Tuesday 27 September 2016

Obituary: Wes Craven, Hollywood horror director

Born: August 2, 1939; died: August 30, 2015

Published 06/09/2015 | 02:30

Wes Craven directs Cillian Murphy in Redeye
Wes Craven directs Cillian Murphy in Redeye

Wes Craven, the film director, who has died aged 76, made his living out of scaring the wits out of people in such films as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), earning the nickname "Sultan of Slash"; later, as audiences became cynical about the franchise-driven genre, he served up horror with an ironic tongue-in-cheek.

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Craven's work left the critics divided. Some reviewers denounced him as a purveyor of gore with a dazzling technique and nothing to say; others compared him to Ingmar Bergman.

Craven himself recalled, during his early career, that guests would leave dinner parties upon realising who he was.

But he always had fans among younger directors who appreciated the intelligence and psychological insight he brought to low-budget film making.

He created some of the most memorable bogeymen in film, culminating, in A Nightmare on Elm Street, in the blade-taloned Freddy Krueger, a murdered child molester in a moth-eaten sweater and filthy fedora who is brought back to life via the dreams of the teenage descendants of his killers.

Made at a time when Aids was coming to public attention and the prospect of environmental Armageddon had become a topic in classrooms, the film seemed to tap into deep-seated fears.

Craven, who had a master's degree in philosophy, became a prominent defender of the horror genre which, he argued, gives people the mental equipment to deal with a frightening world.

"You're talking about the beasts in the forest that come after you during the daytime or during the night but in a way that's under control. So in a sense, you can own the beast," he explained.

His films were often inspired by true stories. Nightmare was inspired by reports in the Los Angeles Times about a group of refugees who had fled the Khmer Rouge, healthy young men in their twenties, who, after fleeing to the US, were suffering disturbing nightmares, after which they refused to sleep. "They would try to stay awake, and they would describe the nightmares to their families," Craven recalled. "Finally there would be a scream and the guy would be dead. Death by nightmare."

The resulting film established Craven as a leading director. His producers established a franchise and went on to make several more Freddy Krueger films of varying quality, without Craven's input, until 1995 when he released Wes Craven's New Nightmare.

By this time, as he recalled, "horror had reached one of its sort of classical, cyclical stages of ennui on the part of the audience". So Craven decided to poke fun at the genre. New Nightmare had the actors, studio head and Craven himself being stalked by Freddy Krueger as they worked on a new instalment of the series.

Craven subverted the horror genre again with Scream (1996), the tale of a high-school student who becomes the target of a mysterious killer known as Ghostface. Full of ironic self-reference ("This is like something out of a Wes Carpenter film," one character observes), the film was a box office hit, taking $173m worldwide, spawning a lucrative franchise and inspiring the Scary Movie parodies.

Wesley Earl Craven was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on August 2, 1939 to strict Baptist parents. Even though he was forbidden from going to the cinema, he claimed that his religious upbringing had shaped his talent as a film maker, encouraging him to "ask big questions about life and death".

The character of Freddy Krueger, however, drew on an event in his own childhood when, one night, he heard a shuffling sound outside his bedroom window: "I crept over there and looked down. It was a man wearing [a fedora].

"He stopped and looked up directly into my face. I backed into the shadows, listening and waiting for him to go away. But I didn't hear anything. I went back to the window. He looked up at me again and then turned away. He walked into the door of our apartment building. I've never, ever been that scared in my life. I was terrified."

Craven studied English and psychology at Wheaton College, Illinois. He later earned a master's in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University, but it was while he was working as a humanities professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York state, that he first went to the cinema - and fell in love. In 1971 he left his teaching job to work as a film editor at a post-production house in Manhattan.

After writing and directing pornographic films under pseudonyms, Craven made his debut under his own name in 1972 with the ultra-low-budget ($90,000) shocker The Last House on the Left, about a gang of psychotic killers who rape, torture and murder two teenage girls, only to meet a more horrific fate at the hands of the girls' parents.

Marketed under the slogan, "To avoid fainting, keep repeating: It's only a movie... only a movie..." the film was a grisly remake of Ingmar Bergman's Oscar-winning Virgin Spring (1959) featuring sickeningly real scenes of sadism and violence. Released mostly on drive-in screens in America, the film was banned by the censors in Britain, though it has come to be seen as a classic.

His follow-up, The Hills Have Eyes, about cannibalistic mutants stalking a suburban family who have become stranded in the desert, established his reputation as a cult director, but it was A Nightmare on Elm Street that propelled him into the mainstream.

Craven's other films included Deadly Friend (1986); The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988); Shocker (1990); The People Under the Stairs (1991); Vampire in Brooklyn (1995) and Red Eye (2005). In 1999 he made a rare foray outside the horror genre with Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep, who was nominated for an Oscar. His last film, in 2011, was the fourth in the Scream franchise.

People were sometimes surprised to learn that Craven was not, in his words, "a Mansonite crazoid", but a charming, humorous man whose hobby was bird-watching. When asked by an interviewer to name the thing that most terrified him, he replied "my ex-wife's divorce lawyer".

He is survived by his third wife, Iya, and by a son and daughter.

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