When someone asked horror auteur Wes Craven what he was afraid to find under his bed as a child this past Saturday night at the New York City Horror Film Festival, he replied, “my father.” The room fell into a funnel of laughter. While the answer is dark, it makes sense. Craven was brought up in a fundamentalist household, and his father died when he was very young.  While it may seem fitting that he went on to direct horror films, he made it clear that this wasn’t always his intention.

Yet somehow his career of twenty-nine features has rendered him a sort of God for thriller and slasher fans alike. What’s refreshing is when these well known directors attend smaller festivals with just as much enthusiasm as say, Tribeca or TIFF. While Rob Zombie (House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects) was late to the festival on Friday, answering questions with despondent groans (when asked how he writes his female characters he answered, “Just like the male ones. I sit down and think about it.”), Wes Craven was not only willing to take a comfortable seat in front of a hungry audience, but gave generous, eloquent responses that left the crowd at his feet.

It was Craven, after all, who started from humble beginnings learning to make films in New York City, unfamiliar with horror territory. Only when he started to make his first feature, The Last House on the Left, did he decide to go see Night of the Living Dead, and was impressed with the energy that a horror audience possessed in contrast to other genres. Some 43 years later Craven has witnessed and partaken in the evolution of filmic terror, contributing to its metamorphosis from something merely dissident to something else entirely – challenging, thoughtful and relevant. “Now it’s heads of studios that are big fans of horror,” he says. “There’s been a real maturation of the genre, and a real raising of its credibility, and I think also a certain amount of understanding among even the censors, that they’re more than just something nasty. I think people now realize there’s thought behind it. ”

More thought is given to Craven’s work than he’s typically been credited for. Considering his history as a graduate student at John’s Hopkins and an English professor at Westminster college, all of his works have seemed to emerge as thoroughly developed byproducts of that background, and beyond that, from the depths of adolescence. Freddy Krueger, for one, was partially based on Craven’s childhood bully. “One day I bought a Polish bayonet, and he never bothered me again,” he joked. “Years later, when I had some money, I had him killed.”  Yet this isn’t too far from the truth, as Craven has achieved the kind of revenge that film nerds only dream of.  He makes it clear that Freddy was a “composite” of many different influences, just like his other stories, which he finds through keeping an open and seeking mind.

Craven uses his wisdom gained through years in the business to remind us how important it is to be worldly. “If you want to be inspired, you have to expose yourself to a lot of things, [and] a lot of films. For me, I read newspapers, magazines, novels, and then every so often you’ll read something or see something and it’ll go ‘boing!'” My Soul to Take, he mentions, was based on an article he read. “I think it is important for people making films to be as intelligent and well informed as they can be about the world and about society and culture. Even if you love horror, you should know about other art forms as well.” Craven shared how much he enjoyed filming his drama, Music of the Heart, and how it was the only film of his that his mother has ever seen. As far as his favorite actor to work with? “That’s easy,” he says. “Meryl Streep.”

Sharing his thoughts on modern horror, Craven was optimistic. He shared an anecdote about his positive experience seeing Paranormal Activity 4, which he praises considerably. “When you look back at a decade of horror, you can only recall those few films that were really good,” he says. “It’s really hard to make something that clicks and has vision. And even the people who do it, don’t do it all the time.” Craven doesn’t believe in a black and white approach to life. While it’s easy to see horror as something purely dark and disorderly, there can be enlightening elements in it as well. In this sense, the light and dark are inseparable. Speaking to newcomers in filmmaking he advises: “Try to speak from your humanity as opposed to your cynicism and your sarcasm about how fucked up everything is. People need good messages too.”

~ by Olivia Saperstein