Warning: I know, I know. I KNOW! In writing this I recognize that I won’t cover every single one of Craven’s greatest hits, though this is simply a reflection and not a career retrospective. I am well aware that I left out what you believe are Craven’s best and least-recognized contributions and for that I am sorry.
I loved Freddy Krueger in large part because I was born in the 1980s and he was part of the mass media DNA of that time. For many, you’d known about Freddy before you had ever seen a Nightmare movie. You’d see his face emblazoned on those VHS boxes at the video store, or worse, you might see a life-sized cardboard cutout and his image would stow away in your imagination. Freddy, and thus his creator the late Wes Craven, has existed in my imagination for all of my conscious life. His mythology is one I have formed great friendships around. When I finally saw Nightmare, I felt like I was being introduced to an old, terrifying friend. Double-emphasis on terrifying.
Craven was scaring people even before I arrived on this planet. My mother told stories about going to see Last House on the Left, where the theater gave out barf bags to the audience. A character bites off another character’s dick! It was horrifying, she said, and felt like a movie in which people actually died. You felt icky after watching it. Along with Freddy, it lived as a myth in my imagination until I actually viewed it. While I was disappointed that it didn’t literally scare me to death, I realize now looking back that it stuck with me forever. It was a potent reminder that there are terrifying things out there, and that those terrifying things are a lot closer than I typically give them credit for. In a pre-9/11 America, that was especially potent stuff.
Horror is not about focusing on things that didn’t exist; it’s about creating a language with which we can sort through the real things that do terrify us. Last House on the Left came out at the tail end of American military involvement in Vietnam, which itself had proven to be a seemingly never-ending anthology of horror. Underneath, Nightmare is about teenage anxiety, and the pressures of growing up too soon, or finding the autonomy necessary to become your own person. Much later, and unrelated to its inspiration, I recognized Krueger in the IS videos in which a murderer cut off heads after breaking the 4th wall and delivering pithy commentary directly to the viewer. Horror is the narrative, aesthetic and language around which we can wrap our heads when the horror of reality becomes too much to comprehend.
Craven offered such a substantial contribution to this language and transcended the genre. By the 90s, he had become a master not only of horror, but of post-modern self reflection first in New Nightmare and then in Scream. In these titles, each of which imagined real worlds impacted by his creations, he imagined, focused and reflected upon his and the impact of popular mass media consumption. As so much of our interconnected mediascape is now dominated by a self-aware narrative, it is hard to imagine the refreshing impact of these primitive (though brilliant in retrospect) pop dives into post-modernity, and how out of place they had been especially to fans who simply wanted more Freddy, more blood, and more gore. Craven brilliantly reinvented himself and what the genre was capable of by looking inwardly, and reflecting upon the horrors of the world outside of the genre film universe. In fact, while self-reflection has very much become the style and approach to what is now popular, rarely does it become substantial by reaching the depths Craven did in his later films.
I did not know Craven, but his influence—aesthetic and professional—runs through me. I was born into an era saturated by characters and universes he created. I am grateful for his contributions and sad that he is gone.