The news broke tonight that horror film director, Wes Craven, died at the age of 76 after a battle with brain cancer. This is a personal post remembering his legacy and the impact he had on me as a child of the ’80s/’90s.
Article by: Sarah Todd
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As a kid, horror movies were something special to me.
I can’t exactly put into words why the horror genre fascinated me so much when I was a child — and yes, by child I mean under the age of 13. I was lucky to have parents who allowed me to watch such films. We all liked horror movies. They saw I wasn’t bothered by the genre, but rather, enjoyed it. As long as I wasn’t scared (though of course I was at times, and loved it) — My mother reminds me of how, at age six or seven, I would sneak downstairs and throw Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street on the VCR, watching the movie in the dark, by myself, in our living room. This scary movie was my favorite.
See, here’s the thing. While there were certainly horror films of my youth that were uber-violent, raw, gritty, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Wes Craven’s earlier work, like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes … I opted for Fred Kreuger (and Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees). A damn child murderer/rapist who was later killed by parents seeking revenge after he got off on a technicality in court. He was set on fire, left to burn. And then … he came back, a dream demon seeking his own revenge by picking off all those parents’ children, killing them in their sleep … in their nightmares. And if they die in their dream, they die for real. Nice.
I always felt, what NOES had that the other big horror franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th lacked, was a cast of characters/eventual victims that you actually rooted for. These were innocent teens who were simply scared to go to sleep. While Jason and Michael were off hacking up wild kids who were mostly all about sex and drugs, Freddy terrorized the minds of the innocent, just as he did when he was still alive. This definitely upped the scare factor, as you felt you could be any one of the victims … you could be the school nerd, the class clown, confined to a wheelchair (yes, Jason killed one of these as well), a comic book nerd, a jock … it didn’t matter. Freddy didn’t discriminate, he just went for them all. The nightmares were played out creatively, they were scary and fun and always different.
The whole concept of NOES was simply fascinating.
Anyway, A Nightmare on Elm Street, released in 1984 (starring Heather Langenkamp and then newcomer, Johnny Depp), was definitely on the darker side, for sure. Freddy (played by the fantastic Robert Englund, the only Fred Krueger) didn’t say much in this one. In fact, he had hardly any lines at all. And besides having a scary burnt face and those finger knives, he didn’t look like that much of a threat. But … terrifying he still was, and I loved it. Wes Craven was a master of the craft, knowing just how to scare people, and leave them wanting more. As a kid, I was always both scared and excited by one particular scene of Freddy stretching his arms out, screeching his knives along the walls in an alley … his arms growing longer and longer … and at any moment he would reach out and grab you.
Somehow it caught on that kids — yes, kids! — were loving this franchise. As the movies continued, (There were seven in all — not counting Freddy vs. Jason and the 2010 remake) they became more and more entertaining, notably after the beloved third installment, Dream Warriors. Freddy started to talk a lot more. Started to make jokes. Hell, in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (#6), he killed off a victim in a video game using a Nintendo power glove. The movies became so ridiculous at times over the course of the series, that of course kids were going to get into it. (The ones who were allowed to watch, that is.) The movies become lovable, in a weird way. Charming, even, when looking back on them. So, really …
Wes Craven made me look forward to having nightmares as a kid.
If I had a nightmare with Freddy Krueger in it (and I did have a few) — well damn, I felt like I was meeting a movie-star, like I was getting to be in a NOES movie of my own. While so many parents worry about their children having nightmares, and worry about them being scarred for life by watching monster movies at an early age, I feel like the entertaining nature of NOES films actually kept me from being afraid of the dark. It wasn’t just me. Now, Wes Craven only directed the original and the seventh installment, New Nightmare, a film that honestly is one of the most clever horror films I have seen, and one of the first of the “meta-horror” genre. I won’t get too detailed, but it brought to life all the characters from the original film… the actors came back to play themselves (Wes Craven included), and then eventually … you guessed it, become night-stalked by a more evil version of Freddy Krueger, a true dream demon. In a lighter moment, Robert Englund himself dresses in a Freddy costume for a TV appearance, and all in attendance are kids. Kids in Freddy masks, kids cheering him on. Cheering on a child killer! The insanity! (Somehow we just didn’t get it when we were young.)
People could certainly say that Craven’s work slowed down in popularity later in his life. I always loved The People Under the Stairs, another one of his films I watched a zillion times as a kid, and later Scream, which became another popular franchise for Craven. The original, released in 1996 (I was 13, perfect age for this one) was meta-horror at its finest, poking fun at all the horror genre cliches, but still kept you invested in the oh-so-silly murderous plotline …. it was an MTV-generation film, super entertaining, more comedy than horror, yet it still managed to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Post 9/11, the horror genre seemed to change. M. Night Shyamalan came to be, and he had a time as horror’s golden child, but throughout the 2000’s the genre shifted, becoming darker than ever before. “Torture porn” became a thing, then reality-type horror (Of course, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project started all of that), then it was zombies, zombies everywhere! (Shaun of the Dead is still the best). But that’s about where I checked out. Wes Craven, too, it seems. Here and there you had stand out films, mostly indie projects, but really it seems like, perhaps, the horror genre was born and died with Wes Craven, the John Hughes of horror.
Wes Craven had a huge impact on my life. I loved horror movies growing up because of him. He was an icon. He made horror fun, made it… magical.
He will be missed, and will be remembered always as a legend of scary storytelling. Rest in peace.