Wes Craven – teacher, taxi driver, porno camera man, renowned director, reluctant “master of horror” – grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist household in Cleveland, Ohio. Compared to most directors, Craven was a late bloomer. He didn’t direct his first film until he was in his 30s. Yet, it was his background that ushered him into horror. From a young age, Craven saw discrepancies between what “the rules” were and what really happened. For example, he was only allowed to watch Disney films, but his father was still allowed to heavily drink, a habit that eventually killed him at 40.
“In high school, we would give away rulers to our friends that said, ‘Jesus loves you,’” said Craven. “I couldn’t put together the concept that Jesus loves you, but if you don’t love him back, you’ll burn in hell forever.”
The underlying fears (dying suddenly like his father, burning in Hell) persisted throughout his formative years, culimnating as Craven has said, in simply having to “walk away from everything and everyone” he had ever known. College was an escape hatch, and one that he enjoyed, earning himself two degrees – his final a master’s from Johns Hopkins in English and Philosophy. Yet, “analyzing Keats” wasn’t his future, and so after a divorce in 1969, he left academics to drive a taxi in Potsdam, NY, home of the original “Elm Street,” trying to figure out his calling.
With not much money and even less certainty, porno filmmaking was a way to earn a quick buck. Craven admitted that financially, it was a step-up from teaching, and because of that, he helped make several X-rated films before finally pairing up with Sean S. Cunningham, who had directed a feature already. Cunningham produced Craven’s first film, Last House on the Left (1972), despite some trepidation from Craven about the subject matter:
“I literally remember a conversation along the lines of, ‘Sean, I don’t know anything about making a scary movie.’ And Sean said, ‘Well, you were raised as a fundamentalist, just pull all the skeletons out of your closet.’”
Craven’s films are taut, often-gratuitous, thrillers that have put him at odds with the Motion Picture Association of America many times. “The world itself has such horrific elements to it,” said Craven, “that the criticism of any director, that you went too far, is to me totally bullshit.” Craven often taps into dreams, illusions, and the perspective of being an outsider in his films. He’s also a rabid reader and student of the art, having started studying it late. His films commonly subvert genre clichés and include meta commentary.
1. The Last House on the Left (1972)
The Last House on the Left tells the story of two teenage girls who are abducted, raped, and brutally murdered by escaped convicts on their way to a concert. Shocked and saddened, the parents of one girl exact a calculated revenge.
The film received a polarizing critical response, with The New York Times’ Howard Thompson declaring the film too graphic for audiences. He walked out after 50 minutes of it. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, declared it a philosophical success, focusing on its deconstruction of violence, giving it 3½ stars out of 4.
In response to sickened critics and audience members, Craven countered that it depicts a reality, and said that many of the most violent scenes from the film were based on raw footage from The Vietnam War.
He later admitted that after submitting multiple failed cuts to the Motion Picture Association of America for approval, Producer Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th) decided to package and ship it with an “R” rating stolen from another film, instead, as it was the only way they could get the original cut to a mass audience.
It was Craven’s first time in the director’s chair, and is cited alongside 1978’s I Spit On Your Grave as a primary example of rape/revenge films that were popular in the US during the 70s. It is based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960).
2. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Craven’s mainstream follow-up pits an isolated and insane community of desert inhabitants against a vacationing family after they detour from their California roadtrip in order to find an old silver mine. Mutants attack the family’s RV in the night and for the final 30 minutes of the film, this struggle plays out in ever-increasing intensity.
Despite being less graphic than Craven’s previous effort, The Hills Have Eyes quickly achieved cult status amongst horror fans and grindhouse cinema-goers of the time for its gritty depiction of an American “wasteland” and its over-the-top violence, and was nominated for the American Film Institute’s 100 Years … 100 Thrills.
The film’s budget was $230,000 ($130,000 more than Last House on the Left), and by today’s standards, the grainy 16mm print, even after its subsequent remastering for DVD, is far from cleaned up. That gritty style, according to Craven, is a stylistic nod to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), which he admired and wanted to pay tribute to.
