Cravenous: Scream 4

I’m having a really difficult time with this final post, denizens. Watching Scream 4 really brought home the fact that this truly is it. This was the final film of Wes Craven’s career. It’s a painful truth to assimilate on many levels, least of which is the reopening of the sorrow that I have felt ever since learning of his untimely death. I’m not going to lie: When I saw “Directed by Wes Craven” pop up in the credits, I teared up as it hit yet again that we will never see that for another new movie. It feels like we have lost so many incredibly talented people recently. To mourn each and every one of them as thoroughly as I have with Craven would pretty much become a full-time career. However, let it be known that the creative space within this existence has a lot of vacancy signs in the windows at the moment. We desperately need to see these vacancies filled. The world can be an ugly, cruel reality. Those who provide us with the safety of escapism, no matter how brief, are invaluable.

So, let’s get this final show on the road, shall we?

Scre4m

Let’s just address the elephant in the room right away: I severely panned Scream 4 when it hit theaters. I won’t rewrite that history for this review. I did not enjoy this movie at all on first viewing.

[Loba Tangent: I also haven’t been back to a movie theater since going to see this in 2011. And I am perfectly okay with this fact.]

I also didn’t really like the movie on my second viewing either. Even after reading a book that convinced me to give the fourth movie another try, I ended up writing elsewhere that I still found this to be a “shockingly bad movie, particularly for this franchise.”

Like I said, I won’t rewrite history. However, I also wrote of my second viewing that “the movie puts forward some truly salient points regarding what happened to us as a society, not just in horror but in general culture, within the more than 10 years between the third and fourth movie. And the author of the book I read even gives a convincing defense of what I felt on original viewing was a tacked-on cop-out ending. I still feel as though it’s a bit of a cop-out…but viewing it with the author’s defense in mind helped me to see it as the castigation against remakes and reboots that he proposes it to be.”

See? Value.

Re-watching this film twice for this series (yes, Craven gifted us one final director’s commentary) made me realize further that this movie shouldn’t stand with the original trilogy at all. That trilogy is a complete telling of the nightmare that Sidney, Gale, and Dewey endured and survived. That book is closed. This fourth film truly kicked off a new book completely—one that relies on the first book for frame of reference only. Only a handful of characters within this new film could possibly remember the events of the original films. For the younger characters, they were removed enough from the brutality of those events that, as Sheriff Riley points out, “One generation’s tragedy is the next one’s joke.”

[Loba Tangent: Although I don’t think this movie depends on the original trilogy for much in regard to actual storytelling, I think it does rely heavily on it for self-referential purposes, which I have already pointed out multiple times.]

As for my evolving thoughts on this fourth film, let me finally give kudos to Craven and Williamson for something that I rather backhandedly praised them for in my first review (spoilers ahoy-hoy): Their successful obfuscation of the main killer was utterly on-point. Even all my follow-up viewings of this film after the fact leave me continually surprised at how little Craven or Williamson offers the viewers in regard to this truth. While the secondary killer wasn’t a surprise (IMHO), guessing the main killer eluded me completely. I’m pretty sure I was irritated by this fact when I first saw the reveal, but now? I concede to the brilliance of both writer and filmmaker that they were able to surprise even an old horror hound like myself.

Secondly, and this is a concession that only could come now (although it makes me a bit uncomfortable to call it a concession, because it only can come at the hands of some truly disturbing and vile shifts in the reality in which we now live): I can sadly attest that Williamson and Craven possessed an upsetting prescience regarding the “new rules” of streaming murders online and craving fame without effort so badly that you would kill to attain it. We’ve seen both within the years between the debut of this film and now through some deeply disturbing crimes. What I once admittedly rolled my eyes at now threaten to become cultural banalities as we devolve deeper and deeper into our conscienceless mire of contempt and indifference toward each other. Could Craven and Williamson have seen this all coming? Was this their attempt at warning us? Our Woodsboro Cassandras, showing us what might happen if we didn’t check ourselves?

I don’t know. All I know is that, sadly, this movie has become possibly the truest of all the Scream films, and therein lies its most unsettling strength.

I mentioned that once again, Craven did a commentary for this film. Rather than being joined by technical contributors, this time he brought along actors Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere, with Neve Campbell joining the conversation briefly via telephone. I was fascinated by his interaction with the actors. Mostly, I was fascinated and utterly delighted by their appreciation of and respect for Craven as their director. Listening to Campbell in particular, I was struck by how clearly connected she felt to Craven. This man helped solidify her fame throughout the 90s. His faith in her ability to bring to life one of the most iconic heroines from his body of work was so wonderfully obvious in her appreciation of him, not just as her director but as her friend. It made me wish that they had done a commentary with the original three actors and Craven. I’m sure that would have been quite the reminiscent foray.

As for what I just stated about Sidney Prescott? I think it’s true. I think Sidney might actually be Craven’s most iconic heroine. True, Nancy Thompson gets pride of place for being Craven’s own masterpiece and for being his first iconic horror heroine. However, there are two significant differences between Nancy and Sidney. The first, of course, is longevity. Sidney is, hands-down, the winner there, which connects directly to the second way in which these two iconic warrior women differ: Whereas Freddy Krueger was the linchpin of the NOES series, always the same while his defeaters almost constantly rotated, for the Scream world? It was always a rotating cavalcade of killers beneath the Ghostface mask, all trying to dispatch the linchpin of this series: Sidney.

As far as I know, Sidney Prescott is the first protagonist of any gender to anchor a horror franchise (do not come back with Ash as preceding her because I would qualify only the first Evil Dead film as a horror movie; the second was an unnecessary remake of the first and the third was just asinine). Laurie Strode technically could qualify before Sidney since she was in the first and second Halloween movies, and then returned for Halloween: H20. However, Michael Myers was always the same as well, so those two are forever linked as sharing the spotlight.

That all being said, Sidney ranks as one of the more unique “final girls” of horror history by dint of reason that she’s the ultimate survivor, and while we have Kevin Williamson to thank for penning her into existence, we have Wes Craven to thank for bringing her from the page to the screen and for casting the perfect actress to portray her. Neve Campbell stated it simply and beautifully in her tribute to Craven after his death:

We lost a great deal of magic yesterday. I’m devastated to hear of Wes’s passing. My life wouldn’t be what it is without him. I will be forever grateful for his brilliant direction, his wicked sense of humor, and his consummate kindness and friendship. He has entertained us all for decades and inspired so many to follow in his path. I loved Wes dearly and will miss him always. Thank you, Wes!!!

Little did we know that our few months in the sleepy little town of Santa Rosa, California, would give birth to one of the highest-grossing films of that decade and bring about a resurgence in a genre that had been deemed dead for years. Little could we comprehend the great success each of us would be gifted from having the opportunity to make Scream with the great Wes Craven.

Rest in peace, Wes! We’ll continue to watch your films and not sleep peacefully at all.

