Wes Craven, genius horror director and inventor of Freddy Krueger, is dead at 76
When “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was released in 1984, horror director Wes Craven wondered whether he might be ready for something a little different. Feeling frozen out of more mainstream fare, he thought he would try something novel — maybe a castaway movie.
“Maybe [“Elm Street”] will be the one that gets me into ‘the club,’” he said. “I’m tired of being out in the cold. I certainly don’t want to do another slasher or man-with-a-knife type of film. … I know in my heart I’m ready for something new. I’m tired of being ‘the granddaddy of the slasher film.’”
Now that Craven, who died Sunday of brain cancer at 76, is gone, it’s clear he never really outran his “granddaddy” status. But he was at least able to escape the claustrophobic upbringing that once made the course of his decades-long career — which led to college classrooms, porn sets and even the Academy Awards — unimaginable.
Born in 1939 in Cleveland, Craven’s childhood came with the trauma necessary to an artist obsessed with the macabre: death and religion. The director-to-be lost his father, an alcoholic factory hand, in his youth, and was raised by a strict Protestant family.
“I came out of a very religious background,” he said in 1984. ”As fundamentalist Baptists, we were sequestered from the rest of the world. You couldn’t dance or drink or go to the movies. The first time I paid to see a movie (‘To Kill a Mockingbird’) I was a senior in college. … My whole youth was based on suppression of emotion. As they say in psychological circles, my family never got in touch with their rage. So making movies — these awful horror movies, no less — was, I guess, my way of purging this rage.”
Craven ended up at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution where he ran afoul of the administration as editor of the literary magazine. Two stories sparked ire: one about an unwed mother, one about an interracial romance.
“I have fond memories of Wheaton,” Craven, who went to the school only because his sister’s fiance was attending, said in 1997. “… I was the first member of my family to attend college, and, frankly, the idea of applying to more than one school never occurred to us. Our worry was that Wheaton College might be too liberal.”
After graduation, Craven drifted east, earning a master’s degree in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and landing a teaching position at Clarkson College in Potsdam, N.Y. Studying European New Wave auteurs such as Federico Fellini and Luis Bunuel while at Clarkson, he left the halls of academe for a grittier profession: pornography.
“For awhile there, it was kind of like the entry-level job that you would do,” Craven said of his time — served pseudonymously — in the industry in the 2005 documentary “Inside Deep Throat.” “You would work on porn. I certainly worked on them. I’m not going to say which ones — but I was around it.”
While Craven’s first mainstream-ish feature wouldn’t enjoy the notoriety of “Deep Throat,” it was much more disturbing. “The Last House on the Left” (1972), produced for peanuts, made millions. A tale of escaped convicts who rape and murder teenage girls is still difficult to watch decades later. It’s also perhaps the landmark horror film of the 1970s — even if it wasn’t immediately recognized as important.
“In a thing (as opposed to a film) titled ‘Last House on the Left,’ four slobbering fiends capture and torture two ‘groovy’ young girls who airily explore the bad section of a town and more or less ask for trouble,” Howard Thompson wrote in the New York Times in 1972. “When I walked out, after 50 minutes (with 35 to go), one girl had just been dismembered with a machete. They had started in on the other with a slow switchblade.” Thompson noted: “The party who wrote this sickening tripe and also directed the inept actors is Wes Craven.”
But what offended the Times in 1972 looked prophetic 30 years later.
“Last House legitimized the real world approach to dread, a concept that would be embraced by both conventional (The Exorcist, The Omen) and independent (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) entertainment elements,” Bill Gibron of Pop Matters wrote in 2006. “No longer was a supernatural situation required. All you needed were the realities of life amplified through the thriller/chiller ideal and – BANG! – instant homegrown horror.”
One of the most famous observations about “Last House” is credited to Academy Award winning director Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain”).
“It’s one of the greatest films ever,” Lee reportedly said upon seeing it for the first time. “And now that I’ve seen it, it should be banned.”
Craven, however, was just getting started. Though he would occasionally venture into the less edgy world of television, he is best remembered for plunging everyday folk into horrific situations that result in bloody mayhem. In “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977) — a film perhaps bleaker than “Last House” — a family on vacation in Nevada is attacked by a family of cannibals.