The script was based loosely on the Sawney Beane feral clan that roamed the hills of 15th century Scotland and were executed without trial for “being insane.” The Hills Have Eyes led to both a sequel (which Craven disowned as a simple cash-grab, despite directing it) and a 2006 remake directed by Alexadre Aja.
3. Swamp Thing (1982)
Swamp Thing is based on a DC Comics’ character and chronicles the story of Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise), a bioengineer who makes a breakthrough combining plant and animal DNA while working in the swamps of Louisiana. Unfortunately for him and Government Agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), a sinister villain obsessed with immortality sabotages the laboratory and causes Holland to transform into “Swamp Thing.”
This men-in-rubber-suits tale was both written and directed by Wes Craven, who saw it as his opportunity to branch out from horror and direct a big-budget action film, instead. A consummate film student, Craven aimed to straif the line between the absurd and believable, using 1950s Univeral horror films as his guide.
The similarities to Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), especially, are apparent right down to their respective poster art, both of which feature a large, green monster carrying a scantily clad woman in a white dress. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is also often referenced, as Swamp Thing attempts to win over the woman he loves, despite his terrifying form.
The film was a decent success, but critics and audiences were largely in agreement that while the tone of the film was well-done, the action sequences themselves were overlong, and it would be 17 years before Craven would break out of the horror genre again.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Freddy Kreuger, the combination of a hobo who appeared on the street outside of Craven’s childhood home in Cleveland, Ohio and a school bully, would go on to become the most iconic creation of his career, spawning seven sequels, a television show, one reboot and a legion of fans. The iconic knife-tipped glove? Craven created it after reading that people were innately afraid of animal claws and seeing his cat unsheath its own.
Most newspapers and magazines at the time were supportive but lumped it in with traditional “slasher” films, such as Friday the 13th (1980) and Halloween (1978). Craven, being a student of the genre, purposefully subverted those boundaries in several important ways. For instance, there is never a point-of-view shot from Krueger’s perspective.
In this way, Craven was able to place the audience enitrely in the role of victim, unaware of when the antagonist might strike again. And unlike many possession films of the time, there were also male victims, breaking the trend set by The Exorcist (1973) that only females were succeptible to supernatural manipulation.
It was Krueger’s trademark theatricality as a killer, however, the confused classification most of all, as seen in Vincent Canby’s New York Times’ piece: the film “puts more emphasis on bizarre special effects … than graphically depicted mayhem and gore.”
It was seen as “surrealist” by critics, and not necessarily horrific, in part because Krueger’s methods were derived from Eastern mythology and bizarre stories taken straight from 1970s Los Angeles Times headlines in which Khmer Rouge refugees who had refused sleep due to terrible nightmares, died in their sleep of cardiac arrest, later.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is arguably the most important film of Craven’s career, but it would be his reluctant return to Krueger’s world 10 years later that flipped the franchise on its head.
5. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Part political allegory, part thriller, part dreamscape – The Serpent and the Rainbow is loosely based on the true story of Harvard Ethnobotanist Wade Davis who spent time in Haiti, researching tetrodotoxin, a powdery substance used in Haitian Voodoo to simulate death and resurrection. It is the origin story of zombies, and Craven is at his most experimental in telling it. He and his producers meant to be as authentic as possible, casting actual Voodoo practitioners and filming real rituals for the film.
Craven also captured the social and political unrest of Haiti in the midst of a revolution. By his own admission, it was a very tumultuous period in-country with the recent ousting of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, a murderous dictator by some accounts, who made a fortune in the drug trade and through selling dead Hatian bodies, all while the country was mired in abject poverty.
Craven represents Baby Doc with the lead villain, Captain Dargent Peytraud, and he is a dynamic and convincing foil for Bill Pullman’s hero – a faithless scientist named Dennis Alan – to align against.
At its inception, the film is a thriller, but Craven gives the second half qualities of a waking dream. The photography and cinematography are both excellent, with Roger Ebert stating, “The visual look of the movie is stunning. Even the obviously contrived scenes, including some of the hallucinations and voodoo fantasies, have an air of solid plausibility to them.”