Legendary director Wes Craven died yesterday at the age of 76. His name became synonymous with horror, thanks to films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Last House on the Left, and the Scream series—a most unexpected career for a man who didn’t even see his first movie until he was in college.

In an interview with People Magazine before the release of 1989’s Shocker—a film that failed to spawn an intended Elm Street-style franchise, though it enjoys cult status today—Craven recalled his unconventional entree into show biz. He’d grown up in a strict, fundamentalist Baptist family. His father died when he was four, and he’d earned an MA, gotten married, and started teaching college-level humanities by the time he was 25. Then he got a hold of a 16mm camera, he told People, and everything changed:

It took two summers of knocking on doors in New York City, but in 1969, Craven landed his first film job—as a messenger. “I was 30, with two kids and a wife,” he says. Within weeks Bonnie split, taking Jonathan, then 4, and Jessica, 1, with her. “The marriage broke, as it almost had to, because of the strain,” says Wes.

Soon he was working as a part-time film editor and driving a cab at night to pay his rent and child support. In 1972, a Boston distributor asked Craven and Sean Cunningham, the owner of a small production company, to make “a really scary, totally wild picture,” says Craven.

Cunningham jokes that they split the duties this way: “Since Wes could type better, he was the writer. I was the producer, he was the director, I was the editor, and he would make lunch.” The result was Last House on the Left, an ultraviolent flick in which two teenage girls are tortured and killed by a sadistic trio. “It was a real slap in the face of society,” admits Craven. “I’ve never made a film quite so violent or nasty since. But it got a lot of rage out.” Filmed for $90,000, Last House went on to gross more than $20 million.

Cunningham, of course, went on to make Friday the 13th in 1980—the slasher sensation whose success helped films like A Nightmare on Elm Street attract investors. In that same People interview, Craven bemoaned the fact that New Line Cinema, the studio that released the Nightmare films, had retained the rights to razor-fingered dream killer Freddy Krueger, still one of horror’s most merchandised villains.

Last year, Vulture published an excellent oral history of A Nightmare on Elm Street in which Craven recalled how he came up with the iconic character:

I’d read an article in the L.A. Times about a family who had escaped the Killing Fields in Cambodia and managed to get to the U.S. Things were fine, and then suddenly the young son was having very disturbing nightmares. He told his parents he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he tried to stay awake for days at a time. When he finally fell asleep, his parents thought this crisis was over. Then they heard screams in the middle of the night. By the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare. Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying. That became the central line of Nightmare on Elm Street.

But though Craven was much more than the man who created Freddy Krueger, the importance of that character can’t be discounted. Slasher movies were already box office gold by the time he appeared in 1984, but the most prominent villains (Friday the 13th’s Jason, Halloween’s Michael Myers) were silent, mask-wearing killing machines. Freddy, as played by Robert Englund, delivered verbal jabs as often as physical ones, and he preyed on his victims in their dreams, opening up the film’s canvas to surreal visuals, as when a young Johnny Depp meets his end being gobbled by (and spewed forth from) his own bed. The Nightmare films, as first imagined by Craven, created a world in which literally no place was safe ... because everybody has to sleep eventually.

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To Craven’s further credit, that imagination also allowed him to explore multiple avenues within the horror genre. He wasn’t just “the Sultan of Slash,” as that 1989 People interview called him. Though he spearheaded two major horror franchises, he was always able to avoid making the same film twice. And his stand-alone films further proved his ability to diversify, as well as influence and inspire other filmmakers. Aside from Last House on the Left—a profoundly disturbing revenge film whose tag line was, famously, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating: ‘It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie...’”—he made the killer-mutants-in-the-desert chiller The Hills Have Eyes and its only slightly less potent sequel; the DC Comics adaptation Swamp Thing; voodoo saga The Serpent and the Rainbow; and the bizarre family horror drama The People Under the Stairs.

Craven hadn’t slowed down from filmmaking by the mid-1990s, but his ability to attract audiences had started to wane. After the Eddie Murphy-starring A Vampire in Brooklyn (which Roger Ebert dubbed a “disorganized mess”) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (in which cast and crew members from the series, including Craven, “play themselves” in what’s possibly the most meta horror film of all time), he was in need of something entirely new.

