If I had a dime for every time I heard “I didn’t even know Wes Craven was ill” today, I’d be a very wealthy man. And if I could add in the times I said it myself, I’d be doubly rich. Sadly, no one’s paying me for either either hearing or saying it, so all that means is that we’re stuck with the shitty reality that one of the true masters of modern horror is no longer with us. And I’m still broke. The latter,can probably be fixed — the former, tragically, can’t.
Brain cancer is an especially horrific way to go, and I hope that Wes was surrounded by family and friends and went peacefully into the land of eternal sleep and nightmare. I add “nightmare” in there because, let’s face it, he’d probably be bored in an afterlife that was all rainbows, candy, sunshine, and smiles. I’m sure Mr. Craven enjoyed life’s pleasantries as much as anyone, but in all honesty, he was so damn good at telling tales of terror, tragedy, and torment that he must have had at least some sort of affinity for what the unadventurous call the “ugly” side of human existence — and thank goodness (or badness) that he did, because without his fevered imaginings, life would be sooooo much more boring for us horror fans.
It all started with 1972’s The Last House On The Left (okay, so he actually made one film before that, but we won’t talk about that here), and the simple truth of the matter is this : that flick was so brutal, so visceral, and so immediate (as well as so agonizingly tone-deaf, with sickening rape and murder juxtaposed against idiotic Keystone Kops-style bungling , the end result being a flilm that was actually stronger for the fact that its director so clearly didn’t quite know what he was doing yet) that he probably could have quit then and there and still would have been assured of leaving some sort of legacy behind. But he didn’t. Craven was never one to rest on his laurels, and before the decade was out he’d also unleashed The Hills Have Eyes on an audience that was in no way ready for it — and probably still isn’t. The term “ahead of his time” gets thrown about way too easily and frequently these days, but who can argue that in his case it doesn’t absolutely apply?
As does another word that comes far too cheap in our modern lexicon — “legend.” Thinking about it, by the time his career and life were over, that probably became too small a word to encompass all that Craven did (and was), but he cemented his “legendary” status in the 1980s by creating the Nightmare On Elm Street series and its iconic lead character, Freddy Krueger. Sure, Freddy became something of a wacky figure of fun in fairly short order, but that’s hardly Craven’s fault —go ahead and watch the first NOES film again sometime (soon), and re-familiarize yourself with just what a flat-out monstrously evil bastard ol’ claws-and-burns was in that one. You’ll be glad you did, I promise.
Having once again established himself as the decade’s pace-setter in his genre of choice, Craven then went on to to give us a generous helping of under-appreciated gems (Deadly Friend, The People Under The Stairs) and acknowledged classics (The Serpent And The Rainbow) before the curtain closed on the ’80s, and you could be forgiven for thinking that, by that point, he might have finally started to see the times pass him by a bit.
Nope. The 1990s proved to be the auteur‘s most critically and commercially successful decade yet, as he incorporated so-called “meta-textual” elements into his work with the superb Wes Craven’s New Nightmare before toning the self-awareness down just a notch and figuring out how to sell it to the masses with the runaway hit Scream series. Finally, Hollywood realized they had a genuine visionary on their hands, and they even gave him a crack at directing a prestigious Meryl Streep project. Who could have predicted that when David Hess was shoving his knife up into — well, let’s just leave it at that, shall we?
Roll on the new millennium, and while Craven didn’t set the horror world on its ear again as he had in each of the previous three decades, he still found himself at the helm of some impressive efforts, my favorite being the gripping and suspenseful Red Eye, and in 2011 he went back to the well with Scream one more (and last) time, deftly demonstrating, against all odds and popular “wisdom,” that there was still plenty of life left in that signature franchise yet. Wes was in no way “yesterday’s news.”
All of which makes yesterday’s actual news so hard to fathom. Not so long ago, making it to the age of 76 was considered a life well-lived indeed, and while no one would argue that the good Mr. Craven didn’t have exactly that, you get the distinct feeling that he left so many stories on the table when he passed on. His movies by and large don’t even feel particularly dated, much less “old,” and given that he’d laid down the gauntlet for everyone else to try and pick up in the ’70s, the ’80s, and the ’90s, there was little doubt, at least in my mind, that he could — and maybe even would — do so again. He was, after all, a master at spotting not just where horror was at, but where it needed to go in the future to stay relevant. His movies always had something of a youthful approach to them, whether he was making them at age 25, 35, 45, 55, or 65. He didn’t just “keep his finger on the pulse,” he set the pulse. And he set it racing.