“Horror films don’t create fear, they release it.” -Wes Craven
Wes Craven began his filmmaking career tackling gritty, primal horror, exploring the depraved side of man and how crippling it could be to come face to face with unflinching evil. At its core, horror has always been an avenue to address the disturbing aspects of the human experience and the world we live in, the things most don’t want to talk about. Craven understood this, and created rich characters and relevant stories that explore those uncomfortably ugly realities. He also displayed a unique ability to reinvent the slasher genre several times over, while still retaining his focus on making horror relatable.
With his debut film, The Last House of the Left, Craven shocked, enraged, and enthralled viewers. It remains one of the strongest rape revenge films, still eliciting a powerful response to this day. The film creates a suffocating scenario of violation and cruelty, putting the audience in the shoes of the victims and allowing us to feel how entrapping and unforgivable such a violation is. There’s a very raw and authentic feel to the film, offering an uncensored view of these merciless criminals. It’s clear they will continue to prey on anyone in their path, and apart from one morally-conflicted member of their group, they will greatly enjoy doing it. The Last House of the Left showcases the bleakest of humanity, but still manages to give us a win via righteous and bloody retaliation. The film highlights the powerful bond of family even in the face of such cruelty, and what loss can push you to do.
The Hills Have Eyes offered a fitting follow up to The Last House on the Left. Craven again explored a vision of terror centered around one family who must face down relentless, primal evil that is hellbent on their suffering. This evil comes in the form of a family of ruthless, cannibalistic mutants called the Jupiter clan. Again, there is only one member of this family that shows any empathy, with the rest being cold-blooded killers. The Jupiter clan is utterly savage, but they are not monsters of their own making. They are victims themselves; their deformities are the side-effects of nuclear radiation and abandonment by their families and society as a whole. Taking place shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, The Hills Have Eyes addresses the brutality of war and the dark secrets - and people - that get buried and forgotten in the process. Meanwhile, the Carters, the "normal" family targeted by the Jupiter clan, offer a harrowing critique on the All-American family. The father is a retired cop who is openly racist and misogynistic, the mother's identity is tied into praying all of her problems away, and most of their adult children are completely unaware of the world outside of their bubble. You still have empathy for them and want (most of them) to survive, but they aren’t really meant to be heroic characters as much as commentary on 1970s American culture. The Hills Have Eyes builds on Craven’s unique insight as a horror auteur, exposing the darkness in both those who hide in plain sight and those who are forced to become savages, hidden away by society.
A Nightmare on Elm Street began a new era of horror for Craven and a significant shift in how he tackled it. Most importantly, it invigorated the supernatural slasher film, forever changing the sub-genre. A Nightmare on Elm Street marked Craven’s turn to surreal horror that would become a staple in his films as well as an influence on countless other filmmakers. And it's impossible to overstate the impact of Freddy Krueger on the slasher genre, provoking a shift towards franchises built around supernatural killers. Craven ripped away the security blanket of something being “just a dream," turning the trope on its head by introducing a ghostly murderer who stalks his victims in their nightmares.
The film explored the importance of opening your mind, knowing the impossible but very real darkness that preys on you, and arming yourself against it without letting your fear consume you. Essentially you must beat Freddy at his own game and take away the power you gave to him by being afraid. In this, Craven planted the seeds for the smart slasher film with an aware, determined final girl in Nancy (Heather Langenkamp). A Nightmare on Elm Street added immense depth to what a slasher film could be and the territory the killer could manipulate. You could be seemingly safe in your bed and still be touched by an inconceivable evil that didn’t even need to enter your home. The attack on the mind is perhaps even more haunting and brutal than the traditional slasher that simply stalked and killed. Through this, Craven redefined the possibilities of what a slasher could be.
Throughout the 80s Craven continued to explore supernatural evil entering the real world in films such as The Serpent and the Rainbow and Shocker. While these films were supernaturally fueled, Craven coupled this with dissecting primal evil and brutality in man, true to the roots of his earlier films. While The Serpent and the Rainbow is a zombie occult film first with some strong body horror elements, its most terrifying element is the all-powerful dictator who mercilessly invades and torments the victims of his choosing, both through the body and the mind. The film is a horrifying exploration of how dangerous such unchecked power can be, providing a nightmarish journey into another possibility of mentally invasive supernatural horror.
