Wes Craven was a philosophy graduate and humanities professor who entered the film industry via porn films, graduated to slasher movies and so-called “video nasties”, and then came up with one of the greatest concepts in horror cinema – a truly terrifying villain who stalks and kills his victims in their dreams, except the dream is real and they end up dead.
Craven was attacked for the graphic gore of his films, but A Nightmare on Elm Street was clever stuff, tapping into primal fears and blurring the boundary between reality and fantasy.
He wrote and directed the original film in 1984. There have been a further eight in the series so far, including a 2010 remake, and they have grossed around half a billion dollars at cinemas worldwide and a lot more on video and DVD.
A Nightmare on Elm Street was not his only big mainstream hit. He managed to take a masterpiece of 19th century European art and use it as a key plot point in the highly successful Scream film series.
Freddy Krueger, the killer in the Nightmare films, was hideously scarred, he had lethal razors on his fingers, and wore a battered old hat and a red and black hooped jumper that he might have borrowed from Dennis the Menace. In the Scream films the killer wears an open-mouthed, empty-eyed white face mask borrowed from Edvard Munch’s painting of the same name.
Scream added elements of comedy and post-modern irony to the mix, with characters actually discussing horror film conventions and the best ways to survive in such a scenario. It was very influential within the genre.
Scream was written by Kevin Williamson. Craven directed all four films in the series, in which the killer’s identity changes.
Craven reckoned that his attraction to horror was inspired by fear of dying young and thoughts about death. “My brother and I both used to worry about dying at 40, because our father died at 40,” he said. “That probably wasn’t terribly rational since my father led a rather unhealthy lifestyle… He drank… He fell over dead on a loading dock in a factory.”
Craven wrote and/or directed more than 20 feature films. The only one that was completely outside the horror genre was Music of the Heart (1999), in which Meryl Streep played the founder of a Harlem music school. It secured her the inevitable Oscar nomination, though it did disappointingly at the box office and Craven returned to the more lucrative horror field.
He was born Wesley Earl Craven in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1939. His parents were strict Baptists, who forbade him from watching films as a child. He later described them as “Protestant fundamentalists”.
In an interview with the New York Times a few years ago, he said: “For years, I’ve had a movie in my mind called Total Immersion that looks to my life as a kid where you’re immersed in this different worldview from almost everybody around you. In high school, we would give away rulers to our friends that said, ‘Jesus loves you.’ I couldn’t put together the concept that Jesus loves you, but if you don’t love him back, you’ll burn in hell forever.”
At university he studied English and psychology and did a masters degree in philosophy and writing. He taught English, was a humanities professor at a college in New York State and then, using various pseudonyms, he began working on porn films, as a writer, editor and occasional director.
Porn was seemingly better paid than academia. It has been suggested he worked on the most famous porn film of them all, Deep Throat, though details are unclear.
He made his first feature film in 1971 when he wrote, directed and edited The Last House on the Left, the story of two teenagers, who are kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered by a gang of psychopaths. But the villains push their luck too far when they decide to visit the home of one of the victims and meet the parents.
The film was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, but is rather more graphic. “I didn’t know a thing about directing,” Craven said. “I staged it like a documentary.” It cost around $90,000 and grossed $3 million in North America, but was banned in British cinemas.
It came out on video in the UK before videos needed certificates and was caught up in the hysteria whipped up by Mary Whitehouse and the Daily Mail over “video nasties” in the early 1980s.
It was eventually approved for release on video in 2002, with only minimal cuts. It was remade, with a budget of $15m, in 2008.
Craven had another hit with The Hills Have Eyes, in which a family on a road trip are stranded in the Nevada hills and menaced by local cannibals. It is now regarded as a cult classic.
He also wrote and directed Swamp Thing, back when comicbook adaptations were seen as niche cinema.
A Nightmare on Elm Street took him to a much bigger, more mainstream audience. It had a great premise and what turned out to be one of the most iconic villains in the genre. It also provided Johnny Depp with his first major film role, as the heroine’s boyfriend and one of Freddy’s victims.
Craven blurred the boundaries of reality even further with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994. Heather Langenkamp essentially plays herself. She plays the actress who played the protagonist in the original film, but she finds Freddy has crossed from film fiction into the real world. Craven also played himself in the film.
Craven had brain cancer, but continued working until recently. He was married three times and divorced twice.
He is survived by his third wife, film producer Iya Labunka, and by two children from his first marriage, Jessica, a singer, and Jonathan, a producer and writer, who worked on several films with his father.