Wes Craven, RIP

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Craven, who essentially re-invented the horror film genre three times through a storied career, died Sunday of brain cancer. He was a director who was unafraid to deconstruct his own work and could embrace the kitschier elements of his industry, but who never forgot that horror should be truly, unsettlingly scary, even while it was winking at the audience.

His debut film, 1972’s The Last House on the Left, was a shocking tale of rape and revenge made on a shoestring budget; it remains one of horror cinema’s most unsettling viewing experiences. The Hills Have Eyes (1977) was a slightly bigger-budget but similarly visceral movie about monstrous, inbred savages terrorizing a family in the Nevada desert. Craven’s early films redefined how graphic horror films’ onscreen violence could be, without sacrificing their artfulness.

In 1984, Craven made A Nightmare on Elm Street, embellishing the slasher genre with supernatural imagery that is routinely copied to this day. Craven would struggle to repeat that success, although his returns to the Elm Street franchise spawned its most memorable sequels—the agreeably trippy Dream Warriors in 1987, which he wrote and produced, and the meta-textual Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994, which saw his fictional villain Freddy Krueger invading the set of the series’ latest entry. In 1996, Craven took the postmodern slasher film to a whole new level with Scream, a dark, sharply funny, still-frightening film about teenagers killing other teenagers while slavishly parroting and obeying the tropes of the slasher genre he helped define.

If there was a new way to make a movie about a terrible thing lunging at you from the dark, Craven would find it, and over a long and eclectic career, he always found his greatest success there—and never lost his touch for bizarre visuals. See The Nightmare on Elm Street, which had a frightening premise (a killer who invades your dreams to murder you) but wouldn’t have worked if its nightmares hadn’t felt so, well, nightmarish:

For more upcoming coverage on Craven’s legacy, watch our Culture section.