So, I’ve noticed something. It seems my previous post, One, Two, Freddy’s Coming Back for You, from way back in 2008, has recently become my number one post of all time. I am assuming it has something to do with the trailer for the new Freddy movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street, coming out.
I had mentioned in that post that I had written a rather lengthy essay when I was in college about Wes Craven. I know that many of you probably don’t care to read it, but I can’t really think of better time to post it. Wes Craven movies, or movies inspired by Wes Craven don’t come out as often as they used to, so I better post while the posting is good. My essay covers many more movies besides the Craven Nightmare series, so if you want to learn more about him and his works, you may want to take the next several minutes of your life and digest it. Who knows, you may end up on a game show some time in the near future and something you read in it may be one of the questions you are asked. Better to be prepared than sorry.
I’m not sure how I feel yet about the trailer. The fact that Michael Bay directed it disturbs me slightly more than Freddy stalking me in my sleep, but I am sure I will end up watching it in the theaters regardless. It would go against all things Gabe if I didn’t go. I will be interested to see how much of the original shows up and what new story lines will be written in. I have a fear that there will be just as many explosions as their will be pints of blood. Perhaps it will be a good combo. Well, without further ado, lets get onto one of my favorite essays that I wrote in college. Oh, and I totally got an A. I suppose I can thank my brothers. I mean they did get me into all things Horror after all, even if it wasn’t their intention. Enjoy, and remember, One, Two, Freddy’s Coming for You!!!
Horror was brought into this world centuries upon centuries ago, by minds that took pleasure in telling tales about characters who were utterly shocking and creating storylines that were sure to terrify. The subject of such fright first adorned the pages of books to fascinate the imaginations of our minds. Later the trepidation evolved into a visual form, film, not only to mesmerize our eyes, but also to give our human imagination an optical representation of our ever so dreaded fears. As the years have screamed by, a select few have graced the silver screen with their masterful visions and produced horrors that have echoed throughout time; it is Wes Craven, a writer/director, though, who stands out as one of the few remaining masters of horror that has provided a quarter century of unique contributions to the modern audience in his wide-ranging films filled with gore, jolts, and pure terror. For a while, horror seemed to become repetitive; the same monsters from the 30′s and 40′s continued to flicker on the screen, but Craven walked briskly onto the scene, took the norm and created a new vein in horror. That vein has been gushing fresh blood for thirsty audiences ever since and along with their screams of fright, there have been silent prayers that it never stops.
In the year of 1939, on August 2, a boy was born to strict fundamentalist Baptists in Cleveland, Ohio. Little did his parents know at the time, but they had just brought one of the significant generators of horror into the world. If they had been aware of what God, their wondrous creator, had blessed them with, surely they may have thought about returning their little bundle of joy into the hands that fathered man. There was no exchange for baby Wesley Earl Craven on that day; instead he took his place in the dysfunctional family that would later serve as the foundation of the creative genius of his career. “The strict rules, the broken household and the death of [his father] were to have an indelible impact on Craven’s philosophical outlook, and these early events would one day impact his art heavily” (Muir 7). His childhood was less than perfect, but in the long run, the honest, terrifying, and horrifying experiences of Wes Craven’s young life helped make a name for himself on the silver screen. The audiences with hungry stomachs for screams just sat back in their stiff chairs and absorbed it all, demonstrating that one person’s pain can be another’s pleasure.
The first quarter century of Craven’s present career contains an array of feature films, beginning in the year of 1972, thirty-three years after his parents brought a new little creature into their world. Craven’s first horror picture, The Last House on the Left, was definitely not made with weak stomachs in mind. The film’s content of rape, revenge, and substance abuse is portrayed so realistically that the characters’ behaviors are enough to make the strongest person turn their head away from the gruesome acts occurring on the screen. In the words of film critic Roger Ebert, “The Last House on the Left is a powerful narrative, told so directly and strongly that the audience . . . was rocked on its psychic heels” (Muir 39). The macabre performed by a young group of vigilantes lead by a young man named Krug, is truly disturbing; but that is what horror is about and it does exactly what it is supposed to do. People were not meant to leave the theater with smiles on their faces or happy thoughts meandering through their minds. The Last House on the Left was successful in that the film shocked, terrified, and left audiences questioning their own morality.
