Wes Craven: Professor of Horror

Here’s the first of several interviews I did with Wes Craven. Published in late 1984, upon the release of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” it finds the director in an unusually candid mood, especially about his strict upbringing and failed attempts at breaking free of the “horror director” mantle.

by Glenn Lovell

It never fails. When people meet Wesley Earl Craven of Cleveland, they comment on his “professorial” demeanor, his gentle, reassuring manner of speech, his tweedy wardrobe.

Obviously Craven teaches Latin or the humanities at some posh prep school, right?

Hardly. Wes Craven, as he’s known in film circles, makes horror movies.

Not your run-of-the-mill stalk-and-slash fare. Craven’s goose-bump specials ‒  “Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes,” among them – aren’t as easily shrugged off. They tap into our primal fears of being hounded by backwater cretins, cackling bogymen, religious zealots ‒ even Satan himself.

Craven’s grim, single-minded shockers are the stuff of which recurring nightmares are made. At their most creepily effective, they play with and often blur the lines between troubled REM sleep and disturbing reality. Brian De Palma (“Carrie”) and Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”) have explored similar terrain, but Craven got there first.

It makes sense, then, that Craven’s latest, the $3-million “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” is an ambitious blend of Cocteau and Dali, a surreal gambol through Slumberland. It’s about a trio teenagers who are pursued through their sleep by a ghoulish, fire-scarred handyman named Freddy Krueger.

According to a spokesman for New Line Cinema, the film’s distributor, “Nightmare” has made more than $8 million since its first regional release Nov. 9, an excellent take for an independent movie.

Craven

Craven, speaking from the roof of his Santa Monica home, calls his latest “sort of a horror fantasy – not the typical slash-and-splatter thing.” To those who persist in lumping it with the “Friday the 13th” bloodbaths, he replies, “Mine is more psychological. It also has to do with generation conflict (between Ronee Blakley’s stuporous mother and Heather Langenkamp’s frightened yet resourceful daughter).

“As a lot of my films do, ‘Nightmare’ uses the clichès of the genre, but in the end they’re somehow turned on their head. I think it has a lot to do with my different philosophical approach to the genre.”

In Craven’s case, a unique worldview is at work, a philosophy born of a still-vivid fundamentalist Baptist upbringing and a strong, formal training in the classics.

If the 45-year-old Craven (educated at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Wheaton College in Illinois, Billy Graham’s alma mater) looks professorial, it’s probably because he taught humanities at Clarkson College of Technology in Potsdam, N.Y.

It was while at Clarkson that Craven oversaw a $3,000 student film titled “The Investigators.” Described as a “takeoff on Mission: Impossible,” the film was shown to students and townspeople and realized a profit of $4,000. “We pasted it together with glue,” laughs Craven. “But that was it ‒ I caught the fever. I was 29 and had a wife and two kids, but I dropped everything and went to New York. It had a devastating effect on my life.”

When Craven gave himself over to full-time moviemaking, he was dumping a lot more than a teaching job: He was turning his back on his strict religious training.

PURGING HIS RAGE

“I came out of a very religious background,” he recalls with difficulty. ”As fundamentalist Baptists, we were sequestered from the rest of the world. You couldn’t dance or drink or go to the movies. The first time I paid to see a movie (‘To Kill a Mockingbird’) I was a senior in college. . . . My whole youth was based on suppression of emotion. As they say in psychological circles, my family never got in touch with their rage. So making movies – these awful horror movies, no less — was, I guess, my way of purging this rage.”

Though he might have seemed bit old to be rebelling, that’s exactly what Craven did in New York in the late ’60s. He grew his hair to his waist, divorced his Baptist wife and did post-production chores on Time-Life documentaries and 8mm porno loops. During that period, he met kindred spirit Sean S. Cunningham, who would direct 1980’s Friday the 13th.

“We got offered a job by Hallmark Releasing Co. They wanted to have a real slam-bang horror film. They offered us $50,000. John said we could make it for $40,000 and split the rest. They liked our ideas and ended up giving us $90,000. We made ‘Last House on the Left.’ ”

Shot in grainy 16mm and released in 1972, “Last House” has earned somewhere in the neighborhood of $18 million. Craven’s inspiration for this tale of kidnapping and torture? Would you believe Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring”? “I very consciously used the same medieval morality tale about a father taking revenge on the shepherds who raped his daughter. It was sort of a modernization of the story.”

GOING AFTER “A GRABBER”

Beyond this, Craven and Cunningham (who produced) wanted to make “a grabber . . . a film that showed things that had never been shown on screen before. In a sense to show violence as it really was, rather than in a cinematic way. We just forged into a whole new area where people had not gone before, because of taste or fear of not getting the right rating.”

Craven achieved his grim goal with a vengeance. Last House freaked out the public and the critics (who called it “vile” and “pornographic”). The film also further estranged Craven’s family in Ohio. (“My brother said, ‘I can’t imagine where you got those thoughts.’ ”) And though he sought to move into adventure and satire, Craven was immediately typed as a low-budget horror filmmaker, a label that still makes him wince.

Worse, Craven wasn’t allowed entry into what he calls “the club.” Members in good standing include John Carpenter (“Halloween”), De Palma, Bob Clark (“Black Christmas”) and even his old buddy Cunningham. These are the
filmmakers who have made the jump from low-budget gore to big-budget prestige pictures.

“I felt I had made my mind-blower, and it was time to move on. But for a period of two and a half years I couldn’t get financing for anything. How could we have made a hit film for 10 cents and not have somebody knocking on our door, saying, ‘Here’s a million dollars’?”

Craven figures he picked up $100,000 in residuals on ‘Last House.’ When that was gone, a friend advised, “You have to make another Last House.” Craven replied, “I can’t. People turn away from me when they find out I made that movie.” The friend persisted. “Get rid of that Protestant guilt. Don’t be ashamed of what you do well.”

So Craven made “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977), a compact little horror tale about an inbred family of Mojave Desert cannibals. Typically, filmdom’s professor of gore came up with the plot at the New York Public Library while thumbing through “The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mayhem.” A gruesome 17th- century account caught Craven’s eye. It had something to do with a Scottish clan that preyed on and pickled unlucky wayfarers.

Between “Hills” and “Elm Street” there have been three TV movies (including “Stranger in Our House” with Linda Blair), three scripts “in development” that went nowhere, and a couple of films, “Deadly Blessing” (1981) and “Swamp Thing” (1982).

“Deadly Blessing,” starring Ernest Borgnine, allowed Craven to share firsthand fears of religious fanaticism; “Swamp Thing,” about a reptilian superhero, was his chance to “do something gentle and fun-loving and positive.”

Yes, “Elm Street” ‒ with its stalking specter and screaming teens ‒ is a return to conventional fright, Craven acknowledges. “But this time I really let my imagination run free. Maybe this will be the one that gets me into ‘the club.’ I’m tired of being out in the cold. I certainly don’t want to do another slasher or man-with-a-knife type of film. I’m talking to some people now about an island castaway movie – a ‘Lord of the Flies’ with girls. I know in my heart I’m ready for something new. I’m tired of being ‘the granddaddy of the slasher film.’ ”

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