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Remembering Wes Craven (1939-2015)

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Years before Coppola’s, Kurosawa’s, or Scorsese’s, Wes Craven’s name was the first of a film director I committed to memory.

By the time I had met and started hanging out with a horror-obsessed friend when I moved to New Jersey in the second grade, Craven had unleashed A Nightmare on Elm Street on the world, and so with every visit to that friend’s house, I absorbed every bit of Freddy Krueger trivia he threw at me like a sponge. I felt the reverence for Craven’s name when my friend uttered it: here was someone who recognized the importance of the man behind the camera. At the time, the iconography of Freddy’s claws, hat, and sweater were cool and mysterious enough to make us understand that Nightmare wasn’t “only a movie.” But now I know that there was something else at work on our impressionable minds: we were in awe of the fact that the instigator of some of our weirdest, most menacing thoughts and nightmares was a gentleman after all. To be Craven was to be master of your own universe in the name of imagination, excitement, and good fun.

nightmare-on-elm-street-2-craven-officialSince then, I’ve seen many of Craven’s films and have usually had mixed reactions to them. For me, his obsession with booby traps, though thematically fascinating, always played out as tedious, and I always felt several of his films were a bit thin on atmosphere. And yet, they all contain moments of raw power, bold originality, and truly frightening ideas. They invite multiple revisitations and reconsiderations, and, as the finest horror films do, deliver visceral experiences and encourage strong debate. I have no doubt I will be watching Craven’s groundbreaking filmography for years to come.

Above all, I’ll always remember walking home from my neighborhood basketball court at sundown, and turning that walk into a run toward the front porch as I conjured Freddy’s shadow in my mind’s eye. Once inside, catching my breath, I’d smile knowing full well that Wes had gotten to me.

– Max Weinstein (Editor-in-Chief)

“The first monster you have to scare the audience with is yourself.”

Wes Craven clearly knew the horror genre inside and out and left a mark on horror cinema and its fans. He knew that being scared was cathartic and productive in exercising our fears, particularly when it was as safe as watching a movie. Craven made something as benign and healthy as sleeping a fatal nightmare; a family vacation as a test of survival; and fandom of scary movies a sociopathic obsession. Based on his introduction of Freddy Krueger and the instant recognition of the line, “What’s your favorite scary movie?,” Craven was an immense contributor to the genre of horror. Admittedly, I will always have a soft spot for misunderstood gems, like Deadly Friend and The People Under the Stairs, and I even like certain things about his troubled Cursed. Most of all, the Scream series (all four of them) will always stand as not one of but my most favorite series in film, regardless of genre. The loss of an undeniably gifted storyteller and horror maestro as Wes Craven is made more saddening from the fact that he truly seemed like a warm, joyous, and thoughtful man whose company was enjoyed by everyone. He and his output will truly be missed, but his legacy will not be forgotten.

– Jeremy Kibler (Assistant Web Editor)

With Wes Craven’s passing, American genre enters a new and uncertain phase. I, like most people, was blindsided by his death. It’s 2015 and I live under some bizarre, naïve notion that everyone should live well into their 90s. Anything short of that seems like a jip.

Craven was a filmmaker’s filmmaker, by which I mean that his knowledge and genuine passion for cinema permeated every movie he made. An astute and unique voice, he represented a generation of active social commentators who also happened to be creative visionaries. When America’s hippie dream turned sour in the late ‘60s, filmmakers, authors, and poets let their work become their battle cry. Craven was amongst them. His 1972 feature, Last House On The Left, was representative of a broken, damaged culture. A world of very real monsters and moral ambiguity. Punctuated with an obsidian sense of humour, it was a gruelling grotesquery, but one which excited and gratified as much as it repulsed.

Five years later, The Hills Have Eyes acted as a subsequent analysis of the paradox of modern American life, whilst simultaneously creating a new template for the ‘Catch ‘em and kill ‘em’ formula which would become ubiquitous over the next 30 years.

In short, by the end of the ‘70s, Craven had defined several new strains of horror movie. Whether his influences stemmed from his affinity for European cinema, or his knowledge of literary and folkloric history, it is inarguable that anyone could have assimilated those influences with the acerbic wit and striking aesthetic which Craven managed time after time.

An experimenter who would never rest upon his laurels, he birthed the most instantly recognizable horror figure of modern times when he created Freddy Krueger, the glove wielding killer from the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Craven was even sharp enough to recognise the flaws which arose in the swift development of the franchise throughout the ‘80s and turned it all around when he entered the postmodern deconstruction of New Nightmare in 1994. The analysis of the genre which he helped to create would reach its nadir with Scream in 1996, in which he systematically deconstructed the slasher film – warts and all.

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From all accounts an affable, gentle man whose wisdom and kindness touched those with whom he worked. I was never fortunate enough to encounter Craven personally, but his work has been with me for decades. The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988) and The People Under The Stairs (1991) are oft-forgotten classics, usually side-lined in favour of his more groundbreaking fare, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

A man with big ideas and the ability to communicate them in a wholly original fashion, Craven’s absence is one which creates a void that I personally am unsure if we have the contemporary talent to fill. I hope that he left the monsters behind him, and now finds himself sleeping soundly.

