' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Wes Craven

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

In Memoriam: Wes Craven

Movies are nothing if not waking dreams. We sit in the dark and have our fears and desires enacted out on the screen before us, a fantastical junction where, as the foremost considerer of cinema as dreams, David Thomson, once wrote “the relationship between the real and the surreal is not distinct but blurred.” Occasionally, after a really good movie, the credits roll and the lights come up, and I find myself bleary-eyed and emotionally exhausted, thinking “Where am I?” It’s no different than waking after a nightmare and, for that split-terrifying-second, not remembering I’m merely in my bed.

Wes Craven knew this about movies well as anyone. That’s why he centered his legendary “Nightmare on Elm Street” on dreamscapes, a horror film in which a burned-alive child killer called Freddy Krueger lives on by entering teenager’s dreams and killing them, for real. I never saw the movie in the theater, but I saw it in the dark of a friend’s basement, and that darkness was no less altering than a theater’s. Ask any adolescent from the 80’s – after watching it, you didn’t want to go to sleep. Freddy Krueger could be waiting in your dreams; anything could be waiting in your dreams. Then you’d force a smile and repeat “It’s only a movie.” But you didn’t really believe it.


Twelve years after the first “Elm Street”, Wes Craven unleashed “Scream”, a sort of horror movie state of the union, in which he and writer Kevin Williamson commented, wittily, on the genre. The characters were rendered as entirely self-aware of the all the genre’s tropes. They could sit on the couch and watch other horror movies and predict what would happen in their movie; it was a sentient slasher pic. And yet…Craven didn’t skimp on the violence. The killers wielded knives and the sound those knives made when they penetrated flesh was queasily squishy. Drew Barrymore screamed because she got stabbed. Knowing that it was all make believe didn’t mean that it wasn’t really happening. This was the real and surreal being blurred and winding up in a pool of blood on the floor.

Craven first made his name with 1972’s “The Last House on the Left” in which two teenage girls are tortured, raped and murdered and the parents gruesomely avenge their deaths. “(T)here is evil in this movie,” wrote the late great Roger Ebert. “Not bloody escapism, or a thrill a minute, but a fully developed sense of the vicious natures of the killers. There is no glory in this violence.” He then compares it to Sam Peckinpah’s unholy meditation on sadism “Straw Dogs” and any movie that gets compared to “Straw Dogs” must be fucked up. And that’s why I openly confess to never having seen “The Last House on the Left”. That’s a conscious choice and, all due respect to Mr. Craven who passed away on Sunday at the age of 76, I never will. It’s not that “it’s not exactly a fun watch” as Stuart Heritage wrote for The Guardian yesterday; it’s that Wes Craven had an implicit understanding of how cinema’s dream could become a nightmare from which you would swear, in the moment, there was no escape.

“The Last House on the Left” employed the famous tagline “To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘It’s only a movie…’” The hell it is.

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