I have to say that I was surprised and saddened to hear that Wes Craven died just a little over two weeks ago on August 30th. I mean, this guy’s films pretty much informed my movie viewing during my pre-teens and teen years. When he had a new movie dropping it was an event. This was before that thing called the internet, kids. This was when you had to sit and watch crappy episodes of crappy sitcoms in the hopes that maybe a commercial would pop up and it would be the trailer for A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Shocker, or Deadly Friend. Maybe, just maybe after this horrid episode of Punky Brewster there might be an ad for The Serpent and the Rainbow(there usually wasn’t.) The best time back in the pegged jeans era known as the 1980s to see those trailers you wanted to see was late at night, and usually during the weekend. I remember that’s when my brother and I saw the trailer for A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. We were up late watching Saturday Night Live and were about to turn off the TV when the ad came on. Once again, this was back when there was no information super highway(and prior to my obsession with horror magazines like Fangoria, Slaughterhouse, and Gorezone), so we had no idea this movie was even being made. We sat all guffawed on the end of the couch as each scene promised more horror and more Freddy than we’d ever seen. Hell, we’d only just seen A Nightmare On Elm Street just that summer, so the prospect of seeing brand new Freddy, well that was just most excellent(vernacular of the time, folks.) Sure, Craven pretty much had nothing to do with that second flick, but it was his creation. If it weren’t for him there wouldn’t have been a homoerotic Nightmare On Elm Street movie, so we still do have Mr. Craven to thank for that.
Wes Craven wasn’t just some hack putting out slasher flicks with topless chicks getting slaughtered like a sacrificial piece of ass for teen boys to feel weirdly excited about. Wes Craven was an intelligent man with a big heart. He was educated(English and Psychology were his Majors; he briefly taught Humanities at University.) He made films that had an underlying theme. It meant something, other than what you saw on screen. His most controversial film, Last House On The Left, was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. If you’re not familiar with this film, you should be. It’s about a father’s revenge(played by the exquisite Max Von Sydow) on two men that brutally rape and murder his teenage daughter. As you know, Last House is about a husband and wife that extract revenge on a group of sadistic Manson follower-like folks that kidnap, rape, and brutally murder their daughter and her friend. The Virgin Spring is regarded as a classic and an arthouse film, while Last House is considered an exploitation flick. Misogynistic, ultra-violent, and cruel beyond belief. The reason it’s seen that way is because Wes Craven wanted to show a kind of violence that was real, not artistically manipulated so it could be easily digested. Rape, torture, and murder isn’t slick, and shouldn’t be easily digested. It’s nasty, cruel, horrific, and wrong. Guys like Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Sean Cunningham, and John Carpenter came up at a time when the Vietnam War was raging and tearing the US apart idealistically, socially, and spiritually. We were seeing a war, warts and all. Journalism had broken free from the confines of the propaganda machine. We were seeing the rages of war in real time. No cleaned up version for us back home. Wes Craven wanted to show what real violence was like. Not the fluff stuff we saw prior to his violent revelation. His films were scary as hell, but there was a humanity in there, too. Sadly, that humanity has been quieted. It shall be missed.
This is a tribute to Wes Craven, but it’s also a tribute to all the horrors that filled my dreams and lingered in my darkened closet as I laid in bed with my Star Wars comforter over my head. I’d found a love for horror and the macabre well before my obsession with Wes Craven. I think the first scary film I saw was Food Of The Gods. It was utter crap, but when I saw it at the drive-in with my parents when I was 5 or 6 years old it scared the hell out of me. I had nightmares for a week afterwards. My parents lived to regret that decision to bring me along, as I made it into their bed every night for a week, waking from nightmares about giant worms and over-sized spiders.