Many of the things that Campbell wrote of Craven could be repeated by Heather Langenkamp and Emma Roberts. Both of these women saw incredible boosts to their careers thanks to their work with Craven. With Jill Roberts being her first foray into the horror genre, Emma Roberts has gone on to make quite the (blood red) splash in other horror offerings such as American Horror Story and Scream Queens. And Langenkamp has parlayed her turn as Nancy Thompson into a somewhat self-appointed role as the Historian of Elm Street. Her documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy is one of the most thorough and entrancing records of a movie franchise to date. And, again, listening to her interaction with Craven during their commentaries for NOES and New Nightmare, you can hear the sincerity of her devotion to Craven as a creator and a friend.

You can read more tributes from others in the Scream family here. The primary things you will read from all of those who worked with Craven and honored him after learning about his death were tributes to his kindness, his intelligence, and his gentleness. Not things you would anticipate hearing about such a Master of Horror. However, it’s a testament to his power as a creator of such legendary horror that he could give himself permission to go to such dark depths and resurface each time with his gentle spirit still intact.

I continue to mourn Craven’s death. I am forever indebted to him for gifting me and my generation (and, sweet prophets, I hope many generations to come) with some of the most iconic, inspiring, game-changing horror movies ever. He was brilliant in so many ways and, as far as I’m concerned, there never would have been a “right” time for him to leave this realm. However, his departure was far too soon. Leave it to the Master of Horror to spring a twist on you right at the end.

landscape-1440989898-wes-craven

Cravenous: My Soul to Take

mst_hires

I’m going to make really quick work of this review, denizens, simply because I don’t want to think about this movie more than I have to.

I’ve spent so much time with this particular series, trying to give each of the films that Wes Craven wrote and/or directed as much credence as possible. I have tried to find worth or enjoyment in each movie. Sometimes, this has been a struggle. My Soul to Take has made the struggle insurmountable.

This film felt almost as if Craven printed up a collage of posters from his previous movies, posted it to a dart board, and then just started throwing darts to see which films he would pilfer for recycled ideas. My guess is that the darts hit Shocker, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. Then he decided that such a combination would only work if he made mental illness a key plot element. And then? Then he decided this would all look best if in 3-D. Seriously? Maybe focus on giving it even one layer of dimension before trying to focus on the third.

Sorry. Sorry. I just need to vent, and if it saves any of you from making the mistake of watching this film, all the better.

I struggled to get through even my one obligatory viewing of this film (which is okay, since the rental version of the movie blocked me from being able to listen to Craven’s commentary; as if I’m going to go buy a copy just to hear that). I’m not terribly surprised that I didn’t like this movie. I remember seeing the previews and feeling absolutely bereft of desire to see it. Watching it for this series confirms that I was on-point with that reaction. I am, however, terribly disappointed that Craven thought this movie was worth his time and effort. Did he feel like he needed to give horror fans something (anything?) to appease us since he hadn’t made a genre film in 5 years? Was he pressured into making this? Or was he just bored and decided that this would be a good way to pass some time and get paid? Whatever the reasons, I wish he’d ignored them all and continued to enjoy a well-earned break from film-making.

In fact, I found this movie so distasteful that I officially recant what I wrote about Chiller. This is my least favorite Craven film. At least Chiller contains some enjoyable camp. This movie tried so hard to take itself seriously, which is quite difficult when it’s so dogmatic to horror cliches. It’s such a shame, too. This was the first movie that Craven had written and directed since his 1994 New Nightmare and his first full-length directing gig since 2005’s Red Eye. Both those movies are examples of Craven at peak performance, which makes this entry all the more preposterous and derisory.

Don’t look to this post for a review. The story is banal, the cast mostly unmemorable (of course, this might be the ultimate sign that I’m getting old; I recognized absolutely no one from this film). Craven clearly hit the auto pilot button on this one and ended up flying us all into a mountainside. Now we’re stranded and I’m not above volunteering this DOA cinematic sludge for hors d’oeuvres.

Cravenous: Pulse

pulse

I debated a long time whether or not I would include this movie in my Cravenous series. First, it’s clearly taking me a while to get through all of Wes Craven’s films. It’s a matter of timing, really. My work life hasn’t pulled punches in a very long time, so my time to do things I enjoy, like write long-winded blog posts, is very, very, very limited.

Then there is the fact that Craven didn’t direct this film, as originally planned. If you remember from my Craven quote in my review of Cursed, he mentioned that he was supposed to direct the film but the undying nature of that terrible werewolf movie made it impossible. Because of that and other “cursed” kerfuffling, Dimension ended up pulling the plug on Pulse. I have a feeling that the Craven/Dimension relationship really soured with the behind-the-scenes fiasco that was that horrible werewolf movie. In the end, (still) virtual unknown Jim Sonzero ended up directing Craven’s script while Craven went on to make several non-Dimension films.

So why did I decide to review this one? Basically because Craven did write the screenplay. I made a decision at the beginning of this series that I wouldn’t include the movies that Craven produced, since he didn’t really have a whole lot to do with those beyond ponying up the money to make them. Ultimately, I considered Craven’s writing and directing contributions to the horror genre to be the two most important from his career. I even strongly debated the inclusion of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, since Craven was listed as part of the writing team for that film. However, his original screenplay was so overwhelmingly rewritten, reworked, reshaped, and revised by numerous people that I didn’t really think it was fair to include it in this list. Pretty much the only thing that I think was left from Craven’s ideas for that film was the idea of Freddy having grown so strong by that point that a whole group of teenagers needed to defeat him rather than just one. Oh, and it was Craven’s idea to bring back Nancy.

For the American remake of Pulse, however, Craven was only one of two writers listed in the credits. The other credit (minus Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who wrote the original 2001 Japanese film, Kairo) is Ray Wright. He had one credit prior to this movie, and only has three more since, so I’m going to assume that he would have been the second-string writer on this script. Maybe Dimension brought him in to make changes to update it or make it more in line with what the Weinsteins wanted. Who knows. The bottom line, though, is that the script is definitely a mostly Craven product.

Unfortunately, it’s also one of his less well-made products. True, he might have been able to work some miracles with the script had he gotten to direct it as he had wished. He would have had say in casting, in locations, in filming choices, in rewrites as he went along—all things that could have made a world of difference in the final film. We’ll never get to see the version of this that Craven could have made. However, even in someone else’s hands, you can see remnants of Craven’s touch. First, the storyline definitely seems to be something Craven would find fascinating as a man who wrestled often with concepts about death and the afterlife. Plus, the added concept of how our increasing dependence on technology was affecting our daily lives and interactions would have piqued his interest as well, I think.

When watching the remake, you’ll also catch two scenes that definitely carry the Craven stamp on them: One is a scene in a public restroom, with one of our protagonists thinking she hears things coming from the stalls. Hi, Sidney Prescott would like her restroom shtick back, thank you. The second is one that Craven used in two of his previous films: Deadly Blessing and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Yes, we get another scene of a female protagonist prone in a bathtub. By this point, it’s tired, and strangely enough, in someone else’s hands, it became sad. Not scary at all. Just. Sad.

It’s a shame, really, that Craven didn’t get to direct this, but I think it was more of a shame that he was on board with remaking another Japanese horror movie in the first place. As much of a supporter I continue to be of the American remake to Ringu, I ultimately think that if you want to see a Japanese horror film? Go rent the Japanese horror film. True, many elements within them carry meaning more in-sync with Eastern sensibilities, but you know what? You learn something while getting scared. It’s a win-win.

