See It Instead: Wes Craven Movies
This week we lost one of the godfathers of the horror movie genre, Wes Craven. A director with 26 films under his belt, Craven was involved in all elements of his craft: he wrote for 36 projects ranging from short films, feature length movies, television episodes and documentaries; he had acting appearances in 19 films; he produced scores of projects; he worked as an editor numerous times and he even has a single soundtrack credit to his name. While his heyday was undoubtedly the 1980’s, where he created his iconic villain Freddy Krueger, his career spans five decades of productive work, including a renaissance in the late 90’s where he revived his career and cemented his reputation as king of the slasher flick with his popular Scream series. It may seem a tad sacrilegious, but are we sure he’s really dead? If horror movies have taught me anything, its that you never can kill the bogey man. At the very least, Wes Craven will live on through our nightmares after watching his ample legacy.
The Essential: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
On Elm Street, the children (well, not really children…mostly teenagers…well mostly actors in their twenties playing teenagers but who are always referenced as “the children of Elm Street” in summaries of this movie) are having trouble sleeping. When they close their eyes, a grinning monster covered in burns and the worlds worst Christmas sweater uses his razor-fingered glove to end their lives. Comparing notes, Nancy Thompson realizes that her classmates are all sharing the same dream, and she scrambles to discover the story behind the dream-scape psychopath and a method to end his bloody reign of terror.
If you like horror movies, you can’t skip this film, even if you decided to forgo the rest of the series (Wes himself was only involved with ANOEM, ANOEM 3: Dream Warriors, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.) Wes Craven shines at creating ghoulish set pieces and murders which are both grotesque and stylish. Even if this film starred J Random Slasherguy as the baddie, it would deserve attention for its pacing, music, and effects. Luckily, it stars Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger, possibly the best screen psycho ever created.
What sets Freddy apart from other killers like Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers is complexity. Jason and Michael are ciphers, mute hulking monsters with no face or voice. They’re forces of nature, not men. Freddy is all personality. He smiles, he sneers, he laughs and he rages. When he kills, he is either enraged or amused, and sometimes both. This playful and mercurial nature makes Freddy both terrifying and fun to watch. Wes wrote a killer with depth and a twisted back story, and actor Robert Englund inhabited that character with style and panache for two decades.
The Serious Pick: Scream (1996)
When the 80’s ended, it seemed like the slasher flick genre was going to end with them. The major franchises were all played out, many having devolved into either stale iterations or self-parody. Nobody could take a grinning hooligan in a fedora or hockey mask seriously anymore. The genre itself had become so formulaic, fans could predict every last hack and slash. So Wes Craven made a horror movie about horror movie fans and turned the tables on his savvy viewers.
Sydney is a troubled teen trying to get over the death of her mother when a wave of murders strike her sleepy town. She and her friends are all well versed in the tricks and tropes of murder movies, and begin to notice how similar to those hokey serial killer flicks the current murders are. Using movie logic, the teens attempt to stay one step ahead of the killer and discover his identity before they become “murdered teen extra” on the cast list.
Scream reinvented the genre and revived interest in Wes Craven’s earlier works, many of which were subsequently remade for modern audiences. Scream functioned as a meta analysis of the whole psycho killer shtick, with characters glibly referring to iconic horror scenes and predicting the twists in the plot as they were about to happen, much like I remember doing as a teen (“…oh, and now she’s going to wander outside and get clobbered…No! Don’t go make out when there’s a killer on the loose…and they’re dead!”) Scream also worked because it had plenty of gore, plenty of twists, and plenty of potential for sequels.
The Lighthearted Pick: Shocker (1989)
A serial killer and ex TV Repairman (yes, those existed once, we didn’t just throw them away or call Geek Squad) is sentenced to die in the electric chair for his crimes, but a deal with the devil allows him to escape via the electricity and to continue his murderous ways through the medium of television itself.
A guilty pleasure, Shocker isn’t very good…except when it’s amazing. It stakes out some of the same ground as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream: the killer is human and has a definite personality, and can attack you from a nebulous realm of fantasy (TV not dreams); and since the movie is so involved with television and media, it is almost a satire of the genre that it itself belongs to. The action is corny, and the kills are not terribly inventive, but Mitch Pileggi (of X-Files fame) eats this role for breakfast: he is sadistic, menacing, erratic, and completely unhinged in a hilarious manner. The final confrontation between the young hero and our electrically powered murderer is so great in its ridiculousness, I want to watch it forever.
Wes Craven is like sex or ice cream, even when he’s bad, he’s still pretty good.
The Unconventional Pick: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
An anthropologist with experience in tribal medicine is hired by a big drug company to explore the rumors of Voodoo concoctions that can supposedly render a person so inert that they appear dead. The scientist arrives in Haiti just as a revolution is reaching its bloody climax, and his poking into local superstitions is met with anger and violence from both the police and several competing Witch Doctors, all of whom are eager to see the American run out of town.
The Serpent and the Rainbow is terrifying, almost to the point of disgusting in some places. It plays like a fever dream, where our hero (Bill Pullman) reels from one surreal episode to another. What makes this film so powerful is that there isn’t a lot of horror movie chicanery: a lot of the terror and discomfort come from perfectly natural sources like an unstable society which allows kidnapping, torture, and summary executions to flourish. The secret police are scary enough without also being tied into the cabal of Voodoo demon worship, and you don’t need the curse of a Witch Doctor to disappear forever amidst such a violently turbulent society. Based on an a book that explored the myths and rituals of Haitian Voodoo, the film tries to downplay the supernatural for most of the film, using the setting to accomplish much of the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, the film botches the ending by inserting a hero versus villain confrontation in a film where nobody and everybody feels equally at fault. Had the film just ended with the hero leaving Haiti, it would have been and excellent film.
Wes Craven had a unique approach to horror that came to dominate the industry and set a standard for how serial killer films operated. While others certainly found success, Craven’s blend of gore, fantastic and absurd imagery, complex antagonists, and humor all added up to a recipe for success. It was a recipe Hollywood was happy to re-use extensively, but Craven never really got pinned down into one mode. His early films, such as The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, were grotesque and bloody; his middle years were typified by bombastic killers with maniacal grins and clever methods of eviscerating victims; and his later career tended towards self analysis and experimentation. Looking at his discography, you can find movies of all types…as long as those types be bloody. He was truly a master of the medium of terror, and will be sorely missed.