I never knew Wes Craven personally but he’s been with me since I was a child. Now, unlike most horror fans, Nightmare on Elm Street was not the first movie I saw by Wes Craven. That honor belongs to Swamp Thing. Like most kids in the 80s, I grew up on HBO and Swamp Thing made its rotation both there and on network television. While not horror exclusively, the film engaged me as no other film had at the time. Everybody knew about the Frankenstein monster, but the thought of becoming a Frankenstein monster both scared and excited me with childhood exuberance.
At the time, I knew nothing of the horror master Wes Craven. That all changed quickly as Nightmare swept over the nation. Freddy was everywhere, and even as a small child that wasn’t old enough to see it (let alone understand its nuances) I knew who he was. The cool kids dressed as him at Halloween. The other kids wanted to be him for Halloween. On the weekend that Nightmare 2 premiered, a full page advertisement appeared in the paper. I spent the entire morning staring at that beautifully wicked creation and let my imagination run wild.
That was where Wes Craven excelled. You saw it in his eyes when he gave interviews. He never came off a demented man despite showing us demented images all the time. You looked into his eyes and you saw the pride in which he took in scaring you. You saw the excitement that he had in knowing that he wasn’t the only person terrified by his visions. You saw the coy smile and you knew that he had a surprise waiting for you around the next bend. He was a soft spoken man that spoke with his work.
As the Nightmare series rolled along without his direct involvement, it mutated from horrifying to horrifyingly funny and sputtered out. Most people were definitely disappointed in how the series ended, but he wouldn’t let it go out on that note. New Nightmare terrified and electrified me like the original film of the series did. It took the story I had laughed off as something that scared me as a child and brought it to my world. I’m not sure if the term “meta” was used back in 1994, but it sure as hell was revolutionary at the time to me. Of course, this simple idea was spun into the Scream series as Craven understood that horror fans understand the basic tropes of horror films and, often, outsmart the writers. He knew that…and he outsmarted the world instead.
So many of his films are classics that are not talked about in the mainstream but adored in horror circles. Shocker is a phenomenal film. So is The People Under the Stairs. It wasn’t until later that I discovered both The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. The originals are horrifying, and the remakes do them justice as well. Deadly Friend revisited the Frankenstein’s monster concept again and it was with this film that I realized that Craven was both proud of and horrified by what his creations had become. He simply released these horrors to us. We evolved them.
Goodbye, old friend. You don’t know me, but I know you. And I will remember the joys you brought to us. The horror world will never be the same without you.