The brutality of The Last House on the Left was a brave, giant step for beginner filmmaker, Wes Craven. Audiences and critics had not viewed violent horror to such an extreme and reacted with much repulsion. Danny Peary, author of Cult Movies, said after viewing the picture, “The Last House on the Left . . . is a sick sexual fantasy for predators that is indeed an incitement to violence” (Muir 39). For most people the images seen throughout the film were intense, but it was a change that brought the word horror back into the phrase – horror film. Craven introduced a new scare to audiences that was extremely different from the norm. He removed the A typical monsters with hideous features and extraterrestrial themes. In their place he provided audiences with a film portraying humans in their ugliest form – as rapists and murderers who were a great menace to society. Krug and the gang were slightly different from other protagonists in horror films. Dracula, for instance, was pure imagination, but what Krug and his friends were doing could really be accomplished. The threat of horror taking the form of regular, everyday people crawled under people’s skin and truly frightened them.
The audiences that crowded into theaters on a nightly basis to view The Last House on the Left had such a difficult time dealing with the film because of Craven’s magnificent use of the camera. They were placed in a very voyeuristic situation and in return felt ashamed and involved even though the horrendous acts on the screen were only make-believe. An inventive way to make the violence not seem so shocking for audiences, a tag line was made – To avoid fainting, keep telling yourself ‘It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie. It’s only a movie . . . ’. This “disclaimer” did little to comfort audiences. They still reacted with disgust because they saw their own species doing the unthinkable and at the same time, appearing to feel little or no regret for the cruel acts they committed. Other films like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974), I Spit on Your Grave(1979), and Three on a Meathook(1973) owe a great deal of their vitality to Craven’s early exploitation classic” (Muir 2). Craven pushed the envelope and opened the doors for a new type of horror. It shocked viewers, yes, but it did not stop him from creating more films containing similar ideas.
As the years passed, Craven created a spree of other films. In 1977, The Hills Have Eyes debuted, a film in which two families, one the American middle class Carters and the other a savage breed led by Papa Jupiter, duel in a landscape completely opposite from that seen in The Last House on the Left: a desert. The film was based on a Scottish legend that Craven had heard. He realized that “he would have the opportunity not only to comment on a cult society dwelling inside modern civilization, but also the chance to comment on that civilization’s less-than-civilized retribution against the cannibals”, a subject sure to make audiences scream (Muir 14). There was a period of time that Craven was absent from the screen, until he manufactured another reign of terror; then four consecutive films, one a year from 1981 to 1984, were ripped from Craven’s mind.
The first of the four was Deadly Blessing in 1981, a supernatural slasher sub-genre film with interesting plots relating to Craven’s own life. One character in particular, John, like Craven, left his strict religious instruction behind in order to pursue more pleasing aspects of life. Shortly following the release of Deadly Blessing in early 1982, Swamp Thing, a film based on a character from DC Comics, crawled out of the murky waters and into existence. The dark super hero gracefully bombarded the screen, but did not do so well at the box office. It was not until the film came out on video that it “made back its investment and much, much more” (Muir 17). In 1983, the sequel to The Hills Have Eyes was made, but was not completely finished due to the lack of funding and time. It was then placed on the shelf until its screening in 1985, after one of Craven’s most successful films, A Nightmare on Elm Street, had premiered. Finding a home for the Elm Street film was truly a nightmare, but the end result definitely turned into a dream.