The original version of this film is thematically similar, but still quite different because of those subtle Eastern touches. The original is more compelling, more complex, more provocative. Even when the remake tried to recreate scenes directly from the original, it still lost something in the translation that left the redone scenes feeling flat, pointless. Again, it’s difficult to gauge how this could have gone had Craven directed it, but in its final form, it really was a disappointment. Plus, the visual choices made for this film were so distracting. I hate horror filmmakers who feel compelled to make their movies so color- and shadow-saturated that you’re clueless about what’s going on in some of the more integral scenes. I swear, some of these scenes needed their characters to wear miner helmets.

Casting was inoffensive. Kristen Bell was one of the protagonists. Ian Somerhalder played the other protagonist. I personally have no idea who he is, but he looks like Rob Lowe had a son with Cillian Murphy. Octavia Spencer shows up in a quick but entertaining scene, and Brad Dourif rolls in for a quick quirky showing toward the end.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about this film. I think, though, that including it is a nice way of showing an example both of how Craven’s importance was not just to the writing or directing—he brought skill and precision to both elements—and also of how Craven’s input of any kind wasn’t always a solid guarantee of film success. Just as putting up money to produce a horror film didn’t make instant genre hits of any of the films he backed, having a script primarily written by him didn’t guarantee instant box office success either. And even though Dimension didn’t play up his participation in this film at all, critics and fans knew. In fact, many critics pointed out in their panning reviews of this film that not even the Master of Horror could save this film from its less-than-impressive (non-)impact on the horror genre.

Cravenous: A Nightmare on Elm Street

If ever the hashtag #SorryNotSorry were applicable to anything I have done here at the lair, this is the time. I stated in my initial Cravenous post that I wanted to examine Wes Craven’s lesser-acknowledged films…the ones that didn’t include “Nightmare” or “Scream” in their titles. However, I simply couldn’t skip this film, denizens. My horror-loving heart is so full with joy and exuberance for this particular movie that the thought of not taking full advantage to re-watch and re-examine it filled me with an aching sadness. Besides, I’ve actually never written specifically about the film. I’ve done a Poster Pick examination of the film’s poster (ah, Poster Picks, I miss you so). I’ve also written about Nancy Thompson as a Lady of Horror May-hem.

Now is the time on Sprockets when I finally write about the actual film, and the most significant solo contribution that Wes Craven made to the horror genre: A Nightmare on Elm Street.

anoes

Die-hard horror fans will already know how Craven found real-world inspiration for this script within several news articles that detailed the mysterious sleep-induced deaths of Laotian refugees who had recently immigrated to the United States. They claimed that something was trying to kill them in their dreams. No one believed them; in one instance, a young Laotian man struggled to stay awake for several days before his family finally got him to sleep. I’m sure you know what fate he met.

Craven, of course, being fascinated already by the historical terror and power of dreams (he had trained himself since college to dream lucidly and to keep a dream journal), instantly knew that he wanted to come up with a movie that centered on a powerful dream demon who would take out his victims when they were most vulnerable. He also knew, thanks to his daughter Jessica’s influence, that he wanted a strong heroine to lead his story. Remember how I wrote in my review of Swamp Thing that Jessica was disappointed in her father’s use of the cliched “Tripping Heroine” trope? With Nancy Thompson, Craven set out to undo that disappointment tenfold.

What Craven did was create one of the most significant (though ultimately too revisited) villains of modern horror as well as one of the fiercest horror heroines. We’ll get back to Nancy in a moment, though. Now, rather than simply regurgitating to you all the fun factoids that I have learned about this film throughout the years of my obsession, I’m instead going to encourage you to seek out the InfiniFilm version of the movie. It’s chock-full of special features, including two full-length “commentaries” (I feel as though one of the commentaries was more of a pieced together selection of interview bits from various players in the film and crew rather than a legitimate commentary session). Pay special attention during the commentary with Craven, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin to hear mention to how this was for the laser disc release of the movie. Good times.

A couple of intriguing moments from the commentaries that I would like to focus on came from two of the lovely ladies to star in this film. First was from Amanda Wyss, who played Tina Gray. She referred to the teens in this film as “shelterless.” I think is a brutally beautiful way to describe Freddy’s teen victims. They had no consistently protective force in their lives (with possibly the exception of Glen). Even Nancy with her stalwart police officer father couldn’t completely depend on him. Having divorced parents meant that she only had access to him in a limited capacity. Instead, she was living with her mother, who chose to deal with the secret that the Elm Street parents were keeping from their children by disappearing into alcoholic fugues as often as possible. That takes us to the deeper truth of this “shelterless” existence. Nancy and her friends were being taken out by this dream demon because of the sin of their parents. What began as these parents taking the hard-line final choice when it came to protecting their children from the neighborhood child molester and murderer ultimately led not only to their inability to protect their children but their culpability in their children’s murders at the hands of the man they killed. It’s quite the perverse circle jerk, if you think about it.

Conversely, I suppose that you could argue that the parents provided the wrong sheltering. Nancy’s mother sheltered her from the truth of who Fred Krueger had been. All the parents sheltered their children from this truth, and that cost them all dearly.

The second moment was hearing Wes Craven and Heather Langenkamp refer the character of Nancy Thompson as a “warrior woman.” It really struck a chord with me and made me re-evaluate my use of a more accepted term when it comes to the surviving females in horror movies: the Final Girl.

I’ve always taken issue with the use of “girl” in the comics world. Whereas the use of “boy” for the male superheroes is rare (and usually refers to an actual young character), there are several instances of “girl” in the names of female superheroes, including those who are clearly not les petites filles. I can’t help but wonder whether the absence of “boy” isn’t in part because of the negative connotations this term carries in reference to a grown man. One need only look to segregation-era America to understand the dismissive, offensive implications of using a child identifier for an adult man. While not on the same derogatory level as “boy” is in this context, I would argue that “girl” in reference to a grown woman, or even a woman on the precipice of adulthood, is similarly dismissive. Additionally, it’s infantilizing the character in question—locking her in at a certain age and never allowing her to reach full maturity. The implication is that this character must look eternally young (a brutally pervasive mindset that drives far too many women into the mutilating “care” of plastic surgeons) and be in constant need of supervisory assistance, care, or rescue.

Similarly, the term “Final Girl” carries with it a pejorative air, especially when you take into consideration that: A) there is no male counterpart term—no “Final Boy”; and B) any male character who survives such a trial would most assuredly be viewed as a fully tested man by the end of said events.

So why not the same for the female characters?

With Nancy Thompson, the term “warrior woman” resonates so wonderfully and so vividly with her approach to defeating the dream demon she and her friends are encountering. At no point does Nancy ever view herself as Freddy’s victim. Instead, she goes about trying to figure out what’s happening to her friends and her; once she gets the full story, she goes into survival mode and begins planning how to defeat Krueger rather than sitting by, idly awaiting her turn as his next kill. Additionally, she must contend with the doubt of all the adults around her and the continued murder of her peer group. She accepts her fate and her need to complete this journey, with or without the benefit of external support. In her final showdown with Freddy is where Nancy proves her mettle most eloquently. She is in such control of that moment that never once have I doubted that her strength could have defeated this nightmarish stalker. It’s such a fantastically powerful moment and one of my all-time favorites from any genre.

