Although I was barely ten years-old, I
remember feeling terrified while watching horror master Wes Craven’s 1978 made-for-TV
thriller Summer of Fear (under its
alternate title Stranger in Our House)
as well as thoroughly enjoying his adaptation of the comic book Swamp Thing four years later, but it
wasn’t until November of 1984, while viewing the trailer for some new horror
flick called A Nightmare on Elm Street,
that I recall hearing and remembering the name Wes Craven. After being thrilled
by this masterpiece which, in my opinion, is Craven’s greatest work, I certainly
wanted to learn more about this extremely talented filmmaker. After doing a bit
of research, I quickly discovered that I had already seen Craven’s original and
very interesting Deadly Blessing (1981)
and, also, his other masterpiece (in my opinion): 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes. Whenever someone mentions Wes Craven, I
immediately think of Nightmare and Hills, so, due to hearing the very sad
news of his passing, I’d like to focus this article on those two masterworks
because if any movies from his amazing filmography show Wes as a
writer/director to be reckoned with, they are, without a doubt, The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Craven’s first movie as writer/director
(and editor) was 1972’s controversial, but important The Last House on the Left. The disturbing film, which was inspired
by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960)
and produced by Sean Cunningham (Friday
the 13th), was made during the height of the Vietnam War and
seemed to be Craven’s outcry against the rise of violence in the United States
at the time. It also rightly depicted that violence as brutal and horrific
instead of glamorizing or sanitizing it. Lensed in New York and Connecticut for
only $87,000, the film’s poster featured the immortal tagline ‘To avoid
fainting, keep repeating, it’s only a movie…only a movie…only a movie…’, dealt
with revenge, booby traps and a civilized family vs. an uncivilized one. The
last two would show up again in Craven’s next film.
Five long years later, Craven would write
and direct again and it was definitely worth the wait. On July, 22nd,
1977, The Hills Have Eyes was
released upon an unsuspecting public. The $230,000 budgeted film dealt with the
Carters; an average, middle-class family whose car breaks down near a deserted
bomb range in the Nevada desert while driving cross-country. Once stranded,
night falls and the Carters are repeatedly attacked by an uncivilized,
cannibalistic, mutant family who live in the hills and have been surviving in
the desert for years by feeding off of anyone foolish enough to cross their
path. The cannibals, who go by names such as Mars, Mercury, Pluto and Papa
Jupiter, brutally murder Mr. and Mrs. Carter, their oldest daughter Lynne, and
Beauty, one of their two dogs. The deranged mutants also kidnap Lynne’s infant
daughter, Katie, leaving only Lynne’s younger siblings, Bobby and Brenda, along
with Lynne’s husband, Doug, and their second dog, Beast, to face the crazed
family, hopefully rescue little Katie and survive.
Although still a hardcore piece of horror
cinema, The Hills Have Eyes is a more
enjoyable experience than The Last House
on the Left. Where Last House went
for and achieved stark realism, Hills
deftly balances realistic, identifiable, likeable characters with somewhat
over-the-top/comic bookish, but still terrifying, villains (who Craven based on
the supposedly real-life, 16th century, cannibalistic Sawney Bean
family). The film chillingly shows that in a life and death situation, an
intelligent, passive, civilized person may have to become just as uncivilized
as his or her attackers. The film’s memorable tagline, “A nice American family.
They didn’t want to kill. But they didn’t want to die.”, pretty much sums up
the entire movie.
The cutting edge, low-budget film, which
introduced the world to future horror movie icons Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo) and Michael Berryman
(Deadly Blessing, The Devil’s Rejects),
went on to gross $25 million and quickly became a cult classic, further
solidifying Craven’s name as a major and original talent in the world of horror
Over the next seven years, Craven would
work in both film and television and, with the exception of the aforementioned Swamp Thing, would always direct films
in the horror genre. Immediately following Swamp
Thing, Craven completed an original horror screenplay which he
shopped all over Hollywood. Every studio
felt that the script didn’t have potential and passed on it. With almost no
money to his name and just about ready to give up on the project, Craven
finally saw a glimmer of hope as a tiny, independent company called New Line
Cinema gave the film a green light. New Line head Robert Shaye, whose company
dealt mostly in distribution, but had recently moved into production by making
a few low-budget films including an underrated 1982 horror called Alone in the Dark, believed in Craven’s
script and production immediately began with Wes once again in the director’s
chair. The screenplay’s title was A
Nightmare on Elm Street.