– Colin J. McCracken (Contributing Writer)

When A Nightmare on Elm Street was first released I was ten years old. I wouldn’t get to see it for another three years though, because in 1984 I was still relatively safe in my cosy little bubble; consuming a staple diet of 50’s creature features, and Hammer Horror films on BBC2. I was completely unsuspecting of what was about to hit me like a stack of ten ton bricks. A far cry from the twee period sets of Hammer I was accustomed to, Elm Street was intense, brutal, and very, very frightening by comparison. The first time I saw it on home video rental, it gave me nightmares for weeks. I was stunned, horrified and loved every damned minute of it. So much so, I lost count of the amount of times I watched it in a row. Or for that matter, the amount of times I have revisited it over the years, just to revel in the nostalgia of being truly scared.

My story isn’t so different from so many others who grew up and cut their horror teeth around the same time as me. Such was the power of A Nightmare on Elm Street it became an international hit, and made Freddy Krueger a cultural icon. It went on to become one of the world’s biggest grossing franchises, and continues to reign supreme as one of the defining epics of the 1980’s. Like so many others from my generation I was (still am) one of Freddy’s Children. It was A Nightmare on Elm Street that matured my viewing tastes, and held me in good stead for the years to come. But then just like the collective dreams of the protagonists in his script for Dream Warriors, Craven not only defined and redefined the face of modern horror, time and time again, he connected, and continues to connect fans the world over. You only have to look at the continuing outpouring of tributes as we near the end of the first week after his death, to see just how much he was loved by film fans. I’m honored to count myself among those who had their passion for horror ignited by Craven’s wicked imagination. It might be becoming cliché, but there only remains one thing left to be said, thanks for the nightmares Mr Craven, they are, and continue to be, some of the best I’ve ever had.

– Kat Ellinger (Contributing Writer)

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Wes Craven’s pioneering work in the horror genre launched with his murky collaboration alongside fellow macabre moviemaker Sean S. Cunninghan (Friday the 13th). Together they fashioned the unforgettably haunting Last House on the Left (1972). A dozen years later, Craven hit the big time with his piece de resistance A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). And while Craven had several other slasher successes, including the Scream franchise, the only film of his to receive Academy Award nominations was the drama Music of the Heart (1999) starring Meryl Streep. Rest in peace, Wes. You and your creative flair for the frightening will be terribly missed.

– Steven Thrash (Contributing Writer)

What can I say? This week, horror lost one of its truly great masterminds. Wes Craven was more than a fantastic director, he was a profound, intelligent thinker. Even the most middling Craven effort cannot be divorced from some ounce of social commentary, and his best films were packed full. I can’t sit here and lie and pretend that Craven was my favorite director now that he has passed on. He wasn’t but he was a director that I have always admired, and he has crafted some of the films that have moved and scared me the most.

When I think of Craven’s output, the first word that comes to mind is actually uneven. The reason for this is because a great deal of his films, even some of his best work, is rife with an awkward balance between comedy and horror. He loved to mash together the macabre with the mundane. Whether it be the bumbling cops in The Last House on the Left, the TV-possession in Shocker, the Rube Goldberg-style house in The People Under the Stairs, or the far more effective use of humor in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchise, its clear that comedy is key to unlocking Craven’s world. It is often through the comedic aspects of his films that his messages are clearest. Most of all, however, Craven was a director who understood his own faults. He could never be accused of phoning it in. His failures are only the result of his ambitions (ambitions that far exceed nearly all of his contemporaries), his successes are the proof of his genius.

I have and will continue to be an unabashed supporter of the Scream franchise, a not so popular opinion in the elite horror world but I deal with it. Scream hit at the perfect time in my life, it was the first horror film that I remember mattering. the first that everyone seemed to care about. With Scream Craven reigniting mainstream horror, he made the genre relevant again (even if his critique and lampooning only further perpetuated the aspects that he clearly saw fit to satirize but that may be Craven’s final joke, one that went unnoticed by many). With Scream 4, I maintain that Craven ended his career on a high note, but his entire body of work speaks for itself. Was there ever a director to unleash so many notable horror icons on audiences, ever a director whose work is continually remade (at this point in time, nearly all of his famous films have been remade and many have formed series). Love him or hate him, Craven was a titan of a creator. So, Goodnight Wes, it may have been far too soon but you earned your rest. There will never be another one like you but I’m ok with it because you’ve left us with an impressive body of titles to continually return to.

– Joe Yanick (Managing Editor)

About Joe Yanick

Joe Yanick is a writer, videographer, and film/music critic based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the former Managing Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Noisey.vice.com, and Stagebuddy.com. In addition, he has worked with the Cleveland International Film Festival as a Feature reviewer. He is currently a Cinema Studies MA Candidate at New York University.

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