Wes Craven was without a doubt one of the biggest influences in my work. Everything I know about horror movies, every horror book I write, is because of him. I am sad to say that the master of horror has passed away.
I was a comicbook baby. Everything I learned about life, heroism, bravery and criminality was from Marvel and DC comics from the eighties, the greatest era of comicbooks in history. As I got older, I began to seek out work that shared similar themes and esthetics with the comicbook stories I had consumed. Wes Craven provided the bridge from heroes to horror, although I didn’t realize it at the time. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized most of my favorite horror films were created, written or directed by this legendary man. You can look back at some of my Halloween posts and see how prominent his films are in my top ten lists.
I am not quite sure what Wes did exactly, what made him stand apart from the others. Perhaps it was what marketing people call “branding”. Wes Craven’s films always had a larger than life monster, the kind that was easy to remember and easy to understand. The Exorcist was often cited as one of the best horror films ever made, but who was the antagonist in the Exorcist? Part of the reason why none of the other Exorcist films have been any good is because without atmosphere and actress of the first film, there really is no clear bad guy. Freddy on the other hand? Hell, Freddy is perhaps the single most popular serial killer since Frankenstein. His burnt, smiling face has appeared on more merchandise over the years than any other single horror monster. Something about Freddy tapped into our primal fears, I remember the scene clearly where the girl is murdered in the bed, sliced up in front of her boyfriend while he is helpless to help her.
To this day I am still afraid of straight razors. I will bravely sword fight a samurai and not think twice about it, but I can’t even let a barber shave me with a blade because of Wes Craven. But it wasn’t just the fear of being brutally murdered that made Freddy a legend, there were other, subtler things going on in those films. After the young woman is murdered, the boyfriend is blamed for it. Nobody believed him, or if they did, they pretended not to (the town was covering up the fact they murdered a man). In some way, this idea that parents won’t believe you was more frightening than the monster himself. Not only was Freddy going to kill you and your friends, but the adults seemed to be in denial about it. The ignorance of adults is a common theme in horror, but Wes put his own unique twist on it and that made Freddy stand out in an era where horror was everywhere.
In Nightmare on Elm Street 2, they tried to ground Freddy in a bit more reality, having him use a puppet for his murders and it didn’t work. When Freddy returned the third time, he had returned to his comicbook-style of horror, except now it was turned up a notch. As a young child, it was easy to see parallels between the X-Men and the Dream Warriors, kids who banded together to try and fight back against Freddy by using his own methods against him. They failed pretty miserably, but the idea of it, the concept of becoming a hero in your dreams to fight a monster, stuck with me forever.
I don’t know if Mr. Craven ever acknowledged his comicbook roots, but he had to have them. After all, he made Swamp Thing, so he must have at least been aware of what comics were out at the time. Dracula was Marvel’s best-selling character for many years, Wes must have been familiar with at least some of those titles from the 70’s.
Over the years other people took Freddy in different directions and Wes moved onto other projects.
SHOCKER followed a lot of the comicbook type themes that Freddy had; regular people had to come together to stop a killer who could get you through your electronic devices. It was ingenious and once again, the villain could easily step into any comicbook and fit right in.
My mother used to let me watch horror movies when I was probably too young to watch them, so Wes Craven’s work left an impression. I remember my little brother thought Freddy was the coolest and we had a giant black market style print of Freddy on the wall for many years, which made us very cool among the other kids. Freddy reinvigorated the horror films of the 80’s and for most creators, that would be enough. Not for the Master, who reinvented the horror genre again in the 90’s with SCREAM.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t a huge fan of the Scream movies, primarily because I was a young man in the prime of his life and didn’t find killers who I could take in a fight all that scary. I mean hell, I was more like the two jerks who put on the ghost mask in the first movie than I was comfortable admitting. Still, who can deny the genius of the concept? Once again, horror sprang back into the public eye. At this point everyone has imitated Craven’s work, franchises like SAW couldn’t exist without what Craven did. I haven’t even mentioned The Hills Have Eyes, because I never saw those films, but trust me, there are a ton of fans out there for that franchise as well. I also highly recommend The People Under The Stairs, a scary film with a black protagonist, something you rarely ever see in horror films.
Wes wasn’t one of the best, he WAS the best and he will be missed.
With that, I leave you with one of the scariest images to ever appear in a horror movie. Cheers to you, Mr. Craven, thanks for all the scares!