The frightening film tells the tale of a
group of four teens who all begin having nightmares about the same creepy,
burnt-faced man who skulks in the bowels of an old boiler room and wears a
dirty red and green sweater, a beat-up, old fedora and a self-made glove of
sharp “finger-knives.” When her friends begin dying one by one, intelligent
teen Nancy deduces that if this mysterious figure kills you in your sleep, then
you die for real. After getting almost no help from the adults around her,
Nancy does some digging and finds out that the murderer’s name is Fred Krueger
and that his motive is to kill the Elm Street kids as an act of revenge in
order to punish their parents who burned him alive ten years earlier due to him
being a filthy child murderer. Armed with only her wits and a few self-made
booby traps, Nancy prepares to face Krueger in a desperate battle for survival.
Made for under $2 million dollars, the
expertly crafted film was released on November 9, 1984 and, little by little,
gained momentum as horror fans slowly began to discover what an unexpected gem
it was. After all, the trailer made it seem as if it was just another in a
seemingly endless cycle of formulaic dead teenager flicks still being released
due to the massive success of both Halloween
(1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).
Nightmare on Elm Street was different. It was something special. More of a
psychological thriller than a by-the-numbers slasher film, Elm Street’s extremely original story, much like The Hills Have Eyes, was partly
influenced by real-life events. Wes Craven read a series of articles in the L.A. Times which detailed several young
men who were afraid to go to sleep and tried everything in their power to stay
awake. When they inevitably nodded off, they died. Craven immediately thought
“What if a person, like a boogeyman, was killing them in their dreams?” With
the story now in place, Wes then began to construct his soon-to-be iconic
villain. Craven based him on a scary childhood incident where, one night, while
little Wes was looking out his bedroom window into the alley below, a creepy
man wearing an old hat continued to stare up at him with a look of evil. Craven
then took the name Fred Krueger from a school bully who constantly tormented
him (he did the same thing twelve years earlier with The Last House on the Left; naming one character Fred and the other
Krug) and decided on Elm Street because it was a street close to the school
where he used to work as an English teacher as well as being the name of the
street where JFK was, unfortunately, assassinated on. Wes said that he wanted a
name/place that evoked pure Americana. Craven then chose the razor-sharp glove
because he was thinking of what early man may have feared and thought of the
claws of a bear. He also wanted Freddy to be a painful, optical effect, so he
decided on red and green for Freddy’s sweater after learning that they were the
two colors which were the most difficult for the eye to see side by side.
Lastly, Craven decided that Freddy would be very different from the plethora of
mute, masked, cinematic psycho killers which were inundating theaters at the
time. Freddy would talk (including a few darkly humorous lines of dialogue)
and, although covered in burnt scar tissue, remain unmasked. The chilling
monster would also take great pleasure in terrifying his victims-to-be.
Craven’s brilliance continued with the casting of the film by going against the norm and hiring a seasoned actor to play the new and original villain rather than casting a stuntman. He also picked a group of unknown teens with great chemistry to play the four Elm Street children and allowed them to let their own personalities shine through which gave the film (and characters) an extra touch of realism that only further helped the audience to get sucked into the already enthralling story (which, once again, featured booby traps and the motif of revenge).
Craven’s nightmare imagery was extremely effective and just another of the many reasons for the film’s massive success. Unforgettable and creepy images that immediately come to mind are a silhouetted Freddy lurking in a dark alley with impossibly long arms stretched out on either side of him, a bloody victim inside of a see-through body bag being dragged down a high school hallway by no one, and Freddy slowly rising from beneath a bed sheet like the timeless boogeyman that he is.