I wish that Craven had gotten his wish to end this movie on a more final note. While I have often stated that I first discovered Freddy Krueger through the campier, sillier Elm Street sequels, once I learned the origin of this monster, I understood the dilution of his power that the sequels had upon him. It also made me appreciate all the more Craven’s efforts with New Nightmare.

In addition to getting an amazing script from Craven, we also get a top-notch technical crew who pull off some incredibly progressive practical work. Of course, there’s the rotating room that allows for the memorable deaths of Tina and Glenn (spoilers). Again, seek out the InfiniFilm version of the movie for some great stories from Craven about this room. There’s Haitkin’s gorgeously atmospheric cinematography and lighting. Speaking of lighting and ingenuity, I do want to touch upon one particular technical moment from this film for its simple yet highly effective brilliance. While there are many moments of technical merit throughout this film, I’ve chosen this one for how it reminds me of an equally effective simple trick from John Carpenter’s Halloween. In that film, we see the slow emergence of Michael Myers from the shadows with the use of a blue light bulb slowly illuminated beneath his iconic mask.

For this movie, we see the emergence of Freddy Krueger from the solid wall behind Nancy as she sleeps. As it goes in cinematic lore, they achieved this by stretching a panel of white spandex behind the bed and having special effects technician Jim Doyle push against the spandex while lit from underneath. The end result of Freddy hovering over Nancy’s prone form is visually stunning and disturbing.

800_nightmare_on_elm_street_blu-ray3

Add to all this an amazing cast, including Langenkamp, Saxon, Wyss, Johnny Depp in his first film appearance ever, Ronnie Blakely, Roger Rabbit as the sleep disorder researcher with the weirdest taste in posters…

kittenposter

Seriously, what’s up with that poster next to Fleischer’s character? And who else has ever noticed it before?

Oh, and Robert Englund. I give Craven so much credit for the script and the directing, but choosing Englund to play Freddy Krueger was key. Had he not selected the right actor for this role, this could have just been another cheesy 80s slasher flick. The stars aligned so magically for this film, however, and we the horror faithful are that much better off for the fact.

Cravenous: Invitation to Hell

invitationtohell

The next directorial project that Wes Craven took on after mucking through the swamps of South Carolina was 1984’s Invitation to Hell, a television movie-of-the-week made for ABC for the financial equivalent of a pack of playing cards and a pouch of Big League Chew.

Okay, it wasn’t that cheap, but the production values were definitely much smaller than Craven’s previous two films. However, since Craven began his career in a low-rent fashion, this was somewhat of a homecoming in ways, I suppose. Plus, he had solid backing from a legitimate production source as well as some relatively high-rent names when it came to television. We get Robert Urich as protagonist Matt Winslow and Susan Lucci as Jessica Jones, AKA “You’re the Devil!” (trust me, I’m not spoiling anything with that statement), plus post-Blade Runner Joanna Cassidy, Joe Regalbuto (soon to be known as Frank Fontana on Murphy Brown), kiddie actors Barret “Neverending Story” Oliver and Soleil “Punky Brewster” Moon Frye, instantly recognizable genre character actor Kevin McCarthy, the Bad Seed herself Patty McCormack, and a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-him appearance by Michael Berryman (see, I told you Craven was faithful to his actors).

Seriously, not a bad collection of talent there. Plus, any time you get to watch Susan Lucci chew scenery like a pit bull who hasn’t been fed for a week? Who the hell doesn’t want to watch that? In fact, you can watch it on YouTube right now rather than reading any further, if you’d like. I won’t be mad. Promise.

The story itself isn’t terribly complex. Jessica Jones runs a spa and club in the lustrous (and deliciously named) town of Steaming Springs. It’s really a front for her cult of worshipers, to whom she grants unlimited wealth and power, so long as they join her club. Literally. Matt Winslow and his family play the happy but unknowing new residents who move to town so Matt can take a job finishing the programming on his latest and greatest invention: a space suit that can withstand extremely hot conditions.

Wow. Do you think that might come in handy at some point in a movie that takes place in the town of Steaming Springs?

This was such a slice of nostalgia to watch. I feel as though the era of the prime-time MOTW is well behind us. However, there was a time when movies like this were a cheesy joy to behold. And this particular offering actually is solid little gem. The script, written by Richard Rothstein, is somewhat pedestrian. Rothstein’s greatest contribution as of this writing, beyond this script of course, was coming up with the story for Universal Soldier. So there you go.

However, Craven kept a tight directorial rein on the story, moving the action along at a satisfying pace. Don’t expect a whole lot of gore. This was regular television, after all. Craven always battled with censors throughout his career, but you can bet that they were in full attack mode whenever they knew he was dabbling in television work. Also, this was the Reagan-era 80s. Milquetoast was considered offensive before the watershed hour.

Even without the excessive gore of Craven’s previous horror fare, he still does give us a lovely trippy end sequence when Matt Winslow goes into the depths of the underworld to save his family. I feel as though this whole sequence would be AMAZEBALLS with some narcotic assistance. Not that I’m condoning that kind of behavior in any way. Still, it’s solid visual craziness that drops on you in a most unexpected but delightful way.

I definitely wouldn’t consider this as one of Craven’s top offerings, but it’s still an enticing offering from him to the horror genre.

Cravenous: Swamp Thing

swampthing

I’d never seen Wes Craven’s 1982 film Swamp Thing prior to taking on this project. I honestly don’t know how I never saw it, since it seems like it would be my bailiwick. I wasn’t as into comics when I was little, however. I went straight for the jugular when it came to genre fiction and immersed myself from an early age in horror. I didn’t start seriously taking note of the comics world until my teens. Also, by the time I did start showing an interest in comics, Swamp Thing wasn’t necessarily the comic hero I was looking for.

Interestingly, Craven knew nothing of the character when he agreed to take on the movie. He stated in a commentary on the movie that this was because the church in which he grew up didn’t permit comics. Perhaps he meant that, because he grew up not reading comics as a child, he never saw the value of doing so as an adult, since Swamp Thing didn’t debut until 1972—around the time that Craven was baptizing himself in the horror genre with his first film. However, when you get offered the chance to direct another (mostly) well-funded film? You at least show an interest.

And so it was that Craven dove into the Swamp Thing mythos, emerging not only with a keen desire to direct the film but also to write the script. Perhaps he learned his lesson with the co-writing duties on Deadly Blessing. Or perhaps he simply could not resist the inspiration he found submerged in the depths of the creature’s swampy abode. Whatever the reason, the end result was campy and fun and exuding that charmed naturalistic interaction among characters that easily was one of Craven’s greatest writing skills. Plus, as Roger Ebert wrote of this film, Craven “betrays a certain gentleness and poetry” within his script.

