Rest In Peace, Wes Craven — The Rest Of Us Sure Won't

Aug 31, 2015
Originally published on September 29, 2015 9:39 am

He was called the Sultan of Shock and the Guru of Gore: Wes Craven, who died Sunday, directed dozens of now-classic horror movies, including A Nightmare on Elm Street and all of the Scream films.

Scream, from 1996, is an expert parody of horror movies, filled with inside jokes — like the girl alone in the house who gets a phone call that's coming from closer than she thinks. Writer Kevin Williamson made it funny. Craven made it scary.

One of Craven's gifts was making his actors believable, even in a movie as silly as Scream. He told WHHY's Fresh Air in 1997 that he stayed up all night with Drew Barrymore, talking about very personal things. "Her extreme connection to animals, for instance, that I was able to use," he recalled.

He used it in a scene where the killer attacks Barrymore through a window. "She and I were talking about what was happening to a puppy in a news article about somebody who had tortured a dog," Craven said. "So there's all kinds of tricks; you just try to find the commensurate place in their subconscious."

"That scene took a week to shoot," Barrymore told NPR in 2009. "I've never, ever, ever had to cry that much and be hyperventilating and fear-ridden, and to be in that state for five days was a total blast."

And audiences had a blast releasing their inner fears in the safety of a darkened theater. It was an improbable career for a guy born in Ohio to a family of fundamentalist Baptists, the kind that rejected popular culture — no comic books, no dancing and certainly no movies. Craven grew up to study philosophy, teach literature and eventually become enthralled by art house movies like those of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

In fact, Craven based his first movie, The Last House on the Left, on The Virgin Spring, a Bergman film about a young girl whose family takes revenge after she's raped and murdered. "The notion was to do something that was completely anti-establishment and completely non-Hollywood," he said.

It was 1972. The Vietnam War was at its height. Craven was hanging out with a bunch of documentary filmmakers, and he wanted to make something brutal and unflinching, about violence and morality. "It was incredibly personal. It did not cut away. The victims did not often die quickly, they quite often would beg for mercy," he said. "You know, all of those horribly unpleasant moments in actual violence."

Craven had a knack for psychological horror that he picked up in part from studying theater of the absurd. He'd pick away at the idea of consciousness and control.

1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street was one of those horror movies that defined a generation — and redefined the genre. In the movie, teenagers are stalked in their sleep by a terrifying supernatural killer with a melted, burned face and knives on his fingers.

Craven said his famous creation, Freddy Krueger, was a reflection of some of his innermost fears — in this case, of his own father. "Not that my father chased me around with a glove full of knives, but it was just like, to me he was a scary person. He was not around a great deal, and he had a sharp anger, a bad temper, and I remember being quite, quite afraid of him."

Craven said myths were his stock in trade. He broke down the rules of how people are supposed to behave and explored the extremes to which we can go. And here's a little more incongruity: Craven's hard core fans might be surprised to know the director was also a bird lover. For many years, he served on the Audubon California board of directors.

Wes Craven died Sunday; he was 76 and had been suffering from cancer.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

He was called the Sultan of Shock, the Guru of Gore. Wes Craven directed dozens of now-classic horror movies, including "A Nightmare On Elm Street" and all of the "Scream" films. Wes Craven died last night at the age of 76. He had suffered from brain cancer. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCREAM")

DREW BARRYMORE: (As Casey) Hello?

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "Scream," from 1996, is an expert parody of horror movies, filled with inside jokes like the girl alone in the house who gets a phone call that's coming from closer than she thinks. Writer Kevin Williamson made it funny. Director Wes Craven made it scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCREAM")

BARRYMORE: (As Casey) I am two seconds away from calling the police.

ROGER JACKSON: (As Phone voice) They'd never make it in time. We're out in the middle of nowhere.

BARRYMORE: (As Casey) What do you want?

JACKSON: (As Phone voice) To see what your insides look like.

ULABY: One of Wes Craven's gifts was making his actors believable, even in a movie as silly as "Scream." He told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1997 that he stayed up all night with Drew Barrymore, talking about very personal things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WES CRAVEN: Her extreme connection to animals, for instance, that I was able to use.

ULABY: He used that in a scene where the killer attacks her through a window.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CRAVEN: She and I were talking about what was happening to a puppy in a news article about somebody who had tortured a dog. You know, so there's all sorts of tricks. You're just trying to find, you know, the commensurate place in their subconscious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BARRYMORE: That scene took a week to shoot.

ULABY: Barrymore remembered filming that scene in a 2009 NPR interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BARRYMORE: I have never, ever, ever had to cry that much and be hyperventilating and fear-ridden, and to be in that state for five days was a total blast.

ULABY: Audiences had a blast releasing their inner fears in the safety of a darkened theater - an improbable career for a guy born to a fundamental Baptist family in Ohio, the type that rejected popular culture - no movies, dancing or comic books. Wes Craven studied philosophy, taught literature and became enthralled by art house movies like those of Sweden director Ingmar Bergman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE VIRGIN SPRING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) (Speaking Swedish).

ULABY: In fact, Craven based his first horror movie, "The Last House On The Left," on a Bergman film about a young girl who's raped and murdered. Her family takes revenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CRAVEN: The notion was to do something that was completely anti-establishment and completely non-Hollywood.

ULABY: It was 1972. The Vietnam War was at its height. Craven was hanging out with a bunch of documentary filmmakers. He wanted to make something brutal and unflinching about violence and morality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CRAVEN: You know, it was incredibly personal. It did not cut away. The victims did not often die quickly. They quite often would beg for mercy - you know, all of those horribly unpleasant moments in actual violence.

ULABY: Craven had a knack for psychological horror that he picked up in part from studying the theater of the absurd. He'd pick away at the idea of consciousness and control.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET")

KATIE CASSIDY: (As Kris Fowles) I'm having these dreams, and I'm scared.

ULABY: "A Nightmare On Elm Street" was one of those horror movies that defined a generation and redefined the genre. In the 1984 movie, a group of teenagers are stalked in their sleep by a terrifying supernatural killer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET")

CASSIDY: (As Kris Fowles) He's burned and melted, and he's always trying to attack me with his knives.

THOMAS DEKKER: (As Jesse Braun) Knives on his fingers.

ULABY: Freddy Krueger, said his creator, was a reflection of Wes Craven's innermost fears - in this case, he said, of his own father.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CRAVEN: Not that my father chased me around with a glove full of knives, but it was just, like, to me, he was a scary person. He was not around a great deal, and he had a sharp anger, a bad temper. And I remember being quite afraid of him.

ULABY: Wes Craven said myths were his stock and trade. He broke down the rules about how people are supposed to behave and explored the extremes to which we can go. And here's a little more incongruity. Craven's hardcore fans might be surprised to know the director was also a bird lover. For many years, Wes Craven served on the Audubon California board of directors. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.