No More Nightmares: Wes Craven (1939 – 2015)

LHotL MPThe first time I saw it in the mid-1980’s on a borrowed VHS tape that had a few other films crammed onto it, I never made it through Last House on the Left. And neither did the tape it was recorded on. During the agonizing scene where poor Phyllis is rendered gutless, the tape broke, ending my torture but making me insanely curious as to how the rest of the film would lay out. Amusingly enough, while I didn’t plan on finding out in a hurry, time has a way of speeding some things up. Not too long afterwards (okay, about four or five years later) I saw Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and realized Wes Craven was more than a bit influenced by that classic film.

That made me go locate a beat up VHS tape another friend owned and watch it from start to finish, appreciating it far more by the finale than I did when I first saw it. Amusingly enough, I didn’t seek out Craven’s other films at all. I always seemed to be in the middle of something else when one would turn up on cable or in the case of a few others, I just decided to go to the movies and one of his films happened to be playing nearby. Some of his flicks worked better than others and a few didn’t strike me at all as all that frightening until seen again where I could dissect scenes without a chatty fraidy-cat audience screaming and talking over the better parts of the work.


 

Deadly Blessing was more than that film where Ernest Borgnine wore a silly fake Amish beard, The Hills Have Eyes was much more chilling and the initially laughable The Serpent and The Rainbow packed more of a punch (but the late Zakes Mokae going down to wherever he went in that chair still cracks me up). Even more of a punch without the stupid audience was A Nightmare on Elm Street, which I think may be his best film in terms of the horror boom of the 80’s. For me, the film isn’t scary at all on the conscious plane, but is more terrifying when considered in terms of pure nightmare fuel. Having had plenty of good and bad dreams where I’d thought I’d woken up only to be caught in a double or more dream loop, that first film still makes for catching on cable whenever it pops up.

I’ll need to see Swamp Thing again, as I didn’t like it when I paid to see it when it was released (I’m a huge fan of the original character as well as Alan Moore’s reworking) and the non-Craven directed sequel put the nail in that coffin as far as the character being in a decent film went. The People Under The Stairs I still find more hilarious than frightening thanks to that trap-filled house and some of the intentionally over the top performances from a few of the principals. 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was a nice surprise, predating his later work in Scream and re-imagining Freddy Krueger as an even more murderous fictional character that ends up in the real world, going after some of the cast from the popular Nightmare on Elm Street films.

While I loved the look of them, I wasn’t as fond of the Scream films all that much because self-nodding and winking at the genre as they were, I never found them all that scary. Too much meta and in-joking in a horror film never worked well for my personal tastes. However, I did immediately see the wider appeal to younger horror fans with shorter attention spans who were starting to discover the slasher flicks of the previous decade as well as genre veterans annoyed at how many mainstream horror films during the 90’s had been watered down to the point of being more annoying for that wasn’t shown. You could say Craven helped bring slasher-style horror back to the masses with he original Scream and Hollywood followed suit with films trying to outdo those on a few levels to varying degrees of success and failure.

By the time modern Hollywood horror films got back on track with the body counts and blood splatter, the genre has been somewhat divided into a few yawn-worthy (but money-making) subcategories. PG-13 “found footage” jump-scare films or ghost-packed scare-fests that fail to impress old farts like me, “torture porn” flicks that just go for the shameless slice ‘n dice in a few mean-spirited manners and “tween”-centric fodder that rakes in the money but is about as close to “horror” as water is to moonshine. Sure, it’s all good if you just want that visceral experience and a lighter wallet at the end of the day with plenty of low to high budget films that all blend into each other. But something about how Craven shot horror made it more… memorable when all was said and done.

For me, it all goes back to Phyllis and waiting years for a resolution that was as insane as her demise was, yet satisfying because her killers got what they deserved and the film ends with some questions that make for quite the debate subject. Well, I’ll have time to re-watch many of Craven’s films and reconsider the ones I didn’t like as much. That’s the sole “good” thing about losing anyone in the entertainment (or any other) industry. Their work lives on and ends up capturing the attentions of new fans who may not have heard of or seen everything they’ve done as well as old ones who need a refresher course. Rest in peace, Mr. C.

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