The frustrations of Wes Craven, the horror genius who wanted to direct melodramas | icon

It is known that Ingmar Bergman, in his private video library on the island of Fårö, stored films such as Pearl Harborby Michael Bay, or the Blues Brothers comedy, Rogues at full speed. However, research carried out a few years ago by documentary filmmaker Jane Magnusson did not produce evidence that the Swedish master knew of the adaptation that a debut director from the United States, in the seventies, dared to make of his classic The spring of the maiden (1960). Under the title The last house on the left (1972), semi-documentary in style and initially planned as pornographic, the film used the plot of one of the emblems of religious cinema to give way to a festival of mutilations, cruelties and viscera like never before seen. That caused protests at the doors of the rooms, riots of spectators to destroy the copy that was projected, vomiting and fainting. “People didn’t leave me alone with their children. At a dinner I was introduced to a woman sitting next to me and, when she heard my name, she got up and went home, ”the director would tell. The name in question was Wes Craven (Cleveland, 1939-Los Angeles, 2015).

The commotion for that film is the starting point of the book Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares (Ed. Applehead Team), an exploration of the career of the filmmaker who founded modern horror film myths such as Nightmare in Elm street (1984), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) or scream (nineteen ninety six). Written by John Wooley, a journalist specialized in popular culture, the book was originally published in 2011, although the edition that now arrives in Spain makes it updated, with two epilogues that cover Craven’s last years until his death in 2015. Wooley, In addition, it had the collaboration of the director himself for its preparation.

“He was very kind when I interviewed him. I have no idea how the book sat for him, although it comes out very well,” the author tells ICON, who in his guide to Craven’s filmography also includes the affliction that the disdain with which part of the critics caused the filmmaker. more classist welcomed their works, just for being horror. “Now, with the rise of culture nerd, comics and horror movies have achieved a kind of respectability. Craven took what he did very seriously, did the best job he could and became an innovator,” says Wooley.

Heather Langenkamp in her role as Nancy while being watched by Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven's 'A Nightmare on Elm Street'.
Heather Langenkamp in her role as Nancy while being watched by Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’.Rue des Archives (©Rue des Archives/Collection CSF / Cordon Press)

But Wes Craven didn’t want to do horror. One of the most curious narrative lines of The man and his nightmares is, precisely, the one that follows his efforts to abandon the genre and shoot dramas, something that he would only achieve in 1999 with Music of the heart (a coming-of-age story based on true events, including an Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep), as part of a deal with the production company Miramax only to agree to make more installments of scream. Thus, John Wooley’s book, which describes him as “an artist who practiced his art with the means available to him”, reflects the process by which the director, given the typecasting he suffered from the studios (which , in cases like the science fiction movie deadly friend, they demanded that he add bloody scenes so that they would be “more Wes Craven”, regardless of how they fit in with the plot), he ended up developing a style as a bridge between his authorial concerns and what producers and fans asked of him. An idea, that of the fusion of art and essay with morbid exploitation, already latent in The last house on the leftor at your next job, The Hills Have Eyes (1977), interpreted by some as a dystopian version of the grapes of wrath (John Steinbeck’s novel made into a film by John Ford).

Director Wes Craven poses with a figure of Freddy Krueger, the villain from 'A Nightmare on Elm Street', during a visit to France in 1990.
Director Wes Craven poses with a figure of Freddy Krueger, the villain from ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, during a visit to France in 1990.Alain BENAINOUS (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Born in 1939 in Cleveland (Ohio) and educated strictly within an evangelical family, the man whom William Friedkin (responsible for The Exorcist) called “the best horror director in history” he did not know the genre when he debuted, because they had not let him see it. Passionate about the new European films that were hitting theaters more and more frequently, the director resigned from his position as a university professor in Clarkson (New York), where he taught classes in modern theater, art and literature, to try his luck in the world of cinema In his search for opportunities, he would associate with Sean S. Cunningham (creator, ultimately, of the saga Friday the 13th) to get their first jobs in the fledgling softcore porn industry, until they both came up with the formula for success to seduce teenagers: mixing genre with horror. “I told Cunningham that I didn’t know how to make horror movies and he told me to look for the skeletons that were in my closet,” Craven recalled in his interview for the documentary series Bergman’s Video Library (2012), where well-known directors described the influence of the Swedish author on their careers.

break the borders

“My film made the director of the movie walk out of the room! The last house on the left!”, Quentin Tarantino has declared on multiple occasions, with a certain triumphant tone, regarding the famous fright of Wes Craven in the scene of the torture of Reservoir Dogs during its screening at the 1992 Sitges Film Festival. “He was disgusted by real violence and Tarantino’s treatment of violence did not suit him. if you think about Nightmare in Elm streethis violence does not stop being fanciful, it impacts because what you see is not possible”, reflects, consulted by ICON, José Mellinas, translator of Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares. “He is the erudite figure of horror cinema. In his films you can see that more cerebral, more mental approach, a game between dream and reality more Freudian. That’s Craven’s hallmark.”

