Imagine changing the game, as an artist, once in your life. Now imagine changing it multiple times, in several different decades. One man did that. His name was Wes Craven.
It often takes many years, and many movies, for a filmmaker to establish himself on the scene, but Wes Craven cut right to the chase with his debut feature. Released in 1972, The Last House on the Left was a gritty exploitation film by way of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, depicting the brutal rape of two teenage girls, Mari and Phyllis, and the subsequent revenge carried out by Mari’s parents.
Brought to the screen with a documentary-style realism, The Last House on the Left is rightfully credited – in no small part – for ushering in the wave of exploitation horror films that littered the genre’s landscape throughout the 1970s. Classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and I Spit On Your Grave no doubt owe a debt to Craven’s inaugural horror show, and that list quite frankly goes on and on.
Craven followed Last House with The Hills Have Eyes, Deadly Blessing, and Swamp Thing, but it was in 1984 that he once again blazed an entirely new path for the genre at large. By the mid-80s, the slasher revolution spawned by films like Halloween and Friday the 13th was on its last legs, with each new entry into the sub-genre becoming increasingly derivative, uninspired, and wholly unmemorable.
While everyone else was churning out generic ‘killer in the woods’ slasher films at the time, Wes Craven dug much deeper with A Nightmare on Elm Street, a film that gave rise to the decade’s most beloved and enduring horror icon: Freddy Krueger. With his seminal slasher, Craven injected a healthy dose of much-needed life into the sub-genre by boldly going where nobody had gone before: directly into our nightmares.
In the wake of movies such as Deadly Friend, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Shocker, and The People Under the Stairs, which are all worthy of their own retrospective pieces, Craven returned to Elm Street with 1994’s New Nightmare. 10 years after creating Freddy Krueger, and then passing him off to several different filmmakers, the bona fide master of horror reinvented the genre yet again.
New Nightmare in many ways laid the groundwork for Scream, as Craven boldly set it in a world where the Nightmare on Elm Street movies were merely pieces of fictional entertainment. The meta approach allowed for Craven to bring “the real” Freddy Krueger into the real world, effectively shedding the villain’s status as a pop culture jokester and restoring him to the terrifying monster he was originally meant to be.
It’s often said that New Nightmare was ahead of its time, and the reality may in fact be that it was a bit too far ahead of its time. Smarter than any of the other horror films released in the early to mid 90s, Krueger’s triumphant return to the big screen went over many heads at the time, and only in more recent years has it been embraced as the truly revolutionary slice of horror that it by all means was.
Honing in on the meta aspects of New Nightmare, Craven turned the slasher sub-genre completely on its head with the self-aware Scream, which hit theaters in 1996. Much like he did two decades prior, Craven revitalized the entire landscape of slasher cinema with Scream, breaking up the monotony and launching a brand new wave of films that were clearly influenced and inspired by it.
Centered on a group of teens who were essentially aware that they were inside of a horror film, Scream played around with the sub-genre’s tropes in a way unheard of at the time, and with it Craven gave birth to yet another horror icon who continues to endure: Ghostface. The moniker represents a costume rather than an actual character, but Ghostface nevertheless deserves mention among the greats.
Rare for a franchise, and perhaps because he wasn’t ready to hand over the reins like he did with Elm Street, Craven returned to direct the subsequent three installments in the Scream series, keeping him busy throughout the late 90s and 2000s. Eleven years after Scream 3, Craven directed what was to be his final film with Scream 4 in 2011, poking fun at the genre’s obsession with remakes.
To reduce Wes Craven’s impressive and decades-spanning career to just four films would be doing him a huge disservice, but when specifically looking at The Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street, New Nightmare, and Scream, it becomes immediately clear that Craven’s greatest gift was not just reinventing himself as a filmmaker, but reinventing and reinvigorating the entire horror genre.
Perhaps more than any other filmmaker who spent their career scaring audiences, Wes Craven was a true game-changer on the scene, influencing countless films and inspiring trends in almost every decade he made movies in. The horror world is infinitely better because of the love and attention Craven continually gave to it, and he leaves behind a legacy that will never fail to inspire, terrify, and entertain.
Wes Craven was and will continue to be the very definition of the term ‘master of horror.’ And right about now, I can’t help but take comfort in the fact that death doesn’t – and can never – take that away.
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