So in light of the recent news of Wes Craven’s passing I thought it only appropriate to write an entry about a man who influenced and defined an entire genre. What George Romero was of the 60s and 70s Wes Craven was of the 80s and 90s, which is the standard to which all horror movies tried to live up to.
Wes Craven wrote and directed countless horror films but perhaps his two most well-known franchises were that of the Nightmare and Scream series. These two films were iconic for all horror fans and gave us hope that we had found someone who truly understood what was capable of making us experience legitimate fear.
The Nightmare series of course focused on Freddy Kruger, a man who was burned alive by a townspeople after being found guilty of committing crimes against the town’s children. He in turn decided to take his revenge on the townspeople children by haunting them where the parent’s couldn’t protect them. In their dreams! This of course created one of the biggest scares in movie history as no one had really properly explored the possibility of being haunted in one’s dream. Sure we have nightmares all the time and when we wake up we’re a little bit shaken but it’s nothing that a couple of happy thoughts can’t fix. This movie however destroyed that notion by creating a monster who capitalized on you when you were at your most vulnerable and weakened state.
Movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween failed to meet the same level of acclaim as the Nightmare series due to the fact that they introduced villains who had proven to be vulnerable. Shoot them, stab them, behead them and sure enough that was the end of them. What Wes Craven introduced however was a character who was already dead and who you couldn’t kill with a bullet or knife. Namely due to the fact that the world you were in wasn’t real and thus you had no access to anything tangible that could kill this monster off. Sure the heroes triumphed time and time again but in each film it was with increasingly complicated and convoluted plans that most people wouldn’t be able to devise.
The world of horror cinema however unfortunately spun out of control and created sequel after sequel after sequel to the point that most of these movies were released straight to dvd….on the bargain dvd shelf……The Nightmare on Elm Street, one of the most promising new franchises fell victim to this travesty and as a result Craven’s amazing idea was destroyed.
They missed the point that Wes Craven was originally trying to get across. The thing that’s scary wasn’t just the man with the knives for hands. I mean by that standard then Edward Scissorhands should have been the scariest movie ever since he had TWO knife hands! But rather the thing that was scary was the idea of facing something unknown that we couldn’t fight.
The novel I recently finished The Drowning Girl (the 2012 Bram Stoker Award winner for Horror) by Caitlin R Kiernan, discussed this concept for the entirety of the book. What the author referenced, which is perfect in my eyes – was the story of Jaws. She stated that the scariest scene in the entire film was the opening scene when the teenager out for a midnight swim is grabbed and dragged away by something underwater. You don’t actually see the shark in this scene and it isn’t until the next death scene that you see that it’s a giant shark. She argued that this was the scariest scene because at that point in the film we have no idea what’s just grabbed her and killed her. What if the thing wasn’t even the giant shark that killed her but something else entirely. And every other death in the entire film was a result of a shark that was unrelated to the creature at the beginning of the film. Once the shark is introduced the fear is lost because a shark is simply an animal, and like any other animal it can be killed. The unknown creature however has no weakness, it has no vulnerabilities and no one knows anything of its nature. Humans are slightly scared of things that can hurt them but they’re even more terrified of things they don’t understand or can’t see. Once you introduce something that can be killed you’ve taken away its power and mystery, thus killing off any chance it can have of making us scared at our core.
Let’s look at example at perhaps one of the most common fears in the world.
Why are we scared of it? Ask 100 different people and you’ll hear 100 different answers. But that’s the very thing that makes it scary, is that nobody really knows what even makes it scary! Because for each person it holds a different power, it holds a different mystery. This mystery is irrational a lot of the time but it’s there nonetheless and there’s nothing we can do about it. Sure we can turn on a light and you’ll momentarily feel better because the thing you thought might be there isn’t. Then comes the next part, turning the lights back off because the thing that was just proven to not be there might actually show up this time.
This is what Wes Craven understood and created with his character Freddy Krueger. Unfortunately with any successful film the movie studios exploit it and create sequel after sequel after sequel where the monster becomes more prevalent. In the original movie he appeared sporadically throughout the film which allowed the fear to build in you before he finally appeared again. In the fifth installment he’s in about every scene and he’s seen cracking jokes. I remember watching that one and falling asleep while watching it.
I FELL ASLEEP watching NIGHTMARE ON ELMSTREET! The entire premise is how he can kill you in your dreams! The original version had teens everywhere refusing to sleep, this one had me consciously choosing to sleep as I was bored beyond imagination. Part of me is sad that people no longer fear him the way they did in the late 80s and 90s. Speaking of the 90s…….
Scream! A horror franchise that some may argue wasn’t even a horror franchise. Rather it was a series of movies that served as commentary for movies in general. So let’s see it was a movie series created by Wes Craven that criticized movie studios for the “rules” they created when creating franchises. The entire first film discussed horror movie rules (1. Virgins survive 2. Don’t say I’ll be right back 3. Don’t drink or do drugs or you will die). Look at ANY horror movie from the past thirty years and they followed those rules, in fact they still do!
This was used as an outlet for Craven to basically create a movie using that very mold that the studio frequently forced upon him. I watched those movies not with the intention of being scared but moreso to notice the very things Craven constantly pointed out. In sequels the body count is bigger and the deaths more elaborate, in trilogies something is introduced from the past and the main character is capable of dying, in reboots virgins can die and technology is integral to telling the story. He not only demonstrated these throughout the various deaths of these movies but he came right out and said it!!!
Scream was basically Craven’s way of saying “screw you” to the movie studios who told him to keep his movies within a box that they designed. This in a way taught you what to look for in carbon copy, paint by number horror movies that claimed to be scary or original. This is by far one of my favourite franchises for this reason alone. It taught me when a horror movie was original and innovative (ie. It Follows, The Babadook, The Blair Witch Project) and when it was just your standard predictable horror movie (Saw, Final Destination, Hostel).
When people gave these films poor reviews and claimed that they weren’t scary or that they were over the top I always wanted to argue with them. That wasn’t the point of this franchise, it was meant as a criticism and demonstration of how and why horror franchises so often fail and become diluded by their tenth installment.
The opening scene of Scream 4 involves a series of friends watching various installments of the ‘Stab’ Franchise – a parody of the Scream films within the Scream Universe – and at one point someone describes the plot of the most recent Stab movie as having time travel. This is what’s brilliant about him! He experienced first-hand what it’s like when movie makers take a good idea and kill it by oversaturating the market with it to the point that by the end they go so over the top that no one can enjoy it anymore. Ask any horror fan what their favourite movie is and I’m 100% sure they’d never say Halloween 6, Nightmare on Elmstreet 5 or Jason X. Craven came out right and says this in Scream 4!
I don’t know if there will be a horror director who ever truly understands this genre the way that he did. He knew what to create to scare us, he knew how to break the rules and he knew how to criticize the entire genre in a way no one else could. One can only imagine what he could have created if he wasn’t forced to deal with pressure and influence of the movie studios.
You will be missed Wes Craven. You’ll always be remembered as the greatest figures in horror. Thanks for the scares.