The filmmaker Wes Craven battled brain cancer at the end of his 76 years, and his death Sunday brought forth a flurry of tributes to, among others, his most influential demon child.
Craven named Freddy Krueger, the dream-wrecker with the metal fingers and cinema’s least romantic-looking fedora, after a boy who bullied Craven as a child. Revenge is sweet, and sometimes extremely profitable. Although Craven’s screen monster became one of those quippy unkillable adversaries you’re supposed to love to hate, across various sequels, when “A Nightmare on Elm Street” came out in 1984 it took care of Job One.
It scared the hell out of millions with its inspired dream invasion scenario – simple, endlessly adaptable.
Watch it today, and you know what’s coming. Too many inferior, increasingly jokey franchise additions have a way of ruining a true original. But when you witness the scene in which the sleepy high school student looks past her classroom door and sees the splattered body bag upright, with someone beckoning inside, you’re really seeing something.
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The first “Nightmare” came four years after the launch of “Friday the 13th,” which was not and is not and never shall be a good movie. That franchise is about one thing: a hockey mask, now worn annually at Halloween by the children of the parents who were freaked out by the movie when they were too young to have seen it. Every Halloween, of course, millions more make themselves up like Freddy Krueger. With “Nightmare,” there was a truly nightmarish film to back up the attendant pop culture phenomenon.
Craven changed the course of modern screen horror three times across three decades. In 1972, he unleashed a truly scuzzy little number, “The Last House on the Left,” on an unsuspecting public, putting paying customers through an excruciating rape-revenge story. Craven was remaking, loosely, Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” and the result was one of the toughest sits in the entire horror genre. Listen to Craven’s DVD commentary on that picture, and you hear a thoughtful man who is still sorting out where he was, where the country and the culture were, at the time he made it.
A decade following the first “Nightmare” movies, Craven scored with a Kevin Williamson script titled, simply, “Scream.” It was time for a horror film with a sense of humor and playfulness about the genre’s cliches, and Craven finessed it just so. Millions screamed on cue, and laughed at being jerked around so artfully, and Craven became more than a horror director. He became a brand, like Heinz.
Some consider the gruesome “Last House on the Left” a feminist landmark. That’s a stretch, I think. The movie’s viciously divided in its scrambled impulses to deliver real-life, ground-level violation and horror while still getting people in the door. Yet the movie’s two-faced nature points to a director who had things on his mind, and in his subconscious. He was trying to film his way through his own waking nightmares.
Horror, he once said, acts as “an inoculation against a deeper and darker and more frightening reality.”
In many Craven films, heroines of real backbone and intelligence – Adrienne Barbeau in the winsome “Swamp Thing” (1982), Neve Campbell in “Scream” (1996), Rachel McAdams in the crafty, atypical thriller “Red Eye” (2005) – guide the story and humanize the genre conventions. I suppose “Swamp Thing” is two-faced, too. The epic presence of Barbeau is exploited for more than backbone and intelligence, and the college-aged me was eternally grateful for this. But Craven didn’t bring the drooling lunkheadedness so many male genre directors bring to a movie like “Swamp Thing.”
Rose McGowan, a “Scream” alum who has lately turned into a valiant whistle-blower regarding the corrosive misogyny in the film industry, tweeted after Craven’s death: “Thank you for being the kindest man, the gentlest man, and one of the smartest men I’ve known.”
The man in question was raised in a strict evangelical Christian household. “We didn’t smoke, drink, play cards, dance or go to movies,” he told one interviewer.
From 1957 to 1963, prior to his Johns Hopkins graduate studies, Craven attended Wheaton College west of Chicago. He once risked explusion to see the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in a nearby town.
In a 1997 Chicago Tribune interview, Craven reflected on his years at Wheaton. He chose the college for one reason only: “My sister’s fiance went there. I was the first member of my family to attend college, and, frankly, the idea of applying to more than one school never occurred to us. Our worry was that Wheaton College might be too liberal. I seem to recall some discussion of that subject in the family.”
At Wheaton, the future horror icon edited the literary magazine known as Kodon, and in 1962, he later recalled, “there were two stories, one about an unwed mother, the other about an interracial couple, that were not well-received. After the second issue, (the administration) announced I had been derelict in my duty as editor and that Kodon would cease publication for the year. Our response was Brave Sons, a literary magazine produced off campus that went on for several issues, if I recall.”
The Tribune interview went on to quote Robert Warburton, a retired Wheaton College professor of English literature, who said: “I was sympathetic to Craven and his friends because they were asking nothing more than the presence and dynamics of Christians in the modern arts. They wanted to know, ‘Where are Christians in the arts? What is our role in film, theater, music and dance?’”
It’s startling to think of Craven in that context, especially since he soon found himself working in various capacities in the adult film industry, in the years leading up to “The Last House on the Left.”
Craven’s delightfully contradictory resume, and his finest hours on film, revealed both a wit and a subterranean seriousness of purpose. He believed in the people driving his screen nightmares, and one gets the feeling, from the expressions of sorrow and devotion following his death, that he was a good man with a gift for bad dreams roughly 90 to 120 minutes in length.
As a senior at Wheaton, Craven struggled with the neurological disorder known as Guillain-Barre syndrome. For most of the year he was paralyzed from the chest down, unable to attend classes. “I remember feeling terribly down,” he said in the 1997 Tribune interview. “The illness set back my graduation by nearly a year, but the support I received from students and faculty members through that period was so moving to me. People I didn’t know came to visit, to pray for my recovery. To me, their thoughts and prayers represented the best side of Christianity. I'll never forget that side of Wheaton College. Never.”