Monday, 31 August 2015

Wes Craven (1939 - 2015)

I cannot just take back everything I've ever said about Wes Craven, so I'm not going to, but his passing made me take a moment to think about his body of work. And, DAYUM, he certainly cast one hell of a huge shadow over the horror genre. Over the years I have joined in conversations about Craven to offset some praise that I may have seen as overly enthusiastic. I referred to the man as a great craftsman, as opposed to a great artist, and I would often mention my annoyance with his obsession over booby traps and how they were so often used in his work to hammer home the point about how thin the veil can be between civility and savagery. And then there was the fact that his name was used, rightly or wrongly, to sell a lot of inferior movies to us horror fans in the past couple of decades. Hey, he's not the first and he won't be the last. It just took the shine off his reputation, and made it even easier to forget about his fantastic legacy.

Let's start at the beginning, and look at a number of his better-known works.

The Last House On The Left (1972) may well be a sleazy reworking of The Virgin Spring but it led to numerous horror/exploitation movies that would either wear their influence in the title (The Last House On Dead End Street) or in their obviously similar plotting (Night Train Murders AKA Late Night Trains). And that infamous tagline has also been riffed on by numerous, inferior films. Not only was Craven a startling, daring director, but he also seemed to align himself with great marketing.

And then, after a little-remembered movie entitled The Fireworks Woman (1975), came The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

Craven once again seemed to single-handedly create a new horror genre touchstone with his intense, nasty tale of inbred killers pushing a family well beyond breaking point. And he created, arguably, his second major horror icon with the help of Michael Berryman.

The next few years brought some interesting additions to Craven's filmography, including some TV work, a comic book movie (the enjoyable Swamp Thing - which benefits from a great cast and a scene in which Adrienne Barbeau bathes in jungle waters that would have made the teenage me spontaneously combust if I'd been fortunate enough to see it nearer the time of its initial release), and a much-maligned sequel to The Hills Have Eyes that features one of the most amusingly unfathomable flashback sequences ever, with the notable exception of Freaked.

Thankfully, in the very same year, Craven also served us up a very dark dream. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984).

"If Nancy doesn't wake up screaming she won't wake up at all." ANOTHER great tagline. I think it would be redundant of me to try digging deeper into this horror classic. Most people know by now that Craven got the idea from a bizarre news story, and New Line Cinema developed in the '80s into "The House That Freddy Built." What I will tell you, that you may not know already, is that I first saw this movie when I was about 10-11 years old. And I loved it. It was the most intense horror I had ever seen at that point in my life (Halloween was already a comfortable old friend by then, and I had yet to really delve further into the genre). It had some fleeting nudity, a cute leading lady, torrents of bloodshed, and unforgettable visual flourishes. And it also had Freddy Krueger. Yes, the first movie may have kept the slasher icon (ANOTHER icon) as a darker, less talkative, character but he was still the main draw. Just waiting to see what he would do next was equally exciting and terrifying. He broke all the rules. As did I, that very night, when I ended up switching on my bedroom lamp for the duration of the night, to ward off the boogeyman (a situation that seriously displeased my mother when she came in the next morning to find that I'd been letting a bulb burn all through the night).

That would have been enough for most directors, but Craven used his success to keep delivering more interesting slices of entertainment for us horror fans. They weren't all good, but how can you not love Deadly Friend (1986) when it gave us all THIS moment? And The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988) became, for many, the only non-Romero "zombie" movie to provide scares without repeating the gore and shocks that we'd already seen so many times before. Shocker (1989) and The People Under The Stairs (1991) may remain more products of their time than actual enduring classics but I can't deny having a lot of fun with them when I first saw them. I don't think many would say the same about Vampire In Brooklyn (1995) - although, in fairness, I haven't even seen this one for myself yet; it's reputation precedes it.

A low point? Perhaps. But not for long. Because along came Scream (1996).

Scream took the horror genre conventions and played with them in a perfect way to blend real scares/thrills with major entertainment value in a way that had eluded Craven when he tried to explore thematically similar material (a la meta-layering) in the unjustifiably dismissed New Nightmare (1994), a film which has at least grown in stature in the years since it was first served up to unwitting, and perhaps unprepared, audiences.

Scream has divided horror fans in recent years. While it's hard to deny that it gave the horror genre a much needed shot in the arm it's equally hard to deny that it also led to some major bad habits that don't look likely to be broken any time soon (the floating head poster design being just one minus, with the pop culture riffing also sitting uneasily within scripts that aren't clever or witty enough to carry it off successfully). I've even been sucked in to the recent MTV TV show. Don't judge me.

Some of those bad habits came to the fore when Craven teamed up with screenwriter Kevin Williamson once again to refresh the werewolf movie with Cursed (2005). I am one of the few people who find Cursed to be a lot of fun. It's majorly flawed, with two of the biggest problems being poor CGI and a distinct lack of decent bloodshed (leaving the film, ironically, feeling quite toothless), but the script is fun, the central performances from Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, Judy Greer and Milo Ventimiglia are great, and it has a clear love from the cinematic history of lycanthropy that it is springboarding from.

Didn't like Cursed? No problem. Craven showed that he could leave the CGI aside to craft some masterful suspense when he released Red Eye (2005).

Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams helped make Red Eye so enjoyable, but it's clear that the direction from Craven is what enables this particular piece of hokum to flat-out entertain, despite a central premise that is absolutely ludicrous when you give it even a few seconds of actual thought. Thankfully, Craven doesn't let you have any time to figure that out. He's busy letting his cast have fun in a game of cat and mouse that involves wince-inducing use of a pen, bluffery, and the constant threat of escalating violence.

My Soul To Take (2010) may not have been a great swansong for the horror master, which is why we're lucky to have Scream 4 (2011). Some may disagree, but I think it took the franchise to the next logical step, and showed that Craven could easily create new and imaginative ways for teenagers to perceive horror. Which, in a way, is what he did all the way back in that Last House On The Left.

RIP Wes Craven - check out his entire filmography at IMDb here, as I deliberately kept this piece focused on his horrors, and more specifically the horrors that I had seen, and you'll probably be tempted to watch at least one of his movies this week.

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