Mellinas has been the promoter of the publication in Spain of this edition after discovering it as part of his research for his book on the saga Nightmare in Elm street which he hopes to publish in 2023. On the popularity of said franchise and the director’s ability to forge popular icons or leap beyond his target audience, in The man and his nightmares a 1989 survey is collected that says its villain, Freddy Krueger, was twice as famous as Abraham Lincoln among children.

Wes Craven and Drew Barrymore during the filming of the unforgettable opening sequence of 'Scream' (1996).
Wes Craven and Drew Barrymore during the filming of the unforgettable opening sequence of ‘Scream’ (1996).Cordon Press (©Dimension Films/Everett Collect)

“Wes Craven revolutionized horror three times in three separate decades, with The last house on the left in the seventies, with Nightmare in Elm street in the eighties and with scream in the nineties. The incredible thing is that you get it once in your life”, says Mellinas. For John Wooley, the director’s cinematographic style, which stands out for its “referential approach and for taking the idea of ​​dreams versus reality to new levels”, reached “its peak” in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), a rarity that served as the seventh installment in the saga Nightmare in Elm street. In it, Freddy Krueger chases the lead actress from the first film, Heather Langenkamp (playing herself), after Wes Craven and producer Robert Shaye (also playing themselves) pitch a new sequel.

An effort to make transparent the mechanisms of fear that many, due to their self-awareness and metanarrative language, have considered a prelude to screamthe film with a script by Kevin Williamson that would become the highest grossing of the genre at the time slasher. Produced by the Weinsteins, today the degree of breaking the fourth wall in the third installment, from the year 2000, draws attention through a plot related to sexual abuse in the film industry. “I wish I could talk about it, but I honestly don’t know. I think it had to be more than a coincidence [argumental]”, says Wooley, asked if Craven could have already been talking about the practices of convicted sexual predator Harvey Weinstein.

Meryl Streep in the role of Roberta Guaspari in 'Music from the Heart' (1999), the only drama that Wes Craven shot.
Meryl Streep in the role of Roberta Guaspari in ‘Music from the Heart’ (1999), the only drama that Wes Craven shot.IFA Film (United Archives/Cordon Press)

Both Wooley and the translator agree in pointing out the validity of Wes Craven’s legacy in fantasy and horror cinema. In addition to, for example, the influence of the new nightmare either scream 4 (2011) that some saw in the recent and also meta-referential Matrix Resurrections (2021). The premiere of the fourth season of stranger things has been put back on the radar Nightmare in Elm street, to which he refers not only explicitly through a dialogue or with the appearance of Robert Englund, (Freddy Krueger), but also in the use of a distinctive Craven trick, which in the book they define as “gummy reality”: the narration of an everyday scene where, suddenly, some elements stop making sense until their nature breaks down and reveals itself as a dream or a different plane of reality. “And the first death is still the death of Tina in Nightmare in Elm streetwith the girl being dragged through the roof and dying with a boy as a witness”, Mellinas also observes.

A continuity of his work that counteracts the bitter note with which he ends The man and his nightmareswith Craven, always sensitive to criticism, discovering between the new cinephilia and critics on-line a destructive and hate language that has not lived since its inception. “Until damned souls (2010) I thought I knew my viewers, but there were some very nasty reviews. I came across things like ‘Rest in peace, Wes Craven’. There was a current of evil that I had not really faced before, ”he said in an interview.

“He was always interested in what young people thought, he adapted to new tools and language. In scream 4 tried to speak of that modern language”, considers the translator, who thinks that the fifth installment, released with great success this year, goes beyond the nominal tribute to the late director in the name of a character and in the credits: “The toxicity of fandom plays a very important role, which ties in with what happened to Wes Craven.” With a sixth part on the way, another fruit announced in the fertile land that the filmmaker fertilized is a remake of the basement of fear (1991) by Jordan Peele, one of the great names of contemporary terror. What Craven would have thought of directors like Peele, because they deal with deep issues from within the genre, being labeled “high horror” remains on the same level of unsolved mystery as what Bergman thought of The last house on the left.

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