How Director Wes Craven Changed the Horror Game

The director of the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' and 'Scream' series was a master of modern horror.

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Complex Original

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Before Wes Craven released The Last House on the Left, his 1972 directorial debut, its trailer flashed these words on the screen—words that would warn us of the filmmaker's terrifying cinematic effect and his signature method to come:


The horror director has always been keen on playing with and acknowledging the fourth dimension, while still managing to penetrate the crevices of our deepest, darkest fears. 

On Sunday afternoon, Aug. 30, the legendary filmmaker—best known for A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream series—passed away at the age of 76 after battling brain cancer. Craven has had a huge influence on horror films, and continues to shape the genre. During his 40-plus year career, he's become a household name alongside the likes of John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper.

His films in the late '70s and early '80s (1977's The Hills Have Eyes, 1982's Swamp Thing, etc.) went on to become cult staples, but in 1984, Craven created one of the most iconic horror characters: Freddy Kreuger. Kreuger—and the Nightmare movies—represented our relationship with horror in a lot of ways. The film blurred the line between dream and reality, the killings increasingly more confusing. Even if deaths only occurred in dreams, they were no less terrifying to watch—and that's very much the effect horror movies have on us. We know we're only watching a movie but we're still scared, and that can be credited to Craven's use of scares and gore. Even with his reminder "it's only a movie"—an acknowledgement of the fourth wall many filmmakers choose to ignore—he had found a way to not minimize the effect of terror.

It's the same thought process we have when we're in a bad dream and realize it's a nightmare. Somehow, it's still terrifying. The triumphant words of "final girl" Nancy at the end of Nightmare are oddly reminiscent of the words Craven instructs us to repeat in the Last House trailer: "This whole thing is just a dream. I want my mother and my friends again. I take back every bit of energy I gave you. You're nothing."

Craven hit his greatest commercial success (and perhaps left his greatest legacy for the current generation) in the mid-'90s with the Scream franchise—all four of which he directed—and birthed one of the best meta horror comedies. It's a subgenre that's still copied and reconfigured today, with films like The Cabin in the Woods (2012) and the upcoming Final Girls

Lesser known of his meta films is 1994's New Nightmare, an extension of the Nightmare on Elm Street universe that entirely destroyed the fourth wall. The line between the real and unreal blurs even further, as Craven and his actors, Heather Langenkamp (who played Nancy) and Robert Englund (the infamous Freddy Kreuger), play themselves. It didn't matter that it was a movie within a movie—a method used to the point of hilarity in Scream 4 (2011)—he understood the purity of the effect a knife stab can have on the human psyche.

Craven's territory extended beyond the horror genre, sometimes even going into the indie drama category (with 1999's Music of the Heart, which gave Meryl Streep one of her many Oscar nods). With 2005's claustrophobic thriller Red Eye, Craven proved that he was a master of building suspense even outside the traditional horror genre.

But in the horror field, the man was a legend. RIP Wes Craven, you'll be sorely missed.

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