Monday, August 31, 2015

Wes Craven - RIP

It was announced late last night that Wes Craven died from brain cancer. He was 76 years old.

Craven was one of the top living legends of horror. Many of his films were very groundbreaking at the time and helped usher in a new wave of ideas and gimmicks to the horror genres, from the rise of vicious exploitation to the slashing murderer being an iconic figure to the idea of being set in a world that is self-aware of the tropes in horror films.

Craven left behind a blossoming career as an university teacher in order to follow his dream to work in the film industry. Paying his dues in the porn industry under many pseudonyms, he eventually met up and befriended Sean S. Cunningham. After helping out his new friend on a film called Together, starring a then-unknown Marilyn Chambers, Craven finally got a chance to direct a film and it would be quite a doozy. The Last House on the Left was an American re-telling of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, focusing on a group of degenerates brutally humiliating and killing a pair of girls before unfortunately ending up boarding at the house of one of the victim's parents. The low budget and the usage of handheld cameras help make the film a visceral experience to endure through; this was further helped by the now-legendary marketing campaign that asked the audience to keep saying to themselves that "it's only a movie,..." The film was a big hit with horror fans and generated some critical notices, the biggest one coming from future-slasher-hater Roger Ebert. Though the film does have some merits, it does greatly suffer from the inclusion of some comedic elements, most notably a go-nowhere subplot with two bumbling sheriffs. Its success also led to the creation of the rape-and-revenge template that other horror-makers would adopt and exploit, for better or worse. Additionally, the uproar over its harsh violence and attitudes of its villains would cause it to be banned in many countries and be a cornerstone of the "video nasties" in Britain.

It took five years for Craven to follow up his noteworthy start in film and he delivered another harrowing tale with The Hills Have Eyes. A road-tripping family are stranded in the desert and become the latest plates of food for a group of cannibals. It did well at the box office and developed a growing cult following; nowadays, it is considered a top-shelf piece of 70's horror. The film made a star out of Michael Berryman and continues to shock people with its infamous "attack on the camper" scene.

Craven's career would then fluctuate after this one-two punch. The Linda Blair-starring TV movie Stranger In Our House was mildly received and discarded rather quickly, later leading many horror fanatics to desperately search for it. Deadly Blessing, a slasher set in Amish territory, had an early appearance of Sharon Stone but was widely mocked upon release. He rebounded a bit with Swamp Thing, one of the most noteworthy comic book adaptations pre-Batman and a movie that allowed him to mix in his horror expertise into the material. But then he would again falter a bit with the TV movie Invitation To Hell.

1984 would a big turning point for his career. He became interested in a series of newspaper articles about some Cambodian refugees who would suffer from terrifying nightmares and suddenly die in their sleep. Coupling this with own personal experiences of strangers outside his house and a child bully named Fred Krueger, he crafted A Nightmare on Elm Street. A group of teenagers all realize that they are being haunted by a burnt-up aggressor in their dreams and that the figure has something to do with the town's buried secret. Loaded with demented scares, pretty teens in peril, star-making turns for Johnny Depp and Robert Englund, and a story that had you guessing whether you were in the real world or the dream world, the film was a bonafide success with audiences and critics. It also was a nice checkmate to his best friend Cunningham, who made Friday the 13th a popular horror film but was trashed by many critics. Nightmare was financed by New Line Cinema, an independent film company that would later dubbed itself as "The House That Freddy Built" due in part to the film and its future franchise.

Sadly, the next couple of years would be a rocky road for Craven. He continued to do some work in TV, including another forgettable DTTV film (Chiller) and a couple of episodes of the 80's version of The Twilight Zone. His follow-up feature film was the ill-advised sequel The Hill Have Eyes Part II. The film was savaged by critics and even by fans of the original, causing it to be one of lowest rated works of his entire career. His next feature Deadly Friend was hampered by a terrible marketing campaign; the modern sci-fi take on Frankenstein was promoted as another surreal slasher where the girl-next-door is actually evil. The movie is best remembered for a popular out-of-context viral clip, where Anne Ramsey's head explodes in a gory mess after being pelted by a basketball thrown by Kristy Swanson. Craven would return to Elm Street in 1987, co-writing the third entry in the series (Dream Warriors), considered by many to be the best of the sequels.

