Critic's Notebook: Wes Craven Found Shades of Grey Amid the Gore

Courtesy of Photofest

From his feature debut, 'The Last House on the Left,' to his final film, 'Scream 4,' Craven made us think as much as he scared us.

First he made us afraid to go back home – or at least to the last house on the left. Then he made us fear the desert: what’s lurking in the distance, forever out of sight. Then he made us scared to even go to sleep. Finally, he simply made us scream.

Whatever the scenario, Wes Craven, who died on Sunday at the age of 76, was a master of horror. The horror of everyday, fun-loving Americans facing their worst nightmares – nightmares that perpetually haunted them in waking life or in their minds, in their own backyards or on the screen. His was a world where evil was in the eye of the beholder, where there was no escaping bad dreams, where shutting your eyes was the worst way to flee your demons. And don’t bother putting on a scary movie to tell yourself that it’s all make believe — someone just might creep up behind you and turn that movie into the real thing.

With his shocking 1972 debut, The Last House on the Left, Craven went right for the jugular (and other body parts) in a gruesome account of kidnapping, rape and multiple murder – all of it taking place in the peaceful woods near the home of one very loving nuclear family, the Collinwoods. But if you thought the criminals were bad, wait until mommy and daddy got their revenge, giving us slit throats, electrocution, coerced suicide and the film’s piece de resistance: fellatio from hell.

Originally banned in the UK but a veritable success in the U.S., where it grossed $3 million off a production cost of only $87,000, Left would help launch the exploitation-horror genre that exploded two years later with Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which made an astonishing $31 million with nearly the same budget. But even that film didn’t go as far as Left in its grisly depiction of the evil that men – and women – do. (Nor was Chain Saw the first of the two to use a chainsaw, which is exactly how the most vicious killer in Left is done away with.)

It would take Craven five years to make another movie, though 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes is arguably one of his best. A blood-riddled sort of Western where another average American family (the Carters) have their Winnebago break down in the desert wastelands of Nevada, only to be victimized – and then some – by a clan of cannibalistic murderers, the film was as impressive for its jarring scenes of violence as it was for the way Craven turned the barren landscape into a constant source of menace.

Whereas Left was a nonstop onslaught of awfulness, Hills initially kept the horror scaled back, then slowly and hideously built things up to a final bloodbath. But it did something else as well: it actually made us feel somewhat bad for the bad guys, shown in this film as victims of extreme poverty and some extremely poor parenting. What they inflicted on the Carters was reprehensible, to say the least, but the film also played as a sick revenge fantasy where inbred castaways of the American dream tried to exact their final comeuppance.

Craven directed over 25 features in a career that ultimately spanned five decades, and included non-shock efforts such as the unlikely 1999 Academy-approved Meryl Streep weepie, Music of the Heart. But it was his seventh film, made in 1984, that turned him into a household name on par with horror maestros Hooper, George Romero and John Carpenter.

Drawing inspiration from his own childhood, as well as from a bizarre syndrome of the 1970’s that saw nightmare-plagued Khmer refugees dying in their sleep, Craven created the ultimate teen movie gone terribly, terribly wrong with A Nightmare on Elm Street. In it, he concocted a villain for the ages: the striped sweater-wearing, razor-menacing, dream-slaying monster, Freddy Krueger. Ask anyone who saw the film at the time, and they can still sing you its unforgettably twisted children’s song: “One, two… Freddy’s coming for you. Three, four… Better lock your door.”

The film is memorable for, among other things, being the feature film debut of Johnny Depp – whose character is killed off in a scene that gave new meaning to the term "blood-soaked sheets." But Nightmare, as well as its post-modern sequel (and Scream predecessor), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, offered yet another vision of a picturesque Americana haunted by demons, then sliced and diced to bits. A child molester who was burned alive, only to come back to torment the dreams of friendly suburban teens, Freddy Krueger was so frightening because his grip extended beyond reality into our collective subconscious: closing one’s eyes was the best way to invite him in.

Another 10 years and a few forgettable efforts later – though this critic still holds fond memories of watching, and re-watching, the 1988 voodoo thriller The Serpent and the Rainbow – Craven would eventually launch a blockbuster of a comeback, while helping to revive a genre that had waned during the boom years of the 1990’s.

Shooting a spec script by tyro screenwriter Kevin Williamson, with Bob Weinstein producing – though not always aiding and abetting, as per accounts in Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures – Craven made a meta-masterpiece with his 1996 high school slasher flick, Scream, turning the genre inside out and offering up a horror film cousin to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, released two years earlier.

Fom its bravura opening sequence, which saw Drew Barrymore pursued to the bitter end by a laundry list of horror do’s and don’ts, to the slew of quotable killings carried out by video store junkies raised on Halloween and, yes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream offered an array of giddy new scares for a generation that thought it had seen it all, yet still wanted more. Finding his second wind in this film that was as fun as it was wickedly terrifying, Craven would launch a franchise that offered up a vertiginous spectacle of violence as well as a critique of our society’s obsession with all things bloody and disgusting – both on the big screen and in what we call “true crimes.”

The three Scream sequels that followed tackled this theme in ways that constantly broke down the fourth wall between film and viewer, holding up a mirror to an audience that took great pleasure in watching itself watch itself. In the underrated Scream 4, which would be Craven’s last effort at the helm of the franchise, a teenage girl wants so desperately to be a star that she’s willing to inflict a brutal amount of pain upon herself, going the extra mile to get her fifteen minutes (or seconds, by today's standards) of fame. By the end of the film, Craven makes it clear that the public can no longer distinguish between good and evil – we’re all equally blinded by the camera flashes.

That grey area between right and wrong, between justifiable homicide and cold-blooded murder, was something Craven had already set his sights on with The Last House on the Left, and he would continue to exploit that realm throughout his career. Like all great horror filmmakers, his best work reflected the society it was made in – acting as a gory moral compass for our times, while making us jump in our seats with both fear and delight. The reason we will never escape Freddy Krueger or Scream’s Ghostface is that, whether in broad daylight, bad dreams or scary movies, the nightmare is us.