Wes Craven, the legendary director of the influential horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street has passed away, as initially reported by THR, and thereafter confirmed by the director’s official Twitter page. Craven reportedly succumbed to brain cancer. He was 76 years old.
Craven’s long filmography included entries in many different genres, but his name will forever be synonymous with the scarred, knife-gloved ghoul Freddy Krueger from the original 1984 Elm Street along with numerous other horror titles which changed the genre for good. His influence on American horror and pop culture in general cannot be underestimated.
Wesley Earl Craven was born in Cleveland, Ohio on August 2, 1939 into a strict Baptist family. His mother was reportedly severely religious and he evidently never developed a close relationship with his father, who has been described as distant and violent in nature. Craven attended Wheaton College in Illinois, earning an undergraduate degree in English and Psychology before gaining a master’s in Writing and Philosophy from Johns Hopkins University.
Craven taught briefly at Westminster College and at what is now Clarkson University before moving into filmmaking, with his first job in the industry as a sound editor at a New York post-production house. Craven then moved into directing X-rated films, as stated during an interview for the porn documentary Inside Deep Throat.
Craven’s breakthrough was the 1972 low budget exploitation-horror shocker Last House on the Left, which Craven wrote, directed and edited. Produced by Sean S. Cunningham – who would go on to make the original 1980 Friday the 13th – and based on Swedish master Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring, Craven’s debut chronicled the rape and murder of a young girl, whose attackers wind up at her parents’ home and become the victims of a brutal revenge.
Making over $3 million on a roughly $87,000 budget, Last House on the Left put Craven on the map. In 1977 Craven’s cult classic The Hills Have Eyes was released, which followed a suburban family who becomes stranded in the Nevada desert and assaulted by a family of deranged savages and was remade in 2006. Craven directed the 1982 comic book adaptation Swamp Thing (a cult favorite for… different reasons) and The Hills Have Eyes II before giving the world what would become his most enduring and immortal creation: Freddy Krueger in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Elm Street explored the terrifyingly thin line between dreams and reality and featured Robert Englund as the cackling homicidal Freddy, who haunts the dreams of suburban teenagers and dispatching them in increasingly grotesque and creative ways once they fall asleep. The film spawned a series of sequels (of increasingly diminished quality), a spinoff pitting two of the most iconic 1980’s slasher characters against each other (Freddy Vs. Jason), a horror anthology series for television and a 2010 remake. Freddy Krueger gained a permanent place in the American pop culture subconscious.
In 1986, Craven directs his first movie for a big studio (Warner Bros.), Deadly Friend, a romantic teenage horror movie that failed in the box office. Originally, the film was a sci-fi thriller without any graphic scenes, with a bigger focus on plot and character development, and a dark love story centering around the two main characters, which were not typical aspects of Craven’s previous films. After Craven’s original director’s cut was shown to a test audience, the audience criticized the lack of graphic, bloody violence and gore that Craven’s films included. Due to studio imposed re-shoots and re-editing, the film was drastically altered in post-production, losing much of the original plot and more scenes between characters, while other scenes, including bloodier deaths and a new ending, were added.
Craven was involved in the lucrative Elm Street sequels up until A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, but moved on to direct episodes of the mid-80’s reboot of The Twilight Zone as well as The Serpent and the Rainbow, based on the nonfiction book about an ethnobotanist (Bill Pullman) who investigates an alleged true life case of a zombie created through Haitian Voodoo.
The Serpent and the Rainbow represented an attempt to move away from the slasher genre Craven helped create, and while he would follow it up with schlocky fare like the horror-comedy Shocker and the more straight-forward horror film The People Under the Stairs, Craven would revisit his signature creation with 1994’s New Nightmare. A meta-horror examination of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, New Nightmare featured the original film’s stars Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund (and Craven himself) as themselves, pitted against Freddy Krueger as attempts to enter the real world.
In 1996, Wes Craven once again reinvented the horror genre for a new generation with Scream, a horror movie about horror movies featuring a clever, self-aware script by Kevin Williamson and – keeping with the Craven tradition of casting promising talent (like Johnny Depp in Elm Street or Sharon Stone in 1981’s Deadly Blessing) – starred the likes of Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy and Matthew Lillard. Scream spawned three sequels and was recently adapted for television on MTV. The TV version of Scream has proved a hit, and has been renewed for a second season.
Between directing Scream 2 and Scream 3, Craven stepped out of his main genre completely with the drama Music of the Heart, which starred Meryl Streep in an Oscar-nominated performance as an inner-city music teacher. His straight-forward thriller Red Eye was one of the highlights of his 2000’s output, as was his segment in the acclaimed French anthology film Paris je t’aime. His final two films, 2010’s My Soul to Take and 2011’s Scream 4 were less well-received, but he had several promising projects in development, such as a television adaptation of The People Under the Stairs with SyFy.
Craven was a life-long nature lover and served as a member of the Audubon California Board of Directors, a conservationist society committed to restoring and protecting natural ecosystems. He is survived by his third wife Iya Labunka, his sister, children, grandchildren and stepdaughter.
Wes Craven was of the greatest American horror directors of all time, tapping into the existential terror lurking under the surface of 1980’s suburbia and time and again explored the blurry line between fantasy and reality. On the subject of the horror genre, Craven once said:
“It’s like boot camp for the psyche. In real life, human beings are packaged in the flimsiest of packages, threatened by real and sometimes horrifying dangers, events like Columbine. But the narrative form puts these fears into a manageable series of events. It gives us a way of thinking rationally about our fears.”
R.I.P. Master. You gave generations of horror fans the best kind of nightmares.
Wes Craven Filmography (only as director)
1972 – The Last House on the Left
1977 – The Hills Have Eyes
1978 – Stranger in Our House (TV movie)
1981 – Deadly Blessing
1982 – Swamp Thing
1984 – Invitation to Hell (TV movie)
1984 – A Nightmare on Elm Street
1985 – Chiller (TV movie)
1985 – The Hills Have Eyes Part II
1985 – The Twilight Zone (TV series, 5 episodes)
1986 – Deadly Friend
1986 – Casebusters (Episode of anthology TV series Disneyland)
1988 – The Serpent and the Rainbow
1989 – The People Next Door
1989 – Shocker
1990 – Night Visions (TV movie)
1991 – The People Under the Stairs
1992 – Nightmare Cafe (TV movie)
1994 – Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
1995 – Vampire in Brooklyn
1995 – The Hills Have Eyes III
1996 – Scream
1997 – Scream 2
1999 – Music of the Heart
2005 – Cursed
2005 – Red Eye
2006 – Paris, je t’aime (Segment: Père-Lachaise)
2010 – My Soul to Take
2011 – Scream 4