RIP, Wes Craven
Wes Craven has died. I admit, when I heard the news I immediately checked to see how others in his generation of horror directors were doing. John Carpenter. George Romero. Tobe Hooper. Dario Argento. Morbid? Perhaps. But artistic movements come in generations, and generations age (by the way, all are doing well, as far as I know). Eventually, people whose films we remember seeing in theatres are spoken of in the past tense. And when that happens, it shakes us. Like any celebrity who passes away, I never knew or met or otherwise have any means of judging Wes Craven on any basis than his art. That I feel such a loss today is all that needs to be said about the power and reach of art.
There is no denying Craven’s place on the pantheon of all-time great- and important- horror filmmakers. The Last House on the Left shook the genre to its core in 1972. It has been imitated so many times over that it perhaps has not held up as well as some of the less narratively straightforward horror films of the era (like Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Argento’s Suspiria) but to watch it again today is to peer into a time capsule, when films that raw, that uncompromising, that willing to showcase unfettered evil, were simply unheard of. It’s an unpleasant film, and one that had to be for the genre to evolve.
Few horror directors have been such stylistic chameleons as Craven. When sweaty grim slaughterhouse movies of the 70s gave way to the slicker, post-Halloween deluge of slasher films, Craven stayed ahead of the curve. In a genre of increasingly nondescript villains defined by the body counts in their wake, A Nightmare on Elm Street swooped with and gave us perhaps the most iconic horror villain of all time, and for good reason. How many horror movies characters have been as quotable as Freddy Krueger? Hell, how many non-Nightmare horror movies do you have to come up with to equal the number of Freddy’s memorable lines?
Craven’s sense of humor and ever-increasing skill reached their apex with Scream, a massive hit in 1996 (almost a quarter century after The Last House on the Left). Scream wasn’t just popular; like his debut film, it was a game-changer. Whereas Last House shocked audience’s sensibilities, Scream subverted their expectations. It was a horror film about characters who knew they were in a horror film. It had a blast cracking jokes about the tropes of the genre while still delivering goods with scares that relied on those same tropes. It was a daring tightrope dance for Craven, but he didn’t just pull it off- he excelled. Scream was a cultural touchstone that remains every bit as entertaining almost 20 years later.
I didn’t know Wes Craven. The outpouring of tributes to him from his actors and colleagues are evidence that he was a lovely person. I only knew his art. His art was important to me. And in a genre that I love dearly, he was one of the most important figures ever to work within it. That’s a connection that will never be lost. Rest in peace, Wes.