By now you've probably heard that Wes Craven has passed away at the age of 76 from brain cancer. Born in Cleveland Ohio in August 2nd, 1939 the legendary horror director died in Los Angeles on August 30th, 2015. Friends, family, coworkers, contemporaries, and media outlets worldwide immediately responded with an overwhelming outpouring of love for the prolific auteur that was heartwarming to see and well-deserved.
You've probably also heard how he redefined the horror genre with A Nightmare on Elm Street and then went on to redefine it again with the Scream series, which served as the basis for the 'hit' spoof comedy series Scary Movie. It's all true of course, right down to the way he pushed the envelope with his genre bending, innovative take on horror as well as by being self-referential, avante garde, and even making fun of his earlier work in his later stuff. Less talked about, however, is that the genius who brought Freddy Krueger to life got his start working in the adult entertainment industry under a variety of pseudonyms as a writer and editor despite (or maybe because of) being raised in a strict Christian household by an overbearing religious mother. Craven admitted that he worked on tons of adult projects and is rumored to have been involved with creating the infamous adult classic Deep Throat.
Wes Craven's first attempt at crossing over came when he made The Last House on the Left, a lurid revenge tale about a pair of teenage girls headed to a rock concert who get kidnapped by a gang of psychotic criminals while trying to score marijuana in the city. Craven financed the show for a paltry $90,000, less than most music videos cost to make. Originally planned as a hardcore release the film eventually was softened to a less graphic B-movie version. Still fans were taken in when it released in 1972 by the unsettling way Craven alternately mixed discordant and pleasant sounds over horrifically jarring images of violence and murder. In fact the film was considered so shocking at the time that there were several reports of audience members fainting in the theater, prompting MGM to advertise the movie with the catchphrase "To avoid fainting, keep repeating 'It's only a movie, it's only a movie.'"
In 1977 Wes released The Hills Have Eyes, another low budget horror movie about a family road trip gone wrong that leaves the helpless travelers stranded in a barren wasteland populated by a savage group of inbred mutant cannibals. The film was originally so brutal that the MPAA suggested it run with an X rating until Craven cut it down to a more acceptable R rated version. It is considered by many critics to be one of the best exploitation films of the 70s.
Although he instantly found a fan base with his shoestring budget horror films, he wouldn't achieve the massive commercial success he dreamed of until years later in 1984, when he wrote and directed the iconic A Nightmare on Elm Street for New Line Cinema. Based around Freddy Krueger, an alleged pedophile killed by vigilante parents who comes back to haunt the dreams of his killer's children before gruesomely murdering them in their sleep, Nightmare went on to be a massive success and put both Craven and New Line Cinema on the map. Made for less than $2 million, the film was a box-office smash and solidified Craven's place as a master of the horror genre. It was also Johnny Depp's breakout role, catapulting him to stardom years before 21 Jump Street. Craven took from elements in his own life to bring his now infamous killer to life. A homeless man he saw when he was ten served as the inspiration for Krueger, whose name some say came from a kid who mercilessly bullied Craven as a child. The actual Elm Street is located in Potsdam, New York, a small town where Craven once worked as a Humanities professor (and part time disc jockey) at Clarkson College. To this day many still consider it to be Craven's best work, including me, but I freely admit I am biased - it was one of the first horror movies I ever saw as a kid and it gave me actual nightmares for weeks on end!