The first Wes Craven movie I ever saw was Swamp Thing in ’82. Can’t say I loved it, but at least it had Adrienne Barbeau in it, whom I knew and adored from Escape From New York, The Fog, and Creepshow. Other than that, I remember nothing about Swamp Thing. Aside from the swamp. And the thing. Some splashing around. Maybe an explosion or two? Do I need to rewatch Swamp Thing?
The next Craven movie I saw was A Nightmare On Elm Street, the best of the ‘80s slasher flicks, and at least as creepy as Carpenter’s Halloween. In my world, this is Craven’s best movie, but truth be told, I’ve still never seen his two ‘70s classics of grindhouse horror, The Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Or then again, maybe I did see The Hills Have Eyes, but it was so long ago I can’t quite picture it. I came of horror-viewing age with An American Werewolf In London in ’81, so I guess I always liked a little wit with my horror. Movies like Last House or Texas Chainsaw Massacre didn’t appeal to me at the time. And nowadays I feel pretty far past being into the shock of violence for the sake of being shocked.
Wes Craven died yesterday, and though his oeuvre as a director is certainly spotty, he was a huge figure in the world of horror, due in large part to those first two shockers and to Elm Street. Craven came from an extremely repressive religious upbringing, so it’s hardly surprising he was attracted to whatever was most transgressive as an adult. He started out making porn films, but after working for filmmaker Sean S. Cunningham (who would go on to make Friday The 13th in ’80), was given a shot at writing/directing his first “real” movie, The Last House On The Left. Although even that one was originally envisioned as a hardcore sex/gore flick, not for general consumption. At some point they decided to soften it up some.
Shocking, gritty, low-budget horror was all the rage in the early ‘70s. Night of The Living Dead in ’68 opened doors to visions of gore no one had seen before. People wanted more.
By the ‘80s? Not so much. They wanted a man in a rubber suit in a swamp. For example. In any case, Swamp Thing was a movie Craven made to prove he could handle more commercial material. Elm Street proved he could make a hit. I kept up with his movies for awhile after that, seeing The Serpent And The Rainbow (’88), Shocker (’89), and The People Under The Stairs (’91) — and not much liking any of them. I didn’t see The Hills Have Eyes II (’85) or Deadly Friend (’86), but apparently no one else did either.
In ’94 he made a sort-of sequel to the already much sequelized Elm Street series called Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. People liked it. Apparently it’s weird and dark and good. Think I’ll check this one out. Wish me luck.
And after that, of course, came Scream (’96), and Craven’s resurrection. It’s even pretty good, for a derivative slasher flick. Craven directed three Scream sequels. Did I see the second one? I think I saw the second one. I think I regretted it.
I mostly lost track of Craven after that, but he never stopped working. Television projects, movie projects, writing, directing, producing, he was all over the place. He even directed a segment of Paris je t’aime, a 2006 compilation of twenty short films by twenty directors about Paris. His involved a man chatting with the ghost of Oscar Wilde.
Well. This is a bit of a strange rememberance. One typically reserves writing such things about artists one loves. I never loved Craven’s movies. Outside of Elm Street, I never really liked any of them. He made a ton of awful ones. Yet still I feel affected by his death. It’s as though he became such a figure in the world of horror that he transcended his movies. He was just—Wes Craven, the awesome horror guy. And by all accounts he was awesome, just a genuinely sweet man everyone loved working with. If you grew up loving horror in the ’80s, his was a name always in the conversation. You will be missed, Wes.