While in college, Wes Craven kept a diary of his dreams and he used some of them in this film. Due to Freddy being a dream that can kill you, Nightmare’s universally relatable fact that we all must eventually fall asleep becomes terrifying because it means that Freddy can always find and, possibly, destroy us. There’s nowhere to run from him. This simple idea is probably the main reason that Craven’s film struck such a chord with audiences. Nightmares would be featured in many of his movies, both before and after Elm Street,such as Deadly Blessing and 1986’s Deadly Friend.
After taking it literally, the iconic and powerful line “Don’t fall asleep” could also be interpreted as “Don’t lose your awareness” or “Don’t lose your ability to dream” (about the future). In addition to these educational and positive ideas, Craven shows even more positivity by creating a strong, resourceful and identifiable heroine to do battle with and, ultimately, defeat the evil Krueger.
Grossing more than $25 million dollars, Craven’s seminal, low-budget film quickly became a cult classic before turning into a cinematic phenomenon which was hailed by many as the best horror film of the 1980s. It launched the careers of Johnny Depp (who plays a likeable teen) and Robert Englund (who gives an amazing performance as Freddy), spawned seven sequels (most of which did not have Craven’s involvement), a 2010 remake and, along with the sequels, built New Line Cinema into a major Hollywood studio. The character of Freddy clicked so much with horror fans that he quickly became a pop icon and had to be watered down as well as be made extremely comedic in order to appeal to a more mainstream audience; especially kids. Freddy soon became a far cry from Craven’s terrifying, blackly humorous child killer of the original film. Not only was he given his own television series, but Freddy merchandise was sold everywhere; comic books, model kits, dolls, posters, squirt balls, pinball machines, etc. It was something Wes Craven never imagined in his wildest dreams (pun intended).
Over the next three decades, Craven would go on to direct many fine films; all mostly in the horror genre. Standouts would definitely be The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and The People Under the Stairs (1991). In 1996, his iconoclastic, blockbuster slasher film Scream was released and is considered by many to be the best horror film of the decade which would mean that Craven gave us the best horror movie of the 1990s as well as of the 1980s. Wes would go on to direct all three hugely successful Scream sequels. He also returned to dreamlandas a co-writer of 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. This exciting and entertaining movie slightly accelerated the original film’s pace, greatly added to Freddy’s backstory, made Freddy more of a humorous pop icon, pitted a group of teens against him and contained amazingly imaginative special FX dream sequences. The remainder of the series would follow this style much like the Bond films followed the style of Goldfinger (which, interestingly enough, like Elm Street 3, was also the third installment of the series). After New Line killed Freddy off in 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, Craven would bring back his most famous creation in 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. The interesting and ambitious film dealt with the idea that now that Freddy has been killed off in the film series and his tale is no longer being told, an ancient evil has been freed. It takes the form of the Freddy character, invades the real world and stalks members of the original film’s cast and crew. Craven played himself in this unique and more mature sequel, and brought the Freddy character, who he felt had become much too comical, back to his terrifying roots.
2006, 2009 and 2010 would see big-budget, Hollywood remakes of Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left and A Nightmare on Elm Street,respectively. Except for the Elm Street remake, which he was not associated with, Wes would be involved as producer. His last genre credit would be as Executive Producer of a weekly television series based on his famous Scream franchise.
With Wes Craven gone, the world of cinema has lost an irreplaceable talent; a true artist who went above and beyond the call of duty by not just making a film for entertainment and profit, but, at times, by being truthful, positive and by educating his audience in many ways. He may be gone, but he will absolutely never be forgotten. Wes Craven’s entertaining and important works will live on forever.
As for me, all I have to do is close my eyes and remember all the wonderful stories, iconic characters, arresting images and highly memorable lines of dialogue that have entertained and educated me over the years and will continue to do so for many years to come. For this, I’d like to thank the legendary filmmaker and say, on behalf of all his fans, rest in peace, Mr. Craven. You are sorely missed.