Monday, August 31, 2015

The lesson of Wes Craven


Wes Craven was never as talented as his peers. It was rare that his name was ever uttered in the same breath as guys like John Carpenter, George Romero or David Cronenberg. During the years that those guys were making their best work, Craven was cranking out forgettable fare like SWAMP THING and DEADLY BLESSING. For a while, it was understood by horror fans that THE HILLS HAVE EYES was probably a fluke. It wasn't until 1984 that he'd make another film that captured the imagination of the public; A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

And, even then, his winning streak would be abbreviated. He balked at the idea of returning to the misadventures of Freddy Krueger, instead bouncing between television fare (including the spectacular episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE revival, "Shatterday" and "Wordplay") and utter shit like DEADLY FRIEND. He never rested long between projects, always moving forward to either capitalize on his successes, or working to get a new film on the market to make us forget his most recent misstep.

But a funny think happened along the way: Craven's more-talented peers gradually lost their touch. Craven not only knew how to learn from his mistakes, but he was smart enough to recognize that you can't clone success with a sequel. His experience with THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II is almost certainly the reason he shied away from directing an ELM STREET sequel for two decades ... and even then that film's sequel status is mostly honorary.

In 1996 Craven made his masterpiece, SCREAM. That same year his more-talented peers — at least, the ones who were still capable of getting a motion picture into production — were making some truly regrettable movies. Craven had managed to "reinvent" himself by the virtue of persistence. He was still making the kind of movies he'd always made, only they were more polished, professional and Wes Craven-y than ever. He'd found mainstream acceptance as a filmmaker at the age of 57.

For any other director, his next few creative choices would have been shocking. A guy who hated sequels made three more SCREAM movies (each a pointed criticism about the inherent lameness of sequels), the psychological thriller RED EYE and MUSIC OF THE HEART. A man who once paid the bills making pornography was now directing Meryl Steep.

It's no coincidence that Craven is remembered primarily for his successes. This was a guy who refused to let his image be painted by any one film, regardless of how great or terrible it might have been. He was a filmmaker who always put story ahead of anything else and knew how to experiment without being self indulgent. That's the lesson we should all take away from the life and career of Wes Craven.

WALLACE McBRIDE is the editor of The Collinsport Historical Society.  

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