I never liked horror films before I discovered Wes Craven.
When I first started getting seriously into cinema in my early teens, horror films meant torture porn. The two biggest franchises working their way through cinemas were James Wan’s Saw and Eli Roth’s Hostel. Scares were secondary to splatter and intelligence was in short supply. I pretty much discounted an entire genre because there simply wasn’t anything for me.
On a whim, I ended up watching A Nightmare On Elm Street, only passingly aware of its brutal reputation. Over the next two hours, my perception of an entire genre changed. I was terrified and disgusted, but above all else, I was gripped. Freddy Krueger had sunk his claws into me and he wasn’t letting go.
Given the significance of Wes Craven’s oeuvre in terms of my cinephilia, I was hit hard by the news that broke overnight of the horror auteur’s death after a battle with brain cancer. He was 76 years old.
Raised on the arthouse flicks of Fellini and Bergman, Craven embraced exploitation cinema in the 1970s with his blistering debut film The Last House on the Left. Alongside his second film, The Hills Have Eyes, the rape-revenge tale marked a period of early nastiness that put Craven on the map as a voice to watch. Neither film is perfect, but they are effectively brutal works that showcase a unique visual invention.
It was in the midst of the 1980s slasher craze that Craven made Elm Street – his first true masterpiece. Whilst the killers of Halloween and Friday the 13th were hulking menaces, Craven’s villain was a more cerebral creation. Murdered by a vigilante mob, Freddy Krueger chose to take his revenge by invading the dreams of young people. It’s a simple, but ingenious, concept that allowed Craven to sit as the most revolutionary of the slasher movie makers.
The joy of Craven, though, was in his desire to reinvent his own work. In 1994, Craven made New Nightmare, which focuses on the character of Freddy Krueger bleeding into reality during the process of making a new Elm Street film. It’s a joyous piece of metafiction, which proved an effective return to one of horror’s most intriguing franchises.
New Nightmare was, in many ways, a prelude to the other franchise that would come to define Craven’s filmography – the Scream series. Released at a time when audiences were becoming increasingly cynical to movie tropes, Scream was different to New Nightmare in that it wasn’t interested in reinventing the genre. It wanted to take a hatchet to its clichéd face.
Even today, Scream has freshness seeping from its pores. Craven populated his movie with the kind of sarcastic, savvy characters who would eventually become Reddit commenters and people who spend hours developing in-depth fan theories about their favourite stories. Scream took apart every bit of the scaffolding that had been propping up the slasher genre since the late 70s with joyous abandon, forcing the creation of something almost completely new and interesting – postmodern horror. Craven wasn’t content to live in the house that Freddy built, so he tore it down and built something new in its place.
Not every film Craven made was a home run. His forays outside of genre cinema were largely unmemorable and you won’t find many apologists for Deadly Friend or My Soul to Take. However, Craven was a truly unique voice in horror at a time when so many were content to copy others and deal in tropes rather than original ideas.
Today, the horror community is in mourning at the loss of one of its greatest voices. There’s no doubt that Craven’s death is a huge loss to the world of cinema and, as a horror fan, I’m deeply saddened that the world just became a slightly less terrifying place.
Goodbye, Mr Craven. We’ll see you on Elm Street.