Only an obituary as messy as an autopsy could honor the passing of Wes Craven, the slasher-film maven who recently died at age 76. Blood flows generously in Craven’s films, which tread a delicate line between visceral impact and franchise-worthy digestibility.
He will be remembered as the director who created not only iconic horror films, but also horror icons (A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger and Scream’s Ghostface Killer) – faces as readily identifiable to us as those of Buster Keaton and Abraham Lincoln. Ultimately, Craven forged the figures seen on the pennies and dimes of contemporary horror currency.
He did so by creating deceptively simple scenarios that tapped into universal fears. Craven became the master of the sequel because he realized that a monster isn’t something that merely appears once. It is something that must reappear.
Is it any coincidence that Craven’s figures have become denizens of the real world in its moments of turmoil? Every Halloween provides a further sequel for Freddy Krueger, and the mask of Ghostface Killer has emerged alongside the Guy Fawkes mask featured in V for Vendetta as the literal face of social protest.
A slow, painful – cramped – death
The director’s early films, like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, display a low-budget ingenuity. Featuring mostly unknown actors, the protagonists often inch painfully toward death in natural settings.
For example, in The Hills Have Eyes – a minimalist exploitational gem – a suburban family’s car and trailer break down in the Nevada desert not far from the US government’s nuclear testing grounds. They’re subsequently tormented by a group of mutant savages.
Craven offsets the endlessness of the desert with the cramped space of the marooned camper, into which sex and violence will be compressed.
In The Hills Have Eyes, Craven’s aesthetic can be tied to a number of contemporaries and successors.
Sporting necklaces made of teeth and small bursts of animal fur around their lapels, the hill-dwelling savages prefigure the simultaneously prehistoric and post-apocalyptic look of George Miller’s Road Warrior and Fury Road. Craven gives us a bike gang worthy of a nuclear test site: too savage even to own motorcycles, they retain only the hierarchy and mannerisms of a gang. (Meanwhile, the mutants speak of cannibalism in disturbingly colloquial ways, yelling over their shoulders to their wives as they exit the cave, “Keep yer eye on the young tenderloin baby!”)
The film also contains all the suburban antagonism and frenetic torture of the isolated group seen in director John Boorman’s Deliverance, freed of the river’s softening lyricism.
Finally, Craven gets immense mileage out of the disturbing geological quality of actor Michael Berryman’s skull, whose rock-formation head is the horror film’s retort to the thoughtful pate of sitcom star Peter Boyle.
A universal nightmare
Craven’s more renowned films derive their power from the low-budget aesthetic of his early work.
Nightmare on Elm Street emerges from an unnervingly simple premise: the possibility that we are dreaming the same nightmare. It taps into the terror not only of dreaming but of falling asleep.
Whereas the characters in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers feared sleep because of what they would be upon waking (living replicas of themselves), the inhabitants of Elm Street fear something more immediate: what happens to them in their dreams, and the possibility of never waking up.
Craven’s film is suffused with cheap-looking – but effective – scenarios of helplessness: a set of stairs in which the running victim’s feet sink, or the way Freddy’s face slowly presses through the wall (clearly replaced with spandex) above the heroine’s bed.
Unlike big budget horror flicks infused with special effects like World War Z or I am Legend, Craven brazenly offers terror more homemade-looking than slick, a world in which the sound of iron claws against metal pipe does the trick. His genius was to realize that a horrible danger can seem real even if the bearer of the threat might be unconvincing.
The face of real-world horror
But Craven’s real legacy extends beyond cinema. Every Halloween witnesses an endless series of 4'9" Freddy Kruegers stand holding an outstretched bucket of candy.
Scream’s Ghostface Killer has likewise seeped off the screen into cultural spaces as diverse as rap music (Ghostface Killah) and social protest. Is the ubiquity of the ghostface mask at the Occupy protests merely a part of the protesters’ desire for anonymity, or was this a mask that somehow embodied a fitting look of frozen horror?
A recent photo of Belgian demonstrators depicts a protester in a ghostface mask picking up a paving stone as tear gas grenades explode all around him. This photo brings out the sadistic pleasure, but also the look of concern (even worry) in the features of that iconic mask. It’s not clear whether the figure is screaming or laughing – and perhaps the real world crisis offers a context for both to appear at once.
In Ghostface Killer, Craven bestowed upon us a deeply contradictory face – a contorted and slightly terrifying expression that seems to be witnessing horror, and whose jaw is melting in the process.
Perhaps Scream has bequeathed a reaction shot to the world’s persistent inequalities. And for the now-deceased director who conceived this mask, the eyes in the hills are surely weeping.