Imagining the landscape of horror movies without Wes Craven is a nightmare, and not the good kind. Unfortunately, it’s something fans of the genre will have to do now.
Wes Craven died on August 30th, at the age of 76. In the end, it wasn’t any phantasmagoric dream-slasher who took his life, but brain cancer. The pioneering horror filmmaker dedicated his life to giving viewers new and wildly imaginative things to be afraid of– perhaps partly to distract us from things like brain cancer, which are far more likely to do us in. He was amazing at it.
Aside from giving the world Freddy Kreuger, his most enduring creation, Craven also made classics like The Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes, both of which have interesting subtext and were recently remade. He also dabbled outside his comfort zone with 1999’s Meryl Streep-starring Music of the Heart, and completely flipped the horror genre on its head with a series of postmodern projects. In his later years, this self-aware element is where Craven’s genius truly showed. He never broke the fourth wall so much as he revealed it and made it seem like it could topple over and crush viewers into smithereens.
Here are three times the director perfected postmodern horror.
By 1994, when New Nightmare came out, Wes Craven was well aware of his stature as a master horror director. He knew that if he made a movie in which the Nightmare on Elm Street movies exist, and in which he exists as their creator, fans would follow. Critics did too. Prior to that movie, the closest most horror movies got to acknowledging that horror movies were a thing was when a character described a situation as being “like something out of a horror movie.” In the mobius strip that is New Nightmare, though, not only are there horror movies, but one of the most famous ones of all time demands to be taken seriously, at the cost of many lives. People started taking Craven more seriously too afterward.
If New Nightmare teased the promise of a self-aware horror movie, Scream fulfilled that promise. It is a brilliant satire of horror movies that also functions as a perfectly serviceable slasher flick. Before it came out in 1996, being both of those things simultaneously seemed impossible, and it’s a feat that has rarely been achieved since, even in the Scream sequels. The part where this postmodernist streak is most manifest, though, is during the immortal “Rules of Surviving a Horror Movie” speech. Delivered by Jamie Kennedy’s video store dweeb, this speech took the idea of a character saying “this is like something out of a horror movie” and used it to dissect the as yet unspoken tropes of the genre. When some of the tropes do happen here, they are reinvigorated for having been examined in situ for once. Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson may have written the script, but Wes made it pop.
It’s fitting that Craven’s final film was Scream 4. This series was, after all, his most enduring creation besides Freddy Kreuger, and with this movie he sort of disowns what he started with it. The opening scene sends viewers down a wormhole in which the by-now familiar beats of a Scream movie are revealed to be a horror movie depicting the events of Scream being watched by characters within a late-period sequel to a horror movie depicting the events of Scream, that in turn is being watched by characters just before they too find themselves in a horror movie. If that seems like a lot to swallow, Wes Craven clearly found the repetitive sequel-and-reboot culture a bit taxing himself, and set out to comment on it in a self-referential way.
Over the course of his career, Wes Craven helped cement a genre, exploded that genre, and ultimately wrote its eulogy. Now its up to the next wave of horror filmmakers to prove that eulogy premature.