Wes Craven: Remembering A Master of Modern Horror


Westley Smith

Anyone who knows me understands how big of a fan of Wes Craven’s work I am. In high school (and because of my love of writing, horror movies and making movies) I was nick-named Craven by my friends, and not just because Wes and I share the same first name. Still to this day, if an old buddy from those years in high school locates me on Facebook, most of them address me as Craven. I still get a kick out of that.

I was shocked last night when someone sent me a post that Wes had passed away. A place inside me screamed and cried at the same time. My long-time hero was gone. My idol. The man who had put me on the path to making my own movies and writing screenplays and novels. I grew teary-eyed this morning when the Today Show did their segment on him. Yes, he meant that much to me.

Wes’ story is a rather unique one and how he got into filmmaking, and I think it was this that really attracted me to the man’s films. Unlike a lot of filmmakers in Hollywood, Wes did not attend film school; he was a professor here in Pennsylvania. He was asked by students if he would like to run their movie club to which he agreed, and suddenly found himself falling in love with filmmaking. He abruptly quit his teaching job and went to New York looking for work in the film business.

Oddly enough, it was Sean S. Cunningham (director of Friday the 13th) who gave Wes his first job – both of their horror creations would do battle on the big screen thirty-one years later.

His first movie was THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and produced by Cunningham. The film shocked audiences with its realistic viciousness, giving it the tagline: TO AVOID FAINTING, KEEP REPEATING: IT’S ONLY A MOVIE. IT’S ONLY A MOVIE. IT’S ONLY A MOVIE. In 1972 no one had ever seen such a brutally shocking movie before. What makes Last House leave such an imprint is that there are no monsters in the movie, no night demons, no cannibal hill dwellers, or vampires. The true horror of Last House are the humans in the story, and what one family does to avenge their daughter’s murder. Last House was truly groundbreaking filmmaking from a man who had no filmmaking experience, other than on the job training.

He followed Last House up with THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) and again made everyone take notice to his work. In The Hills Have Eyes, a family breaks down in the New Mexico desert, only to find themselves terrorized by a family of cannibals living in the hills. The film is as violent and brutal as Last House, but not as realistic. Still, Wes was taking you for a ride in to some dark places, places you weren’t sure you wanted to go.

He followed Hills up with A STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE, starring Linda Blair. Then DEADLY BLESSING, giving Sharon Stone her first starring role. And SWAMP THING, based off the Marvel Comic character of the same name.

But 1984 would come Craven’s crowning achievement. A movie that would get into our heads and following us to our beds, literally making us scared to go to sleep.

That movie?


At that time in the 1980s slasher films were all the rage following John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN and the super success of FRIDAY THE 13th and its sequels. But it was Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street that would redefine slasher movies, and Freddy Krueger would be unleashed upon the world.

Like all of Craven’s films before Nightmare, his characters, whether it be Krug from Last House, or Papa Jupiter from Hills, tend to be unlikable, hateful characters that have no remorse or redemption to them. They are the ‘baddest of the bad, ladies and gentlemen’ – if there is anyone who can tell me what film that last line is from you get big Wes Craven points from me.

Freddy Krueger would be no different. Freddy (played by Robert Englund) was not like Michael Myers, Jason, or Leatherface. He wasn’t just a man in a mask mindlessly stalking people. No, Freddy was much more. He came after his victims in their dreams, a place where they could not get away from him because he set the rules in the dream world. He was nasty, dark, horribly burnt with a twisted sense of sardonic humor.

The brilliance of the film (not just Freddy) is that Craven mixes fantasy with reality so seamlessly that you are never sure if you’re in a dream or if you are in reality at times. He constantly plays with your mind as much as he plays with what you’re viewing on the screen.
Oh, and he also discovered this guy (maybe you’ve heard of him) Johnny Depp to play the role of Glen in the film.

A Nightmare on Elm Street would spawn six direct sequels. A crossover in 2003 with FREDDY vs JASON. A television show called FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES, and a 2010 remake that Craven was not involved with. But there is only one movie that’s as scary and smart as the first Nightmare and brought the master writer/director back to the series: WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994).

Other than having a co-writer credit on Nightmare 3 (along with future Walking Dead, Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile writer/director, Frank Darabont) Wes stayed away from the Nightmare films pursuing other projects.

In that time he helmed several segments of the revamped TWILIGHT ZONE show, directing both Morgan Freeman and Bruce Willis. There were a few TV movies, (CHILLER and NIGHT VISIONS) and he created a TV show called NIGHTMARE CAFE that starred Freddy himself, Robert Englund, as Blackie. His features in that time included, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STRAIRS, and SHOCKER.

In 1994, Wes came back to Nightmare with WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE a meta-movie that took everything from A Nightmare on Elm Street and turned it on its head. Instead of just another lame sequel, Wes went back to his original film in a very unique way. In New Nightmare, a being (call it a demon, call it whatever you want) takes the form of Freddy looking to bring havoc to the world. But to do this, the demon has to kill Freddy’s creators – the stars and makers of the original film. What’s so scary about this movie isn’t Freddy himself, it’s the impending doom of what the demon is up to and how it’s going to succeed. It’s very smart and clever. And, in my opinion, this is Wes Craven’s masterpiece – you can argue with me about that if you want, but I’m sticking to my guns on this one. The film is brilliantly directed, cleverly written, and beautifully shot, cut, and scored.

In 1995, he would follow New Nightmare up with the Eddie Murphy horror/comedy VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN.

