Culture and Trends ›

How Wes Craven Defined Modern Horror

Everett Collection / © Paramount Pictures

How Wes Craven Defined Modern Horror

When Wes Craven died Aug. 30, 2015, fans of the horror genre lost one of the most influential filmmakers ever to scare us sleepless. The writer, director, producer and actor was behind hugely popular movies and franchises, helping shift the direction horror movies would take in the 1980s, '90s and beyond. He was still active just this year, bringing his Scream franchise to the small screen as executive producer of the new MTV series. But his mark on the genre began decades ago with the 1972 release of his controversial first film, The Last House on the Left.

The Last House on the Left got Craven noticed by horror fans … and then some. The terrifying original script was softened by necessity but the end result was still censored, banned, elevated to cult status, and eventually – inevitably – remade for a new generation with Craven as producer. The original The Last House on the Left was the perfect springboard for Craven's career, which continued with his next release, 1977's The Hills Have Eyes. It was the beginning of Craven's first franchise, a notable milestone for a director who would become known for movies that generated numerous sequels. Today, we're looking at Craven's three big franchises and how they kept fans coming back by using fresh ideas about horror filmmaking.

The Hills Have Eyes

Craven was one of the 1970s horror directors who oversaw a major shift in the genre. The horror flicks of the '60s and earlier – even the ones that were the most horrifying to their contemporary audiences – didn't get many of their scares from blood and guts. For years, the Production Code didn't allow them to: "Brutality and possible gruesomeness"  were explicitly called out in the code. In the years following the code's decline in the late 1950s, horror moviemakers began to ramp up the gore, and by the 1970s, the "gruesomeness" had become the focus of movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jaws and The Hills Have Eyes, a tale of cannibals terrorizing a vacationing family stranded in the desert. Initially awarded an X rating, it, like The Last House on the Left, was toned down somewhat before release and eventually ended up rated R … and it deserved every bit of that rating and then some, with its gory scenes of torture and cannibalism.

The Hills Have Eyes Part II, released in 1985, was Craven's first sequel. Unfortunately, it went the way of many movie sequels, disappointing fans, receiving dismal reviews and embarrassing its writer and director, who eventually disowned it. But that didn't erase the staying power of the first movie, and it didn't stop Craven from producing a fairly well-received 2006 remake and even co-writing its 2007 sequel. The concept that stood out as X-rating-worthy in the 1970s was less shocking in the new millennium's horror landscape, amid Craven-influenced competitors that keep torture and gore at the forefront of the action.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

By 1984, gore was not much of a surprise to horror moviegoers. If Craven wanted to stay ahead of the trend, he would have to give his next movie something more. What he gave it was a villain for the ages and a refreshingly complex look at the nature of reality. His Freddy Krueger stalked teenagers through their dreams, and if he killed them in that dream world, they died in real life as well. It was a terrifying concept for anyone who'd ever woken up screaming from a nightmare, but it was smart as well as scary. Craven was still getting his scares from a slasher – one with an innovative glove made of knives rather than Jason's machete or Michael Myers' totally ordinary kitchen knife – but this slasher wasn't one you could call the cops on. As an entity that didn't always exist in the real world but could have a fatal impact on that reality, Krueger inspired terror, critical acclaim and even some analysis by serious academics intrigued by his real/not-real duality.

Freddy Krueger also became a major figure of pop culture. His red- and green-striped sweater and deadly glove are as immediately recognizable as any prop from Citizen Kane or Titanic. He was as different from masked killers like Jason and Leatherface as he was from real human villains like Anthony Bates or fantasy bad guys like Dracula. He wore his own face, but it was a horribly disfigured one that looked almost like a mask (and was intended that way by Craven, too). He wasn't real … or was he? And instead of playing it deadly serious like the villains that came before him, Krueger was a wisecracker, one who left you worrying that the last thing you'd hear before death was a groan-worthy pun. With Krueger's bad jokes, Craven opened the door for the many not-so-serious horror movies that would follow, from Evil Dead II to Dead Alive to The Cabin in the Woods.

Nightmare spawned five sequels (not all of which involved Craven) – six, if you count the crossover piece Freddy vs. Jason, and seven, if you count Wes Craven's New Nightmare, a very meta piece of work written and directed by Craven and adding a third layer of reality to the Nightmare weirdness by imagining Krueger stalking and killing the actual cast and crew of the franchise's movies. This horror-movie-about-a-horror-movie looked ahead to Craven's next groundbreaking project …

Scream

By the mid-'90s, the horror genre had gotten bogged down in endless sequels of the hits of the '70s and '80s (the many rehashes of A Nightmare on Elm Street not excluded). There wasn't much fresh and innovative content coming out … at least, not until Craven did something to change that. He released Scream and revitalized the genre, inspiring a new wave of slasher films by making his characters – and the audiences that watched them – really think about the horror flicks they were watching and just what made them tick. "Do you like scary movies?" the killer asked his first victim in the opening scene, and audiences responded with an enthusiastic "yes!"

Scream was the ultimate in meta horror films, with its characters pointing out the horror tropes they see all around them, referencing terrifying classics like Nightmare and The Exorcist, and ultimately showing how deeply influenced by scary movies its killers were. More than meta, it was smart and funny, moving forward from Freddy Krueger's goofy puns to a sarcastic brand of humor befitting the '90s. Scream's self-awareness and humor would be seen again and again over the next decade, in teen slasher flicks like I Know What You Did Last Summer, trope-aware projects like Urban Legend and parodies like Scary Movie, which sent up Scream and its contemporaries in a way that was more goofy than it was self-aware.

Scream became a franchise with staying power, with three sequels giving way to the aforementioned 2015 TV series. And as Scream analyzed cinematic scares in between its gory deaths, Craven set a precedent for smart, stylish horror movies that is still reverberating in theaters today.