“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week Ensley F. Guffey and I look at the corollary of Sturgeon’s Law: the ten percent of everything is not crud. This “Ten Percent” column is dedicated to a man whose recent passing leaves a dark hole in the pop culture landscape; a man who used his strict Baptist upbringing and brief experience in the classroom to transform the modern horror film. Wes Craven passed away on August 30, 2015 but his legacy will echo for generations to come. Truly, he has earned his place among the Ten Percent.
Wesley Earl “Wes” Craven was raised in Cleveland, Ohio and little from his early years hinted at the dark master of horror he would later become. His family were strict Baptists and Craven earned undergraduate degrees in English and psychology and a master’s degree in philosophy and writing. He taught at both the high school at college levels and seemed destined for a life of bookish academia and blazers.
Then he got hold of a used movie camera.
Craven began making short 16 mm films and his friend Tom Chapin told him about an entry-level position at his brother’s post-production company in New York. (This brother was Harry Chapin, who would become well known as a folk-rock star in the 1970s for songs such as “Cat’s in the Cradle” and “Taxi.” Sometimes the world is exceedingly small.) Looking back, Craven would credit Harry Chapin with teaching him editing a la “the Chapin Method,” which involved Chapin repeatedly telling Craven, “Nuts and bolts! Nuts and bolts! Get rid of the shit!”
With experience in film production, Craven yearned to leave the world of academia and he did, but it wasn’t a seamless transition to glossy commercial feature films. He used a series of pseudonyms and went into the lucrative, albeit grubby, world of X-rated hardcore porn, where he worked as a director, writer, and editor.
In 1972, he got his chance to go mainstream. Working with Sean S. Cunningham, who would become a frequent collaborator, Craven’s debut feature was The Last House of the Left, a film that continues to disturb viewers to this day. Intended as a cheap drive-in movie, Last House has some stiff acting and an odd score, but the creeping sense of dread the film invokes cannot be denied.
As befits an academic, Craven had been greatly influenced by Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman (Bergman is also part of the Ten Percent, by the way!) and Last House can be viewed as an exceptionally violent remake of Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring. In Craven’s version, people still seek revenge for the brutal rape and murder of their daughter, but the style is far more sensationalized and secularized. With Last House, Craven not only tapped into the fear and anxiety caused by the Manson Family murders, which were still all-too-fresh in the memories of his audience; he also became one of the most popular purveyors of the modern rape-revenge film.
His next film was 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, which saw an ordinary family targeted by savage, inbred mountain folk. Far from being victims, the Carter family decide to fight back and we discover the depths of ferocity that lurk inside these nice, white-bread Americans. Michael Berryman played Pluto, a hulking, bald cannibal whose face would easily become the most striking image of the film.
Craven would continue to use unforgettable faces to “brand” his movies – Freddy Krueger’s scarred face and the killer’s mask in the Scream franchise (inspired by the Edvard Munch painting The Scream) are both striking examples of Craven’s liking for the memorably macabre.
Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, which features a too-young-to-be-believed Johnny Depp, was a box-office sensation when it debuted in 1984. Exploring the nature of reality with its world of nightmares made horrifying real, Nightmare would spawn a number of sequels and far more imitators. By the time Craven’s name was appearing in the title in 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Craven’s films were playing with the flexible nature of reality vs. movies as Freddy Krueger invades the set of Craven’s latest film. At one point in the film, the audience even sees a script on Craven’s word processor that includes a conversation he just had with an actress on the film.
Not content with that bit of meta-storytelling, Craven went further with Kevin Williamson’s Scream script. The formulas and tropes of slasher movies are openly discussed throughout this suspenseful and funny horror movie, which contains plenty of both gore and jump scares. Domestically, Scream made over $100 million, a totally unheard-of haul for an R-rated horror film.
Craven worked in other genres as well (Meryl Streep earned an Oscar nomination for her work on Craven’s 1999 Music of the Heart) but first and foremost, Craven was a horror guy. His best works enveloped you in a highly creative, sophisticated world and he paved the way for other horror writers and directors who mix comedy into their cauldron of gore. Further, Craven found inspiration in the everyday. His films didn’t rely on supernatural source material – everyday people could be monstrous enough. When criticized for putting such disturbing images on the screen, Craven became exasperated. He replied, “The world itself has such horrific elements to it that the criticism of any director that ‘you went too far’ is to me totally bullshit. What world do you live in? . . . To me the world is just full of shocking and horrifying things.”*
You gave us nightmares for years, Wes Craven. Rest in peace as befits an innovator of the horror genre and may this supercut of screams from your movies lull you to your eternal rest.
* And birds. Craven was a lifelong birder and became part of California Audubon’s Board of Directors.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.