As a child, Wes Craven was convinced he was going to hell. Raised by a brimstone-preaching Baptist mother, the man who would one day haunt our dreams by sparking to life one of the 20th century’s most chilling bogeymen was taught to steer clear of sex, sin, and the cinema. In the Craven household, that unholy trinity of vice wasn’t just off limits, it was believed to lead to eternal damnation… or worse.
The lure of the forbidden is a powerful one. Nothing beckons us more urgently — and seductively — than the taboo. And, after college, Craven rebelled against his upbringing harder than most. After a brief detour into academia as an English professor, Mrs. Craven’s prodigal son entered into the world of filmmaking through one of its seedier side doors. Arriving in New York City during the sticky-floored, late ‘60s heyday of 42nd-Street grindhouses, Craven began working fast-and-cheap on X-rated films for the trench-coat crowd. These weren’t the kinds of movies that filmmakers who later become successful brag about. But in pornography, Craven learned two important lessons he’d never forget even after he achieved mainstream Hollywood success: Limits should always be pushed, and even in the most disreputable genres, there’s room for aspiration and art.
Craven’s first “official” movie was 1972’s The Last House on the Left, a brutal and unrelenting wallow in violence, rape, and revenge about a crazed band of sadists who torment a pair of young women. In other words, it was your typical exploitation movie of the era. Only it was more than that. Still hard to watch in an age when we’ve become desensitized to extreme horror, the film has a harrowing, in-your-face air of realism. It’s like a provocation, a dare. In fact, the film’s ads warn, “Just keep telling yourself: It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie.” Later, perhaps to put a gloss on Last House’s infamy, Craven claimed the film was a Vietnam allegory inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Which was typical Craven — equal parts high-brow professor and low-brow purveyor of sick thrills.
Craven believed that horror films didn’t create fear — they released it. And throughout his career, movies like The Hills Have Eyes, The People Under the Stairs, and Red Eye were like celluloid relief valves, wailing as they freed us from our deepest anxieties. Inspired by one of his own childhood traumas (a scary hobo who stared at 10-year-old Wes through his window), A Nightmare on Elm Street launched Craven to new heights. Made for just $1.8 million, the horror classic, about a group of teens hunted in their sleep by a razor-taloned, burned-to-a-crisp killer named Freddy Krueger, was one of the touchstones of the slasher decade. More than just a rote teen body-count flick, Craven’s Nightmare was a meditation on the murderous powers of the adolescent subconscious, albeit a giddy and gory one.
After a string of increasingly silly and Craven-free sequels spun the franchise into absurdity, Craven returned for 1994’s playfully postmodern New Nightmare, a Freddy movie cheekily aware of Freddy movies. In a way, it was a dress rehearsal for his 1996 meta-slasher hit, Scream — a dissection and dissertation on the genre. The Scream trilogy made more than $400 million, finally giving Craven the artistic capital to venture beyond the blood-and-guts ghetto. The result was 1999’s Music of the Heart, an earnest drama about a violin teacher, starring Meryl Streep. It would be nice to say that the film is Craven’s best. But despite earning Streep an Oscar nomination, it isn’t. Treacly melodrama wasn’t his calling. Terrifying audiences was. Maybe not surprising, though, it was the one movie of Craven’s that his once-disapproving mother ever admitted watching.
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