Monday, 31 August 2015 13:24

R.I.P. Wes Craven 1939-2015

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Yesterday marked the tragic passing of Wes Craven, who was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away at the age of 76.

Since this man and his work affected many of us and was tied to me personally and what I do here at The Bits, I felt compelled to share my bit of history with Wes Craven and maybe get across more firmly why he was such an influence on all of us. [Read on here...]

Wes Craven and cast of Nightmare 1

As I mentioned in my review of the entire series, I was pretty much obsessed with the Nightmare on Elm Street movies as a kid. I collected all of the memorabilia that I could find, which being a kid living in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, there wasn't much to be had in my neck of the woods. I remember a local video store clerk actually giving me a promotional poster for Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare when it hit home video for the first time, a poster I haven't seen anywhere else. Things like that didn't come my way very often, and I felt very honored to get them when they did. Besides just the collecting, like a lot of fans, I wanted to go a step further. I started making my own Freddy Krueger gloves. When I found out that my Dad could weld, he even helped me make some. I had bought the obligatory plastic Halloween costume version of the glove like everybody did, of course, but I was just never satisfied with it. I used everything from soda cans to butter knives to make different gloves. So I had a level of geek about the movie that could be embarrassing in certain circles, but that's neither here nor there.

I was only about two years old when A Nightmare on Elm Street first came along, 1984 to be exact. It wasn't until a few years later when I started sleeping without a night light that I began exploring horror movies, starting with the Nightmare series. Freddy Krueger was just the coolest bad guy ever to me at the time. He was very imaginative and wasn't like anybody else. Sure the sequels made him more of a, dare I say, relatable character with all of the wisecracks, but just the idea of him was both terrifying and intriguing at the same time.

I'm sure like many of you, I've seen the original Nightmare on Elm Street many, many times in many different formats, including on the big screen. It's not just one of the scariest movies ever made, but it's also one of the most innovative and interesting independent films ever made. The special effects were top of the line in their day, with many of them still holding up under close scrutiny. Think of the scene wherein Nancy is sleeping and Freddy reaches down at her through the wall, stretching and contorting it as he does. We had never seen anything like that, and knowing today that it was nothing more than a rubber wall makes it that much more special. It was simple, but effective. Nightmare is also a movie that plays with conventions. The entire movie plays almost like a dream, and during the eventual outcome of the movie, it's revealed that it most likely was a dream. It's never quite set in concrete whether it actually is or not, and is (not totally by design) left open for interpretation. My opinion has always been that the whole movie was a dream of Nancy's, and that the real story begins during the ending. Others can still put their spin on it though, which is part of the reason why the movie still lasts all these years later and is much more respected than many of its contemporaries, as well as its successors.

As I grew older, I started discovering other horror movies, and it seemed to me that the older I got, the more there was to discover. Today, the market is literally flooded with horror titles from filmmakers all over the world and from all subgenres, but when most of us were catching horror movies on cable or renting them from video stores, there was much less and more focused selection. You usually had the big name titles, the ones that everybody talked about, but there were also those obscure titles that eventually became cult classics. As a result, you got to see everything if you looked hard enough. And not just that, but every Halloween someone would be having a marathon of horror movies on one channel or another. If it wasn't the Universal monster classics, then it would be the Friday the 13th or Halloween series. Thanks to Joe Bob Briggs' MonsterVision show, as well as marathons on the USA network, there was always something terrific to check out during your favorite holiday if you were a fan.

But unlike most fans, I was never one who pined to go to horror conventions and meet the icons. It's not that I was scared or didn't care enough, but I just felt like I had nothing more to say to them than "Hi, I love the movies that you're in!" I'm sure they hear that all the time, so me giving them my version of that just didn't ever interest me. I'd prefer just to stay home, watch the movies, and write articles about them.

But of course, I'm not writing this article just to tell you about how much I've loved the horror genre over the years. Unfortunately, tragedy birthed this little trip down memory lane. The whole point, or rather the whole reason, that I got into horror movies in the first place was because of Freddy Krueger. I don't know why I latched onto him the way that I did at such a young age, but I'm glad that I did. If it wasn't for Wes Craven, I wouldn't be where I am today. Wes Craven, of course, made many other movies before and since Nightmare, many of which are highly regarded amongst both genre fans and the film community as a whole. I've gone on record previously as saying that not all of his movies are good, which I know is a bit controversial to bring up, being that I'm here to talk about the man and his work, but I'm just keeping things honest here. I'm not here to bash his movies, I'm here just to talk about him and his work. The horror community is a very forgiving community. We appreciate even the bad movies, and not just the good. It's all valid and worth our time as fans. Sometimes even the worst movie will have some aspects about it that are worth appreciating, and Craven's body of work certainly has that going for it.