But 1996 proved to be Wes Craven’s year and again he redefined horror with SCREAM, turning everything about slasher movies from the 1980 –a genre he was himself was part of – on its head, much like he had with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Though Scream was not written by Wes (Kevin Williamson was the scribe) all the elements were there for a Craven film: the violence, the twisted sense of humor, the horror and scares, and the very nasty characters that make up a lot of Craven’s work.

But little remember that Scream was not a huge success right off the bat. It was a sleeper hit, gaining momentum as word of mouth spread through late 1996 into 1997. Eventually Scream pulled in over one-hundred million dollars domestically and countless rip off movies afterward, much like Halloween did back in the 1980s, most notably with Friday the 13th.

In 1997, Craven came back to direct SCREAM 2. This time taking on sequels to movies. Now that Scream was a huge hit, Scream 2 landed even bigger with a really well written script (again by Williamson), and a movie that is directed craftily by Craven, and is hailed by some to be better than Scream.

In the process of making Scream, he brought us another horror icon – Ghostface. Though one can argue that Ghostface really wasn’t a horror icon like Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, or Leatherface since Ghostface was always someone different behind the mask in the four Scream movies. But still, Ghostface became part of our pop culture, just like Freddy Krueger had.

After Scream 2, Craven wrote his one and only published novel THE FOUNTAIN SOCIETY. Following that, he would take a break from horror movies and direct MUSIC OF THE HEART with Meryl Streep; she was given an Oscar nomination for her work on the film.
In 2000 Craven came back with SCREAM 3. This time they were taking on trilogies and going to end the Scream films. Though the movie was a good fun last ride and had a clever concept, it lacked Kevin Williamson’s snappy dialog, as he was unable to pen the actual script because of his work on Dawson’s Creek, leaving the screenwriting to Transformers writer, Ehren Krueger.

Following Scream 3 there was CURSED, an ill-fated werewolf movie (also written by Kevin Williamson) with production problems that are more interesting than the movie itself – look it up, I won’t go into details here. The problem with Cursed is it never really knows what it wants to be: one moment there’s a teen drama going on; the next there’s a werewolf killing people; then sister and brother drama; a werewolf killing people; then the drama of the sister and brother becoming a werewolf; then more werewolf killing; then work problems with Greg Kilborn; then weird spots of humor; then more killing. But the deathblow for this film is when the werewolf flips someone the bird – UGH! REALLY? This movie was a mess and even Craven couldn’t save the film sorry to say.

Thankfully Craven followed that mess up with 2005s RED EYE. Red Eye was Craven at his Hitchcockian finest without much of his usual blood and gore, using the characters and the setting during a red eye flight to build the tension of a woman kidnapped and forced to help in the assassination of a politician. If she doesn’t, her father will be murdered. The movie starred Rachael McAdams, Cillian Murphy, and Brian Cox.

In 2006 he would do a short segment in the movie Paris, je t’aime called “Pere-Lachaise” and filmed in the actual cemetery where Jim Morrison and Oscar Wild are both entombed, among countless others.

In between his own movies he was producing movies including Wishmaster, Dracula 2000, The Breed, among many others. He would also produce remakes of two of his most beloved films: The Last House on The Left and The Hills Have Eyes 1 & 2.

In 2010, Craven returned to the big screen with the first movie he’d written since 1994s New Nightmare called MY SOUL TO TAKE. The movie was not well received by critics or fans alike. It was dull and slow, with a very confusing plot, and very little bloodshed for a movie about a serial killer directed by Craven. The one redeeming quality the film has is that it is absolutely haunting in a surreal and visual way. It really gives the viewers the feel of an eerie ghost story being told on a cold night, and has an almost urban legend/Legend of Sleepy Hollow (the book, not the movies) quality of telling to it. It was not Craven’s best movie by far, but it was not his worse either – I did not mention Deadly Friend until now, Craven’s self-proclaimed worst film. Or The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1985).

2011 would be Wes Craven’s final film.

SCREAM 4 was released in April of 2011 to mixed reviews by both fans and critics. It had been eleven years since the last Scream movie – I believe that hurt the film. Fans had moved on to movies like Saw, Hostel, and Paranormal Activity and were no longer interested in Scream or its fourth installment and what was to become the first in a new trilogy, which would never happen. To say the movie bombed would be lying; it pulled in 97 million dollars worldwide but compared to the first three Scream movies that all pulled in over one-hundred million dollars just domestically, that came up short to the blockbuster the others had been.

Craven went on to work on several projects including a comic book series with 30 Days of Night creator Steve Niles called ‘Coming of Rage’, and producing the MTV Scream Series. There were rumors that he was revamping The People Under the Stairs for television, and many other projects in the near future.  He also created a short lived TV series, Nightmare Café, starring Robert Englund as Blackie.

But there was much more to Wes Craven than just the filmmaker. He was an avid bird watcher, a lover of music. A husband. A father. A teacher. He was regarded by his peers as one of the nicest, funniest and smartest people to work with or for, and is consider by many to be a master of his craft.

On August 30 2015, Wes Craven passed away in his home at the age of 76 from brain cancer. But his legacy will live on forever…
I had always wanted to meet Wes Craven in person. But sadly I never got that chance. I wanted to say one thing to him: “Thank you.”
Had it not been for Wes Craven I would have never picked up my first video camera and made my first movie after seeing Scream for the first time. Had it not been for Wes Craven, I would have never kept going with my writing and publishing two novels to date.

Thank you, Mr. Craven. Rest In Peace.