It was, in fact, no secret that Craven wanted to be more than a director of horror movies. In truth, he’d never intended on choosing this genre as his ultimate path. However, there was a clear vein of fascination within him when it came to exploring the darker elements of humanity. As someone who experienced a slice of Baptist living through my schooling, I would attribute this to being constantly surrounded by the discussion of sin, the damning of souls, images of crucifixion and torture in the afterlife. I don’t think that people truly understand the torment that is religion upon a young mind. It can be brutal and warping, especially when force-fed upon a child with no counterbalance.

With this film, Craven got to remove himself from that darkness and explore a (slightly) less traumatic world, and to do so with the consideration and erudition of a mind that never seemed to cease exploring, questioning, examining, or creating. Craven’s creature is gentle and patient, and even capable of finding laughter and joy in his unexpected and rather dismal situation. That’s not to say he isn’t capable of causing pain or even killing, but it’s as a last resort rather than as an only solution.

Again, there is a delicious element of camp all through this film—that sense of “mad scientist” storytelling, wrapped in an adventure caper, and tied together with a gory little bow for good measure. Just a little gore. Because Craven. There’s also a bit of what even Craven described as gratuitous nudity. There was a prevailing and persistent notion throughout the 80s that genre movies needed to shoe-horn in as many gratuitous shots of naked breasts as possible, to entertain the young male demographic they knew was their target audience. Because, clearly, boys lack the ability to be entertained unless there’s the promise of BEWBS.

[Loba Tangent: Interestingly, there were even more BEWBS in the European release of this film, and when Warner Home Video released the film on video here in the States, they “accidentally” released the European version. I’m sure there were lots of happy boys getting way more than their parents assumed would be in a PG-rated movie.]

In addition to the persistence of pointless female nudity in this film (and genre fiction in general), we also get something that has always irritated me: the “Tripping Heroine” trope. Yes, the lead female character, Alice Cable, trips and falls a few times in this film—enough times that Craven’s daughter Jessica called him on using such a tired trick. Her disappointment would later lead Craven to sit down and consider merits for a new heroine he was already working on…but that’s for another discussion.

Quite a few recognizable names appear in Swamp Thing, including Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise, Louis Jourdan, David Hess (Krug from Craven’s The Last House on the Left,) and Craven’s future second wife, Mimi Meyer. Interestingly, Dick Durock pretty much stumbled into the role of the Swamp Thing in a fluke that would serve him quite well throughout a good portion of the rest of his career. Craven hired the stunt man to don the Swamp Thing costume to perform a lot of the more rigorous action scenes that Ray Wise’s character would need to do. However, he looked so different in the costume from Wise that Craven couldn’t get the scenes to blend convincingly enough. In the end, Wise appeared only as the human version of Dr. Alec Holland and Durok became the eponymous character. When the inevitable sequel came along in 1989, Durok reprised his role and then proceeded to play the character for all three seasons of the television show. Not bad for unplanned.

Cravenous: Deadly Blessing

The next film in the Cravenous line-up is Wes Craven’s 1981 offering, Deadly Blessing.

deadlyblessing_poster

Could your poster be any more sexualized?

[Loba Tangent: Here’s a treat that might not be around for a while. I couldn’t find this Wes Craven movie on DVD, but the whole thing is currently on YouTube. Go now. Watch it while it’s still available, denizens.]

Right off the bat, you’ll notice several differences between Craven’s first two mainstream films and this one. First, it looks far more stylish and professional. Pays to have a far larger budget. Whereas The Last House on the Left came in around $90,000 and The Hills Have Eyes edged closer to $230,000, this one clocked in at an impressive $2.5 million. Switch up from 16MM to 35MM film, get yourself a big-name star with Ernest Borgnine, get yourself a big-name composer with James Horner (this was actually one of his first composing gigs), and, hell, while you’re at it, treat yourself with a couple of newly minted actresses: Sharon Stone and Lisa Hartman.

Craven actually got this movie after impressing one of the producers from his previous directing gig, a 1978 made-for-television movie called Summer of Fear (or Stranger in Our House, depending on where you look). Unfortunately, the only way I could find to watch this one is to buy the DVD, which is currently ridiculously priced because clearly people want to make money off the fact that Craven is now dead. Because people suck. It’s a shame, though, because this sounds like a movie I would totally dig, if only for that movie-of-the-week nostalgia. Based on a Lois Duncan novel, it stars Linda Blair as a young woman coming to terms with the fact that her recently orphaned cousin who moved in with the family might possibly be a witch. I’ve seen a couple of clips from it. Totally groovy late 70s style. Also? A beautiful classic Dodge Charger. Clearly, someone had reason to have some spare Chargers setting around, waiting for some screen time. Luckily, this one hadn’t been painted safety orange just yet.

Anyway, Max Keller decided he wanted Craven to direct the next picture he produced, which ended up being this somewhat sleek yet somewhat clunky “religious horror” tale set among a fictional fundamentalist religious sect known as the Hittites. This time, Craven was only a co-writer, working on revising a rather messily composed screenplay by Matthew Barr and Glenn Benest, the latter of whom was responsible for adapting Duncan’s novel for the Linda Blair MOTW. Even though Craven was only a co-writer, there’s little room for doubt that he took this script as an opportunity to this time explore some of those fundamentalist demons that haunted his own past. You also can recognize Craven’s aptitude for naturalistic dialogue. That was always one of the beautiful things I loved about Craven’s writing: He had this enviably innate sense of rhythm when it came to character dialogue. Even when dealing with the stilted delivery of green actors, that rhythm still made it through.

Ultimately, I would consider this movie the first major disappointment from Craven’s directorial oeuvre, thanks to several factors that were completely out of Craven’s control. First, of course, was the script, which he fixed but clearly did not write. Second was the too-late realization on Craven’s part, which he discussed in later interviews, that basically this film’s larger budget came at a much larger cost to his creative freedom. The linchpin evidence of this truth? The ending of this movie. It’s appalling. Seriously, it makes absolutely no sense at all. Slight spoilers ahoy: The movie, which as I have already mentioned, was a religious horror akin to movies like Rosemary’s Baby or The Sentinel, and moves along at a fairly logical pace, playing out more like a mystery thriller but with some solid scares and some appeasing horror gore. The ending, though? It’s like it came from a completely different film. It suddenly veers off onto some bizarre supernatural horror tangent, complete with cheesy demon rising from the pits of hell to capture our heroine in the final scene. It’s such a ludicrous moment that swings in so far from left field, you’d think Pluto was closer in orbit than this ending. It was shockingly ill-conceived and jars you completely out of the movie, which might not have been spectacular but was at least tolerable up to that point.

I get what the producers wanted. They wanted a purely shocking surprise ending that none of the viewers would expect. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as it’s done with some modicum of logic. Even the most fantastical stories need to have some kind of logical structure or you’re going to lose your audience. Supernatural horror, when done well, can be incredibly frightening and satisfying. Craven would prove this point more than adequately when he finally decided to venture on his own terms into the realm of the supernatural with his greatest solo contribution to horror mythology. This, however, misses the mark in a surprisingly ludicrous fashion.

