven tapped into our darkest fears in which we can’t even sleep, for fear that Freddy will get us. As a character Fred Krueger used to haunt me. Even if I caught a glimpse of his face on the front of a video cover, I would run out of the video store screaming in tears. His face alone struck fear into me. Wes Craven had stated that his idea for Freddy came from a homeless man that used to stand outside a young Wes Craven’s house and wave to him, whilst sporting a sinister grin. Wes Craven said he believed the man got some morbid satisfaction from terrifying a small child. The idea for people dying of fear in their sleep was taken from a newspaper article that Wes Craven had read. He said the story itself seemed so scary, that he knew it would make a great horror movie.
‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ spawned 6 sequels, 7 if you count ‘Freddy Vs Jason’, and a short lived television series titled ‘Freddy’s Nightmares’ in which Freddy Krueger would appear before and after stories that take place on Elm Street. The same year as ANOES, Wes would make ‘The Hills Have Eyes Part II’, which wasn’t as well received as the first movie. Following that was a T.V movie and some directing gigs for various television shows, before making ‘Deadly Friend’ in 1986.
It was after ‘Deadly Friend’ that Wes made one of my horror highlights with ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’, starring Bill Pullman and Zakes Mokae as the sinister Voodoo priest who seems to be bringing the dead back to life. Supposedly based on the exploits of ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who had been in Haiti investigating bizarre stories of zombification. Wade Davis did state after the films release that it wildly differs from his book on which it is based.
After that Wes tried to make another memorable horror character when he made the movie ‘Shocker’. The lead villain is a man called Horace Pinker who is sentenced to the electric chair for multiple murders. However through black magic he manages to transfer his spirit into another when he is electrocuted. Mitch Pileggi gives 100% as Pinker, but he doesn’t have the same sort of malevolent charisma that Robert Englund had as Freddy Krueger. Needless to say it didn’t go down well with film fans. However not one to be easily deterred, Wes came back with another one of my favourite movies, the wonderful macabre ‘The People Under the Stairs’. The film starred Everett McGill and Wendy Robie from ‘Twin Peaks’ fame, as a sinister couple with an even more sinister secret tucked away in the basement of their nondescript home in the suburbs. Seamlessly blending horror and comedy, Wes created a movie that to this day is still an absolute riot to watch.
After that Wes would strike whilst the iron was hot and release the sublime ‘New Nightmare’ which would herald the return of the infamous Freddy Krueger. Only now he would be leaving the movie world and targeting Heather Langenkamp in the real world. Managing to recapture the sinister atmosphere from the first movie, the concept itself was brilliantly original and executed with aplomb. Sporting a new look and new claw for Freddy, Robert Englund slipped back into the role like a duck to water. It is one movie that even after 22 years, (yes it’s that old), still manages to strike fear and entertain both in equal measure.
Following on from that was the ill conceived and poorly received ‘Vampire in Brooklyn’ starring Eddie Murphy. Whilst striking the perfect balance between horror and comedy in ‘The People Under the Stairs’, Wes Craven totally drops the ball in a movie that is not sure if it wants to be a horror or a comedy. It’s a film that just can’t seem to get it right, and almost seems like a trial vehicle for Eddie Murphy to test out his ability to take on multiple roles, something he would find better success with when making ‘The Nutty Professor’.
Wes would then team up with script writer Kevin Williamson and unleash the brilliant ‘Scream’ on unsuspecting horror fans. ‘Scream’ gave new life to the horror genre when it was becoming tired and stale. It managed to tap into the obsession some fans have with movies and make it into one of the most successful movies of the 90’s. It would spawn 3 sequels, with the final one being the last movie Wes Craven made before succumbing to cancer in 2015.
After ‘Scream 2’ Wes tried to take a break from horror movies and instead tried something a little different when he made the drama ‘Music of the Heart’ starring Meryl Streep as a music teacher fighting to teach violin to inner city kids. The film is so-so, but it was heartening to see Wes try his hand at something perhaps many would have thought was out of his comfort zone.
Follow that would be ‘Scream 3’, which was a dip in form for the series. It seemed that having his fingers burned when trying something new, Wes would return to a genre that he felt he knew best. However what ends up on screen, is only good if your heart was in it to begin with. I feel that it wouldn’t be until he made ‘My Soul To Take’ in 2010, which he also wrote, that Wes would make a movie which he felt was something that he could be proud of. Although the film was straight to DVD, and wasn’t that well received, I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. The story is well thought out and put together and it’s genuinely scary in places too.
After ‘Scream 3’, Wes teamed up with ‘Scream’ writer Kevin Williamson again and made werewolf movie ‘Cursed’, starring Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg. The film was a disaster and had its release delayed for over a year. Over half the movie had to be re-shot with many of the principal cast being replaced due to scheduling conflicts. Following that misstep, Wes made the thriller ‘Red Eye’ starring Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams. Another movie that is not something many film fans will hold in high regard, and another blip on Wes Craven’s résumé.
Though Wes Craven sadly passed away in 2015, his mark on cinema and horror as a genre, is forever cemented in time. Even 20 years from now, new film fans will discover classics like ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and realise that they really don’t make movies like they used to. That’s something Wes Craven can be proud of, a legacy in horror that many still strive to achieve.
– Jonathan McEvoy