The news of Wes Craven’s passing has been difficult to bear. He was one of the first horror directors I really got in to when I started exploring the genre. My introduction point to his career, which I’m sure is the same as many others, was A Nightmare on Elm Street. It was a phenomenally popular series and its one of the first things people will be discussing during this week. Many headlines I’ve seen bearing the news of his death have been along the lines of “Nightmare on Elm Street director Wes Craven…” While movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream were popular, financially successful and shaped the genre, he made many many more movies – even the weakest of which (like My Soul to Take or Cursed) still have something about them worth checking out. Horror or otherwise, the work of Wes Craven has always carried the mark of a talented and passionate filmmaker.
During the 90s I would often catch the cable channel Showtime doing a double-feature of Wes Craven films – The People Under the Stairs and Shocker. I watched these movies because of how much I enjoyed A Nightmare on Elm Street. The name Wes Craven meant something – it was more than just “here’s a horror movie, it’s pretty good.” When something was a “Wes Craven horror movie,” the quality was almost assumed to be fantastic. Sometimes, especially with his post-Scream popularity, his name would be attacked to some less than exemplary work he didn’t actually direct; Wes Craven’s Wishmaster or Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 for instance. While it was a marketing gimmick it worked because of the respect people had for Wes Craven. People didn’t go to see Wishmaster because they thought it would be just like Scream – they went because it was endorsed by Wes Craven so it had to be worth watching.
Wes’ first movie, The Last House on the Left, is a significant piece of film history; love it or hate it, Last House was shocking and made a difference to the methodology of exploitation films. A Nightmare on Elm Street came out during the height of the 80’s slasher era and offered up a new and original take on what was then a tired genre. Speaking of slashers, Scream redirected the genre with the concept of being self-aware (something Wes explored earlier with New Nightmare). There were many films that tried to be just like Scream and failed to recreate the experience. There were other films, however, which found inspiration from the way Wes changed the genre and went forward with their own original ideas – not unlike Craven did with The Hills Have Eyes or A Nightmare on Elm Street.
While horror is what Wes Craven was good at and what he will probably be best remembered for – it wasn’t the only thing he did. There was his serious drama from 1999, Music of the Heart about a woman teaching music to inner-city children. Even in Wes’ horror movies he did more than just try to frighten and entertain. The People Under the Stairs offered a good deal of social commentary and statements about economic inequality. Shocker had a lot to say about society’s over-reliance upon visual media. The Serpent and the Rainbow, while still a horror movie, is a fascinating look at Haitin culture and voodoo.
The landscape of American horror still remains forever changed by Wes Craven’s work. The man will be missed but will certainly not be forgotten. His films will always be there to forever inspire, terrify and entertain.
If you’re looking for a starting point to either acquaint yourself with Wes Craven’s work or just to re-experience some classics once again, new versions of People Under the Stairs and Shocker with excellent behind-the-scenes featurettes as well as enlightening commentary from Wes Craven and others. I do highly recommend checking these out.