Besides, this film already contains a twist that works in context with the story laid out before its reveal. This is the tricky part though. This particular reveal is pretty significant and one that is telegraphed ahead of the reveal to the audience but in a way that some might miss. There’s another horror movie that came out a few years after Deadly Blessing with a similar, though more tantalizing, version of this film’s surprise reveal. I don’t really want to say more. Suffice it to say, this could have passed as the one mostly satisfying surprise of the movie.

As I mentioned previously, this time we get more familiar faces, with Ernest Borgnine pulling a quick “Dr. Loomis” guest role for Craven and Lisa Hartman and Sharon Stone in one of their earliest movie roles. Stone would never physically appear in another Craven movie, but we’d encounter her in mention many years later in another iconic Craven-directed movie—made all the more humorous thanks to those titillating rumors about Stone’s role in Craven’s divorce from his second wife, Mimi; Craven even confirmed part of the rumor but denied that it was entirely true…and that’s all that I’m going to say about that piffle. Best Sharon Stone moment from this film? Craven having a live spider dropped into her mouth during a pivotal dream sequence. Stone insisted the spider be de-fanged first, but still…mayhaps this is what drove her to such later animosity toward Craven?

Additionally, we see the return of Michael Berryman to the Craven fold, this time playing a rather lackluster character who doesn’t really contribute much to the story before being quickly snuffed out (spoilers). Oh, and Jeff East, who was most recognizable to me as the young Clark Kent from the 1978 Superman film. Finally, Craven cast as his lead actress Maren Jensen, who will be recognizable to sci-fi fans as Athena from the original Battlestar Galactica. Random, pointless trivia moment: This role was Jensen’s last before she retired from acting.

There’s not really a whole lot of substance to this film the way there was for the previous two movies. It’s a shame, because I would have loved to have seen Craven delve more into his own religious upbringing for this story. I also would have loved to have seen his solo take on the schism between the patriarchal religious clan and the secular, independent women depicted in this movie. We get a bit of this examination through the Borgnine character’s rejection of his son for marrying outside the sect and the subsequent shunning of his widow and her friends. Plus, there are some interesting conversation starters about how the religious sect views female sexuality versus female acquiescence.

Clearly, however, Craven was not really driving this train even though he still brought a great deal of technical acumen to the actual filming. Once more, he delivers a nicely paced film with excellently timed scares. I’d also like to point out one scene in particular that will be instantly recognizable to fans of Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s a bathtub scene, this time involving a serpent rather than a knife-gloved hand. The setup and execution of the introductory moments of the scene are almost identical between these two movies. My vote is for the latter version being more compelling, but it was a joy to see the spark of the idea catching fire in Craven’s mind.

Cravenous: The Hills Have Eyes

First, some full disclosure: I’ve skipped a Craven-directed movie, but some of you might not realize it. Remember what I wrote in my first Cravenous entry about the relationship between horror and porn during the late 70s and 80s? Well, Craven’s next documented movie after 1972’s The Last House on the Left was a 1975 Swedish-cocreated “arthouse porn” called The Fireworks Woman. You might have never heard of it as a Craven film because he wrote and directed it under the name “Abe Snake.” Gee, wonder why. He appears in the film as well. See?

The Fireworks Woman

Doesn’t he look groovy?

The movie is available online if you’d like to watch it. It’s about a brother and sister’s sexual obsession with each other. I decided to skip it, but you feel free to tackle that one, denizens. I’m holding out for the other Craven movie that features a canoodling brother and sister team.

/foreshadowing

[Loba Tangent: Oh, and just in case you’re wondering about the interconnections between these two genres? It’s because a lot of horror movies received X ratings from the MPAA, and the only theaters that would go anywhere near such a rating were…you guessed it: adult movie theaters. See? Travis Bickle could have taken Betsy to see a nice Wes Craven movie on their first date…]

So next in the horror line is Craven’s 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes.

We get some recognizable faces this go, with Horror Queen Supreme Dee Wallace in one of her first film roles. Also making one of his earliest appearances in movies is Michael Berryman, the gentleman whose unique visage graces this movie’s poster. Berryman, whose Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia causes his odd appearance and leaves him with no sweat glands, hair, fingernails, or teeth, has bankrolled a full career from horror and science fiction movies, thanks in part to appearing as Pluto in this movie. We’ll even see him a few more times in future Craven films, as the director was often quite loyal to his actors.

As with his first film, Craven clearly still was fascinated by the exploration of humanity’s depravity and breaking points. He also was still fascinated by exploring the superficiality of our “civility.” No matter how refined we imagine ourselves to be, we still are animals—just scrape the surface a little bit and you’ll see. With this film, Craven wanted to explore exactly how much (or little) we’d need to scratch to find that ferocity. His test subjects?

A nice American family. They didn’t want to kill. But they didn’t want to die.

Fairly straightforward setup summed up perfectly in the movie’s tagline. We’ve got the all-American family extreme, traveling together across the country, camper in tow: Father, Mother, Three Siblings, One Son-in-Law, One Baby, and Two Dogs. What could be more white-bread, middle-class idyllic? The patriarch of the family, a recently retired Chicago cop who barely tolerates the simpering simplicity of his wife and two daughters, establishes himself as the cock of the walk right from the start.

Talk about foreshadowing.

He’s also on a mission, to locate a long-abandoned silver mine that he and his wife have jointly purchased for each other to celebrate their “silver anniversary” the next day. Even after being warned by the local gas station owner (who’s caught by the family in the middle of packing his own truck in preparation to leave the area) not to travel the dusty, dangerous dirt roads that strike off from the main highway, Mr. Retired Cop treats the warning as he must treat anything that doesn’t gel with what he wants: He ignores it.

Hilarity. It’s watching and waiting to ensue.

Also watching the camper is a band of hill people with questionable hygiene, even more questionable breeding, and supremely disturbing culinary tastes. All that tasty meat traveling along their roads? Too tempting to resist.

Just as Craven drew inspiration for his first horror movie from Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (which, in turn, drew inspiration from a 13th century Swedish ballad), this time he drew inspiration from the Scottish folklore of Sawney Bean. Mr. Bean and his clan lived in a sea cave, subsisting off the belongings and flesh of travelers who ventured too near Sawney’s domain. Who says studying folklore is a waste of time? Craven’s impressive knowledge of mythology and folklore served him quite well throughout his career, indeed.

Once this movie kicks off, Craven again offers us no reprieve from the action unfolding on-screen—or from the violence. This is a fight for survival, and as such, there are no time-outs or moments to catch our breath. Once our protagonists realize the dire nature of their predicament, it’s almost too late. Well, definitely too late for several members of the family (spoilers). However, when that survivalist mentality that Craven very obviously loved to explore so much finally kicks in for the remaining protagonists, it’s go time. We get a couple of great traps, including one that uses…disturbingly interesting bait.

We also get a, pardon the phrasing, bleak-as-fuck ending. Serious spoilers from this point forward: Some of the crimes that the cannibalistic clan perpetrate upon our wholesome American family are the sexual assault of one sister (though far less disturbing than anything from The Last House on the Left, it’s still troublesome that Craven felt the need to include it and the resulting tipple into the rape revenge trope), the murder of the other sister, and the kidnapping of that sister’s baby for the purpose of holding a baby barbecue. Because I heard they taste like chicken. When the baby’s father realizes that his wife is dead and his daughter is missing, nothing could stop him from going out into the hills to bring her back.

