This is the first time I’ve gone through the body of work of a filmmaker and simply regretted the decision. After having done several foreign filmmakers in a row (Kurosawa, Tati, Melville, and Kobayashi), I decided to search out a more modern, American filmmaker with name recognition, and I quickly settled on Wes Craven. I’d known Craven’s name for a long time, his work on such big-name horror movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream was simply far too big to ignore or miss.
He certainly has some good films to his name. The aforementioned pair of horror films are joined by The Serpent and the Rainbow, New Nightmare, and Red Eye as his collection of solidly good films. I genuinely enjoy these five. However, he made twenty-four films (included a handful of television movies), and the rest are a mixture of mediocre and outright bad films. The clear majority of his work is just simply not good at all.
As I was getting towards the end of his body of work, the one thing that popped up most prominently was the idea of authorship. Most of his best films he did not write, and most of his worst films were projects where he has the sole writing credit. That really colored my view of him as a storyteller. Of his five films I like best, three (Scream, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and Red Eye) were written by others while the other two (the pair of Nightmare on Elm Street films he directed) were his. Of the six I liked least, he wrote five of them (The Hills Have Eyes Part 2, Shocker, My Soul to Take, Swamp Thing, and Night Visions) while only one (Summer of Fear) was written by someone else.
Craven himself was most fully responsible for the vast majority of his worst films, and his best films were mostly written by other people. Not every great director needs to be a writer as well (Scorsese has writing credits on only five of his films while Spielberg has it on only two of his), but the preponderance of Craven’s name on the screenplays of so many of his bad films and on so relatively few of his good ones told me something. It told me that he was simply not very good at telling stories in a cinematic medium.
Craven grew up in Ohio in a Baptist family that did not allow him to see movies. He saw his first movie when he went to Wheaton College as a psychology student. He eventually found his way into the film industry through one of the nastiest little slivers of the industry on the unclear border between exploitation and pornography in New England. His first directorial effort was the exploitation film The Last House on the Left, a project that only got off the ground because his producer friend Sean Cunningham got offered $90,000 to make a horror film.
The one other director I kept thinking of while going through Craven’s work, especially his early work, was John Carpenter. They both came to prominence around the same time in the same genre, but the major difference was that Carpenter had a formal education in film while Craven never even had an informal one by growing up with movies. Carpenter’s influences were old-Hollywood, especially Howard Hawks, while Craven tried to amalgamate his education in the classics (he was a humanities professor for a brief time before he went into film) with his education in the underground of cinema and a smattering of foreign films that seemed to have taught him no great lessons. The one thing he really learned was to shock.
And his early work is where this uncomfortable marriage of classical education and poor cinema training is the most evident. The Last House on the Left is an Americanized version of The Virgin Spring (a Swedish folktale that Ingmar Bergman turned into a film in the 50s). There’s a real effort to find shock here, and the European influence is strong. The film doesn’t work (characterization is thin, there’s a lot of misplaced and poorly executed comedy, and there’s a surprising focus on creating a Home Alone-type situation at the end that doesn’t pay off very well), but there’s obviously something going on. I was actually quite hopeful.
I think the one thing to remember most clearly about Wes Craven is something seemingly antithetical to his body of work: he never wanted to make horror films. He took the opportunity to direct The Last House on the Left because it was his first offer to direct a film, and he was going to start his career. He couldn’t make another film for five years because he didn’t want to make another horror film, and when he moved to Los Angeles, all he got was offers for new horror films. Borderline starving, he and Cunningham eventually came up with The Hills Have Eyes to feed themselves.
What followed was four horror films (Summer of Fear, Deadly Blessing, Swamp Thing, and Invitation to Hell, half of which were made for television), none of which are particularly good, are mostly boring, but do have some moments here and there. They feel like a young filmmaker simply lost. And then he read a pair of articles in the LA newspapers about young people being terrified of going to sleep, eventually falling asleep, and then dying while they slept for no discernable reason. This gave him the germ of an idea for A Nightmare on Elm Street.
I said it a lot while I was going through his work, but Wes Craven desperately needed a writing partner, and ground zero of that argument in my mind is A Nightmare on Elm Street. It is his best film. It taps into something primal about how we are completely vulnerable while we sleep. However, it’s really poorly structured with its best kill happening at the twenty-minute mark and there being virtually no sense of escalation. He would eventually write an early draft of the third film, a draft that would get massaged by Frank Darabont, and I imagine Darabont working on the first film’s script right before filming. The structure would suddenly be there and more of the film’s potential would get mined.
I don’t want to undersell how much I enjoy the film. It’s really quite good, and the visuals are unparalleled in the entire franchise. However, it really needed a rewrite from someone who understood cinematic storytelling better than Craven.