The news from the studios was “that the horror fad of the 80′s was over”, caput (Muir 18). Perhaps that was being said at the time, but the release of Craven’s film in 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street, made Hollywood change their tune. The fire beneath the horror genre that seemed to be dwindling roared back to life with the introduction of Fred Krueger, who sliced his way into horror stardom. He was a character based on a childhood bully that terrorized Craven, whose name has also appeared in other Craven films of his. Robert Englund, the lucky soul who snagged the part, played the wicked character, Krueger, a man who slaughtered innocent children. A group of angry parents, seeking revenge for the hideous murderers he committed, destroyed the evil man, or so they thought. Craven ingeniously did not just bring Krueger back from the dead, he brought him back from the depths of death and placed him on a plane we usually treasure as we fall asleep at night: our dreams. A Nightmare on Elm Street, thanks to New Line Cinema, gave birth to “a franchise and America found a favorite new monster who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man” (Muir 19). A Nightmare on Elm Street presented audiences with the idea that not even our dreams were safe anymore. The last frontier of fear had been breached.
Indeed, the blood and gore originally found in Wes Craven’s first film, The Last House on the Left, is mimicked throughout A Nightmare on Elm Street, especially within the first fifteen minutes. John Muir, the author of Wes Craven: The Art of Horror, argues that even the death of the supposed star of the film, Tina, “went far beyond anything seen in horror films, even The Last House on the Left or George Romero’s splatter epic Dawn of the Dead(1979)” (Muir 19). Craven properly built up to the first death scene, as he introduced the villain and his choice of a weapon, through the opening sequence of the film and the casual conversation of the teenage characters. Audiences had a slight inclination of the evil they would be witnessing, but nothing could prepare them for the way Tina would be slaughtered. In a horrific scene, she is pulled up the wall of her mother’s bedroom, held screaming for help on the ceiling(thanks to a spinning room and a locked down camera), and then dropped dead to splatter blood on everything, including the terrified (but reluctant to save her) boyfriend, Rod. This death scene set high expectations for the rest of the film, but surprisingly, the film in its entirety did not lead audiences to disappointment.
Shortly following Tina’s gruesome death, Nancy sits in her English class, sleep-deprived, as William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is discussed. Craven is crafty as he uses the play to shadow the events of the film. Nancy, like Hamlet, also has to search out her parents’ lies and attempt to make right what once was wrong. One student volunteers to read a passage from the play and as he does, Nancy drifts off to sleep. Slowly, as the boy reads, his voice and appearance take a dark, sinister form. Quoting Hamlet, he says, “O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell, and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams” (II,ii,254-6). This statement is a cue that another dream sequence is about to begin – a rather creative one, where a dead Tina returns in a bloody body bag and the nemesis, Freddy, once again threatens Nancy’s life. Craven’s use of our famous literature helps describe the issues we are dealing with in A Nightmare on Elm Street, deceit and murder.
After the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, another slew of Craven films were fed to his growing group of fans. Between the years of 1986 and 1991 four more films were generated. The amount of films per year slowed, but nevertheless, Craven still had the ability to frighten and give nightmares to the public. Deadly Friend, a picture with Frankenstein tendencies, which debuted in 1986, was not even meant to be a horror film; but “Warner Bros. executives instructed Craven to go back and shoot some more gory stuff” (Muir 24). As a result, Craven, who was truly beginning to be typecast in the horror industry, forged another horror film. For his next venture, Craven traveled to Haiti to film The Serpent and the Rainbow, which was released to audiences in 1987, a short year after Deadly Friend had hit theaters. The film was based on a book with the same title written by Wade Davis. The film and the book were fairly faithful to one another, but Craven brought to the film his own creative ideas, including the voodoo villain and a series of nightmares that reflected back on a number of his films. A few years later, Craven joined Alive Films and made a deal with them that required him to generate two more films. The first of the two was Shocker in 1989, which was to satisfy Universal Studios and give them “their very own horror franchise: à la A Nightmare on Elm Street” (Muir 28). Sadly, Shocker did not follow Nightmare’s path as well as Universal Studios had anticipated. The second two-picture deal brought Craven to a rather dark and formidable location: a fearful niche under the stairs.
