Monday, August 31, 2015

RIP Wes Craven (1939-2015)

Wes Craven with a recreation of a certain celebrated Edvard Munch painting.

Early this morning, when the unexpected news of Wes Craven's death at age 76 from brain cancer began to circulate, Kim Newman made this perspicacious observation on Facebook: "Wes Craven reinvented horror at least four times - most directors don't even manage it once."

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) was superficially a trespass of true crime on horror movie turf, but in retrospect it can more easily be seen as the introduction of urban myth into horror, a genre up to then predominated by legends, superstitions and campfire stories. While nightmares have always been depicted in horror cinema, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) was the first film since CALIGARI to extend a story's landscape into the slippery terrain of the unconscious. When success turned Craven's creepy creation into New Line Cinema's flagship title, and revised the nightmare figure of Freddy Kruger into a comic monster of ceremonies for the FANGORIA generation, he explored other variations of horror franchise misfires (CHILLER, SHOCKER) until returning to the franchise with the brilliantly recursive WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994), which provided not only a metaphor for how the series' success had affected its various participants, but seemed to add a new wing onto the genre that might be termed an alternate reality. Then, with SCREAM (1996), he applied the principles of deconstruction to the genre and found that something still new could be created in the act of taking the traditional constructs of genre apart.

As is true of most artists whose work in the genre achieves such levels of potency, Craven was playing the hand that life had dealt him. He had been born to a reportedly dysfunctional family consisting of a fanatically religious mother (so strong a personality that she left him fearful of women till he moved away to go to college) and an abusive, violent father who died when Wes was only four. He also drew knowledgeably on earlier work in the genre; for example, I noticed him drawing from Mario Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) in a pivotal scene in NEW NIGHTMARE (when a prop disappears from a film set) and in the revelation that the white-masked SCREAM killer was not one perpetrator, but two individuals working in concert. But most importantly, he made films that reflected the world as he perceived it, and he worked hard at extending that perception for the sake not only of his art, but for himself. Important works like his 1985 TWILIGHT ZONE episodes "Shatterday" and "Her Pilgrim Soul", and more significantly his 1988 voodoo opus THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, reflect his private side as a voracious reader of texts pertaining to psychology, perception and mysticism, not to mention the literature of the fantastic. 

After a very strong beginning with LAST HOUSE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977, arguably the best of his horror films - which, like all of his best movies, seemed to contrast the reality and myth of the American family), Craven's career seemed to follow a patchwork pattern alternating strong work with weaker material. So far, I've mentioned only the home runs, but his filmography also carries the weight of THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II (1984), A VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN (1995) and DEADLY FRIEND (1986), a film whose level of disaster actually spills over into hilarity - a hilarity that one suspects its creator shared - as the end credits roll. Craven also directed a few of the better made-for-television horror offerings (1978's STRANGER IN THE HOUSE, 1984's INVITATION TO HELL) and some features that fell between his usual extremes without succumbing to mediocrity, like DEADLY BLESSING (1981), SWAMP THING (1982), THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991) and three SCREAM sequels, almost always spinning out at least one sequence that wouldn't look at all out of place in a Best-Of reel.

One of the few horror directors of his generation to earn name-above-the-title status and to stand out from the pack as a genuine creator and innovator, Wes Craven's volatile spark will be much missed.