It should not be forgotten that Craven did not want to make horror films, even after his first film typecast him as a horror filmmaker and A Nightmare on Elm Street cemented him there. A couple of years later, he went on to adapt a novel about a teenaged boy who turns his dead potential girlfriend into a robot titled Deadly Friend. There was a test screening that went badly because the audience was filled with Craven fans. The film was a gentle comedy about young people. It wasn’t the scare-fest that Craven fans wanted, so the studio demanded reshoots to include dreams and bloody violence.
His second-best film, The Serpent and the Rainbow, was an effort to move into more respectable territory, working from a script by Richard Maxwell adapted from a non-fiction work by Wade Davis. It combined the dreamlike nature of A Nightmare on Elm Street with something real into something almost Dario Argento-like. It’s the last time Craven felt like he was advancing as an artist in his career, and he made movies for almost twenty more years.
The centerpiece of my overall argument that Craven was a bad filmmaker and storyteller is Shocker. This film, made the year after The Serpent and the Rainbow, was conceived in no small part because of the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The earlier film had become a franchise, earning New Line a lot of money, and Craven had little to do with it, especially financially. So, he set out to create a new horror franchise that he owned completely. Are you familiar with all the Shocker sequels? No? That’s a surprise considering that there are…exactly none. It never even inspired straight to video sequels like Darkman did and several others.
Shocker is essentially a remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and it feels like it was written by someone who had no idea what made A Nightmare on Elm Street special. Craven wrote them both, by the way. The main antagonist, played by Mitch Pileggi, snarls and has no wit. The storytelling is confused, at best, with unnecessary use of dreams to advance the plot. The rules of the horror make absolutely no sense whatsoever with constantly changing powers, including electricity possessing people? It is a disaster of a film.
Shocker was the moment it became obvious that Craven was simply chasing financial success. He tried to start more than one television show (including the backdoor television pilot in the form of a television movie Night Visions), directed the seventh Nightmare on Elm Street film, and even made an Eddie Murphy horror comedy (Vampire in Brooklyn).
It was 1995, and he was thinking of putting horror behind him completely. Remember, he never wanted to be a horror filmmaker. There was a script floating around Hollywood getting some attention with the early title Scary Movie. Craven was wondering if he should take it or not when, at a horror convention, a young fan told him he hoped Craven would make another horror film again. Craven decided then and there to take this script, now called Scream, as his next project, and the rest is history.
The problem I have with it isn’t about the film itself (I like the first Scream quite a bit, actually), it’s that it doesn’t feel like a Wes Craven film. It feels like a Kevin Williamson film. Williamson was the writer, and, having seen everything he wrote for Craven and knowing a bit about his other work (mostly television), it’s obvious that Craven essentially just didn’t screw up Williamson’s script. He filmed it workmanlike fashion, like a television director following orders from an executive producer and showrunner. Craven made seven more films in his career, and aside from Music of the Heart (a Meryl Streep nominated Oscar bait bit of nothing) and the perfectly competent thriller Red Eye, literally everything else is an effort to recreate Scream.
The three Scream sequels he made are obvious, but both Cursed (also scripted by Williamson) and My Soul to Take (which Craven scripted himself) feel like desperate efforts to recapture the singular magic of the slasher whodunit that started the whole craze of the late 90s.
Craven spent so much time trying to recreate past successes that he eliminated his own artistic voice. The interesting, if unsuccessful, artist who had found the way to shock audiences in The Last House on the Left had become a glorified television director.
Master of Horror?
A Nightmare on Elm Street tapped into something genuine, but Scream was mostly a Kevin Williamson film.
The rest of his horror output is a mixture of terrible television work (Night Visions feels like a parody of a cop drama), terribly derivative of his own work (Shocker), or heavily compromised (Deadly Friend and Vampire in Brooklyn in particular). His efforts to move firmly outside of horror were largely unremarkable, especially his Oscar bait Music of the Heart.
The simple fact of the matter is that Craven vastly overestimated his ability to tell stories through film. He desperately needed a writing partner. Billy Wilder used I.A.L. Diamond and Charles Brackett. Akira Kurosawa used Hideo Oguni. Craven could have really used someone like Frank Darabont who wrote the final draft of the third Nightmare on Elm Street film, someone who understood storytelling and could convert Craven’s horror ideas into more cohesive narratives.
Instead, he thought he could do it himself, and it makes me feel bad about it all. I’ve watched a few interviews with the man, and he seemed like a wonderful guy. Soft-spoken, warm, and intelligent, Wes Craven seemed like a very nice person. I just wish he had understood the mechanics of cinematic storytelling better.