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What he found was something that was actually quite familiar that—thanks to Kevin Williamson’s cleverly self-referential script—felt entirely new. Scream was a massive hit, spawning three sequels and the current MTV series (of which Craven was an in-name-only executive producer, he told the Hollywood Reporter in April), and it ushered in a robust revival of the slasher genre. Craven, always beloved by horror fans, was back on top.

In 2011, Scream’s first victim, Drew Barrymore, spoke fondly about working with Craven as part of an Entertainment Weekly retrospective on the film:

He’s such a sweetheart. He’s just the coolest. He really did make me feel incredibly safe and I really gravitated toward him – I tend to do that with directors. I’m not really good at yukking it up with everyone and I kinda wanna stay in that concentrated, focused zone. So I love being able to go to a great, male director and sort of stay there in the shade of their tree and their safety. And Wes is completely that guy.

After Scream’s success, Craven stepped out of his comfort zone to make his only feature without horror or thriller elements: inspirational-teacher drama Music of the Heart, which earned Meryl Streep an Academy Award nomination. He also oversaw surprisingly well-received remakes by other filmmakers of many of his earlier successes, though not the 2010 Elm Street reboot, which he called “really painful to think about.”

His final feature was 2011’s Scream 4, which received mixed reviews. The New York Times summed up the fatigue that greeted the new entry:

Like its predecessors, Scream 4 replaces the values of storytelling and suspense with the value of being in on the joke. Unfortunately, in the 11 years since Scream 3, the joke has gotten pretty old.

...The central conceit of the characters’ fates being determined by the “rules” of horror movies feels irredeemably tired; a clever idea that was worth one movie. When a character comments on how meta everything is, the audience laughs, but why? Only because it’s been conditioned to, just as it’s been conditioned to think that the intellectual window dressing makes the Scream movies something more than slasher films. Or scary movies for a generation of filmgoers who don’t like being scared.

Critics and audiences may have grown tired of the Craven-Williamson Scream formula after so many years, but the power of Craven’s career, taken as a whole, remains undiminished. Even at his most ghastly, he found a way to make his films more substantial than just a string of gory deaths. Take The Hills Have Eyes, which managed to inject both humor (best, most quotable line: “Baby’s fat. You fat. Fat and juicy!”) and social commentary (as the suburban family proves to be more savage than the desert-dwelling tribe) into its skin-crawlingly grim narrative.

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In 2011, Craven spoke with the AV Club about this aspect of his career, offering this thoughtful take on his many years in the movie business, starting with Last House on the Left:

I try not to look back too much. I think the important thing about staying creative and staying sharp and original is not to look back too much, and to kind of look to where your vision is going now. But I have felt over the years a definite progression or arc from feeling guilty about what I had done with the first one, because certainly there was all that fundamentalist guilt that came pouring back in. Feeling like I’d done something horrible, “I’m a despicable person and I’m perverse,” and all these things, to a sense of the power and the necessity, in a sense, of horror films and dealing with dark material. And I did have the resource of having taught Greek mythology and the history of Western civilization, and you can go back into the plays of Aeschylus and follow what happens when people seek revenge, and there are people plucking their eyes out. And Greek mythology is filled with all kinds of monsters and whatnot.

So I realized that I really, almost by accident, had fallen into a labyrinthine, very powerful paradigm for dealing with these things through genre films. And once I realized that and realized the power of it, and the fact that because horror films aren’t, in general, studio products—studios back them sometimes, but they don’t try to meddle too much, because they kind of don’t want to sully their skirts—you have a lot of freedom. And as long as you keep the audience on the edge of their seats, either scare them or keep them guessing, you can put anything in there that you want.

Whether he was scaring audiences or keeping them guessing (or often, both at once), Craven’s influence on the horror genre will forever live on. Thanks in no small part to Craven, “scary movies,” as the cloaked Scream villain loved to call them, found an audience way beyond cult fans. He brought horror kicking and screaming (and screaming and screaming) into the mainstream—without ever diluting its frightful power.

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Top image: Wes Craven at a Los Angeles film premiere in 2011. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)