Wes Craven started his career with The Last House on the Left, one of the most aggressive and vicious horror movies of its era. Its tagline of "To avoid fainting, keep repeating: 'It's only a movie, it's only a movie...'" brought the crowds out in droves. He followed it up with the equally intense The Hills Have Eyes, which further cemented a subgenre involving inbred or atomically altered serial killers, of which many followed. After that, Craven directed the made-for-TV movie Stranger in Our House. He followed that up with the back-to-back productions of Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing, the latter of which saw a bit of success that helped him get his next project off the ground, which was A Nightmare on Elm Street. In the interim, Craven directed another made-for-TV movie Invitation to Hell, which was released the same year as Nightmare, and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy award. He then had a bit of commercial slump with three movies that didn't do so well, which included the made-for-TV Chiller, and two theatrical outings: The Hills Have Eyes Part II and Deadly Friend. Craven then had a three-run picture deal with Universal that saw some mild mainstream and cult success, which included The Serpent and the Rainbow, Shocker, and The People Under the Stairs. After the Nightmare series had ended with Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, producer and New Line boss Robert Shaye desired to do another Nightmare film and desperately wanted to work with Wes Craven again after the two had fallen out after the success of the first film. The outcome of that collaboration, which was Wes Craven's New Nightmare, saw Wes return to form with one of the most critically acclaimed and respected films of his career. Unfortunately, it didn't do well at the box office, mostly due to the movie-going public being tired of the Freddy Krueger character at that time. Wes then helmed the Eddie Murphy vampire comedy Vampire in Brooklyn, which also didn't do very well. But Craven bounced back with the biggest horror hit of his lifetime, which was Scream. Taking the meta elements that New Nightmare had touched upon, Craven went full on with the notion, making a movie that served as both a horror film and a satirical take on the slasher subgenre. The film was successful enough to spawn three sequels, all of which Craven directed: Scream 2, Scream 3, and Scream 4. The latter was sadly Craven's final film, but in between those sequels, he also directed Cursed, Red Eye, My Soul to Take, and the non-horror related Music of the Heart, which saw him being critically acclaimed and re-evaluated as a filmmaker.

Besides his directing duties, Wes Craven also had a career as a writer, producer, and cinematographer on many other projects from the beginning of his career to the end of it. He also worked on various TV shows, including Castle and the newly-produced Scream TV series. As an actor, he also made cameo appearances in several movies, and wrote two books: "Fountain Society" and "Coming of Rage."

When the news of Wes Craven's death reached me via a tablet while laying in bed watching TV, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt devastated and brokenhearted, and I still do. Wes Craven was, of course, an icon in the horror industry, but he also began my love of the genre. He was also a voice that I just loved to hear. He could make any story that he told sound interesting just by virtue of the fact that he was the one telling it. He was a quiet and unassuming man, mostly because of his strict, religious upbringing, but he was also a playful yet dedicated individual. He never allowed his failures and successes consume who he was inside. The many people that have worked with him closely over the years will tell you what a kind and generous man he was. They will also tell you that they felt as if they were working with a history professor rather than a director. He was someone who didn't quite fit into the role of a director, yet you can't think of him as being anything other than what he was.

To finish off this look at Wes Craven and my appreciation for him and his career, I just wanted to take the time to say thank you Wes for all of your dedication to the art form, the anguish that it took to pursue it and see it through, and how easy you made it look. You always made that impossible thing seem reachable, and you inspired many more people in and out of the industry than you will ever know. You may have been the father of Freddy Krueger, but you were also one of the grandfathers of modern horror, and all of the horror films that come along will forever be measured against yours. We're glad that you finally found peace, but we're deeply saddened that you're not here with us anymore. To wherever you've gone, we bid you farewell.

Wes Craven

Thank you Wes.

- Tim Salmons


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