But then I started to see classics like Halloween and The Fog; then the real classics like Karloff in Frankenstein, Lugosi in Dracula, and Lon Chaney Jr in The Wolfman on television. Nightmare Theater on channel 55 filled me in on most of the black and white classics, then plenty of the schlock from the 70s like Blood Beach, Humanoids From The Deep, and Pigs. By the time I was 8 years old I was pretty well versed in horror movies, and every Friday night I was up till nearly 1am watching scary movies -the good, bad, and ugly- and enjoying every moment. Watching those old, grainy B-movies late at night is what informed my taste. The stuff I tended to lean towards was the more lurid stuff. Those movies you find late at night or in some back room at a video store with two inches of dust on it. The forgotten ones. Seeing 6th generation copies on TV with all the lines and and lousy edits and gurgled audio seemed to enhance the experience. They seemed like essential ingredients. I love that feeling of finding some lost gem of horror cinema. Regardless of the quality, somebody put all they had into it. Well, most of the time anyways. Sure, I still dug slickly produced Hollywood horror. But the low budget stuff, that’s where it was at. Seeing The Evil Dead for the first time was an absolute revelation for me. They made this for next to nothing, yet it was the most visceral, gory, violent, and disturbing film I’d ever seen to that point(not counting Sgt. Pepper and His Lonely Hearts Club Band, mind you.) It felt like you were watching a home recording of these poor saps, but you weren’t. The effects were crude, but extremely effective. Who knew that this guy Raimi and this guy Campbell would go on to make one of the best horror/slapstick comedy films ever with The Evil Dead 2? Not me. I couldn’t drink milk for a week after watching The Evil Dead. Nothing funny about that.
I wanted more of that stuff. The visceral, low-budget, creepy stuff. So by the time I was 12 or 13 I’d started delving into horror magazines. “You mean, I can read about upcoming low-budget horror? I could find out ahead of time? Whaaaa?” So every Sunday I’d head into Reader’s World with my dad in downtown Warsaw where he’d get the Sunday paper and I’d get whatever issue was waiting of Fangoria, Gorezone, and Slaughterhouse. Back then, a good portion of what you read about was going to go straight-to-video, so within a month or two of reading about The Dead Next Door and The Beyond, you could probably find them at Video World or Video Plus for some weekend viewing. There was also coverage on the big budget stuff, like Nightmare series, Friday The 13th, Halloween, and flicks like Predator, The Hidden, Pumpkinhead, and anything that had a hint of gore. What I loved about these magazines is you could get into the nuts and bolts of making these flicks. Special F/X guys were like rock stars, showing how they made some guys head explode, or what made those intestines look so realistic, like they were showing you a riff on their guitar. You got to see how this stuff was made, and all the time that was put into it. You appreciated what you saw in the final product even more. And you also got to see quite a bit more in the magazines, as a good portion of those effects were edited for theatrical release. So when you watched it you were like “What??? But his head looked a lot gorier in Slaugtherhouse!” Of course, you could always rent the “Director’s Cut” or the “Unrated Cut” once it was on tape and see it in all its gore-tastic beauty.
Eventually you start to gravitate towards certain filmmakers. For me it was Wes Craven, John Carpenter, George Romero, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Sam Raimi, Clive Barker, and David Cronenberg that kept me coming back for more. Cronenberg eventually got out of the horror game, going more towards these psycho-sexual mind-f**k flicks that could be as scary as even straight up horror, but in the beginning he made classics like Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, The Dead Zone, and The Fly. I’ve been a fan of George Romero ever since I first watched a Betamax copy of Dawn Of The Dead. It still remains one of my absolute favorite films(I just watched it a month ago with my son for the umpteenth time.) He may not have made anything since that’s come close, but Monkey Shines, The Dark Half, and Diary Of The Dead were still very good movies. Over the last few years I’ve rekindled my love for the Italian horror films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, mainly because of my absolute love and adoration for their soundtracks. They were all shot so beautifully, with Argento creating a gore-covered masterpiece in Suspiria. Fulci was a little more heavy-handed in the shock gore and misogynistic tendencies, and less on the artistic merit. I still forgive him, as House By The Cemetery, City Of The Living Dead, and The Beyond are occult classics. They nearly make up for the mondo trasho that was The New York Ripper. There’s something about those Giallo films that always bring me back. They tried to be the full package when they only had a budget for a quarter of the package.
I’m now well into adulthood. In fact, I guess I’m what anyone that hasn’t hit 40 years old yet would call “over the hill”. I’m actually on the downhill descent of that saying. I’m 41, yet I’m more comfortable now with myself than I ever was when I was 21. I’m done trying to fit in, or be trendy. I’m embracing what makes me me. One of those things is horror films. The gross out. The scare. The shock. I’ve already re-embraced my love of Rush, guitar shredders, and cheesy 80s synths. I guess I’ve never sworn off horror films like I did all those others, but I’m looking at them with different eyes now. It’s not just how gory it can be. It’s the grit, the music, the keen eye that went in to so many of them. It’s also my fellow gore hounds that have that passion for the macabre. It’s a wonderful thing.