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Rest In Peace, Wes Craven — The Rest Of Us Sure Won't

Wes Craven's most memorable creation may have been knife-fingered nightmare Freddy Krueger.
The Kobal Collection
Wes Craven's most memorable creation may have been knife-fingered nightmare Freddy Krueger.

He was called the Sultan of Shock and the Guru of Gore: Wes Craven, who died Sunday, directed dozens of now-classic horror movies, including A Nightmare on Elm Street and all of the Scream films.

Scream, from 1996, is an expert parody of horror movies, filled with inside jokes — like the girl alone in the house who gets a phone call that's coming from closer than she thinks. Writer Kevin Williamson made it funny. Craven made it scary.

Craven helped bring the horror genre back from the grave when he began directing the <em>Scream</em> franchise in the 1990s.
/ Dimension Films/The Kobal Collection
Dimension Films/The Kobal Collection
Craven helped bring the horror genre back from the grave when he began directing the Scream franchise in the 1990s.

One of Craven's gifts was making his actors believable, even in a movie as silly as Scream. He told WHHY's Fresh Air in 1997 that he stayed up all night with Drew Barrymore, talking about very personal things. "Her extreme connection to animals, for instance, that I was able to use," he recalled.

He used it in a scene where the killer attacks Barrymore through a window. "She and I were talking about what was happening to a puppy in a news article about somebody who had tortured a dog," Craven said. "So there's all kinds of tricks; you just try to find the commensurate place in their subconscious."

"That scene took a week to shoot," Barrymore told NPR in 2009. "I've never, ever, ever had to cry that much and be hyperventilating and fear-ridden, and to be in that state for five days was a total blast."

And audiences had a blast releasing their inner fears in the safety of a darkened theater. It was an improbable career for a guy born in Ohio to a family of fundamentalist Baptists, the kind that rejected popular culture — no comic books, no dancing and certainly no movies. Craven grew up to study philosophy, teach literature and eventually become enthralled by art house movies like those of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

In fact, Craven based his first movie, The Last House on the Left, on The Virgin Spring, a Bergman film about a young girl whose family takes revenge after she's raped and murdered. "The notion was to do something that was completely anti-establishment and completely non-Hollywood," he said.

Craven based his first movie, 1972's <em>The </em><em>Last House on the Left</em>, on an Ingmar Bergman film.
/ The Kobal Collection
The Kobal Collection
Craven based his first movie, 1972's The Last House on the Left, on an Ingmar Bergman film.

It was 1972. The Vietnam War was at its height. Craven was hanging out with a bunch of documentary filmmakers, and he wanted to make something brutal and unflinching, about violence and morality. "It was incredibly personal. It did not cut away. The victims did not often die quickly, they quite often would beg for mercy," he said. "You know, all of those horribly unpleasant moments in actual violence."

Craven had a knack for psychological horror that he picked up in part from studying theater of the absurd. He'd pick away at the idea of consciousness and control.

1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street was one of those horror movies that defined a generation — and redefined the genre. In the movie, teenagers are stalked in their sleep by a terrifying supernatural killer with a melted, burned face and knives on his fingers.

Craven said his famous creation, Freddy Krueger, was a reflection of some of his innermost fears — in this case, of his own father. "Not that my father chased me around with a glove full of knives, but it was just like, to me he was a scary person. He was not around a great deal, and he had a sharp anger, a bad temper, and I remember being quite, quite afraid of him."

Craven said myths were his stock in trade. He broke down the rules of how people are supposed to behave and explored the extremes to which we can go. And here's a little more incongruity: Craven's hard core fans might be surprised to know the director was also a bird lover. For many years, he served on the Audubon California board of directors.

Wes Craven died Sunday; he was 76 and had been suffering from cancer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.