When it comes to Wes Craven, I hardly know where to start to memorialize him. This one hurts. While I would not say we were close in any way, we were friendly, and I'd spent enough time with him that when we would run into each other, he always seemed to light up. I'm sure that was something that he did with many people. Everyone I know who knew him has stories about his incredibly kindness. I remember one afternoon in particular spent at his home talking to him about possible projects, and honestly, it didn't matter to me if we ended up getting a film set up or not. It was just the chance to sit and talk about horror with him that was the thrill.
When I heard the news tonight, in a flash I realized that we're approaching an age where the guys who directly inspired me are going to start to pass, and that is simply not acceptable. Simply put, Wes was a gentleman, erudite and charming, with a savage streak that came out in his work but never in his life or in the way he treated the people with whom he worked. He was a genuinely lovely person, and he gave me some of the worst nightmares of my entire life. I was shocked to learn he was 76 tonight, because he has always had this amazing energy, and I thought he was at least a decade younger.
Then again, Wes had been releasing feature films since I was two years old, so I shouldn't be surprised by his age. “Last House On The Left” is a film I admire more for its impact than for its execution. There have been so many terrible movies that have directly borrowed or stolen from the film that it's practically a subgenre, culminating in one of the great Ain't It Cool moments of all time, but when Craven released his original film, it must have felt like a shotgun blast to audiences. It is mean and it is dirty and it is nasty, through and through, and it is shocking to look at that film or “The Hills Have Eyes” and realize these movies came from the soft-spoken English teacher and humanities professor. Like many filmmakers of an earlier age, he had an actual life before he started writing and directing movies, and it informed his work. He was born in 1939, so he was 33 when he released his first movie. He was a voracious reader and a lover of all types of art, and even the films of his that I don't like feel like the kinds of films that come from someone with a singular voice.
When “A Nightmare On Elm Street” was originally released, it was not a big release. New Line was still seventeen years away from being the studio that released “Lord Of The Rings,” and at that point, they were an exploitation house. They didn't have the money to carpet bomb television with ads, but they managed to buy just enough to let my friends and I know that the film was coming. Bill Rosemann was one of my best friends at the time, and the two of us were determined to see it. It opened in Chattanooga at the Eastlake mall theater where there were two screens. “Nightmare” was on one, and “Oh God, You Devil!” was on the other. We bought our tickets for the George Burns “comedy” and then, one by one, snuck across to the other screen…. where there were absolutely no other patrons.
Makes it hard to blend in when you're the only ones in a theater. We picked the darkest shadowy corner of the theater to sit, hoping no one would see us if they came in. We weren't even sure they were going to show the movie because no one had apparently bought a ticket. It was only at the very last minute that someone else came in and sat in the dead center of the theater. We had to wait for almost twenty minutes because of the way the start times were staggered, and I don't think we exhaled until the film actually started.
Then there was the small matter of being scared out of our minds. Whatever I expected from “A Nightmare On Elm Street,” the film was far scarier, far crazier. Again, there's something dirty about the way Wes Craven would bring these ideas to life. One of the reasons I have had a real problem with Freddy Krueger as a pop culture figure for all the years since that first film is because they defanged him and turned him into a Halloween costume for children. How profoundly wrong is that? He's a character who murders children, who was burned to death by angry parents, and who continues to stalk and murder children in their sleep even after he's died. While the first film never explicitly calls him a pedophile, he is at the very least a deeply disgusting killer. Little by little, he became a stand-up comedian with claws, and people seemed to be entirely okay with that.
One of my other favorite memories of seeing one of his films came in 1994, a full decade later. October 14th was a big night for me and my movie-crazy buddies. We'd been hearing about how amazing “Pulp Fiction” was since the moment it had played Cannes, and we were finally going to get a chance to see it for ourselves. We bought tickets for the prime-time show at the Chinese Theater the moment they went on sale, and then attended what has now become a legendary screening. The Chinese was like a rock concert that night. “Pulp Fiction” tore the roof off the place, and when the film was done, none of us were ready to call it a night. Since “Wes Craven's New Nightmare” had just opened as well, we decided to grab something to eat, then march down the street to the Galaxy to see the midnight screening of Craven's film. My girlfriend at the time was a fairly adventurous viewer, but she was rattled by “Pulp,” so she was already on edge. When “New Nightmare” began, she was already unsure if she was ready to see the film, but as it started to work on her, she got more and more uncomfortable. There's a scene in the middle of the film where Miko Hughes has a seizure, and all of a sudden, she popped up and started smacking and kicking, having a full-blown fight-or-flight reaction to the images onscreen. She went insane. All of a sudden, all of the defanging of Freddy had been reversed completely, and she wasn't just scared, she was in pure animal panic. I had to leave with her, and while that may not sound like a great viewing experience, it was exciting to see a horror film cause that kind of big reaction in somebody, especially since I'd started to get jaded by that point.
This morning, I hopped on to talk to Chris Eggertsen about Wes and his work, and you can find that video embedded at the top of this piece. To clarify a point I made in the piece, Wes did not make a “Masters Of Horror” episode, but he was one of the Masters of Horror, the group who occasionally met for dinner, and it was because of our involvement with the series that we were able to meet him. Our script for “Cigarette Burns” got us into a lot of different rooms, and it got us summoned to his home for a meeting. When I think of him, I always think of him as part of that overall experience, and I wanted to be clear in print about why that is the case.
I feel like whatever I have to say about Wes just barely scratches the surface of why his work is great, and before you start listing his less-than-great movies (and there are more than a few), just know that it's not a zero-sum game. Wes Craven's highs are so high that none of the rest of it matters. If I got a call from '90s era Eddie Murphy wanting to make a vampire movie, I'd have said yes, too. Wes Craven's best films did more than just make money; they helped define and expand a genre I love dearly. He was a titan, and we are poorer for his passing.
Wes Craven was 76.