Name: Wes Craven
Date of Birth: 2nd August 1939
Place of Birth: Cleveland, Ohio
Wes Craven is famous, and shall always be remembered, for his gore-filled horror movies and given his work it is a fitting legacy, but it is in no way the full story.
The Early Years
Born in Cleveland in 1939, Wes had a fairly unhappy childhood. His father died when Wes was four and he was brought up in a fairly strict Baptist family. Leaving Cleveland, Wes went off to study English Literature at Wheaton College, Illinois, but he left due to illness and returned a year later to study psychology. In 1963, Wes received a degree in literature and psychology and in 1964 he took a Masters from Johns Hopkins University.
Wes then became a humanities teacher for a while, married, had two children, divorced and left his job. After employment as a taxi driver he became a sound editor for a post-production company in New York. After a few small jobs (including editing and post-production work for Sean Cunningham, who would later create the Friday the 13th series), Wes released his first movie proper in 1972.
Low Budget Shockers
The movie, Last House on the Left was a big success, given its modest budget. The success was mainly due to word of mouth about the audacious use of violence and gore. Still fairly notorious to this day (it still has no video release in the UK (update: the recent changes in BBFC policy mean that it can now be purchased in its uncut glory!)), the film is a loose reworking of The Virgin Spring by Ingmar Bergman and is about the rape and murder of two teenage girls and the subsequent revenge meted out by their parents.
Wes then spent five years working as a film editor and screenwriter with little notable success. In 1977 he was asked to direct another horror movie and reluctantly accepted. The result was The Hills Have Eyes, which was again a big success, won awards and cemented Wes' reputation as a maestro horror director, after only two films.
The Crap, Commercial Ones
Deadly Blessing, which cost $2.5million, was certainly Craven's first big-budget venture. Unfortunately, it was also rubbish. Starring Sharon Stone, it is the story of an Amish woman whose husband is killed in a tractor accident, leaving her to fight off the local 'Hittites' who believe her to be 'the incubus' (surely that should be succubus, anyway?). There are stories of a studio imposed ending, so possibly this isn't the film Wes wanted to make. Next was Swamp Thing and the least said about that the better.
The Breakout Hit
A Nightmare on Elm Street was released on the 16th of November 1984 and gave the horror genre the kick up the proverbial backside it desperately needed. It was wildly original and saw the first outing for one of the most recognisable icons of film, Freddy Krueger (supposedly named after a bully at Wes Craven's school), a spectral child murderer who kills people in their dreams. It was the start of a franchise and while Wes only directed one more of the eventual seven (as of 2002) films, his are clearly the only two good ones.
Back to Mediocrity
After creating the horror masterpiece of the decade, Wes went a little off the rails. The Hills Have Eyes Part II was released only one year after Elm Street but is his worst movie by a fair distance. He then carried on with Deadly Friend, the story of one boy and his robot.
In 1988, Wes released The Serpent and the Rainbow and while I have no time for it, reviews seem mixed. The tale of some voodoo shenanigans in Haiti it seems to my eyes to be absolutely jammed full of awful clichés, but I think this is simply a sign of the time it was made.
Shocker, released in 1989, really isn't an awful film, it just seems somehow shallow as it is clearly an attempt to start another Freddy-esque franchise around serial killer Horace Pinker (surely they could have come up with a better name?!). This was followed by The People Under the Stairs, the story of a house where caged people are kept under the stairs and some burglers attempting to get out. It gathered respectable reviews and was somewhat successful, but any film where the main character's name is Fool has no respect from me.
Back to his Roots
Wes' next movie was a return to the Freddie Kreuger franchise. In New Nightmare, Freddie, upset that he was killed off in the last movie, comes back and tries to kill his creators and actors from the previous films. It's a great premise and works really well, marking a return to form for Craven. It was short-lived.
The Star Vehicle
What is Vampire in Brooklyn, if not an excuse for Eddie Murphy to attempt to shed his Beverly Hills Cop / Trading Places / 48 Hours image? The whole thing is risible and a definite low-point in Wes' career.
The Scream trilogy. Possibly Wes Craven's greatest achievement. At a time when horror movies were becoming stale and formulaic, Wes (for the second time) showed us all what could be done in the genre. Scream threw all the horror movie clichés out the window, even including a character, Randy, who tells us all the way through what should and should not be happening, allowing the movie to be incredibly self-referential. Scream 2 is in many ways a parody of Scream. I haven't seen Scream 3, but I imagine it's a parody of Scream 4. The movies are great, but it's the casting which sticks in my mind. Scream stars Henry Winkler and Scream 2 has Jackie from Roseanne. You can't get much better than that.
Sandwiched between the Scream movies, Craven undertook the unlikely project of Music of the Heart, the life story of music teacher Roberta Guispari-Tzavaras. Possibly this is a sign that he wants to branch out of the horror genre.
Next is Cursed, a movie about a werewolf loose in LA, written by Scream scribe Kevin Williamson.
Wes Craven has been involved in the practise of putting his name to films he had little or nothing to do with (e.g. 'Wes Craven's Wishmaster', 'Wes Craven presents Dracula 2000'). This seems to be a recent thing and I have no time for it. Just thought I'd mention it.
Editor's note: Wes Craven died on August 30, 2015, at the age of 76. He had been suffering from brain cancer.
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