A knife to the gut. A plunge from on high.
It comes out of nowhere, sudden and fast. Its horror isn’t so much in the act itself, but in its explosive speed and its undeniable finality. Like a cart over the rails, once set in motion there’s no stopping it. It just goes. You can do nothing but scream.
To be a Wes Craven victim, on screen or seated in the audience, is to embark on the cinematic equivalent of a rickety old rollercoaster. You board the grimy little cart knowing full well that nothing but terror lies ahead. The entire town is out, boarding it with you. The talk is loud, animated, senses heightened and adrenaline rushing even before the rusty conveyor chain begins clunking.
The man at the levers is half aristocrat, half carny, and he instills both fear and a strange sort of confidence. His handiwork is the macabre, but in this he is a master. You take your seat, nervous yet excited to watch the mad maestro at work.
Wes Craven was a true original, a unique film-making genius who brought his A game to the stuff of B movies. His masterpiece, 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, took horror to a new place, spawned a litany of sequels, and set the genre’s mold for decades to come. In Freddy Krueger he created a gruesome and oddly crowd-pleasing icon for the ages.
Like Hitchcock before him, Wes Craven dared to tap into the dark veins that exist in the popular mind of regular people. His work was a big tent, sweeping in the masses and strapping them down. The horror displayed on screen? Little more than a reflection of the dark thoughts in all our minds, the pent up gore and scary headlines of daily newspapers accrued like barnacles on the hull of our minds. He let loose our fears so that we might confront them and scrape them free with howls and yells and laughter, huddled together clutching popcorn and Raisinets in something like a group séance. What is more universal that the stuff of nightmares? What is more binding than fear? Who hasn’t at least once been afraid of some boogeyman lurking under the bed, in the closet, down the stairs…or in dreams?
Craven is one of the only directors I can think of who so completely mastered his work that he was able to successfully turn to self-parody. His Scream trilogy delivered horror for the ‘90s MTV generation, weaving in celebrity cameos, smart and sly statements on tabloid media culture, and even turning a meta-mirror on kids who grew up watching too many scary movies (Craven’s own chief among them).
Seeing these movies with packed opening night crowds is an experience that has stuck with me through the years. All walks of life gleefully filed into Mr. Craven’s circus tent. Even the most tame horror movie might call forth a yelp or two from the audience, but with Craven’s pictures it was another level. Outbursts of “RUN!”, “AY DIOS!”, “CHRIST!”, and my personal favorite, “DON’T SLEEP!” were not only tolerated, they were actively expected. The raucous call and response—part revival, part groundling participation– created an otherworldly experience. Completely unique, like the man and his work.
The full genius of Wes Craven presented itself to me after seeing 1994’s New Nightmare, his return to his most famous creation. Featuring the cast of the original Nightmare on Elm Street playing the cast of Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven produced a pre-reality TV metafiction that to this day feels bold and cutting edge. I left the theater with ice in my veins and a cloud of confusion hanging over my young teenage head. Like a master magician, Craven was one step ahead of his mark. Even when seemingly pulling back the curtain, the convincing power of his illusion did not falter. By bringing Krueger into the real world, our real world, Craven produced his scariest and most surreal dreamscape and blurred the lines between the dream world of film and the equally bizarre world of reality. New Nightmare is Bunuel with razor blades, and it still disturbs, thrills, and gets under the skin (or into your dreams). Just one of the many entertaining features Craven produced, one of the many smart takes he presented based on the oldest fodder for entertainment, from Greece to Hollywood- fear.
Bravo, maestro. And thanks for all the nightmares.