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Wes Craven dead: Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream filmmaker passes at 76

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Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

He was the man who asked: What if our dreams chased us?

Horror filmmaker Wes Craven, known for distorting the boundary between reality and fantasy in movie such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, the blockbuster Scream series, and The Serpent and the Rainbow, died Sunday at age 76 from brain cancer, his family has announced.

The Cleveland-born writer, director and producer’s final film was 2011’s Scream 4, the last in the slasher series that playfully stabbed as many holes in the conventions of scary movies as his monsters, fiends, and serial killers jabbed into shrieking victims over his four decades of filmaking.

Craven remained “engaged and working until the end,” according to the family’s statement. He was listed as an executive producer the MTV’s new series based on Scream, but he admitted he had little to do with the show — and criticized it for dropping the distinctive “Ghostface” killer mask.

His family didn’t list it among his recent credits, and instead said he remained a mentor to up-and-coming filmmakers and is an executive producer on The Girl in the Photographs, a horror film playing the Toronto International Film Festival’s midnight section Sept. 14, about a celebrity photographer who helps investigate a series of gruesome murder images.

Craven was known for a style that fused shock-sadism with black humor. In most of his movies, you were supposed to laugh as much as scream.

FROM COLLEGE PROFESSOR … TO PORN DIRECTOR

He started his career as an English professor in upstate New York, and got into moviemaking when a group of students asked him to be their faculty advisor on a student film. Armed with their camera, some free film from the drama department, and little else, the group made an action spoof inspired by the Mission: Impossible TV show. It was crudely edited using a school projector, Scotch tape, and glue, but Craven was hooked.

He was pushing 30, had a wife and two kids, and a stable teaching job, but he wanted to get into filmmaking. So he tossed the academic career aside and sought work in Hollywood. The best he could do was a messenger job at a New York post-production company, but he gradually worked his way up.

His first marriage ended soon after, but his directing career was just starting. In the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, Craven admited that his skills in post-production led to his breakthough: crafting X-rated movies under pseudonyms.

Craven made his own name with his first feature film, the gruesome 1972 survival-revenge thriller The Last House on the Left, about a group of revolting thugs who kidnap, torture, and rape two teenage girls in the woods — only to meet their own sickening end as the tables turn and the parents of the victims turn the killers into prey.

Its extreme violence and sex distressed even horror fans and outraged some who found it sadistic and exploitative — which, basically, it was. The film was sold with the tagline: “To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘It’s only a movie … It’s only a movie … It’s only a movie…’ “

One of the champions of The Last House on the Left was a young critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, who gave it three-and-a-half stars and wrote, “There is evil in this movie. Not bloody escapism, or a thrill a minute, but a fully developed sense of the vicious natures of the killers. There is no glory in this violence.”

Years later, Ebert called it “a movie I persist in admiring even in the face of universal repugnance.”

It took him five more years to craft his next horror film, but it was another shocking blood-curdler: 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, in which a vacationing family is attacked during a road trip by a pack of mutant cannibals who live in the Nevada desert. It starred character actor Michael Berryman (previously seen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) as one of the desert maniacs and a young Dee Wallace as the innocent family’s teenage daughter. 

Along with 1974’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper, Craven’s movies were distinctive not only for scaring moviegoers, but disturbing and haunting them long after they’d left the theater.

If anything, they were too real. And eventually, Craven tempered his horror by detouring into the realm of fantasy. He may have discarded some savagery, but he found even greater success.

HORROR AND HUMOR

The transition began with 1981’s Deadly Blessing, his third directing effort, set in an Amish-like community in rural Pennsylvania, where the ultra-religious sect believes a demon “incubus” is in its midst. Ernest Borgnine plays the maniacal religions leader, and a young Sharon Stone turns up as one of the outsiders who come to visit a friend who has married into this cult (and found herself widowed).

Craven tamed his crueler impulses, and the film was a modest hit, leading to a 1982 big-screen adaptation of DC Comics’ Swamp Thing, with stuntman Dick Durock as the scientist who accidentally transforms himself into a plant-human hybrid, and Adrienne Barbeau as a government agent who spends a large part of the movie in a wet, slinky, white nightgown.

Swamp Thing knew how absurd it was. It was sold as “an incredible adventure that grows on you,” and although it was more of a comedy than Craven had turned in before, it had a twisted sense of humor that he would put to work again and again in the decades to come.

