Remembering Wes Craven

By on August 30, 2015

Variety and other sources tonight are reporting the death of legendary horror filmmaker, screenwriter and producer Wes Craven, age 76, from brain cancer. Honestly, we’re still processing this sad news, but we wanted to remember him for all of his work — he wrote and produced features, directed for television and even wrote novels — but mainly for his considerable contributions to the horror genre, particularly with creating what some have called the “rubber reality” genre style in the 1980s.

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He is probably primarily known for two franchises, ScreamScream (1996), Scream 2 (1997), Scream 3 (2000), and Scre4m/Scream 4 (2011) — and the Nightmare on Elm Street films.

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The Scream films alone grossed more than $100 million domestically, along the way becoming a cultural phenomenon and inspiring the “Scary Movie” parody film series. We’ve included someone’s Youtube series someone compiled of ten of his best-known horror films, which are counted down from 10-5, and 5-1. We’re not going to argue with the choices, as it’s simply one person’s opinion about Craven’s best, but we thought it was a pretty good representation of his horror work.

Wes Craven began his filmmaking career in 1972 with The Last House On The Left, a controversial film that shocked its audience, emerging just a few years after the horrors of the Manson Family massacres.

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Craven’s next films were two of his best: 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes and 1982’s comic book adaption Swamp Thing; both films not only shocked but also delighted audiences who enjoyed Craven’s curious blend of humor and action in the horror genre.

Some of Craven’s other films include: Summer of Fear/Stranger in the House (1978); Deadly Blessing (1981): Invitation to Hell (TV movie, 1984); Chiller (TV movie, 1985); The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1985); Deadly Friend (1986); The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988); Shocker (1989); Night Visions (TV movie, 1990); The People Under the Stairs (1991); Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994); the Eddie Murphy vampire comedy Vampire in Brooklyn (1995); Red Eye (2005); Cursed (2005); and his final film, My Soul to Take (2010).

Craven will likely be remembered for the way he used the power of dreams and the unconscious psychological dread of nightmares in his films. The Last House on the Left, Deadly Blessing and Deadly Friend all have striking dream sequences, while The Serpent and the Rainbow and Shocker both feature villains who inhabit dreams and places of the imagination more so than the real world.

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This interest in what happens in our dreams was brought even more in his classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). The film’s concept, Craven said, came from his own youth in Cleveland, where he lived next to a cemetery on an Elm Street. The plot concerns a teenage girl and her gal pals who all happen to have the same nightmares wherein they are pursued by a burn-scarred figure in a hat who wields a razor-tipped glove named Freddy Krueger, who turns out to be a child molester that their parents dragged away and burned alive after he was acquitted on a technicality.

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The low-budget thriller was rejected by all the major film studios before going on to become one of the single most influential horror film of the 1980s, spinning off as many as seven sequels — : A Nightmare on Elm Street Part II: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), A Nightmare on Elm Street III: The Dream Warriors (1987), A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master (1988), A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child (1989), Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) — most of which pale in comparison to Craven’s 1984 original, which broke him into the mainstream.

Along with John Carpenter’s Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street pretty much defined a teen horror tradition where helpless teens were preyed upon by supernatural villains in morality tales.

Craven also will be remembered for creating the term “rubber reality” — that’s when the characters in the movie are not aware that the true nature of reality is different from their perceptions. Primarily, three factors differentiate the rubber reality horrors from their slasher predecessors. The first is that the killer undergoes a personality infusion — by telling jokes rather than merely stabbing people, for instance, that marvelous blend of both dark humor and ultra-violence. Secondly, the way victims die is usually much more elaborate than simple knife kills, for instance, and lastly, the rubber reality films posited the existence of alternate, supernatural realms, like dream states. Wes Craven was a master of all of these.

In 1999, Craven broke away from the horror genre to direct Music of the Heart, a film in which Meryl Streep was later nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. “That’s my mom’s favorite movie of mine,” Craven once said, “because it was the only one she saw. It was something that I was really drawn to. Horror films are not me, or they’re not all of me. They’re a very thin slice of me.”

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Craven’s parents were strict Baptists who didn’t let him see movies, according to the Los Angeles Times. He attended Wheaton College, “a Christian college,” he told The Times in 2010. “You would be expelled if you were caught in a movie theater. It was ridiculous.” He didn’t come into his love of film until after he had earned a master’s degree in philosophy and writing at Johns Hopkins University, and then began teaching at Clarkson College in Potsdam, New York, which had an art house theater. He got his start in movies in pornography, where he worked under a pseudonym.

In addition to working in the film business, Craven also wrote a novel, The Fountain Society, published in 1999. More recently, he had also been working on a graphic novel series based on his original idea “Coming of Rage” for Liquid Comics, in collaboration with Steve Niles.

Wes Craven has also written the screenplays for A Nightmare on Elm Street III: The Dream Warriors (1987), Pulse (2006) and The Hills Have Eyes II (2007), and produced Mind Ripper (1995), Wishmaster (1997), Carnival of Souls (1998), Don’t Look Down (1998), Dracula 2000 (2000), Feast (2006), The Breed (2006), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), The Last House on the Left (2009) and also created the TV series “The People Next Door” (1989) and “Nightmare Café” (1992).

Craven had recently signed an overall TV production deal with Universal Cable Productions and had television projects in development, including “The People Under the Stairs” with Syfy Networks, “Disciples” with UCP, “We Are All Completely Fine” with Syfy/UCP, and “Sleepers” with Federation Entertainment. He was also executive producing the new “Scream: The Series,” which is currently under production for MTV (2015– ).

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Craven had recently written and was to direct the Thou Shalt Not Kill” segment for the Weinstein Company/WGN’s “Ten Commandments” television mini=series. He was the executive producer of The Girl in the Photographs which will premiere in Toronto.

Craven was also a longtime bird lover, and had served as a longtime member of the Audubon California Board of Directors.

Wes Craven — born August 2, 1939, in Cleveland, Ohio — is reported to have died surrounded by his loved ones at his Los Angeles home. He is survived by his wife, producer and former Disney Studios VP Iya Labunka; sister Carol Buhrow; son Jonathan Craven; daughter Jessica Craven; stepdaughter Nina Tarnawksy and three grandchildren.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.