The first Wes Craven movie I ever saw was Swamp Thing. I know. Some of you right now are like, “There was a Swamp Thing MOVIE?” Yep, and it’s fantastic! Well, “fantastic” in the sense that it’s brilliantly campy, and I personally LOVE campy films. I was probably 10-ish, staying up late on a Friday or Saturday night watching whatever I could find that wasn’t infomercials or news, and I happened upon Swamp Thing on USA, or TNT, or some other network that played whatever they could afford the rights to show, and being a comic nerd, I was captivated. It was just so exciting that there was another comic book movie out there that wasn’t Batman or Superman. (Honestly, I can’t remember, but they probably even played Howard the Duck right before or right after, and at 10, I probably loved that too.)
BUT! Swamp Thing isn’t really a “Wes Craven film”. Not in the truest sense of the term. The first “Wes Craven film” I saw is the one that I would hope most people would say was their first… A Nightmare on Elm Street. Freddy f***ing Krueger. With three Halloween movies and also three Friday the 13th movies (the 4th one came out the same year) already out, Elm Street hit theaters and introduced a slasher movie villain with character and wit. He didn’t silently stalk and prey on his victims, he mocked and taunted them, and it was kind of hilarious. I’ll even go so far as to say that the first Elm Street is probably the best first film of any horror franchise. It’s certainly the best of all the subsequent Elm Street movies. (A point which Craven himself hilariously made in his next groundbreaking horror film… Scream.)
Ah… Scream. Equally as career defining, nowhere near as appreciated for how brilliant it is. Don’t get me wrong, I know that it’s well regarded. It’s just that most people only focus on the violence and aesthetics, but completely miss the point. At its heart and core, it’s a satire of horror movies. (Real talk: I’m actually watching it right now as I write this.) The scene in the video store where Jamie Kennedy’s and Matthew Lillard’s characters are talking about the defining traits of horror films and how this situation is different, is a perfect example of the satirical quality. The scene where Jamie Kennedy’s character is explaining the horror movie rules is another. One of the best deaths in the whole thing has got to be when Rose McGowan’s character gets killed by trying to squeeze through the doggie door in the garage door and gets squished when Ghost Face raises it with her in it. It’s amazingly outlandish and unbelievable, and it’s another example of why the movie is a brilliant satire. But, the ending, which I won’t *spoil* for you (seriously though, if you haven’t seen Scream yet…), solidifies it’s satirical perfection. Hell, there are even a few references to Elm Street that exist to help you understand the goal of (almost) lampooning slasher flicks.
To truly understand the genius that was Wes Craven though, in my opinion, you have to go back to the beginning…
THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT
By a long shot, it is one of the most brutal and disturbing movies I have ever seen. And there’s nothing supernatural about it at all. In a world where horror movies are often defined by how many times the killer gets up and keeps trying to murder people, or by how terrifying a demonic possession can be, Last House on the Left is just about how insanely cruel and perverse humanity can be. It’s not creatures, or ghosts or spirits. It’s not a unseen force committing the savage violence. It’s just… people. And that’s infinitely more terrifying than a poltergeist or a malevolent witch.
Wes Craven saw things in a way no one else did. He saw ways to incorporate spirit into the mundane, and how to inject reality into the unreal. He took risks. Lots of them didn’t pay off, but the ones that did left pop-cultural impacts the size of craters. In a genre of fear, he worked and created fearlessly. The world has lost a horror film legend, but thankfully he left a legacy of incredible movies for us to share with future generations.