Before David Lynch starting peeling the paint off the white picket fence, Wes Craven, who died at the age of 76 a month ago, was already sharpening it for a stake in the heart of American values. A sort of bizarro Mr. Rogers, Craven was a kind but unfiltered paternal figure who was more likely to let the boogeyman in the closet team up with the monster under the bed than sweetly tell you they weren't real. Like screenwriter/director Paul Schrader, Craven was raised religious without access to cinema, so he used the form to interrogate the sexual hang-ups and rigid familial codes of his upbringing. Craven's master's thesis at Johns Hopkins University was a novel about schizophrenia called "Noah's Ark: Diary of a Madman," which hinted at his tales of spiritual delusions and questionable reality to come.
A teacher for a time, he left academia for higher-paying writer-editor work on porn films and eventually exploded onto the grindhouse scene with 1972's "The Last House on the Left" (currently streaming via Amazon Instant and iTunes), a grisly shocker filled with post-'60s, Nam-colored brutality. Craven had an affinity for art films, but his course was corrected by the pop-political shock of George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead." Thus "Last House on the Left" was a sort of meeting point for horror, sleaze, and Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring," loosely following that film's plot about a group of rapist murderers that accidentally shack up with their victim's parents and are served a grisly comeuppance. As a lament for the loss of hippie innocence (using folk song 'The Road Leads to Nowhere' as a Greek chorus of sorts) and a cautionary tale, it's both cynical and hypocritical, given its lurid framing of the abuse. The escaped convicts in "The Last House on the Left" are a gang of degenerate Noo Yawk clowns whose squabbles about gender roles and sex crimes are Borscht Belt in their timing. The parents, on the other hand, are absurdly WASP-ish professionals whose woodsy remoteness and distrust of changing values suggest their eventual descent into vengeful sadism was merely a switch waiting to be turned on.
It's evidence Craven was as funny as he was scary, and both "The Last House on the Left," and its follow-up blast of violence, "The Hills Have Eyes" (currently streaming via Amazon Instant and iTunes), suggest Craven's stint in Baltimore might have led him to the same toxic well of wicked satire that John Waters drank from. "The Hills Have Eyes" has a Waters-lite parody of the good Christian, all-American family besieged by their bizarro counterparts, a family of cannibals mutated by their home on an army weapons-testing site, eyeing them for food. Here, Craven pits the traditional nuclear family against a family gone nuclear, both destroyed by the weapons supposedly built to protect them. Like "The Last House on the Left," "The Hill Have Eyes" provides only pyrrhic victory in retribution, as any surviving members descend into damaged psyches and murderous rage, with the final shot absent of any catharsis.
With "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (currently streaming via Netflix), Craven fully transitioned into pop filmmaker, giving the world Freddy Krueger, the vengeful spirit of a child murderer (predating The Bob of "Twin Peaks") who tears apart a bunch of white suburban teens through their dreams. "A Nightmare on Elm Street," released three years after MTV was established as a conduit for refracting youth culture, was fitting then and remains so today, with teen minds still a target demographic constantly caught in the crosshairs of predatory marketing executives. Though sanding off the rough edges of his early scuzz, Craven's pet themes shine through: Freddy's presence continually interacts with crucifixes, complicating his original death by town mob with a question of puritanical values. The children are dealing with the consequences of their broken parents' actions and living in the shadow of suburb-wide killer's remorse—it's as if "The Last House on the Left" and "The Hill Have Eyes" spread to a whole neighborhood. While Craven doesn't quite equate Freddy with the mob-martyred Jesus, exchanges such as high school student Tina crying for God at Freddy's appearance after a bout of sex with her boyfriend and Freddy holding his nails proclaiming "THIS IS YOUR GOD" put teen horror's scarlet-letter-like punishment for fucking in a quizzical light. Sly jokes like one teen lamenting that she looks 20, i.e. close to the age of the actress playing her, after staying up was expanded with the meta conceit of "New Nightmare" (currently streaming via Netflix), a "Last Action Hero" of horror that had Freddy terrorizing the set of his own sequel.
"Scream" (currently streaming via Amazon Instant and iTunes), though, is where Craven's attempt at self-aware commentary made a lasting impression (especially with "Cabin in the Woods"). Between the pop-discoursing protagonists of "Buffy," "Clerks," and Quentin Tarantino's Godardian hit men, the '90s were in peak reflective mode and "Scream," written by "Dawson's Creek" creator Kevin Williamson, took that young media savviness and turned its cache of cool against itself, with teens that both "get it" and are gotten by "it." The most warming aspect is the redemption narrative it offers to both the sexually adventurous and selective, suggesting the primary terror is frustrated males who relish anonymous trolling.
Given that Courteney Cox's Gale Weathers, the schlocky local news journalist, ends up having her wrong-man theory about a peripheral character on death row vindicated, perhaps the film is less a have-it-both-ways critique of horror conventions than a muddled defense of the genre's exonerative power. While clever and funny (especially casting Skeet Ulrich, the "Deep Impact" to the "Armageddon" of "A Nightmare On Elm Street's" Johnny Depp, as the boyfriend this time around), it never truly feels subversive, staying within the white, hetero confines of the genre it was adroit at reducing to tropes and trivia. The three "Scream" sequels upped the diversity, but pointing out conventions soon turned into a convention in and of itself.
Tallying a game-changer per decade, Craven didn't really need to top himself anymore, and never really did, but his minor efforts in between were equally commendable in their aims. "Swamp Thing" (currently streaming via Amazon Instant and iTunes) took "The Hills Have Eyes'" distrust of the military and concern for environmental waste and attached it to an uneven comic-book adaptation. Still, a Nietzsche-quoting villain that plays like a blueprint for Al Pacino in "Dick Tracy," Krug from "The Last House on the Left" as a neanderthal-ish military goon, Adrienne Barbeau as an ass-kicking government agent with forward-thinking gender politics, and a young Ray Wise in the titular role make "Swamp Thing" a compelling curiosity at least.
His most explicitly radical effort, "People Under the Stairs" (currently streaming via Amazon Instant and iTunes), has a black man and child, about to be evicted from a soon-to-be-razed Los Angeles slum, break into the house of their racist landlords only to find booby traps and mutilated prisoners. News footage of the Gulf War and pre-L.A. riots race/class tension figure heavily in what plays like "The Burbs" crossed with the later "Tales from the Hood." The unfairly maligned "Vampire in Brooklyn" (currently streaming via Netflix) matched Craven's increasingly sledgehammer approach with the mean, manic comedy of Eddie Murphy. Written by Murphy's brother Charlie (best known as a crucial element of "Chappelle's Show") and peppered with buck-wild ad-libbing from John Witherspoon, "Vampire in Brooklyn" shows Craven clearly relished the opportunity to mix shtick and gore like he was back in the golden age of exploitation. Murphy plays it mostly straight, but "A Different World's" Kadeem Hardison is ace as his wise-guy assistant, and Angela Bassett brings gravitas with tough, nuanced anguish. It flopped, but as a go-for-it left turn, it spoke as much to Craven's brazen approach to storytelling. He was often going for a laugh as much as he was going for the jugular.
Wes Craven kept the waking world up at night, but his nightmares were as illuminating as daybreak.