How Wes Craven Redefined Horror

The director, who died of brain cancer on Sunday, continually reinvented the genre he helped elevate with films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream.

Matt Sayles / AP

To see a Wes Craven film was, above all, to have your expectations met and subverted. The director, who died yesterday at 76, worked primarily in horror—a genre steeped in formula, where any film that makes the slightest progress is imitated for years after. Throughout his career, Craven was the one engineering that kind of progress, pushing against the bounds of taste and predictability, never letting his work settle into a groove, and repeatedly setting new benchmarks for imitators to strive for, decade after decade.

Craven died in Los Angeles after a battle with brain cancer, and his last work as director was the somewhat disappointing Scream 4, a quasi-reboot of the horror trilogy that had given his career new life in the late 1990s. He was primed for another reinvention, and if it weren’t for his advancing age, Craven would no doubt have pulled it off as he had so many times before, producing horror films with one foot in his influences and one foot in the future. Other masters of the genre might have been more visually inventive (Dario Argento), or more focused on harnessing tension (John Carpenter), or real-world commentary (George Romero), but Craven tried it all. Unafraid to experiment with tone, he was impossible to pigeonhole even at the end of his career.

The revolutionary luridness of Craven’s early work may have owed a debt to his beginnings in the adult-film industry. Raised in a strict Baptist household, Craven briefly worked as a professor before developing interest in film, working as a sound editor, then a writer and editor for pornographic films (under various pseudonyms). He scraped together $90,000 to make The Last House on the Left, which was originally planned as a “hardcore” film before being upgraded to a slightly less graphic B-movie. Its inspiration was the 1960 Ingmar Bergman drama The Virgin Spring, about a medieval man’s crisis of faith over the revenge he exacts when confronted with the criminals who raped and killed his daughter.

Last House on the Left / MGM

The Last House on the Left, 43 years on, remains a uniquely unsettling viewing experience, partly because of its amateurish tinge. The acting is largely stilted and the score is downright perplexing, lurching from atonal synth noises to calm country ballads over distressing scenes of violence and murder. The film was so shocking that it became a word-of-mouth success based on tales of people passing out in the theater. Advertised with the famous catchphrase “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie, only a movie,’” it was a landmark work of exploitation cinema, a disturbing reflection of the senseless violence (particularly the Manson Family murders) that had capped the previous decade.

His 1977 follow-up, The Hills Have Eyes, had a similarly brutal quality and a simple premise. A family is targeted by random murderers, but rather than the aimless hippies of The Last House on the Left, these new villains are savage, inbred mountain folk, the most memorable of whom is a giant, bald cannibal named Pluto (Michael Berryman). His terrifying visage became the film’s most enduring image, making him the first of many Craven villains whose faces became immortal in popular culture (along with Freddy Krueger’s burned skin and the Edvard Munch-inspired Scream mask).

Craven struggled to transition from these brutal early works to more mainstream commercial success. At the time, low-budget horror cinema was gaining legitimacy following the 1978 release of John Carpenter’s Halloween, which is credited for inventing the “slasher movie.” After a few failed efforts, Craven finally found his foothold in 1984 when he wrote and directed A Nightmare on Elm Street: a strangely funny, deliberately surreal take on the slasher model about a dead criminal who murders people in their dreams.

A Nightmare on Elm Street / New Line Cinema

Besides casting a young Johnny Depp in his breakout role, Elm Street’s legacy includes a lasting franchise of sequels that range from paint-by-numbers to the weirdly memorable. But alone, it stands as Craven’s best work. Its heroes are teenagers roiled by hormones and normal anxieties, its death scenes are radically bloody and strange, and the nightmare sequences are orchestrated with clever filming tricks. Made for less than $2 million, the film was a box-office sensation, and one Craven again struggled to equal for years.

His work in the intervening years ranges from the terrible (The Hills Have Eyes Part II, a sequel he later disowned) to the formulaic (the zombie flick The Serpent and the Rainbow) to the fascinating (The People Under the Stairs, a smart but disturbing commentary on Los Angeles’s slums in the early ‘90s), but it wasn’t until the 1994 release of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare that he entered the final stage of his career. New Nightmare saw Freddy Krueger invade the set of Craven’s latest movie, and served as a self-reflexive look at the horror film industry and its penchant for cannibalizing what has come before, be it through sequels, remakes, or simple rip-offs.

This led Craven to Kevin Williamson’s Scream script, in which teenage serial killers murder people in accordance with the laws and tropes set down by the very slasher movies Craven and his ilk had created years earlier. Funny and self-referential, but still filled with gore, good old-fashioned jump scares, and playful suspense, it made $103 million at the domestic box office, an unheard-of bonanza for an R-rated horror film, and spawned a thousand imitators that were half as scary and one-tenth as intelligent. The perfect person to satirize Craven’s work was Craven himself, and though its three sequels (all directed by Craven) weren’t as compelling, they never dropped the meta-textual angle (like New Nightmare, Scream 3 saw a killer stalking a horror movie set).

Scream / Dimension Films

Outside of Scream, Craven’s later horror output was less interesting. The long-delayed horror-comedy Cursed, also written by Williamson, flopped in 2005, and 2010’s My Soul to Take was dismissed by audiences and critics. His most unconventional choice was the sweet-but-sappy inspirational music-teacher drama Music of the Heart (1999), which netted an Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep but mostly drew confused shrugs from critics, who were shocked that Craven would make such a formulaic movie. Though Craven wasn’t particularly known for his action chops, the 2005 drama Red Eye, starring Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams, featured some high-wire antics on an airplane (though its best moments came in the suspenseful opening scenes).

Even with all those career bumps, the announcement of a new film from Craven was always weighted with expectation—that perhaps this would be the latest project to reshape how moviegoers thought about horror, long one of cinema’s least heralded genres. The form owes its critical legitimacy and studio respectability to Craven and his unwillingness to churn out something derivative, even if that’s what was expected of him. Most horror directors are defined by the field they work in, but for Craven, it was the other way around.