A Louisville Halloween Tribute to Wes Craven

The Phantom of the Ville pays tribute to the father of Freddy Krueger and modern Master of Horror, Wes Craven (08/02/1939 – 08/30/2015)

Every town has an Elm Street!”

Freddy Krueger

Freddy was right, of course, every town does have an Elm Street and writer/director, Wes Craven, knew this very well. Every town has a haunted house, a place where something bad once happened, and a legend of a boogeyman, either real or imagined. Every one of us dreams and not all of those dreams are pleasant. Nightmares are both eternal and universal and they are a part of us from the moment we find ourselves alone in the dark as helpless infants.

Wes Craven, like his contemporaries John Carpenter, Stephen King, George Romero and Tobe Hooper, changed the landscape of the horror genre in America by taking it out of Transylvanian castles, German ruins and Gothic mansions and setting it in our own backyards, shopping malls, high school hallways and safe suburban neighborhoods. They brought darkness to the places we were most familiar, reminding us that evil lurks everywhere and that we’re never really safe.

Even by Modern Horror standards, Craven was ahead of the curve. He wrote, directed and released his first film, “Last House of the Left,” in 1972, one year before “The Exorcist” (which many horror scholars and critics use to the mark the birth of Modern Horror), two years before “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and a full six years before “Halloween.” Cravens’ first foray into horror was so gritty, brutal and nihilistic that it was panned by almost all film critics at the time for its shocking depravity and took many years to develop its current reputation as a cult masterpiece.

I remember the day when I realized that horror had gone completely mainstream when I discovered you could buy a copy of “The Last House on the Left” on DVD at Walmart, previously only available at the shadier Mom & Pop video stores. The ones that also carried porn.

Cravens’ next legitimate film would be “The Hills Have Eyes” in 1977, another extremely brutal tale about a family’s encounter with a savage clan of cannibals when their camper breaks down in the desert. Next, a sharp turn into family friendly comic book cinema found Craven adapting DC Comics’ monster character, “Swamp Thing” (1982), to solid and pulpy results.

Craven had graduated from indie horror producer with a few uncredited gigs in the porn industry to Hollywood filmmaker ready for marquee status when he unleashed Freddy Krueger on the world in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in 1984, which also introduced the world to Johnny Depp.

Freddy Krueger captured the imagination of the world, something of a feat for a formerly burned to death child molester who returned from the dead to haunt the dreams of the children of his vengeful murderers. It might be hard for millennials to understand now, but before there were seven sequels heavy on Freddy quips and one liners (and one terrible re-make), Freddy was actually really terrifying.

For ten years, Craven walked away from his “son of a hundred maniacs,” working on other projects while serving as executive producer on the sequels as his dream demon became a pop culture sensation known around the world more for cracking bad jokes than truly scaring audiences. During this time he directed a couple of box-office bombs, “Deadly Friend” and “Shocker,” and released a couple of above average thrillers, “The Serpent and the Rainbow” and “The People Under the Stairs.” Finally, inspiration struck and he returned to the “Nightmare” franchise as director to give Freddy his claws back in the much darker and scarier, “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (1994).

In “New Nightmare,” Craven experimented with a meta-style story set in the real world where his original star, Heather Langenkamp, played herself alongside the director as himself. Craven, a former college professor, took his own theories about Freddy Krueger as an agent of evil, murder and the darker impulses that exist inside all of us and created a scenario where the making of “Nightmare” sequels kept Freddy contained in the fictitious world of cinema. Once the making of the movies stopped, Freddy looks for a way into the real world. In essence, the making of and watching of horror movies gives us all a cathartic way to “unleash the beast” inside us and keep it from manifesting in the real world.

This meta-concept gave Craven an idea for another groundbreaking film that would revive the whole slasher genre, which was completely exhausted and dead by the early 1990’s. “Scream” almost single-handedly re-energized the horror genre as a viable box-office phenomenon in 1996, and controversially ruined it according to a small but vocal cadre of hardcore horror fans who missed the grittier, sleazier Wes Craven of “Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes.”

In any case, Craven had a new horror icon to his credit, Ghostface, to add to his Freddy legacy, and he would go on to direct three sequels in the “Scream” franchise. There is currently a “ScreamTV series running on the MTV cable network.

Prior to “Scream 4,” fans will have to re-examine the last few horror films in Craven’s canon for themselves. “Cursed” was a creative and box-office disaster, “Red Eye” was a solid, if unremarkable thriller and “My Soul to Take” seemed to be full of the psychological ideas that Craven’s college professor background gave him access to, but never seemed to come together into anything interesting or scary. After seeing it, I remember saying it was the first horror movie I’d ever seen that “talked itself to death.”

If Craven gave us nothing else other than Freddy Krueger and Ghostface, he would still be remembered as a legend in the horror movie business, but he gave us so much more. His films almost always had more on their minds than just making the audience jump out of their seats. He had a pulse on the American psyche and he wasn’t afraid to force us to stare into the abyss; into the boiler room of our own minds.

He was a true Master of Horror.

The Phantom of The Ville

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