After making the 1984 TV movie Invitation to Hell, starring Robert Urich as a family man who discovers the local country club is a Satanic cult bent on collecting new souls, and detouring back through cannibal country that same year with The Hills Have Eyes II, Craven introduced moviegoers to a monster who, for young fans, would become as iconic as Dracula, Frankenstein, or the Wolf Man…

Freddy Krueger.

NEXT PAGE: ONE, TWO … FREDDY’S COMING FOR YOU …

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The green and red sweater. The cocked fedora. The molten face.

Freddy Krueger was an unforgettable monster. The only thing more razor sharp than the blades on his leather glove was his sick sense of humor. As the antagonist in Craven’s 1984 masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street, Krueger was everything every child was afraid of in real life — a creepy loner, a vicious bully, a sarcastic grown-up who was far more immature than his prey — but also a lot more powerful.

Craven even named the monster after another little boy who used to beat him up when they were kids.

But the Freddy of A Nightmare on Elm Street, played with delighted cruelty by Robert Englund, was also a fused with a litany of delusional fears and fantasies: Krueger was a ghost, the vengeful spirit of a deranged child predator who was burned alive by the parents of his victims (a callback of sorts to Craven’s feature debut The Last House on the Left). He was every paranoid fear provoked by headlines of true-life but rare horror.

Freddy was so evil, his spirit could not be contained. He returned to claim more young victims (among them Johnny Depp, in his first film role) —  not only slaughtering them in their sleep, but taking the form of anything that scared them the most. This gave Craven license to stray from the gritty violence of his earlier films and play with surreal, often comical set-ups that allowed Freddy to dispatch his young victims in colorful and absurd fashion.

Craven’s movies spoke to teens of the 1980s as powerfully as any John Hughes high school comedy. He took their fears seriously, however silly they may seem to adults, and wasn’t afraid to meld them with sex and sarcasm — two other immortal teen obsessions.

In one of Nightmare‘s most famous scenes, the lead character, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), nods off in the bubble bath — summoning the spirit of Krueger. That knife-fingered glove rises up from the bubbles between her spread knees, flexing over her like spider legs, preparing to strike — only to have her startle awake when her mother knocks on the door.

A Nightmare on Elm Street was a massive hit, and a sequel, Freddy’s Revenge, was ordered for the very next year — minus one major component: Craven.

He turned down the chance to direct, saying he wanted to move on to something different. Freddy kept on killing without him in the director’s chair, year after year: 1987’s Elm Street part 3, Dream Warriors; 1988’s part 4, The Dream Master; 1989’s part 5, The Dream Child; and 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (spoiler alert, it was not the final nightmare).

“I think some of the directors did really really good jobs. I know there was a big pressure to have one come out every year. So that’s always kind of a recipe for semi-disaster,” Craven told EW’s Clark Collis in January 2014. “It’s just a little bit too short of a time to have somebody get inspired with some genius idea and get that written and get that shot and edited and out in the theatres. I’ve been under that gun [like that] several times, and it’s very difficult.”

Craven’s next film was another school-aged nightmare: 1986’s Deadly Friend, with Kristy Swanson as an abused young girl whose lifeless body is implanted with a robot chip that turns her into a revenge-seeking monster. The most memorable moment in that film: Swanson using her newfound super strength to hurl a basketball at the face of her mean neighbor (Throw Momma From the Train‘s Anne Ramsey), causing her skull to burst like an old pumpkin.

Elsewhere, Freddy kept killing kids, but Craven decided it was time to grow up…

A DIFFERENT KIND OF HORROR

With 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, Craven took the skeptic’s point of view; the story follows a doctor (Bill Pullman) who ventures to Haiti to investigate a drug used in voodoo rituals that can leave people in a zombie-like state. It’s based on a nonfiction book, but Craven blends science and the supernatural in a story that leaves its characters and the audience unsure which is which. The walking undead and soul stealing are mixed in with a story of revolution and the First World stealing from the Third.

It was a modest success, but elsewhere, Freddy sequels were doing more than double the business. Craven soon returned to high-concept horror with 1989’s Shocker, about a serial killer (Mitch Pileggi) who is executed in the electric chair but uses high voltage to return from the dead and get revenge. It boasted a similar premise to A Nightmare on Elm Street (Freddy — but with electricity!), but audiences shrugged.

