One thing every parent (or potential future parent, in my case) has to think about when raising a child is when to introduce them to things we know may cause more harm than good. When do you show them that they won’t always be a winner – by beating them at a board game or in sports or a video game? When do you teach them that people can’t always be counted on and share with them a story of disappointment? And when do you let them watch a movie that may scare the bejesus out of them and give them nightmares?
For my dad, he felt that lesson should come when I was 8 years old.
I will always cherish the memory of sitting down with my dad to watch “A Nightmare on Elm Streret Part 4: The Dream Master.” The movie originally came out in the summer of 1988 and became the highest grossing horror movie of the 1980s. Freddy Krueger had become an icon of sorts, and actor Robert Englund had grown to the point of receiving top billing over the credits of the movie. My neighbor Steve had been pressuring me to finally start watching horror movies, so when the newest Nightmare film was to premiere on HBO that winter, I pleaded with my dad to let me watch it. Obviously, it was rated R and I was a child. It was quite the dilemma.
Dad decided to let me watch, on the compromise that he watch with me. The movie was gory, the killings were brutal, the naked girls were … naked. As a young boy, I firmly believed that my dad had made the right decision in allowing me to watch it … until I went to sleep. I don’t remember much about the nightmare, but I know the movie had the desired effect that the filmmakers hoped for. When I spoke with my dad about it, he did the most natural thing a father should do – he made me watch it again.
The difference with the second viewing was that my father explained how the special effects were created (to the best of his knowledge; he wasn’t an expert in the field, but knew enough to explain it, especially to an 8-year old). This had a profound effect on me: 1) it made me realize just how amazing horror movies are in general, 2) how the “Elm Street” series is one of the most incredible franchises ever, and 3) how Wes Craven was an absolute genius.
Craven was born in Cleveland just as WWII was beginning and at the young age of just 32, directed “The Last House on the Left.” It remains (at least to me) one of the most disturbing horror movies of all time, dealing with the scariest of topics for any parent: coming face-to-face with someone who hurt your child.* The horror genre was soon about to change.
* I watch the original “Last House” at least once per year. It is seriously disturbing and the rape scene is one that can be incredibly uncomfortable to watch. I once met Martin Kove, who played Sensei Reese in the original “Karate Kid” and also played one of the police officers in TLHOTL when he was much younger. I asked him about making a movie like “Last House” and if he watches it anymore. He said he doesn’t watch it anymore since he had daughters. It’s that disturbing of a film. The remake is awful; it focuses more on the gore and violence than the psychological component.
In 1978, John Carpenter smacked Hollywood in the face with “Halloween,” about a mental patient who escapes a hospital to return to his hometown and start killing off teenagers. It was frightening because of the realistic nature – a plot so simple, it could happen any day in any town. Two years later, Sean Cunningham directs “Friday the 13th,” a ground-breaking slasher film in which every murder occurs from the killer’s point-of-view, enabling a “whodunnit” mystery surrounding the gruesome killings of more teenagers.
Then in 1984, Wes Craven joined forces with a fledgling little movie studio called New Line Cinemas to release “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Craven had read about people dying while having nightmares, then took the name of a childhood bully, and the look of a homeless man that scared him from the street outside his childhood bedroom window, put them all together, added a bit of the supernatural, and a legend was born. The tag line, “If Nancy Doesn’t Wake Up Screaming, She Won’t Wake Up At All” was so cool and different and apropos to the movie. The idea that you could fall asleep, and if the horribly burnt man with a glove of knives killed you in your dream then you were dead for real scared the pants off everyone who saw it. The film spawned 7 sequels, a TV series, action figures, a late-night 900-number, and more merchandise than could have ever been imagined after wrapping up filming just 30 days after starting.
Craven was the only man to ever direct more than one “Nightmare” film, sitting in the chair behind the camera for the original in 1984 and then returning ten years later for “Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare” in 1994 after not being satisfied with how the series ended with “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” in 1991. He took the story in a dramatically new direction, breaking the fourth wall and showing the fans that their fear can live on through film.
In 1996, he directed “Scream,” a new horror series for the new generation. It grossed over $160 million worldwide and set the new standard for the horror genre.* As usual, Craven was the mastermind. He even had a cameo as a janitor named Fred, paying homage to the character that brought him so much success.
* Following the release of “Scream” and the fear caused by the opening scene, the popularity of Caller ID nearly tripled in the country. On only a few occasions has a movie or TV changed culture so dramatically. It is often thought that the 1955 James Dean classic “Rebel Without A Cause” influenced the rebellious American teen and kickstarted the counterculture of the 1960s. Following the release of “Sideways” in 2004, Merlot sales dropped 2% and Pinot Noir sales skyrocketed 16%. Oliver Stone’s epic “JFK” led to the creation of the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Act of 1992, which was a groundbreaking movement of the government to become more transparent to the public. And the Steven Spielberg 1975 classic “Jaws” severely effected the tourism of beaches, especially in New England.
American movies have had a long-lasting effect on the public. We grow to love the actors and actresses, but occasionally we learn more about those behind the cameras – the directors and producers. Some, like Michael Bay, receive constant scorn by fans of series who feel he makes awful movies and ruins franchises. But for some directors, they become icons like the faces in front of the camera: Spielberg, Coppola, Stone, Scorsese, Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Allen. Wes Craven was an icon of horror. I had always envisioned sitting down with him one day and talking about a screenplay idea I had that would only really work with him at the helm.
I’ll never get that chance. Wes Craven died last week after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 76 years old. The nightmare of fighting cancer has finally ended. Unfortunately for us, the dream of seeing more from him ended as well. He will be greatly missed.