‘Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!’
It is with great sadness and maximum respect that we bid a very fond farewell to Wes Craven, who passed away yesterday after a long battle with cancer, aged 76. I never met the man, but his work has been a constant and inspiring companion since I first encountered The Last House on the Left as a teenage horror fan in the days before the UK Broadcasting Act put it on the Obscene Publications List. Later, I got to teach it in lecture course about transgression, censorship and popular culture, and I still have the uncut videotape that I bought in Japan.
Craven was at the forefront of a generation of independent American filmmakers that took George A. Romero’s lead and transformed the horror film into an edgy and challenging art form that savagely deconstructed the American Dream, as Nixon clung on to power and Vietnam dragged on and on. There’s a lot of political anger in those early Craven movies, along with a dark eye for social satire that placed middle class families in the most extreme situations and left them to fight their way out by matching the savagery of the post-Manson dropouts and hillbilly mutants that assailed their comfortable view of the world. Then he made the rest of us uncomfortably complicit by just watching. It’s a classic now, but those of us that watched it in the seventies still remember being exhilarated and traumatised in roughly equal measure. Just keep telling yourself: It’s only a movie… One wonders who nowadays has the nerve to critique the present and awful state of the world so honestly and with such energy and style.
The other thing that I always loved about Wes Craven was that he was an academic who had the good sense to get out of university and go and make movies instead, at the same time applying what he knew as a scholar of literature, psychology and philosophy to his love of scary stories. Thus there’s the pre-Punk subversion of the Situationist International in films like Last House on the Left (at the same time retelling Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, the old clever-stick), Surrealism in the particularly iconic Nightmare on Elm Street series, and Narratology in the deconstruction of the ‘Slasher’ genre he and long-time collaborator Sean S. Cunningham had done much to create in Scream, a film so postmodern that the subsequent franchise was simply another part of the text. Nico Tortorella, who acted in Scream 4, told the Hollywood Reporter at the time that Wes had ‘two personalities,’ explaining that: ‘One is the smartest person I’ve ever met … the other is this little kid who loves horror movies,’ while Craven was quoted in the same publication as saying, ‘I come from a blue-collar family, and I’m just glad for the work.’ What a lovely guy.
There are countless tributes more elegant than this flying around the world today, but I just felt the need to add my voice to the global eulogy. I am one of millions who were inspired by Wes Craven and his movies, which were intelligent and shocking and darkly comic and always tremendous fun to watch. The world, like his family, has lost someone very special, but what an amazing legacy. What’s your favourite scary movie…?