Wes Craven died. People keep dying whose work I like and I feel like I need to write about them. It’s been quite a lot this past year. My sister says it’s because I like old people. Which is partly true, I guess, if inevitable. Everybody who doesn’t die young gets old. When old folks die it’s sad, but when younger folks die it’s shocking. Both are hard to write about.
I don’t know much about Craven as a person, except that with a name like Craven he was destined to work in horror. I get the impression that he didn’t like to talk about himself. I do love his work tremendously. Obviously I extend condolences to those who knew him personally, but I’m just a lowly fan far removed from the man himself, so I’m going to talk about his movies. I hate to go on and on about characters and films when a real person has died, but this is how fans mourn. We have these conversations because those we admired worked so hard on stuff they loved so that we could love it too.
Back to my sister for a second. This is all her fault. Not Craven’s dying, obviously. That was brain cancer. I didn’t even know he was ill. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: fuck cancer. Fuck it right in its evil little mutated face. Anyway. My sister. She’s eleven years older than I, and being bored and faced with a fairly blank slate (that’s me! Hello!) she proceeded to impart all the wisdom of an 80s teen on a six-year-old. I basically went through being a teenager twice. Which is fucked up, but I got a ton of good trivia out of it. You want to talk hair metal or D&D or Brat Pack movies or Reaganomics? I got your back. Most importantly, though – Freddy Krueger.
The 70s and 80s were the second golden age of horror movies, the rise of slasher flicks. Tobe Hooper completely changed the face of horror (if you’ll pardon a really bad pun) in 1974 with Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That film was so ahead of its time and yet completely a result of its time – it was trippy as hell, to the point of becoming a kind of weird hybrid exploitation movie, proto torture porn on acid. One of my favorites. So, by the early 80s it was perfectly fine to have a faceless, voiceless, character-less character in sequel after sequel. Two of them, actually, making crazy money. Jason Voorhees is the only person to ever make a goalie mask even vaguely intimidating (most important position on the team, silliest uniform – seems a little unfair, they should get spikes or something). And Michael Myers, whose mask is actually a William Shatner mask from a Captain Kirk costume spray-painted white – fun fact. Anyway, point is, in an environment where people would go to a seemingly endless series of movies just for the main character, not for the other actors or the director or the repetitive plots, Freddy was different. He was the only one with a face. Clearly an iconically fucked up face, but a face you can see. He smiles. He’s got teeth. And a voice, raspy and smoke-tattered. Mostly, for me at least, Freddy is funny. He has to be funny because those movies are so absurd.
Being attacked by something in your sleep is terrifying, as a concept. Even the thought of having someone near me or watching me in my sleep gives me the all-overs. But you have to sleep or you’ll go crazy and die. It’s an interesting vulnerability that we don’t fully understand yet, try as we might to bend nature and amphetamines to our will. Rather than coming after their limp, defenseless bodies, though, like a normal bad guy, Freddy gets people in their dreams. How horrifying is that? Bonus, this trope keeps writers from painting themselves into any storytelling corner. Dream logic gets you around all those pesky plot snarls. Oh, yes, Freddy solves every bullshit horror movie problem ever with some weird dream shit. Up to and including the scores of idiot bitches who run up the stairs. What are you doing, idiot bitches? I swear, I don’t think the people in movies watch movies.
And then Scream came out.
See what I did there? Man, I’m so proud of that segue. Just look at it. It’s beautiful.
I like to think that Craven made Scream as an answer to the overwhelming criticism of the horror genre. After the 80s teen slasher market dried up and people started getting into artsy independent films, Scream certainly feels like a big fat “fuck you, I do what I want and people love me for it!” I hope that’s what he was doing. All four Scream movies (but probably especially Scream 3) basically do what Freddy did in New Nightmare – bring the bad guy out of the movie. Craven’s obsessive love for the genre is walking around personified as Stu and Billy, only his is less murdery. One hopes. It’s definitely a mark of the generation gap between 80s kids and 90s kids, though. My sister doesn’t like the Scream movies. I can see how someone who so frothily loves bad/cheesy/overblown horror could feel made fun of by them.
And if I may have a little movie buff moment here, this paragraph may seem out of place, but I can’t shake the half-formed thought: there’s a weird element at play in both of Craven’s famous franchises that I think might be some lurking biographical damage – the small town. The small town is key in a lot of horror movies, it’s almost a character archetype. There are two kinds of small towns in horror: A) the “stranger passing through and terrible shit happens to them because crazy people have been isolated too long” town and B) the “something horrible happened here a long time ago and now we live with the consequences/mythology of it, which you’ve never heard of because you’re not from here but let me explain it to you through the whole movie” town. Towns A are the sort from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, House of 1000 Corpses, Jug Face, Parents, and We Are What We Are (lots of cannibalism in this bunch, as well, I hadn’t noticed that before). I would venture to extend this metaphor to certain apocalyptic situations like The Purge, but that’s post torture porn and has a different sort of feel to it, so I’ll leave it be (also there’s no stranger, which is kind of important in both categories and I feel like voyeurism doesn’t serve the same purpose). The Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream movies all belong in category B, with their heavy reliance on small town legend, gossip, and revenge. I should note here that the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises also used this trope to death, which might be why by the time Scream 2 rolled around it seemed new again (Scream 1 being, of course, just your classic fantastic, psycho-driven, self-referential slash fest). And analytical moment over.
So, did Craven revolutionize the horror movie industry? Not necessarily. Not in the way that Queen changed rock or that Rowling changed fantasy. But maybe in some small ways. Inserting humor without getting all the way to schlock was a big step. And he undeniably gave us some touchstone characters. Even people who don’t watch horror movies know who Freddy Krueger is, what he means. Craven may not have turned the genre on its head, but he changed fans and fandom. And he will be missed. So go, friends, turn off the lights and watch the scariest movie you can stand. It’s worth doing every once in a while. And I assure you, no matter what anyone says, there really are things waiting in the dark.