For most artists, the dream to one day create a work so seminal that it forever changes the course of the zeitgeist is idealistic at best. To make such an achievement even once in a lifetime is representative of a creator at the pinnacle of their abilities, tapping into a vein for which many others merely clamor. To film enthusiasts and horror fans, Wes Craven was one of these rare individuals. An artist whose work not only impacted the genre, but also changed the whole conversation.
Furthermore, Craven not only achieved this visibility once...he continued to do it time and again over the course of his whole career. In contemplating the auteur's contributions to pop culture, it becomes clear that Craven was not merely just another shock jockey with an eye for a good story, he was a master of the game and a genuine tastemaker.
When news of Craven's passing broke, I found myself legitimately bereaved. As a horror devotee and screenwriter, I grew up with his work and its influence on my own is undeniable. I have no doubt that many other writers are taking to their keyboards to make similar claims, and there's little question as to why. In a world where things are often dreadfully serious or absolutely absurd, Wes Craven was always able to take the minute idiosyncrasies of these two extremes and meld them into something unique.
Simply put...Wes Craven made fear fun.
It's hard not to see Craven's thumbprint all over pop culture. Although sleaze and exploitation cinema existed at the drive-in before Wes came along, he emerged from the adult cinema scene to give us Last House on the Left in 1972 and completely redefined the genre. Starring the charismatically creepy David Hess, Last House was a visceral tour de force, a tale of sexual aggression and revenge that studios and other filmmakers still are trying to replicate. Even the film's inevitable remake several years ago feels tame in comparison to Craven's raw rage-filled opus. It was a movie that set a precedent: You don't have to always play nice, you don't always have to be kind...and your audience will still beg for more. Imitators the world over followed. If that had been the end, Last House would still have gone down as a seminal moment in shock cinema, forever cementing Craven's place in horror.
But, in 1984, Craven introduced us to Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, contributing cinema's most theatrical serial killer to a decade that was about to go full-tilt into a slasher movie craze. A litany of sequels, merchandizing, TV spin-offs, and more followed. Freddy became a cornerstone character of the zeitgeist. Now, 31 years after his introduction, the sweater wearing dream master is still scaring the crap out of kids. Freddy Krueger is a modern day Dracula, a boogeyman for the new millennium who will endure long after we're all gone.
...but in Freddy's wake came slasher fatigue. Endless sequels and knock-offs lead to a growing mockery and turn away from horror. For many, the genre became a general parody of itself. Craven recognized this, and sought to lambast the very monster he helped created. Directing from a script by Kevin Williamson, Craven gave us Scream in 1996. With that one brilliant movie, he brought interest rushing back to horror, utilizing a meta-style to satirize the genre and make people fall in love with it all over again. Scream literally changed how horror movies were done. Its edgy style and knowing winks are still echoing through the fright films of the modern period.
Three decades, and he changed the course of the genre in each of them.
Of course, Wes Craven made more than these three films. He also gave us the iconic Hills Have Eyes, the wicked fable The People Under the Stairs, and even directed Meryl Streep in Music of the Heart. He lent his name to projects as a producer and encouraged many storytellers to chase their visions. He wrote books, occasionally acted, and even had a killer Instagram account where he modeled t-shirts. Wistful and wild, Wes Craven was a creator to the core.
We don't get guys like Wes Craven much anymore. An individual fiercely committed to his vision, yet objective enough to poke holes in it when he felt it had gotten away from him, Craven was both grand and refreshingly accessible. The man didn't define whole generations just because he was good at weaving a yarn (though he was), but because he never lost sight of the human qualities that make us connect with stories in the first place. To box him in as just a horror filmmaker would be to not see the full picture. Wes Craven was a visionary who understood that sometimes our most primal elements are also our most valid, but, on the same token, sometimes it's okay to just want to escape.
Nobody lives forever...if anything, Craven's own movies taught us that...but I do wish we had gotten him just a little longer. Like any creative individual, Craven occasionally had his misfires. But, when he was successful, he could make the whole world scream.
So, in light of the passing of a true maestro, I raise a glass, tip a slightly charred fedora, and say thank you for all the great years at the movies. I hope, if only for one night, we all sleep a little less soundly in honor of the late, great Wes Craven.