He then had somewhat of a hot streak in film starting in 1988. The Serpent and The Rainbow was a loosely-based adaptation of a non-fiction book about an ethnobotanist (Bill Pullman) that gets caught up with Haitian voodoo, premature burial, and the creation of zombies. It received a mixed reaction at the time but has grown in popularity and terror since. Craven tried to recreate the Freddy Krueger formula with Shocker, a bizarre little movie about a serial killer who dies on the electric chair and begins to possess people with his electric powers. Ruthlessly eviscerated by critics, it stalled any hopes of a potential franchise but was a small success at the box office and its poster art is semi-legendary. His next film The People Under The Stairs was more warmly received by critics and audiences and is a true hidden horror gem. A satire in disguise, the film follows a group of black individuals breaking into the house of their corrupt landlords only to find that the whitebread, Reagan-loving-and-lookin couple are actually demented murderers.

But it was his film in 1994 that brought him the most acclaim with the critical body. Wes Craven's New Nightmare was the then truly final entry in the main Elm Street franchise. Instead of bringing Freddy back from the dead in the movie world, Craven brought the slasher icon in the real world. Heather Langenkamp (playing herself) begins to experience nightmares featuring her on-screen adversary only this time, she, her family, and former co-stars (including Englund) are in mortal danger. The metaness of the movie proved to be a bit fatal with general audiences but it would later be a crucial element to Craven's future success. His film streak would end with the disastrous Vampire In Brooklyn. The unfunny comedy turned the tide on the popularity of Eddie Murphy and was overshadowed by the death of a stuntwoman during shooting.

Craven bounced back with what can be wisely described as the top horror film of the 90's, Scream. Written by Kevin Williamson and brilliantly vision by Craven, the slasher followed a group of teens who have seen all of the horror movies and know all the tricks yet still fall prey to them when a "Ghostface" killer starts to bump them off. From its incredibly shocking prologue to its wise-cracking satire on movie tropes and cable news, the film was a huge success all around; It helped kick-start the horror genre again, created a rippling effect in Hollywood, and caused producer Bob Weinstein and his Dimension Films subdivision to stand toe to toe with his brother Harvey and his direction at Miramax. Though many diehard horror and slasher fans drew ire at its meta factor, the film was a new landmark feature to talk and write about and would help lead to other popular 4th-wall-breaking movies.

Starting in his on-screen role in New Nightmare and further enhanced by the publicity for Scream, Craven began to be seen by the public as a wise grandfather of horror. He would be routinely interviewed by MTV and other outlets for his nice and intelligent opinion on the horror genre. Though he continued directing the Scream films, including the great second film and the best-left-buried third one, Craven started to move towards producing credits. The most notable examples of his name being attached to bring attention to new works include Wishmaster, Dracula 2000, and Feast. He also did something very shocking in 1999: he directed a non-horror film! Music of the Heart told the true story of Roberta Guaspari and how she fought for the education of music in Harlem. The film gave lead actress Meryl Streep another Oscar nomination and is better remembered for its Diane Warren-penned theme song, sung by Streep's co-star Gloria Estefan and *NSync.

As per usual with his life, the final chapters of his movie career were bumpy. 2005 allowed him to have two features come out but both were poorly handled by the studios. Cursed reunited him with Williamson and was to be the Scream take on modern werewolves. Unfortunately, though it is entertaining to watch, the whole project was and is an absolute mess. It suffered from many years of reshoots and casting cuts and by the time it came to be released in theaters, Dimension Films suddenly asked for a PG-13 rating. It bombed very badly. Craven would quickly turn around with his second film Red Eye, a taut thriller starring Rachel MacAdams and Cillian Murphy. Unfortunately, though it did reasonably well at the box office and critics mostly adored it, the film is infamously remembered for its marketing. The first trailer cut for the film implied that Murphy had a literal red-eye (the film's title of course comes from a late-night plane ride) and is some kind of vampire or something.

After partaking in the anthology film Paris, je t'aime the next year, he waited four years until stepping into the director's chair with My Soul To Take. It was another bomb to his name and mocked heavily by critics for its strange plot. His very last film was 2011's Scream 4. The reunion of the beloved characters of the franchise, coupled in with a new flock of internet-savvy teens and a new Ghostface, was a polarizing movie, with some fans calling it a return to form while others like myself hating it for what it brought to the table.

Wes Craven was one of the few big names of horror that everyone, from young to old, can remember, thanks to his large career of films and his minor involvement currently with MTV's Scream television series. He brought true scares to your senses and your nightmares.

He will sorely be missed.

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