Admittedly, the ending could have been far worse than it actually was. Craven initially contemplated having the clan go through with killing the baby. His own crew threatened mutiny, however, if he chose to go that route. Instead, he went with having the baby’s father succeed in capturing the kidnapping cannibal and murdering him in one of the most high-octane first-person death scenes to appear in movies up to that point. Placing us in the position of the cannibal, we witness the utter loss of control…of civility…by the baby’s father, Doug, as he repeatedly plunges the dagger into his captive, well past the point of death. Logic, however, cannot penetrate the control of “fight-or-flight” evolutionary programming to which Doug has completely succumbed. Craven is almost purely focused on forcing us to watch Doug’s unraveling, cutting away only to show the knife plunging in every now and again or the emotional distress of the cannibal’s sister as she watches her brother’s murder. The camera and the audience, however, is captured by the pure descent of Doug into that most primal survivalist mode. We hear his guttural grunting, we see the way spittle flies from his mouth, hangs from his lips, spews downward onto the camera. And when Doug finally stops? The movie ends.

Literally, the last thing we see is Doug, the realization of his actions just beginning to register on his face before the scene freezes and fades to red. Even with The Last House on the Left, Craven gave us a moment of decompression before fading to black, perhaps to regroup alongside the protagonists as they begin to process their actions. Not so in this case. The original ending that Craven filmed was far less dystopic, with Doug returning with his daughter and the cannibal’s sister (who had helped him rescue his daughter) to meet up with the rest of the survivors and begin their journey back to civilization. Craven opted for the more shocking and bleak ending, forcing us to process Doug’s actions and contemplate on our own the ramifications of all that had just transpired.

Doug’s devolution isn’t the only one we witness within this film. Two of the siblings, Bobby and Brenda, when encountering the patriarch of the cannibal clan after their trap failed to kill him, both quickly embrace their more primal responses. Both siblings have been running on fear and adrenaline for many hours—Bobby being the first to know something was wrong with where they were stranded after finding one of the family dogs disemboweled in the hills (yeah, Craven took the low blow by killing one of the dogs; he also used an actual dead dog in the scene, having collected the body from the sheriff’s department), and Brenda being the sister who was raped a few hours earlier—and so their violent response is almost synchronous and definitely autonomic.

Even the surviving dog plays a role in Craven’s character study. Beast in many ways seems not only intent on protecting his human family but also in seeking revenge for the death of his mate, Beauty. Some of Beast’s actions seemed somewhat anthropomorphic, but Craven drew nice parallels between his primal predatory instinct toward the cannibals and the human protagonists’ similar instincts: Want to survive? Then kill.

Craven’s insatiable need to examine the primal undercurrent of human civility is a fascinating one that continues to be relevant today. What are the factors that contribute to our standings in society? Are we born with intrinsically good or bad intentions? Or are there external circumstances that contribute to our choices? Craven seems to argue a bit in favor of both points with this movie (kind of). We learn through secondhand exposition that the cannibal family’s patriarch was born with evil intent in his heart (as secondhand information, however, we must extrapolate our own opinions of this information). Craven also once more focuses on class and education standing as influencing certain aspects of the story (the well-heeled American family with their college-educated children versus the uneducated hill people who have turned their survival into a bloodsport), as well as an underlying current of misogyny. The retired cop character ignores the thoughts of the women around him. The sister from the cannibal family is chained because she wishes to leave the hills and find a better life. The mother of the cannibal family is almost incidental to the story beyond the fact that she was a prostitute in her earlier years. And, of course, there is the continued use of sexual assault as the ultimate attack against women in horror films. Combine all these elements together and they equal another offering from Craven in which he posits that, yet again, we are the ultimate horror monsters.

Cravenous: The Last House on the Left

It’s October, denizens. You know how much I love this month. Even though it’s cold and bound to get colder from this point on in the year, I can’t help it. I love Halloween. I love horror. And while I’m still struggling to find solid footing when it comes to my visits here to the lair, I had this idea this morning while driving to work and I’m going to try to make it so. See, I decided a little while ago that, for this October, I wanted to watch/re-watch every Wes Craven-directed movie that doesn’t include the word Nightmare or Scream in the title. We all know how I feel about those two franchises. But what about all the other films that Craven directed throughout his career?

I’ve already loaded up my Netflix queue with every Craven film they offer (and I’m seriously debating going ahead and buying a couple that aren’t offered but that I love enough to want to add them to my collection anyway). There are enough movies in my list that I know I’m not going to be able to finish watching them all this month, so this new feature will last a hot minute longer than until All Hallow’s Eve. Plus, I’ve got a lot on my plate work-wise and play-wise, so that will slow things down there as well. But, the good news is that I’m here now, and I’m…Cravenous in my horror hunger.

Did you see it? What I did?

So let’s start with the beginning of it all, shall we?

tlhotl

Admittedly, this is a very difficult place to start, especially for non-horror fans. I can’t recommend Craven’s first film The Last House on the Left. It falls soundly into that category of horror populated by realistically unsettling storytelling. Even if you do like horror but your preferences skew toward the scary yet implausible variety, then this is not the film for you.

Instead, this is Craven exploring the darkest of horror. Not the phantasmagorical. Not the supernatural. Not the paranormal. For Craven, we were the most frightening monsters to examine. Thus, when this film starts out with the warning that this story is based on true events, I view it less as a specific warning and more of a generic caution that what we’re about to see can be as true as we make it. As anyone who pays attention to the news even today (even? especially today), we can make this true…and we can make far worse true.

In horror lingo, you can boil the story down to two words, one genre trope: rape revenge. I don’t like rape revenge stories. I also don’t like this type of realistic horror. Again, I’m aware enough of what we do to each other in real life that when I want to be scared, I want it to come from a horror that cannot actually happen to me. Maybe that’s a cop-out. I don’t know. However, reality is a bludgeon enough even when it isn’t being horrific. A couple hours of escapism is a nice balm to a bludgeoned soul.

However, Craven felt the need to go to these darker depths of humanity, driven by the need to better understand the reality he and his peers were experiencing at that point in history. He said in many interviews regarding this movie that it was spurred into life by our increasingly violent culture. The images broadcast from the Vietnam War in particular brought violence into homes all along Main Street USA in visceral, unsettling ways, leaving all of our society—not just the soldiers—struggling with the reality of war as it had never had to before. Many famous horror makers from this time period have all acknowledged the sobering effect that this imagery had on them. Tom Savini in particular has stated that being assigned the role of documenting what he saw while stationed in-country during the Vietnam War left him struggling to deal with all that he saw and inspired some of the gorier practical effects that he has created through his career.