Shocker takes a vile, irredeemable human evil reminiscent of the killers of Craven’s breakout film, The Last House of the Left, and explored the damage it could inflict if given a supernatural power like Freddy. The film is at times over the top and bizarre, but it is a worthy film to highlight among Craven’s most supernaturally focused chapter as a horror filmmaker. The death penalty only amplifying the killer’s power and ability to inflict pain elicits the question if execution really destroys evil or simply transfers it.
In Wes Craven's New Nightmare, Craven built off the surreal, smart slasher he established in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and pushed it even farther. In the meta-horror sequel, we learn that Freddy was the manifestation of a very real evil that was locked inside the Elm Street films. Now that the films aren’t being made anymore, this powerful evil has escaped into our own reality. In New Nightmare, Craven ripped away the safety net even more fully, offering no escape from Freddy even in the real world.
Wes Craven's New Nightmare marked the beginning of Craven’s chapter of meta, self-aware horror. In the film, Craven (playing himself) becomes a victim of his own creation as the subject begins to manipulate the master. The script the characters read in the film immediately becomes their reality. Here, Craven plays with the idea of art mirroring life and in turn life mirroring art in a cyclic whirlwind of nightmarish terror. Craven informs Heather in the film, “When a story dies, the story is set free.” He examines the idea of a story having power. Like energy, and even fear in a more abstract sense, any story cannot truly be destroyed. It can only be transferred to another plane of existence, therefore this malevolent being with Freddy Krueger's face truly is eternal.
Unquestionably the smart meta-slasher truly flourished after Craven’s iconic collaboration with Kevin Williamson on Scream. It is one of the first films wherein the characters used their knowledge of the horror genre as a weapon to wield against the killer. In many ways the film is a love letter to the slasher film and even more so to horror fans, because in Scream, being obssessed with slasher movies becomes a strength. Only the true horror fan stands a chance in this world. Those who were knowledgeable about genre tropes are the ones who stand a fighting chance. Likewise, those who don’t know the ins and outs of classic slasher cinema - such as Casey (Drew Barrymore), who incorrectly answers a trivia question about Friday the 13th - are doomed. The killers use slasher films as their muse, but it’s evident this sadistic nature was always in them. Scream created an entire sub-genre of meta horror, and its influence is still evident in nearly every smart slasher today.
Craven’s films continue to have such a lasting effect on audiences partially because even his most otherworldly and surreal visions of horror always contained a very relatable, human element. In fact, some of his films were inspired by true life events, upon which he then built a wider landscape of terror to fully examine both the tragedy and strength such an event could elicit. The Hills Have Eyes is based on a Scottish legend of a cannibalistic clan who thrived in the 16th century and additionally focuses on the aftermath of the Vietnam war, as well as adopting some elements of the Ingmar Bergman film The Virgin Spring. A Nightmare on Elm Street was inspired by a large number of people who mysteriously died in their sleep, including a Cambodian genocide refugee who was plagued by horrible nightmares he was sure would kill him. The Serpent and the Rainbow was based on the real-life experiences of scientist, Wade Davis, while in Haiti investigating the merits of a drug that was said to be able to bring people back from the dead found himself at the throws of secret societies and voodoo magic. Scream is loosely based on the true crime slayings of The Gainesville Ripper, a serial killer who mutilated, beheaded, and murdered five college students in 1990. While Scream didn’t focus on the specifics of the case, it did take the idea that this killer instinct could be lurking anywhere. Even his films that aren’t based on true life cases tackle very real crimes and societal issues prevalent in our world, such as in The Last House on the Left and Shocker.
Years after his death, Wes Craven, and the masterful horror legacy he left behind continue to have a lasting effect. A key part to the resonating power of his films lies in Craven’s intricate understanding of the psychology of fear, his gritty approach to unrelenting evil in the world, and the awe inspiring will power of the human spirit he beautifully brings alive. He always saw the depth, complexities, and chance for a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world we live in through a genre that is so often looked down upon as cheap, shock value entertainment. Craven brought substance and relatability to the sub-genre that changed the perception of what a slasher film could be. His work showed his unique ability to transform and challenge, both pushing the sub-genre forward and leaving a legacy of ever-evolving horror.
KEEP READING: Why the Meta-Horror Message of Wes Craven's 'New Nightmare' Cuts Deeper Than Ever
Next on his to-do list? To become the rent-loving landlord from 'Spider-Man 2'.
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