Wes Craven, Philosopher of Terror

Remembering the horror innovator

Wes Craven, Philosopher of Terror
Image courtesy of wescraven.com

This week, the film community lost one of its leading luminaries: Wes Craven, who was not just a maker of scary movies, but the genre's leading philosopher. He said, "I think those kind of films are a vent that's necessary. What do you have if you ban art that deals with horror? It will come into real life, instead of being mitigated by films."

Craven's movies weren't just scary (although they were undoubtedly that). They were films about what it was to be scared, about what being scared means to us, and why we embrace it.

Well before the knowing wink of the Scream franchise, he was arguably the originator of deconstructionist horror. His first horror feature, 1972's The Last House on the Left, was not a horror film per se. Instead, it was a crime drama that took what that genre hides – the blood, the emotional trauma, the unsatisfying nature of revenge – and showed that they are horrific. It's a swipe in the eyes of the audience that relished the misguided romanticism of Bonnie and Clyde. Unsurprisingly, Arthur Penn's Dust Bowl ballad scored a slate of Oscar nominations, while Craven's movie was confused as drive-in fare, and regularly banned internationally.

In 2013, I got the chance to briefly chat with Craven, just after he finished an impromptu panel during SXSW with fellow filmmakers Joe Swanberg and Richard Linklater. He had literally a few moments before he had to jet off, but tried to share them with as many people as possible. During our short conversation, the talk inevitably turned to his genre-defining A Nightmare on Elm Street (along with Last House, receiving memorial screenings this weekend in Austin). At the time of its original release, it was seen as a superior slasher. However, it was almost derailed in a full-flown battle with the Motion Picture Association of America, which wanted to cut most of the final act. Craven responded by sending "impassioned letters about the First Amendment," but to no avail.

Finally, the bosses at New Line Cinema intervened and explained to the MPAA the one thing that Craven had forgotten to spell out. "He called them and said, 'You don't understand, it's a satire.' Somehow, he being a studio head, he was able to convince them of that, and they went from cutting 15 minutes to cutting one shot that's a close-up of a kid with blood dropping off his hands. We had to cut that by five seconds, and then we were OK."

Craven spoke to me on returning to the franchise in 1994 for his film-about-film, Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Craven said, "New Nightmare just came out of the fact that I got this call out of the blue from [producer] Bob Shaye saying, 'Would you be interested in one last Nightmare?'"

There were a pair of impediments: One, that finger-bladed protagonist Freddy Krueger had been killed off in 1991's Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, and two, Shaye knew that Craven wasn't happy with his existing deal. This was one of those rare examples of Hollywood doing right by a director. "[Shaye] ended up giving me a new version of the original deal, with retroactives throughout, which was pretty big of him."

Now the second problem: How do you make a movie without a protagonist? "[Shaye] said, 'Just think of an idea.' I said, 'Well, we killed Freddy off, how do we bring him back?' [Shaye replied] 'I don't know, I don't know, but the audience seems to want [another film].'"

Craven went back and rewatched his original, and all the sequels, and came to a quick realization. "This is a fucking mess, pardon the French. I don't know how I can write the story about this. So then I decided to interview Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund, and I had a conversation with Bob. At the end of that, all of those people had been so changed by the film in various ways that I said to a friend, 'You know what, I think the story here is to make a film about the people who made the film.'"

Looking back on four decades making horror movies, Craven was optimistic that the culture, and the institutions of censorship, have shifted in their thinking on the genre. "I think it's improved immensely," he said. "I think the MPAA has been beaten up a lot, but also the culture has shifted. It's a little bit like the 19th century: If you were a woman and you showed you ankles, you were a whore. Now, we're down to a very few essentials."

The Last House on the Left screens Sunday, Sept. 6, 6:45pm, and Monday, Sept. 7, 2pm, at the Alamo Ritz, 320 E. Sixth.

A Nightmare on Elm Street screens Saturday, Sept. 5, (7 & 10pm), and Wednesday, Sept. 9, 10:30pm, at the Alamo Village, 2700 W. Anderson.

Proceeds for all screenings go to the Livestrong Foundation. Tickets available at www.drafthouse.com.

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Wes Craven, SXSW, Alamo Drafthouse, The Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street

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