Wes Craven (1939-2015) was famous to horror fans and general cinephiles alike for popular, well-made horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, both of which achieved broad critical and financial success. His films’ popularity can be attributed to their effective scares and original imagery, but they also often share a real depth of conceptual underpinning. Many of Cravens’ fans may not know that he held a Master’s degree in Philosophy and Writing and taught as a Humanities professor before embarking on his filmmaking career, and that this background contributed significantly to many of his films.
Craven’s directorial debut, The Last House on the Left (1972), was groundbreaking and influential in a number of significant ways and its continued power to disturb stands as a lasting testament to Craven’s prescience and importance to the horror genre. In the film, two teenage girls head downtown to attend a rock concert but are waylaid when they attempt to buy weed from a band of recently-escaped criminals, who torture the girls in their seedy apartment before taking them out to the woods to further demean and abuse them. After eventually murdering the girls, the gang seek shelter and further delinquency in a nearby home, which just happens to be that of one of the girls’ parents; when they discover who they are harboring, the parents seek sadistic revenge.
The Last House on the Left is a devastating tale of tragic irony and brutality, known most for its low-budget realism and hardcore sexual violence – the same causes for widespread censorship of the film; shot in a verite style, it paved the way for such horror classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). So what inspired this tale of extreme death and bitter black humor? A film by none other than Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman himself, The Virgin Spring, winner of the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Though set in medieval Sweden, Virgin Spring is a moral tale with many of the same themes as Last House: sexual innocence and its violent destruction, familial devotion, and vengeance – concerns which transcend time and setting. The literary and philosophical nature of Bergman’s work may not seem the typical source material for a horror film, but they provide the depth that guarantees Last House’s timelessness – and surely appealed to Craven’s more intellectual interests.
The inspiration for Craven’s next film, The Hills Have Eyes (1977), is based in the folklore of around the same time as Virgin Spring’s setting, in the English tales of “Sawney Bean,” the rumored head of a Scottish clan of cannibals. Bean and his large family are said to have eaten more than 1,000 victims, though corroborative evidence – of large numbers of missing persons, for example – has not been located in the records or broadsheets of the time. Hills re-sets the myth in the American West, remapping the negative stereotypes exemplified by the original stories on to a popular contemporary villain: the incestuous, uneducated “backwoods” cannibal, familiar from films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but still ripe for reimagining. Though the sadism of Hills might be described as “decadent,” it remains remarkably effective and unforgiving for a film of the era and was remarkably prescient considering current genre trends.
The zombie as villain has been fertile territory for the horror film for many years; Craven’s version of the story, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), approaches the subject quite differently. In Serpent, the zombie is the victim, a pitiable figure whose condition is a form of punishment enacted by the far more threatening shaman. Set in Haiti, it stars Bill Pullman as an ethnobotanist who travels to the politically volatile, revolution-ridden country to study the use of toxic plants as sedatives in the supposed creation of the “living dead;” as punishment for his transgressive interference in the shamanistic rituals, he himself becomes the victim of “black magic.”
The film explores Craven’s enduring interest in the inextricability of reality and various states of unreality, and the way in which dream or unconscious states interfere with and interrupt reality. These concerns make it all the more surprising to learn that the film is based on a nonfiction book by Harvard anthropologist Wade Davis with the same title; though he doesn’t record similar political or spiritual misadventures in his first-person narrative, he is primarily focused on the “magical” aspect of Haitian rituals. The film Serpent and the Rainbow is unique in its use of a fact-based narrative for not only turning the popular mythology of the zombie on its head, but also for creating effective scares. It exemplifies Craven’s ability to draw terrifying inspiration from higher brow sources.
But perhaps the most interesting use of source material in Craven’s oeuvre is the pillaging of his own films in 1996’s Scream. Craven set the stage for this (far more successful) meta approach in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), an explicitly self-referential film, in which the Freddy Kreuger character of the Nightmare on Elm Street series is exactly that: a horror movie villain, who breaks into reality not from his victim’s dreams, but via the silver screen.
The treatment of this material in Scream (directed by Craven but written by Kevin Williamson) is far more nuanced and without question ushered in a new era in popular horror cinema following the “straight to home video” trends of the 1980s and 90s. Whatever one’s feelings about the Scary Movie franchise, The Cabin in the Woods, or You’re Next, the influence of Scream’s successful blend of irony and terror cannot be denied.
Craven’s output runs the gamut from truly horrifying horror to the less-than-perfect or definitely-bizarre but always-entertaining classics like The People Under the Stairs. Did he have another genre-defining, smart gem up his sleeve? We’ll never know, but rewatching his films will indefinitely provide newness, scares, and real brilliance.