In the year of 1991, Wes Craven took a refreshing step away from the nightmare sequences that had become a common occurrence in his films and produced The People Under the Stairs. This film was slightly different from all the others films penned under Craven’s name. It had its hair-raising moments, but it was also laced with comic relief. This showed audiences, critics, and Hollywood that Craven had more talents than the ability to scare people. In prior films, like Shocker, there were a few moments that were intentionally humorous; “but in The People Under the Stairs Craven was able to weave a consistently horrific atmosphere while generating appropriate laughs within the parameters of the scenario” (Muir 30). Too much humor can kill the mood of a horror film, as well as an exorbitant amount of blood and gore. The hint of comedy that Craven presents in The People Under the Stairs provides a nice balance between the two extremes. Audiences scream a good portion of the time but are given brief moments to relax and laugh in between the more intense scenes.
Much like Craven’s other films, The People Under the Stairs reflects the life of a dysfunctional, rather insane, middle-class, American family. This time, he not only uses the life he shared with his own middle-class family, but he also exploits the actions of a family he has never met, one he merely read about. The idea behind the horror flick was sleeping in the depths of Craven’s files and when he was given the two-picture deal with Alive Films, he used what he had readily available to him – an old newspaper clipping, that ended up being the basis of the film. One may not see the film as a means for Craven to display his feelings about middle-class America, but it is hidden in-between the screams and disturbing images. The majority of the film mirrors the selfish mentality common during “an important shift from the 70′s to the 90′s [where] in the eyes [of Craven], middle-class families have gone from bad to worse” (Muir 169). In the film, the Bible-thumping couple, similar to Nancy’s mother in A Nightmare on Elm Street, bar up their windows to keep out the crime even though they unknowingly are the cesspool spawning their greatest fears. It is as though Craven uses his films to market his hate of a lifestyle he grew up in and is still surrounded by to this day.
At the same time The People Under the Stairs was broadcasting the pit-falls of middle class America, there was another message hidden within this horror flick. Again, one who is not looking for hidden meanings in the film and would rather be scared, probably would not catch them. It is an artful tactic of Craven to weave in the storyline hideous truths of our daily lives, while at the same time maintaining focus on the true intention of the film – to frighten his audience. Throughout the film, the TV transmits scenes from the Gulf War. Craven uses this medium to “make a connection between our middle-class families and this 1991 war” (Muir 170). Horror may be finding itself on theater screens, but Craven does not fail to show the true horror occurring outside America’s borders. One can learn a lot about Craven’s opinions by viewing his films with a thorough inspection. This allows fans to see that there is more to the man so commonly known for his horror.
Alas, three long years passed until Craven returned to the silver screen. After stepping away from dream sequences in The People Under the Stairs, he returned to a series that he gave birth to many years ago, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994 had a slightly different twist than the previous ones. Instead of teenagers being the victim, Freddy Krueger materializes and tortures the makers of the original film. New Nightmare did not bode all that well at the box office though, and unlike Swamp Thing, it did not catch an audience on home video. In 1995, Craven’s A Vampire in Brooklyn marched on the screen. A hopeful cast included big name, Eddie Murphy, but whether or not the film was actually a topnotch Craven film, it was not the season for horror. New Nightmare was not the only horror film to suffer that year, but it did manage to gross a mere $19.8 million, better than most released that year. Some may have counted Craven down for the count, but in 1996, Craven released his next masterpiece and proved to many that within himself he still had the craft to make audiences quiver in fear.
