I was surprised how much Wes Craven’s death hit me when I heard the news. Not because I didn’t like the films, quite the opposite – I’ve always said that if I had to chose between TEXAS CHAINSAW and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, I’ll take HILLS, for all that CHAINSAW is the greater landmark in the genre. But, I was never rabid about Craven’s filmography. There were too many duds. And yet…
The films that hit, HIT. Not because he was the most amazing visual stylist – he wasn’t – but because there was thought and depth behind his stories. And I think THAT’s what we lost on Sunday. Craven was one of the most thoughtful and erudite practitioners in the genre. A craftsman, not an artist, but still, his films were often more than the sum of their parts, because they grasped at something primal and ran with it.
LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT remains an extraordinarily powerful film. Raw, clunky at times due to the inexperience of Craven as a film maker, but picking at something powerful, and truthful and real. Something genuinely disturbing. Its crudity works in its favour, enhancing the anger that lay behind the film, and overcoming any mis-steps that Craven makes (the comic policemen seem such an odd juxtaposition).
With THE HILLS HAVE EYES, Craven marshalled all of his experience and ideas to create something more professional, better crafted, though no less angry and raw. Still, he made this one in a way that drew and held it’s audience with less risk of pushing them away. He let them in then got the choke hold and began to squeeze.
As a child I was terrified of Freddy Kruger long before I ever saw the films. The very idea scared me. And the imagery I’d see in stills touched something primal and scary.
When I saw the movie, it didn’t live up to what my own imagination – indeed my actual nightmares – had made of Kruger, but I enjoyed it all the same. Not as much as other people seemed too, for all that I admire the empowerment themes that take over the film, I think the final third is the weakest part of the film. Kruger suddenly seems so clumsy in the face of Nancy’s booby traps, that he ceases to be scary to me (that may have been the point).
Still, in the landscape of Horror movies at the time, what else was being so imaginative? So willing to attempt the surreal?
I took umbrage with the way the NY Times piece called him a proponent of Slashers, because I don’t think that’s true. His Elm Street movies were not simple slashers – even if the sequels devolved in that direction. And the Scream movies played with Slasher concepts and conventions to a somewhat different end. Craven always had IDEAS. His movies had a lot of thought behind them. Hills is like the concious version of Chainsaw’s unfettered id. And just look at NEW NIGHTMARE, or THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, or THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS… movies that engage with fairy tales and folklore, myth and philosophy and anthropology, class conflict, racism, exploitation of the poor… all within the context of contemporay set, often urban, horror/thrillers, usually designed to be accessible to teens and young adults, often aimed at them, always – post Last House – designed to be accessible to a general audience, for all the experimentation of theme and ideas.
Who else did that while working with studios – mini majors maybe, but still. After Hills, his movies were getting studio releases, after Elm St, even moreso. Wide release features that didn’t always work, but who else could you say of that ilk was still pushing it so consistently with the films they made? Not Hooper, not Carpenter (sorry, John), not Cunningham. Maybe Romero? (I always felt Cronenberg stood separate as a genre unto himself).
He had his share of failures, some stories that just didn’t fly, some that got scuppered by studio hands. But just look at those post Hills highlights: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, NEW NIGHTMARE, SCREAM…
They may not have the same anger and savagery of LAST HOUSE or THE HILLS HAVE EYES, but those are intelligent, scary, subversive and empowering movies. And my god, they entertain! Craven wasn’t fucking around when he said that Horror movies don’t put fear into people, they let the fear out.
He was a man with a mission. And I for one will miss that flavour on the horror movie menu.
Rest well, Wes. You won’t be forgotten.