As a life-long horror enthusiast, Wes Craven is not a filmmaker I’d call the best gateway to horror cinema. I find The Last House on the Left distasteful as a motherfucker (one of the few cases where the remake is preferred by me, funny since the original LHotL is a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s the Virgin Spring – I don’t think I need to tell anyone how I feel about any Bergman film). And while I liked Scream back in high school, I grew a lot more tired of its cynical nature and how it doesn’t really comment on itself beyond the famous “Rules to Survive” scene and mostly just retreads the same failures every other slasher film and smiles “PARODY!”
He’s also thankfully not the worst: His entries in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise are not up for debate as two of the only peaks that franchise got to as quality cinema (the other peak is NOES3, but I still preferred New Nightmare and of course the original work). I don’t know if I’d call the first film the best slasher film or my favorite – but it’s still a hands-down masterpiece of horror cinema and it does something I don’t think many of us value knowing Krueger like the back of our hands by now: A Nightmare on Elm Street is possibly my favorite non-noir mystery film. Coming into the film clean with no idea what’s going on and only learning just as Nancy does was exactly the best way to involve into the horror story, slowly growing to fear Krueger as a human monster rather than just an entity that hacks and slashes (and while I don’t mind wise-cracking Krueger, I thought he worked best in Craven’s films as a snarling laconic beast of vengeance).
And even then I always thought The Hills Have Eyes was his best work, visceral hardcore situation-based terror that is only matched (or I’d say surpassed) in the 70s by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And even then, I’d say the Hills Have Eyes at least had a “happy”-er ending. And my feelings towards the Scream franchise seem to mean nothing when it is still considered a hallmark of horror cinema – for better or worse, I still credit it with reviving the slasher genre for the 90s in a much more television heartthrob manner, but then that meant it gave us shit like Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer and that just makes me more angry at it as I get angry to Friday the 13th for letting horror movie producers know that making that genre embarrassingly cheap means instant paycheck.
One thing is absolutely something I apply to Craven: He was my first. To date, I can’t think of a single horror movie I watched prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street. I’m sure there’s at least one, but none of them burned their way into my mind the same way the single image of Freddy Krueger leering at me between his knife fingers proclaiming “THIS! is God…”. And once I got over how, for many years, I would not go to sleep by choice but after hours of staring out in the darkness of my room because I didn’t want to find him in my subconscious lest I find the movie is real. That’s what happens when I eavesdrop on my grade school classmates and think “Hey, I’ll watch that one movie when my parents aren’t home.” The deformed image of Freddy himself, the sadistic cackle, was enough to scar me as an image, having to go through the whole thing just to make sure Nancy and crew make it out alive was just a desperate hope for an ending that implies the dragon can be slain.
Now if I had a dollar for every different story I’ve heard (many sourced by Craven himself) as to how Krueger was conceived as a character, I’d have… no more than 8 but still enough to wonder what story to believe. It usually has to do with a childhood fear or trauma and knowing that the possible strength of how absolutely frightening Krueger was as a figure came from the fact that Craven himself digging into what scared him, that sort of thing made me think about how John Landis said scary movies are best made by the people who have the most to fear.
And in the end, even the lesser-known works of Craven – Red Eye, The People Under the Stairs, The Serpent and the Rainbow (all of which I honestly enjoyed) – they’re all very notable solely on Craven’s own name. He was the household face of American horror cinema (his only competitor was possibly John Carpenter, but he’d already started slipping off the deep end in a way that Craven kind of avoided by keeping his grip on consistent quality steady), totally solidified and earned by his own loyalty to the genre for many years.
Christopher Lee and Terry Pratchett were deaths this year that shocked me, but I knew intellectually I’d have to deal with around this point. Wes Craven wasn’t. It never occurred to me that he’d be dying at any point in my lifetime. And while I’m not anywhere near as fond of Craven as I am Lee and Pratchett, I still had to sit to think about what his movies meant to me as a child of 8 that wanted to know who was so haunted enough to give me a killer that could claw his way into my mind to kill me. Where does that come from?
It came from Wes Craven.