Wednesday, 9 September 2015

"There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie..."

Wes Craven was not only one of the masters at creating these rules - but he also broke them.

Following the sad, untimely loss of film director Wes Craven, I've spent some time reflecting not only on his work, the man himself, but also the impact he had on my film-upbringing - which naturally pumps the blood of my writing.

I'm not a fan of horror films per se - that's not to say I've not seen my fair share, but for most part I find them repetitive and a bit pointless (other than to scare the pants off you). It also took me a good few years to realise that if I don't like being scared, it's probably best not to put myself in that position! (Having grown up with two older brothers, there was always that thing of stepping outside your boundaries to prove how cool 'n grown up you were... I was neither, but that didn't stop me trying. Fool.)

He's... er.... They're behind you!
My first introduction to Craven's work was 1984's "A Nightmare on Elm Street." Actually, my first introduction was Barry Norman's "Film '85" - a particular show closed with teenager Nancy being chased up marshmallow stairs into her bedroom... "It's just a dream! It's just a dream!" - Cue Freddy Krueger exploding through her bedroom door. What was THAT about?! 

At that time a relative of mine was working for CBS FOX video, so we were always borrowing preview tapes of movies - and soon enough, we had Elm Street. And boy was it scary to a ten year old. (TEN!) It was around this point that I'd become a special effects fan - in the space of a couple of years I'd seen FX masterpieces like "The Thing", "Alien", "An American Werewolf...","The Terminator"... and Elm Street was packed full of amazing visuals and exciting, original, catchy plot ideas. Even back then I could appreciate how the story moved - the story-telling is tight, pacy and full of imagination - even though I wasn't consciously aware of such things like story structure.
It's just a man leaning into a wall of spandex. Nothing more. Oh no.

This week I watched the documentary "Never Sleep Again", which follows the genesis of the 'Nightmare' films, from the low budget, humble beginnings with the first installment, to the, well, low budget-yet-increasingly successful sequels.

It's a fascinating watch, and if you have ANY interest in movie-making or story-telling: You have to watch it. Even if you don't like horror, it's a mine of brilliant stories and information about the process of making a film. (View "Never Sleep Again" here:)
ALWAYS listen to your kids!
Whilst watching the documentary, I began to view the story of the first Elm Street from a totally fresh perspective (I've not seen the movie itself for years). I don't think, until now, that I had fully comprehended Nancy's parents storylines. Being a Dad with two kids, the thought of not being able to protect my kids, but also having been responsible for creating this monster in the first instance really does pack a punch. The psychology behind the 'sins of the parents', who turned vigilantes in order to protect their own kids is one that I fully get. But when the monster returns, the only thing the parents can do is lock their kids in the house and put bars on the windows - ensuring no escape. Much like the later "Scream", Craven sympathized with and understood teenagers very well: They were the ones fighting against the control of the adults. They were not taken seriously by their elders. Grown ups were not to be trusted.

Craven hated censorship. He rebelled against his upbringing - which was restrictive in every possible area. From watching and reading interviews, it's evident that he also had issues with adults; how the young could be put in jeopardy by the lies of 'grown ups'. The inspiration for Krueger came from a 'Hobo' that young Craven had spied from a window. The 'Hobo' passed by, looked up and caught Craven's eye, scaring him off. Young Craven returned to take another peak - the 'Hobo' was still there. His eyes loomed in a threatening manner. The 'Hobo' was taking pleasure in scaring him.

The subsequent 'Nightmare' movies were products of their time, and it's fair to say they progressed into quips 'n kills; surreal ideas that were increasingly outlandish yet far removed from its more psychological beginnings.
Randy explains it all...
And I think that is one of Craven's biggest talents: He understood the psychology of fear. There was always something else going on with the plot and characters, should you wish to dig deeper. Especially in his later works like "New Nightmare" and "Scream", Craven was looking for ways to deconstruct fear. It's a shame that in the final week of Craven's life, his direction of "Scream" was criticized - to me, and a lot of film-fans, "Scream" is not only a masterpiece (not overlooking Kevin Williamson's amazing script), but Craven's direction was genius. There's a vitality to it. He was clearly having a lot of fun (at least that's how it comes across - although it is known that the producer was breathing down Craven's neck for the first few weeks until he saw a cut of the opening scene). "Scream" has a fantastic cast, it's funny, edgy, and certainly inspired me to write my own comedy/horror television scripts "Backstabbers".
Neve & Skeet learn all about corn syrup usages...
Audiences had grown wise to how movies work. "Scream" heralded the era of 'spoilers', as the internet elbowed in on the game. By the time "Scream 2" came to fruition, the fans were way ahead of the film makers. Even the unfinished script leaked on-line, which would be enough to drive any film maker to despair. But Craven had navigated many hiccups throughout his career: thinking-on-his-feet and at times making compromises.

Directing Kristy Swanson on "Deadly Friend".

New Line Chief Bob Shaye insisted on HIS choice of endings for the first Elm Street. "Deadly Friend" was meant to be Craven's own "Starman" (much like when John Carpenter made a departure from scares) - but test audiences felt let down because it wasn't another 'Elm Street': Meaning the gore quota was upped, and the movie became something completely different. Personally I would love to see Craven's "Deadly Friend" (originally titled "Friend"!!!!), because there was quite a sweet film lurking within, especially in the first half an hour.
Robot +...
... + Teen Girl, times by test screening meddling =
Whilst "Swamp Thing" was campy yet fun, and "Shocker" was an attempt to create another Krueger but didn't quite get under the skin. "The People Under the Stairs" is a dark, satirical fairy tale allegory on Regan-era class division and racism involving demented landlords that kept zombie-esque people locked up - yep, under the stairs. The unexpected twist here is it is the "monsters" that must be rescued and set free. They are the innocent victims of the story. A final mention goes to true-story drama "Music of the Heart" - Craven's one departure from scares, and his only film to receive Oscar nominations.

Oscar-nommed once more, Meryl celebrates with a jig...
Innovative, original, and from a lot of accounts a gracious man, Wes Craven delivered his final shock on the 30th of August, 2015. Film critic Kim Newman summed things up perfectly on Twitter:

"Wes Craven reinvented horror at least four times - 
most directors don't even manage it once."

Sidney Prescott: But this is life. This isn't a movie.
Billy: Sure it is, Sid. It's all a movie. It's all one great big movie.
Only you can pick your genre.

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