Naturally, slumps cannot last forever. Craven’s previous folly, A Vampire in Brooklyn, was soon to be forgotten when his latest venture, Scream, graced silver screens everywhere in 1996. The film was designed to pay homage to the horror films produced between the late 70′s and the early 80′s, where the villain was usually cast as a stalker that terrorized young, sexually active teens. Scream combined the three decades of horror and created a plot focusing on “America’s VCR generation [that portrayed teenagers] with their cell phones, Pentium computers, pagers, and extreme cynicism” (Muir 204). The mixture of the three decades was well conceived and took off at the box office. Scream at first did not seem to have much of a chance as it went up against some other big name films, like Jerry Maguire and The Preacher’s Wife, but it held strong. The film that was categorized as a sleeper soon began making millions, in fact $102.6 million within just a quick six months of its release. Audiences absolutely loved the film, and many critics did not complain. Scream, with its success, not only brought in hoards of profits, and two sequels, but it also made people even more aware of Craven, including Simon and Schuster, a publishing company. The film, like others that Craven had made, showed the world his wide ranging talent. Soon after the release of Scream, Simon and Schuster made Craven’s life-long dream come true – to become a published novelist.
In the same way that Craven profiled past decades and middle-class America in his other films, here too he analyzes the teen of the 90′s. Audiences are blatantly shown visually the kind of world they live in now. Some take this as humor and laugh, but it does have a dark, depressing, sinister-like aspect. Throughout the film, we observe the characters being almost overly involved in their technology world. In some cases, but rarely, it saves them, and in others the gruesome end of many of the characters is foreshadowed. For example, there is a scene where Randy divulges the “rules” that are found in every horror film. Randy “is positioned next to a giant-screen TV(a glimpse of the technology that surrounds them) which has freeze-framed an image [of] Mike Myers’s knife pointing right at him, suggesting that he too will be a victim” (Muir 206). Another instance of characters trying to solve the mystery via technology, is in a girl’s bathroom. One character, of little importance, reveals to Sidney who she thinks the murderer is by using information gathered from what she sees as an incredibly valid source, The Ricki Lake Show. The technology in the film is at the characters’ disposal, and they use it the way they see it : a source of survival, even if does not always work the way they planned.
Similar to Craven’s past films, Scream also possesses a lack of parental involvement. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, the parents of the threatened children assume they know what is to blame for their children’s irrational behavior. Instead of helping them, they leave them unprotected to face their problems alone, just like the parents in Scream. While the parents are off enjoying themselves, on business, or away on personal vacations, their children are left to defend themselves from the cruel realities of the world. Perhaps Craven is sending a message that the more families distance themselves from one another, the more likely bad things are to happen. In Scream, like in A Nightmare on Elm Street, by the time parents realize that something sinister has befallen their children, it is practically too late. People, including parents, do not take horror seriously, when well they should. Many of the problems, and possible solutions to them, are revealed in horror flicks all the time. John Carpenter, a friend of Craven, admits why horror is less likely to be an answer to the world’s problems by saying, “ . . . they tend to look down on you [when you work in the horror business] so if you do any serious work, you often don’t get taken seriously as you want to be” (Muir 31). Whether or not people heed the advice hidden within Craven’s films is up to the those who view them. History says they will not though because Craven has kept spinning movies off the reel with parallel dysfunctional families for years.
The rest of Craven’s film career is a blank canvas waiting to be painted with horrific colors and eye-shuttering images. He continues to amaze and terrorize audiences with his newfangled ideas as time ticks by. Every time that he appears to have left the scene, he comes back stronger. Even as new masters of horror are born, Wes Craven’s name is etched in time and in film history. One day, hopefully, all types of film amateurs will look back on his career and use it to refine theirs. The talent of Wes Craven is amazing, and it is depressing that many people overlook him because of the genre he choose. The last quarter-century of his career has kept many on the edge of their seats and fed their minds disturbing images to cause nightmares for weeks. It is hard to say what would have happened to the horror genre without him, but I cannot imagine the next quarter-century of horror if he does not continue his work as long as he can.
Muir, John Kenneth. Wes Craven: The Art of Horror. North Carolina: McFarland, 1998.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobbin. Boston: Houghton, 1997. 1183 -1245.