Wes Craven, who has died aged 76 of brain cancer, was a horror pioneer three times over. In the 1970s, he wrote and directed several films that delivered a new level of intensity and explicitness to the genre.
Most notorious was his debut, The Last House on the Left (1972), the relentless tale of the torture of two women and the revenge doled out to the killers by the victims’ parents. (It was inspired by Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.) Exaggeration and advertising are synonymous, but this was one instance where the poster copy – “To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘It’s only a movie...’” – amounted to more than hyperbole. The scenes of sexual violence made the film the subject of continuing censorship for more than 30 years, particularly in Britain, where it was repeatedly refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Classification. “It’s not a movie I would go back and watch,” said Craven in 2011.
In 1984, Craven enjoyed his greatest success with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which lent a fantasy aspect to the slasher genre popular at the time. Whereas the killers in hits such as Friday the 13th or Halloween had been corporeal, Craven devised a monster, Freddy Krueger, who pursued his victims through the infinite space of their dreams. It was to be expected that the movie would be frightening. But scenes of the teenage protagonist struggling to ascend a marshmallow staircase, or being dragged by her pursuer into the depths of a bath that has become suddenly bottomless, possessed a haunted beauty worthy of Jean Cocteau.
The film became a lucrative franchise, spawning a TV series, endless merchandise, six sequels, a movie spinoff, Freddy Vs Jason (2003), and a 2010 remake. Freddy Krueger himself grew into a popular modernday bogeyman and a postwar equivalent to Dracula. However, Craven was involved with only two of the sequels. He wrote A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), which included at least one disturbing image to rank with anything from the first film: the holes on a junkie’s arm turning into tiny mouths, pleading and insatiable. He also wrote and directed the sophisticated and rejuvenating fifth episode, entitled Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), which featured the director and some of the cast members playing themselves. It was witty, satirical and scary: a bloodspattered Pirandello.
Craven’s hattrick was completed in 1996 when he directed Scream, best described as a horror movie that knows it’s a horror movie. Though the idea had not come from him (Kevin Williamson wrote the screenplay), it was consistent with his sensibility. The collegeage characters in Scream are well-versed in the conventions of the horror genre. The killer who is stalking them, wearing a ghostly mask elongated in a Munchian howl, is given to asking his victims: “What’s your favourite scary movie?” Scream 2 (1997) maintained the humour, horror and postmodern mischief: one scene included a discussion about how rare it is for sequels to improve upon originals. This foreshadowed a falling-off in quality across another two outings (2000 and 2011) directed by Craven.
Wesley was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents, Paul, who died when his son was five years old, and Caroline (nee Miller), were strict Baptists who forbade him from reading comic books. He attended Wheaton College, Illinois, graduating with a degree in English and psychology, then got his master’s in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. For several years he was a teacher before breaking into the film industry as a sound editor. He directed pseudonymously a number of pornographic movies and was credited as editor and assistant director on It Happened in Hollywood (1973), a porn comedy produced by the editors of Screw magazine.
The Last House on the Left originated when Craven and his friend and colleague Sean Cunningham were commissioned to make a cheap horror film (the budget was under $90,000) for the bottom half of a double bill. Craven described the picture’s coarse, gritty violence as a reaction to the horrors of Vietnam, and embraced a narrative free from moral certainties. In the wake of its notoriety, Craven found himself all but ostracised: “My friends barely talked to me after they saw it. My social life among New York academic types disappeared.” He was unable to raise the money for other scripts he had written outside the genre, but was promised the budget should he wish to make a second horror film.
In response, he wrote and directed The Hills Have Eyes (1977), about a road trip that goes wrong when the travellers find themselves at the mercy of mutant savages in the Nevada desert. Craven followed this with several TV movies and a handful of tepid films, among them Deadly Blessing (1981) and the lacklustre The Hills Have Eyes II (1984). After A Nightmare on Elm Street became a hit, Craven seemed to flounder. He made the TV movie Chiller (1985), about a man cryogenically frozen, the zombie voodoo horror The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and several episodes of The Twilight Zone. Though not a boxoffice success, The People Under the Stairs (1991) was powerful. It took the idea of an imprisoned race of creatures, bred in captivity by a tyrannical white couple, as his metaphor for the poor, African-American underclass in the US.
Outside the Scream series, his choices could be variable. The Eddie Murphy horror comedy Vampire in Brooklyn (1995) was undistinguished. But the fine suspense thriller Red Eye (2005), set largely on a plane, was positively Hitchcockian. Craven strayed far outside his comfort zone in the sentimental drama Music of the Heart (1999), which aimed for the tear ducts rather than the hairs on the back of the neck; it earned an Oscar nomination for its star, Meryl Streep, as a violin teacher in Harlem.
Craven painstakingly oversaw remakes of some of his own films, taking several years to find the right directors and writers to do justice to new incarnations of The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and The Last House on the Left (2009). His last screenplay was for the 3D serial-killer horror My Soul to Take (2010).
He is survived by his third wife, Iya Labunka, and his two children, Jonathan and Jessica, from a previous marriage.
• Wesley Earl Craven, film director, screenwriter and producer, born 2 August 1939; died 30 August 2015
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