Pop Culture Beast staff is heavily populated with fans, I’ll even say experts, on the horror genre. I am not one of them. Wes Craven’s passing merited a small but decent mention on BBC news – my local source, if you will, as I am in London- but it must be noted although it is a holiday weekend and a slow news cycle, they didn’t say much. The internet, and common sense, tells me this a far more significant obituary.
(My colleague Craig Schroeder discusses Wes Craven’s work in his genre, and his affection for it, in a separate post.)
Craven is one of the names that is instantly identified with horror, gore, slasher/thriller films, whatever you want to call those genres; I defer to the true fans to compartmentalize. He started off in 1972 writing and directing the classic “don’t go out, rock out, or smoke out with strangers, missy” cautionary tale, Last House of the Left. Also, he taught us that car maintenance is key to not getting disemboweled in The Hills Have Eyes ,1977. Though way before my time, these were movies that somehow someone always had on a grubby VHS at parties during my highschool days. I did see part of them, through protesting fingers, as I drank my Bartles & Jaymes and tried to stay calm. To me, terrifying.
While not old enough or cool enough to be off to score weed or talk to drifters in the 70s, as a cleancut babysitter in the 80s (we all know where the call was coming from – inside the house) this kicked off a nerve-wracking time to be a teenaged girl. I usually stuck with the highbrow and the Hughes canon, but in 1984 I did get talked into a going to a midnight screening of A Nightmare on Elm Street. It was the “midnight” part the sounded fun (regarding my judgement: I did mention the cool clean taste of a Bartles & Jaymes?) and perhaps a persuasive and hopeful date, that made me go along willingly. It was my first movie like that on the big screen. Much like the lead character, I didn’t sleep for weeks, and I maintain the scare actually caused a sympathetic grey streak in my Heather Langenkamp-y hair. Horror, done right, and of course Craven did it right is, in a word, horrific. I’m not so much on that.
But fans of only the genre and not the man might not know that he directed other work – Craven even did Disney in 1986, taking on an episode of “Wonderful World of Disney”- an anthology series that went under slightly different names during its 30 year run (“Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” being one, as tv used to brag about such things like being in color, and being properly rectangular).
In Season 30, he did an episode about two enterprising kid detectives who meddled into solving a crime with their granddad, played by character actor Pat Hingle, who you might remember as Commissioner Gordon from the Tim Burton Batman. I could only find clips of the hour long show, but from what I saw it is a typical 60 minutes of Sunday television in the non-apologetic suburban style of the 80s, where in a pre-video game era non-telegenic prepubescents struggled with issues like how interrogate the neighbor who make have done the (non-controversial) crime while being polite, just a little sassy, and getting home for dinner. The exposition bits that I saw have a family-friendly cadence similar to the, “hey, friend, what’s up?” style of the beginning, non-horror parts of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Maybe in that film, the juxtaposition of the benign style of Craven’s set ups worked to lure us in to the distinct horror that was ahead? Poor sleepless Nancy and her bad mom and her grey hair. No Depp is worth that.
The biggest departure from Wes Craven’s canon came with the 1999 Miramax film Music of the Heart. In this true from life film, based on the documentary Small Wonders, Meryl Streep plays Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras , a teacher struggling to teach both the spelling of her surname and the violin to her inner-city students, a hero who instilled a love of classical music in kids who might otherwise never have heard of the masters. It leads to a student recital at Carnegie Hall, decently shed tears of joy from Gloria Estefan, and you will be shocked to hear, a happy ending . Hang on – Wes Craven?
Perhaps not because of the lack of toolshed-related homicide but due to the confines of sticking to a true story and also trying to avoid the inevitable sappiness that can come with an inspirational teacher tale, Craven doesn’t seem in his element. Still, not a bad movie, if your cold cynical heart wants a warm up. Craven said in an interview with writer-director Mick Garris that “the Weinsteins used it as a carrot,” after enjoying the immediate success of Scream, to get him securely under the Miramax banner, and that as he had been a teacher, and a New Yorker, “the story spoke to him”. Apparently Streep had to be convinced he was a sincere choice to helm the film, but she ended up with an Oscar nomination for her role, and as directors, can Sam Raimi or James Wan say that?
Craven also contributed a segment of 2006’s anthology Paris Je t’aime. The two-hour anthology film, with delightful opening credits, consists of eighteen short films set in different arrondisements of the city. Craven takes us to a visit by a recently engaged couple to the historic Pere Lachaise Cemetery, where Oscar Wilde, Honore de Balzac and Maria Callas are resting, amongst candles left by aging Jim Morrison fans who have a bucket-list cry, or worse, on his well-marked neighboring grave. Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell, who has the haunted look of someone who could have found a body in other more typical Craven movie, have a big moment in the hallowed grounds that defines their relationship, and aside from some ill-advised stumbling about, this is a sweet, romantic, five minute turn from the director.
Is that unusual? Music of the Heart called for poignancy, but did this show up in his other works? I don’t claim to know. What else was coming from the 76-year-old director, after recent Freddy retinkerings and behind the scenes mentoring of young directors and writers? What was next? Craven told Garris that while he would take the opportunities to continue inside of the horror genre, he was going to take every chance to get out of it. But ultimately, he said, he was glad for the work.
A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.