Wes Craven died this evening. Evidently he had brain cancer. He was 76, which still seems far too young for him to die.
Everyone knows him from the Nightmare on Elm Street films. The first in the series was quite good, but eventually Freddy Krueger became too campy, the intensity of the horror lost among cringe-inducing puns.
Less acclaimed but, in my opinion, far superior to the Elm Street series was People Under the Stairs. That film managed to include just about every hot button that comes up in horror films – sick secluded family, racist abuse, incest, child abuse, among them – and combined them all into a film so creepy that, were it not for the fashions involved, still seems very modern in its approach to real horror.
Mostly I will remember Wes Craven for being the architect of a film that absolutely destroyed me when I first saw it. In Last House on the Left, an update of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, Mari and Phyllis are waylaid during their attempts to find drugs before a concert. Their abductors take them into the woods to torture, rape and eventually murder them. Their murderers end up needing assistance from Mari’s family and Mari’s parents realize the people in their home killed their child and seek violent revenge.
There is a scene in this film where Mari, after she has been raped and mutilated, walks into a lake to clean herself. Once she is out into the lake, her captors shoot her to death and she begins to float, her long hair clinging to the surface of the water, spreading out in a corona around her. Of all the horrible images and acts in this film, that image of Mari in the water is the one that stays with me and there’s no wonder why. Young women floating dead in water is an image that has been with us for centuries. Ophelia instantly comes to mind. So does the Lady of Shallot, though she was in a boat. Most relevant for me is L’Inconnue de la Seine, a beautiful young woman found dead in the Seine in the late 1880s. Her death mask became a collector’s piece and her image now graces all Resusci Annie mannequins used to train people to perform CPR. She was considered an example of perfect female beauty. Her story was told over and over in literature and art and I’ve linked her with Mari in my mind, two lost young girls, killed vilely but washed clean.
Though dubbed an exploitation film, Last House on the Left appalled 1972 moviegoers with its audacious and all-too-real violence, but the movie was far more than just a vehicle for splatter and gore. It tugged at the primal needs of mankind to protect the young and vulnerable among us, and reminded us how quickly the suburban family can become atavistic killers when their own are threatened or harmed. It taps into the very fairy tales that make up our earliest introductions to literature, telling us of little children lured into the woods and those foolhardy enough to walk into danger on their own. In so many ways the film harked back to the gruesome violence of the early, unsanitized Grimm tales that we’d forgotten after so many Disney reinterpretations, tropes that we glossed over because we felt we were far too civilized to share with our children the real danger of following breadcrumbs, or, in Mari and Phyllis’s case, knocking on the witch’s door.
Wes Craven was a genius who understood the primal violence that threatens us and how easily we shed our modernity and squeamishness when we need to protect those we love or seek vengeance against those who harm us.
Wes was also a man who understood so well the tropes of the genre he helped create that he seamlessly subverted them in the Scream series, an almost intolerably self-aware and clever look at how we again all learned the danger of going into the woods – horror movies showed us the danger – but we end up in the woods nonetheless. Knowing rules saved few from the knife.
There is so much more that can be said about Wes Craven but I am going to leave it alone now, and perhaps watch The Serpent and the Rainbow again this week. God speed, Mr Craven.