On Sunday night, as I was live-tweeting my stupid jokes during the second episode of “Fear The Walking Dead,” I saw a tweet that bummed me out. Horror legend and director Wes Craven — the man whose film “A Nightmare on Elm Street” caused me to have some really messed up nightmares as a little kid — had died at the age of 76. It was sad, but seemed fitting that I heard the news while watching a horror-style television show that plays with societal norms.
Of all the horror film directors to come out in the late 70s, early 80s, it was Craven that stood out the most with his films. From “The Hills Have Eyes” to “Nightmare” to “The People Under The Stairs,” Craven showed an incredible ability to create suspense in his horror films beyond a typical slasher flick. He also made some of these scenes truly bizarre and different from what others were doing.
It was with “A Nightmare on Elm Street” that frightened me the most as a child. The idea of someone being able to attack you in your dreams, and that attack becomes real, was a frightening concept to me as a kid. That concept — blending dreams and reality into a surreal horror movie — I still find fascinating to this day. And the fact that Craven only directed two of the eight original films — the first one and 10 years later with “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” — and that those two are pretty much the best of them, shows how important his take on the story truly was. There is a really interesting — and very long — documentary on those films, “Never Sleep Again” that explores the franchise in detail.
Another part of what made “Nightmare” and Craven’s nightmarish creation so disturbing is that the villain — Freddy Krueger — was a serial killer who preyed on children and was burned alive by the parents in his neighborhood after he was acquitted on a technicality during a murder trial. Unlike Jason Voorhees — whose revenge on camp counselors is based on them letting him drown as a kid through negligence and murdering his mother years later — Freddy is a character that is seeking revenge on the children of the people who killed him, people who took revenge on him for his monstrous actions. Freddy’s revenge is twisted and makes it all the more horrifying in that he thinks he is in the right, that he was somehow wronged by these people.
Yeah, Craven knew how to play with these horrific concepts and scenarios to make an incredible horror film.
The other film that still stands out to me is his “People Under The Stairs,” which deals with a twisted couple whose house is literally a nightmarish serial killing den whose whole intent is to wreak havoc on the psyches of the poor souls who find themselves on the other side of the front door. It also featured Everett McGill and Wendy Robie — who played Big Ed and Nadine on “Twin Peaks” — as the psychopathic couple.
Craven once again made a splash in the horror genre in 1996 with the start of his “Scream” franchise, films that found Craven actually poking fun at a genre he helped define. The characters make references to horror movies, and Craven even joked about his most famous creation in the film, donning the sweater and fedora himself.
Craven made some of the most interesting horror movies out there. He played with themes and concepts that were unnerving and often disturbing. But it was those themes that made his horror films stand out. He was a giant whose shoulders horror directors are still standing. He will be missed.