Craven was no exception. While he did not serve in Vietnam, he saw the effect that the images had on the country. He also said that this shifted cultural expectations of horror to the darker corners that he and his contemporaries sought out through their films. What instantly set Craven apart from others like Raimi, Carpenter, and Cunningham is that their more famous contributions had some kind of barrier between the events happening on screen and the audience. Either it was a supernatural barrier, as with Raimi’s The Evil Dead, or a choppy, sometimes first-person perspective of the murders, as with Carpenter’s Halloween or Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (both of which also had implied supernatural elements either in the first movie or sequels), that were cut in such a way that oftentimes we saw far less than we later thought we did. Only perhaps Tobe Hooper and his The Texas Chain Saw Massacre rivaled Craven for the in-your-face unflinching depiction of realistic violence. Tellingly, neither one of these movies is something I relish revisiting. I also won’t ever own either film, regardless of their standing in the horror pantheon.

Craven’s first movie is unrepentant in its depiction of violence. Shot in a documentary style that not only makes the movie that much more visceral and real but also seemed almost prescient regarding the coming popularity of “found footage” films, Craven shows everything that his antagonists and protagonists do. You get no reprieve from the violence and he offers no succor for any character within this film. There even is a moment when the antagonists experience a sort of group realization of the horrors they have just committed against these two young women—and the remaining horror that they still must do to “take care” of the situation—and you can feel the weight of that moment through their expressions, first of disgust and then of resignation. More upsetting? You almost feel badly for them for what they still feel they must do. That’s possibly the most vile of all feelings for this movie.

Thankfully, however, Craven opted to eliminate some of the more sexually graphic scenes he’d filmed. What some might not know about is the somewhat incestuous relationship that horror and porn shared during the restructuring of the horror genre in the late 70s and early 80s. A lot of the people who would move on to become scions of the horror genre did double duty writing, producing, directing, or otherwise engaging in elements of the porn industry. Craven was no exception, admitting in later interviews that he had his fair share of pr0n experience. Some of the deleted scenes from this film definitely qualify as soft-core porn. Worse, however, is that they depict a…shall we say, Sapphic sexual assault, which debases the other intents of the movie by relying on an increasingly archaic notion of homosexuals as the genre’s villainous scapegoats. While some of these insinuations remain, Craven’s decision not to use the more graphic scenes keeps the tone more in line with the overarching tone of the movie.

Throw in some commentary on class privilege, the survivalist mentality that Craven often gave his characters (think Nancy booby-trapping her house for Freddy Krueger’s arrival), and direct inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and you have a movie that caused some viewers to become physically ill, some to simply walk out, and some to storm the projection room in search of a way to destroy the film print.

Craven’s foray into horror is all the more powerful when you realize that not only had Craven never written or directed a feature-length mainstream film before, but he also was neck-deep in uncharted waters. He’d never really even seen a horror movie before, having grown up in a severely fundamentalist house. Personally, having grown up in a fundamentalist school, I can vouch that such an upbringing is probably more preparatory for a life as a creator of horror than almost anything. Couple those experiences with Craven’s well-read knowledge of mythologies, philosophy, and literature as well as his desire to delve into “forbidden” territories, and you can see the nascence of Craven’s own mythology as one of the progenitors of modern horror.

The Man of My Dreams

It would have to take something big to finally pull me out of the morass of work in which I’ve been trapped all summer. Something bigger than book reviews or navel gazing or even the insanity of the current political landscape (a landscape I’m already tired of looking at, and we’ve still got more than a year to go).

No, it had to be larger than that. It had to be something personally moving…something so important to me that, no matter how many evenings and stolen moments throughout the days that I have stockpile to write this, it will be done. It’s the least I can do for the man who played such an integral role in my conversion to the tried-and-true horror apostle I am today.

True, I credit Poltergeist as being the first modern horror film I ever saw all the way through. That was my gateway film, so to speak. But if I were credit one genre director as being most responsible for completely converting me to the Church of Horror, it would have to be Wes Craven.

150831_BB_WesCraven.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2

I give John Carpenter full dues for the brilliance that is Halloween. And I attribute the state of the horror genre as I knew and loved it growing up to a particular set of directors/writers who ruled the horror landscape throughout the 80s: Craven, Carpenter, Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper, and Sean Cunningham (with honorable mention to Clive Barker for the glory that is Pinhead).

These men understood the visceral nature of fear and they harnessed that to full unadulterated effect through some of the genre’s most unsettling movies. They were the fathers of evisceration and unrest, pushing the boundaries of, at the time, a mostly staid genre into territories that even they found too disturbing to explore…which is what pushed them to explore them in the first place. Craven himself stated that The Last House on the Left was one of his movies that he could never go back and re-watch because of how horrific it was to him.

And then came Freddy Krueger. As much as I love Michael Myers and Pinhead and Jason, Freddy was my first horror villain. I actually first met him through the fourth Elm Street movie The Dream Master, which was not one of Craven’s films. However, I loved Freddy from the very first flick of his silver-knived hand right down to his inimitably painful puns. He was horror kitsch of the killer variety, compelling and charismatic and amusingly unique even among the high-caliber villainous company he was keeping at the time. I needed to know everything about him.

I was not anticipating the Freddy Krueger I met in the first film. Craven’s original 1984 movie was disturbing in the ugliest of realistic ways (strange to say of a killer who is himself dead and offs his victims in their nightmares). This character came from the mind of someone who understood that true fear resided in the deepest, darkest, most depraved corners of ourselves. We create the worst fears, whether through our own thoughts or our own deeds. No matter how much I love the campy, “lovable” Freddy of later films, my allegiance will always rest in the gloved hand of that original Krueger. He was only on screen for 7 minutes that first movie…less time than even the Wicked Witch of the West got in The Wizard of Oz…but oh, those 7 minutes.

Thankfully, Craven did return for The New Nightmare, one of my other favorite Freddy films. Additionally, New Nightmare was one of the earliest examples, that I can remember, of that meta take on film-making that blurs reality and fiction into a tasty melange of horror savoriness that I clearly find addictive.

And then there’s Scream. True, Craven didn’t write it and he almost didn’t direct it. But thank the horror deities that he did. Talk about meta savoriness. I have written about this film and franchise many times here at the lair. Two of my Ladies of Horror May-hem come from this film (two other Ladies come from Elm Street). The original film works so well in part because of its clear respect for and indebtedness to the time during which Craven and that previously mentioned collection of amazingly demented directors ruled the horror genre. And while the series holistically was never as solid as the first film, Craven did his best to make it as solidly scary as he could with what Williamson gave him.

Of course, these are only the movies that often rise to the top of any discussion of Craven’s contributions to the horror genre. Let’s not forget, he also gave us The Hills Have Eyes; Deadly Friend, which includes one of my all-time favorite character deaths ever; Shocker (I still refer to Mitch Pileggi as “Horace Pinker”); The People Under the Stairs, which gave me a whole new outlook on Twin Peaks and turned so many traditional horror tropes upside down and inside out in ways that I don’t think many appreciated at the time; Red Eye (sure, I’d like to find flying even more traumatizing!); and The Serpent and the Rainbow, which ranks still as one of my favorite “zombie” movies.

Craven was sharp, well-read, curious, creative, kind, and witty, and he made my horror-loving adolescence ironically brighter from all the darkness he brought to the genre. I have mourned his death every day since I learned he was with us no more. He left behind a brilliant legacy, but his time with us was still far too short.

vb9tkkuq1ramucy6ivj6