How Wes Craven Helped Shape The Horror Genre

It’s Only A Movie…

He’s been given the title of ‘Master of Horror’ by many throughout the years for his contribution to the genre, there is no denying that the man is a legend and has left a legacy that will still be thriving for decades to come. On a personal note, he is my favourite director of all time and was also the creator of my favourite ever film, fuelling my love for both film and the horror genre in general. His impact on horror and its fanbase is no small feat, he essentially helped the horror genre reach a mainstream audience, hell, the majority of his most notable work has been remade for a contemporary audience.

The man needed no introduction, but hell, I gave him one anyway. He is of course Wes Craven and throughout the course of this article, we shall explore five main examples from his oeuvre.

The first of which is the controversial 1972 feature, ‘The Last House On The Left’. Following many other films from the 70’s, it can be categorised in the exploitation sub-genre and is in fact a highlight of said sub-genre with the likes of 1978’s ‘I Spit On Your Grave’. I won’t get into a detailed plot analysis of the film as I’m sure most of you who are aware of Craven’s catalogue know of this film, but had I been alive within the early 70’s at the time of this films release, I would not have been able to see it until a decade later when the film was finally released within the UK on home video, the BBFC had a major stick up their ass at this time, and to be honest, they still do for the most part, but I digress.

There’s not much else that can be said for ‘The Last House On The Left’ until you see the film itself, these days, it would be regarded as torture porn. From the first viewing alone it is clear that this film was one of a kind upon its release, and in particular, the fact that it drew source from a social melancholy surrounding the Vietnam war and other horrific images in the media in order to heavily portray its message of violence begetting violence. With this film, Craven made a name for himself as an auteur of horror in the making.

The next major entry into horror that Craven delivered came half a decade later with 1977’s ‘The Hills Have Eyes’. A familiar tale for myself, originally coming from a town very close to where the legend of the infamous Sawney Bean and his family of incestuous Scottish cannibals murdered countless people in the hills of Galloway, so gnawing on the femur bones of strangers just seems to be a widespread custom shared by some.

‘The Hills Have Eyes’ is now regarded as a cult classic and for the time of release, it didn’t do too bad either, although it didn’t manage to retain the same level of controversial curiosity that Cravens ‘The Last House On The Left’ provided for the demographic, it did contribute to the ‘crazy hillbilly’ sub-genre of horror film that ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ left in its wake. Although it wasn’t as notoriously known as ‘The Last House On The Left’, ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ did have its own level of gratuitous violence and even one-upped the previous film by having an infant in danger. It seemed like no one was safe in one of his films. Craven did make a sequel to ‘The Hills Have Eyes’, years later, but it’s probably better we don’t get into that, considering the man himself has ‘disowned’ the film.

It was unknown what ‘horror meister’ Wes Craven (as he was now known as), would next tackle, but in 1981 he began to conceptualise an idea that we couldn’t have fathomed within our wildest dreams, or in this case, our most terrifying nightmares.

Move to November of 1984 and Craven would unleash a film that would change the horror genre forever, ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, and introduce us to the ultimate of horror icons, Frederick Charles Krueger. Much like Craven himself, ‘Nightmare’ needs absolutely no introduction. If you’re a fan of horror, you have seen this film, no question about it. If you haven’t? What rock have you been living under?! When I stated that Craven was the creator of my favourite film of all time, I was referring to this one.

Although I may be slightly biased when I say this, but I find this to be Craven’s finest hour, despite the fact that some may argue that a particular film that we will soon move onto would be his finest work and again, arguably, his most influential to the horror genre. With the introduction of ‘Nightmare’, everything changed. At the time of release, the slasher horror was beginning to reach the peak of its popularity and Freddy helped to catapult the sub-genre into in the limelight.