1991’s The People Under the Stairs took Craven back to The Hills Have Eyes territory, about a mansion inhabited by a cannibalistic family of kidnapped, maimed children. It had a smaller budget than most of his films, $6 million, and was a modest hit, earning $31 million.

During this time, Freddy’s sequel power began to fade, but in 1994 Craven agreed to return to the world of the gloved-one with a meta-take on the character: New Nightmare was based on the idea that the actors and filmmakers who made the Nightmare on Elm Street movies had somehow conjured Freddy Krueger into their own reality.

Heather Langenkamp starred as herself, actress Heather Langenkamp, and Robert Englund played both himself, actor Robert Englund, and the sinister, serial-killing spirit. Craven himself turns up in a supporting role, theorizing that Krueger was always a real entity that had been sort of contained by the movies. Now that the sequels were done, he was loose.

It was a clever idea, and got relatively strong reviews, but it wasn’t enough to resuscitate the series. New Nightmare was the worst-performing of all the Freddy films, earning just $19 million worldwide. 

Craven went on to make the Eddie Murphy comedy Vampire in Brooklyn the very next year — another low point, but one of his greatest successes was soon to follow. 

GHOSTFACE KILLER

Going meta didn’t work for Freddy, but it did wonders for Craven when he tried it again with an original story.

Kevin Williamson’s script for Scream was based around all the tropes Craven and other horror filmmakers had been establishing in their films from the ’70s and ’80s. It followed certain rules (read: cliches), and simultaneously mocked and celebrated their conventions.

The story involves a group of teenagers whose high school is being targeted by a mad slasher in a white mask that’s reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s 1892 painting The Scream. The 1996 film featured a cast bursting with new talent: Neve Campbell, Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard, Liev Schreiber, Skeet Ulrich, and Drew Barrymore in a terrifying and hilarious cameo. Courtney Cox and David Arquette played the grown-ups, a TV reporter and an inept deputy. 

Silly, subversive, scary and fun, the film stands as Craven’s biggest hit, earning $173 million at the global box office, nearly seven times what the original A Nightmare on Elm Street collected.

Scream cleared the way for Craven to stretch his wings and finally explore territory outside the horror realm. The slasher film and its first sequel earned so much money for Miramax’s Dimension Films label that brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein agreed to finance Craven’s Music of the Heart, an inspirational drama starring Meryl Streep as a violinist who teaches music to inner-city teens.

The 1999 film was a financial bust, earning only $15 million at the box office (against a budget of $27 million). But Craven’s film earned Streep an Oscar nomination for best actress and another nod for Diane Warren’s original song, “Music of My Heart.”

FINAL YEARS

After Music of the Heart, Craven returned to scare grounds with 2000’s Scream 3, another blockbuster at $162 million, and then took a break for several years. In 2005, he had back-to-back modest hits with the horror flicks Cursed (a 2005 werewolf film from Scream screenwriter Williamson) and Red Eye, starring Rachel McAdams as a woman on a flight who is coerced into helping commit a murder by her psychotic seatmate (Cillian Murphy). 

The director’s productivity began to slow again. At the same time, some of his iconic tales came back to life — and died quick deaths. The Hills Have Eyes was remade in 2006 and got a sequel in 2007, neither fondly remembered. A Nightmare on Elm Street was rebooted as well in 2010 — also forgettable. 

Craven was a producer on those films, but his involvement was mainly as inspiration. He suffered his own biggest bomb in 2010 with My Soul To Take, and then brought back his biggest hit for one more stab: Scream 4 in 2011. 

Although New Nightmare was a ghost audiences just weren’t scared of anymore, Scream 4 pulled in $97 million globally. Craven’s final film wasn’t his highest-pitched shriek, but it was a respectable holler.

Although many of his films achieved cult-fan status, Craven seemed at peace with the idea that he had been involved in creating two figures that would persist as boogeymen for generations to come.

“[Nightmare] and Scream, I think, are the only two things that have become part of the global culture,” Craven told EW’s Collis last year. “I was watching National Geographic just three nights ago and there was a thing on the African lion being the perfect killing machine, and they were talking about the claws being something that would intimidate Freddy Krueger. And I just sat there and was thinking, It’s amazing how deeply into the culture that film has penetrated.”

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