Wes Craven is dead. (Though where horror movie directors are concerned, of course, you can never be sure. Take especial care when you’re on your own and in the bath, is my advice. Also never split up your group. And never, ever look down in the cellar).
What you won’t know, unless you met him, was what a gentle, intelligent, sensitive soul he was: a far cry from the insensate brute you might have imagined directing the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream series.
As I discovered when I interviewed him a few years back, Craven was a reluctant maker of slasher flicks. After his early success with The Last House On The Left he tried to avoid being typecast by writing three different projects – one a comedy about a beauty contest, one about a colonel courtmartialled for reporting atrocities in Vietnam, one a version of Hansel and Gretel – but no one was interested in financing them. What they wanted was more horror.
Craven – a former schoolteacher and a cultured man – resented being looked down as a “mere” horror director.
“It gets tremendously galling after a while. People by and large look at you like they’re superior to you morally, physically and spiritually. Like you’re some sort of piece of shit.”
If they’d bothered to listen and take him more seriously, they would have discovered just why he was such a good horror director.
First, life experience. His father died of a heart attack when he was just 4 (“So I was very aware of how death could just reach in there and pluck somebody away.”). He attended a brutal Cleveland high school where stabbings were a common occurrence. And at 19 he was struck down by a virus which paralysed him from the waist down for months. Three of his intensive care roommates died next to him. “You see it all around you when you’re in hospital. That certainly was a big influence on me.”
Second, intelligence and sensitivity. He understood the mechanism that makes horror films so scary and why, above all, the blade is the stock horror movie weapon.
“One of our primal horrors is the vulnerability of the human package. Our skin is so thin; we don’t have claws, fangs, horns or armoured plates. The merest jab will put us in trouble immediately. So we’re walking around in this incredibly vulnerable position while trying to act like we’re safe and we’re going to live forever. But no. We’re just a knife-thrust away from being dead. And this is one of the most brutal realities since man came down from the trees: that we’re easily opened-up.”
Freddy Krueger, of course, slashed you not with one blade but with four simultaneously. Now you get why he so haunted your nightmares.