Behind the elaborate effects and dream sequences, ‘Nightmare’ proved itself to be a well developed ‘coming of age’ film, what was most interesting however, is that Craven brought horror to the American Suburbs. Although films such as John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ used this setting for the carnage, it was an external force that invaded the neighbourhood, with ‘Nightmare’, it was an evil within the neighbourhood itself which through an act of self appointed vigilantism by the parents of Krueger’s victims while he was still a being of flesh and blood, unleashed itself as an unstoppable supernatural terror, bringing the terror to the group of hapless teenagers from within their own childhood, rather than have them specifically travel to an isolated location. The irony of the entire premise of ‘Nightmare’ is the exploration of parents trying to protect their children by committing a sinful act which in turn actually damns them.

‘Nightmare’ was of course a huge success and helped to establish New Line Cinema as a distribution company, New Line is often referred to as ‘The House That Freddy Built’ seeing as the ‘Nightmare’ franchise proved to be an extremely profitable investment for the company. Indirectly, Craven helped to pave the way for future New Line horror films such as ‘Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III’ (and its subsequent reboot entries), ‘Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday’ (and also, subsequent sequels and the reboot) as well as ‘Bride of Chucky’, Seed of Chucky’ and the ‘Final Destination’ franchise.

This would not be the only time that Craven would be involved within the ‘Nightmare’ franchise, although he helped to conceive the first initial draft of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors’, he wrote, directed and even starred in what could be considered the most debated of all the entries within the series, which would become a sort of blueprint for his next big project.

1994 saw the release of ‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’. This film brushes against the fourth wall to the point of breaking it, having the first ‘Nightmare’ film morph within reality (a mind fuck of a plot, I know however, I will always defend this film and Freddy’s redesign in it is nothing short of badass and more routed to Craven’s original idea). Although it is and it isn’t a part of the franchise in the sense that it’s about the actors and the consequences of producing violent entertainment, rather than a sequel to the sixth instalment, it essentially elevates itself above the franchise in terms of the themes it explores.

As well as bringing Krueger back to his darker routes, ‘New Nightmare’ also acts as a sort of prelude to Craven’s aforementioned future project with the idea of meta-horror. Having the characters become aware of their situation and the threat at hand, the horror film was becoming reality.

Of course, the future project that I have been referencing was the 1996 hugely successful, ‘Scream’ which, out of all of Craven’s films, changed the genre from the point of its release and monster success.

Essentially 95% of horror films that have been released after 1996 have used ‘Scream’ as a template in one form or another, Craven created Post-Modern horror with this title. The inclusion of an all-star cast within a horror film after they had achieved stardom within the industry, rather than before, as seen in many others, was unseen at the time. The opening of ‘Scream’ alone is one of the most infamous of all time, harkening back to Alfred Hitchcock and certainly giving him a run for his money in how well tension is able to be sustained for a substantial length of time.

This film alone practically saved the horror genre. Now, I don’t care too much for the series except for the first two entries (I find it to be a bit more comedic than it should be), but there is no denying that the horror genre was in a rapid decline from the end of the 1980’s up until the release of ‘Scream’. Although the villain of the series, ‘Ghostface’, isn’t nearly as frightening or intimidating as Freddy or Jason, he has his own share of seemingly ‘supernatural’ abilities. By this, I of course refer to the punishment each person donning the mask can endure before eventually being dispatched off by one of the main cast, restoring a sense of equilibrium to the self referential world the series takes place in.

Now we reach 2013, and we have to wonder if Craven will be able to deliver another modern day classic within the near future. Despite the fact that Craven has gave many other titles to the genre such as ‘The People Under The Stairs’, ‘Shocker’, ‘The Serpent And The Rainbow’, ‘Red Eye’, ‘Vampire In Brooklyn’ and ‘My Soul To Take’, all of which, while, arguably as good or not as enjoyable when compared to his earlier work by others, (opinions are wondrous things, aren’t they kids?), it can’t be denied that the above five examples that I went into more detail about were by far his most infamous and have had such a degree of impact within the genre that is unmatched by anyone else.

Whether Craven is the ‘master’ of horror is completely subjective, however, it cannot be denied that the man has impacted the genre like no other and he truly deserves a place among the greats with some of the greatest pieces of work within horror.

-Jozef Hamilton

Follow Jozef on Twitter: @TheEvilBread

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