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Wes Craven Remembered: A Master of Modern Horror

Wes Craven made a comic book movie (“Swamp Thing”) before comic book movies were cool, brazenly transformed an Ingmar Bergman scenario into a vicious grindhouse classic (“The Last House on the Left”), and put Meryl Streep through her paces as she gave violin lessons to inner-city kids — and made an enthusiastic if unsuccessful bid for another Oscar — in “Music of the Heart.”

But the cult-fave filmmaker, who died Sunday at 76, earned his place in the movie history books and a warm spot in the hearts of genre aficionados everywhere with two seminal, sequel-spawning masterworks: “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), the dream-logical, high-voltage shocker that established the fire-scarred, razor-fingered Freddy Krueger as a horror-movie icon; and “Scream” (1996), the seriocomic smash hit, scripted by Kevin Williamson, that impudently played fast and loose with the cliches and conventions of slasher pics like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” (and, yes, “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) by allowing characters to be painfully aware that they’re in the sort of dangerous territory already charted by other horror movies.

Craven was “meta” way before most folks realized that term didn’t refer to multivitamins. In fact, two years prior to “Scream,” he had already mastered the fine art of wink-wink, nudge-nudge self-referencing in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” an ingeniously cheeky thriller based on the audacious conceit that Craven’s “Nightmare on Elm Street” and the five sequels directed by others were works of fiction that inadvertently summoned, and briefly contained, a real supernaturally evil force.

“Unfortunately,” as I noted in my original Variety review, “after the sharp-fingered bogeyman Freddy Krueger was decisively killed in the series finale (‘Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare’) … the evil force was freed to wreak havoc — while still in the form of Freddy — on an unsuspecting world. For that reason, Craven explains while playing himself in the pic’s most darkly comical sequence, he simply must make another ‘Nightmare’ pic.”

Freddy Krueger (as played, brilliantly, by Robert Englund) wisecracked his way through all manner of bloody mayhem, becoming a seriously amusing cult figure despite his tendency to kill teenagers — and his origins as a child molester who was murdered by angry parents. But the “Nightmare” and “Scream” franchises weren’t the only places where Craven — who, with his vaguely sinister beard, his mischievous twinkling eyes, and his wicked smile of complicity with every dirty trick in the book, really looked the part of a horror movie maestro — demonstrated his enviable ability to artfully balance scary stuff and funny business.

A prime example: In “Deadly Friend” (1986), when Kristy Swanson’s revived-from-the-dead teen goes on a vengeful rampage, she ups the body count by dispatching one of her victims with a basketball. (Talk about a personal foul.) She doesn’t dribble, she doesn’t wraparound — she simply shoots, aiming the ball at her enemy’s head, and scores. The audience is caught between flinching at the full-bore gore of the decapitation — and laughing out loud at the darkly comical floundering of the headless corpse.

Exhibit B: “Vampire in Brooklyn,” Craven’s 1995 horror-comedy monster mashup, is not held in high esteem by most critics (to put it very charitably). But I had an unreasonably good time with the film, primarily because, even though it was by and large a comedy, Craven encouraged Eddie Murphy to play it perfectly straight throughout as Maximilian, a suave Caribbean bloodsucker who comes to New York in search of a soulmate.

“I always wanted to do something where I was the villain in a movie,” Murphy told me during the movie’s New York press junket. “And I love horror movies. And I’m a big fan of Wes Craven.” True, Craven provided what Murphy described as “a kind of safety net” by giving him the chance to also co-star as two relatively minor but broadly comical supporting players. While Murphy essayed Maximilian, however, “We didn’t want him being some campy character like ‘Blacula,’” Craven said. “We wanted him to be a real, dark, evil, strong force. He would have a wicked sense of humor, but he wouldn’t be cracking jokes all the time.” Freddy Krueger he wasn’t — which likely was major reason for the movie’s box office under-performance.

Like most if not all directors of his generation, Wes Craven readily admitted that he stood on the shoulders of giants, making films while under the influence of other filmmakers who were predecessors or contemporaries. To be honest, I was, well, shocked when Craven told me that he listed Francois Truffaut among his mentors. But as he explained to me 10 years after that great auteur’s death: “Truffaut was very, very important to me, because he was certainly the most human of them all. In the sense that his characters were so real. And I’ll never forget ‘The 400 Blows,’” and the shot of that boy ending up on the beach after running, running, running, with no place left to go. That was a profound image for me. It resonates even in ‘New Nightmare.’ So I was a big fan.”

And very much like Truffaut, Craven didn’t merely admire Alfred Hitchcock — he occasionally wanted to be Alfred Hitchcock. Nowhere was this clearer than in “Red Eye” (2005), arguably Craven’s last great movie, a shamelessly contrived yet mercilessly potent thriller that richly deserved to be labeled Hitchcockian. It was Hitchcock, you may recall, who contemptuously dismissed “the plausibles” — his derogatory term for literal-minded spoilsports who carp about coincidence and logical inconsistency. Craven demonstrated similar disregard for such nitpickers while, working from Carl Ellsworth’s screenplay, he piled absurdity atop improbability with impudent gusto, and even got a few welcome laughs by repeatedly indicating that a distressed damsel (in this case, Rachel McAdams as a luxury hotel manager who’s blackmailed into facilitating an assassination) is by no means a defenseless damsel.

Wes Craven was always fond of surprises.

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