The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Wes Craven
My earliest horror memories all revolve around Wes Craven. As a kid growing up in the late-eighties/early-nineties, the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies were a staple of Saturday night sleepovers. For a whole generation of kids, those movies were like a gateway to heavier genre fare. They were gory as heck and R-rated, but there was something about them that made the films more fun than truly terrifying, and Craven is responsible for a lot of that as Freddy Krueger was his brainchild. While he only directed the first and co-wrote the third film, DREAM WARRIORS in the original pre-FREDDY'S DEAD series, Craven – for years – found himself so closely identified with the series that when he experimented with more sophisticated horror fare like THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, he struggled to find an audience.
Craven had such a tough time in the early-nineties that he was reduced to being a director-for-hire on movies like the Eddie Murphy-flop VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN. In 1994, he returned to the world of Freddy Krueger, but in an unconventional way. WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE was a meta-spin on the saga, with Craven, Robert Englund, John Saxon, New Line chief Robert Shaye, and Heather Langenkamp all playing themselves in a sharply written-and-directed outing where Freddy, upset at the series having ended, tries to cross over into the real world with only Langenkamp, the original heroine of the series, able to stop him. Sadly, the movie was a box-office flop, but the right people must have seen it as a few years later Harvey and Bob Weinstein begged Craven to direct Kevin Williamson's clever-spin on slasher flicks, SCREAM.
That movie wound up being the biggest hit of his career and gave Craven an incredible second wind, with him not only directing three more wildly successful sequels, but also showing his more sensitive side by doing a steady job with the Meryl Streep family drama MUSIC OF THE HEART. Before his tragic passing at seventy-seven, Craven remained active, producing remakes of his own THE HILLS HAVE EYES and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, executive producing the MTV TV series version of Scream, and remaining active as a director, scoring a late-career hit with the classy Rachel McAdams thriller RED EYE.
While most die-hard horror fans would probably list the original HILLS HAVE EYES or LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT as Craven's best work, for me A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remains the definitive Craven flick. Much darker than the other movies, Craven's original NIGHTMARE is actually a really sophisticated horror flick, with dark themes, a strong cast (including a young Johnny Depp), an iconic performance by the great Robert Englund and some spectacularly disturbing kills, such as the bit where Depp gets sucked into his mattress and explodes. Re-watching it now, it's no wonder the movie became such a sleeper hit and had it not gotten such a terrible remake the series might still be going today if the new rights-holders had the good sense to keep Robert Englund as Freddy – the role only he can play.
Craven's THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is a superb little horror flick. Based on a wacked-out, “memoir” by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, the movie is unique in that it's evocatively set against a very real, dark time in Haiti's history – and was actually shot on location. Bill Pullman is terrific as the every-man hero, but what's really great about it is how Craven deliberately leaves it open to interpretation whether or not anything supernatural is actually going on. The supporting cast, which includes the great Paul Winfield, is excellent. The score by Brad Fiedel is one of the best horror soundtracks of the decade, and some of the set-pieces are incredibly harrowing, such as a brutal bit where Pullman is tortured by getting a nail driven through his scrotum (ouch!). Other underrated Craven movies include SHOCKER (an unsuccessful but fun attemptt to launch a Freddy-style slasher series) and THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, which has become a bit of a cult classic.
While I love the original SCREAM I must admit I have absolutely no use for any of the sequels. Most agree that SCREAM 3 and SCREAM 4 are pretty weak, but SCREAM 2 is almost as bad with it being little-more than a rehash of the first film that was quickly slapped together to cash-in on the first one's incredible success. Given that it made even more money at the box office, I guess this wasn't such a bad idea commercially, but the movie itself is a fun one-time watch but surprisingly thin and dull if you try to watch it again now. Still, the first-one is a legitimate classic.
One of the reasons the original SCREAM was such a smash was that incredible cold open where Drew Barrymore, who had been hyped as one of the stars, was killed-off in spectacularly brutal fashion, setting the stage for what (at the time) was considered a wildly unpredictable post-modern take on the genre. By killing Barrymore, it made us realize that no one was safe and helped make the film so much fun to watch. “Do you like scary movies?”
Before passing away, Craven actually exec produced a movie called THE GIRL IN THE PHOTOGRAPH, which makes its debut as part of Midnight Madness at this year's edition of TIFF. You can bet JoBlo.com will be there to review.
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