Earlier this week, horror legend Wes Craven died at age 76. I know I wasn’t alone in really feeling this one; horror movies are a big part of who I am, and there aren’t many horror filmmakers of his caliber. For that reason, it was obvious from the moment I heard he was gone that I’d be writing about him — but I’m not going to attempt anything like a proper obituary or even an overview of his work and influence. Instead, I’m simply going to share three particularly important personal milestones I owe to his work.
My first experience with Craven was with Swamp Thing, and while I thought that was a sweet movie when I was a kid, it didn’t change my life or anything. My next encounter did, though. Soon after Stephen King lured me back to the world of real horror, the first horror movie I watched was A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. (Yes, I know Craven neither wrote nor directed it, but he sure as hell created Freddy Krueger, so it totally counts.) A friend who loved horror movies told me about it, and it sounded smarter to me than most of the horror stuff I’d heard about. Not long after I sought it out — and man, I loved it. Freddy Krueger deployed death and quips with equal aplomb, and I was instantly hooked. Before long I was seeking out all kinds of horror movies, and within a year or two I was officially a horror-movie fan.
Would that have happened anyway? Perhaps, but there was something special about Freddy Krueger. He had an appeal that the faceless Jasons and Michael Myers of the world lacked. He was just as deadly, but also really fucking smart and funny. Needless to say, I was officially hooked on Krueger and sought out the original, then went on to see the others as they came out. Yes, the series drooped a bit by the time Craven came back and rebooted it, but it was always at least fun, and in Krueger he created a character for the ages, a true horror icon. If that had been his only accomplishment, it would be enough.
But of course, it wasn’t.
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Just a few years later, The Serpent and the Rainbow came along and blew my mind in a whole other way. Here was horror steeped in reality, holding out the possibility that the weird shit in it was wholly real; no supernatural force needed, just a lot of weird voodoo drugs and PTSD. For a sixteen-year-old confirmed skeptic, that was a whole new ballgame, a horror movie I could embrace for being realistic, yet still scary enough to make you shit your pants. It was also one of the first zombie movies I ever saw, and if you’ve read much of my work, you know zombies are pretty goddamn important to me. (I listed it as one of the ten best zombie films for Topless Robot years ago.) Years later, when my zombie obsession kicked into high gear, I have no doubt The Serpent and the Rainbow’s real world(ish) take on zombies influenced me to embrace all forms of zombie goodness, not just the classic Romero shamblers.
My final Craven milestone came almost a decade later. In my mid-twenties, I was a little … self serious. You might even say pretentious. I all but abandoned horror movies, thinking I’d outgrown them. Nothing but serious, talky indie fare for me, thanks! (And Star Trek movies, because, c’mon, I was still a giant fucking nerd.) Then someone, I think the girl I was dating at the time, brought Scream over, which was newly out on video. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I’m sure it involved me condescendingly talking shit about how pointless horror movies were and how tired the genre was (to be fair, the genre was pretty tired in a lot of ways circa 1997 or so, when I was saying this.) In the end, she won the argument and we watched Scream and holy shit, was I wrong. This was a really good movie! Smart and funny and subversive and knowing about the genre. It reignited my flagging appreciation of the genre and I think it got me thinking hard about what I really liked and thinking less about the image I was trying to cultivate. In other words, it helped me be less of a pretentious douchebag, something I desperately needed.
Since then, I’ve enjoyed plenty of Craven’s films. He’s unquestionably one of a handful of cornerstone directors in the genre, and his catalog, while by no means perfect, includes a handful of absolute classics and two more handfuls of good, solid films that are worth any horror fan's time. He’ll be missed, of course, but his place in the canon, and in my heart, is secure forever.