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?
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.