When I think of Wes Craven’s films, I’m struck with a flood of memories. Nightmare on Elm Street is the first horror movie I remember watching, with a babysitter who probably shouldn’t have let me watch it. I was little, curled up on our old couch in our trailer in the dark, eyes big as the moon and glued to the gore.
I remember watching Scream at a sleepover, complete with pizza and sodas and a gaggle of girls. Everyone else was a little off the pizza after the first scene.
I was not.
Wes Craven created some of my favorite slasher movies of all time. Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, The Last House on The Left. All of them leave people sick to their stomachs in the very best way possible.
And can I also just mention that this guy won the name lottery? His actual birth name is Wesley Craven. I always thought that was a stage name. How lucky do you get?
Craven always allows the main characters to be the heroes. And his main characters are very often teenage girls. There’s no boyfriend, father, or parent jumping in to save them. It’s Nancy or Sydney saving everyone else’s ass, even after no one wanted to listen to them. They never once came across as scream queens. They also didn’t suffer from what I call the Alice Problem. By that, I mean Alice from Resident Evil. She had no personality, could have been anyone. I can’t think of a single thing about her that would distinguish her from Jill Valentine.
There’s none of that with Craven’s leading characters. They are their own people.
I’ve never watched a Wes Craven film and not had a good time. In addition to being wonderfully bloody, they’re often funny. Especially the Scream movies. I love a good laugh to go along with the gore. I love that his movies aren’t afraid of being silly. They’re never taking themselves too seriously.
I have no problem with fiction that has a message. Some of my favorite books and movies are all about that. Pleasantville, Dogma, Jacob the Liar. These are great films. But not everything has to have a message. Sometimes a piece of art can just be there to be enjoyed. And I love that Craven does that.
Finally, Craven figured out how to avoid one of the biggest issues with the horror genre. Almost everything has been done. Most viewers are genre-savvy. So, to surprise an audience, you’ve got to embrace the meta.
And Craven has made a habit of doing just that. The Scream series is a great example, giving us film after film full of in-jokes designed for horror fans. Even better is my favorite horror film, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
In this film, the actors from Nightmare on Elm Street are attacked by Freddy. Even Robert Englund, the actor who played Freddy himself. This was a ton of fun for a super fan like me.
So, what have I learned from Wes Craven? And what can you, as a writer learn from him?
-Understand that your fans are probably genre-savvy, and have fun with that
-Have fun with your art in general. Don’t be afraid to go big.
-Give your main character a real personality.
Don’t miss the other posts in this series, where we talked about Stephen King, George Romero, and R. L. Stine