My first experience with a Wes Craven was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. I watched it on video one school holidays, when I was 13, at a friend's house. I will always remember that day because a group of us had trouped down to the local video store and hired both CONAN THE DESTROYER and the first ELM STREET movie.
To be honest, Craven's film scared me more than what I thought a film could. It wasn't so much the graphic elements of the film, but the concept. A boogeyman who had the ability to enter into other people's dreams was something that inhabited my psychology and led me to my very own set of dream nightmares!
Despite my own adolescent fear-reaction to A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, I started to keep track of Craven' career from that point; primarily through the wonderful CINEFANTASTIQUE magazine that my way of keeping informed about what was happening with science fiction, fantasy and horror films throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, before the internet and almost instant communication.
Craven's next three films were DEADLY FRIEND, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW and SHOCKER. Of the three, it was THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW that interested me most, as the film was an adaptation of the Wade Davis book that recounted a 'zombiefication' case in Haiti, a Caribbean country where Voodoo is practised as a religion. The film, starring Bill Pulman, once again, dealt with an other-world setting where characters had the ability to move back and forth with no limitations. The film was well made, but the story was quite procedural and lacked the inventiveness of ELM STREET.
After the relative disappointment of SHOCKER and THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, Craven finally returned to the ELM STREET franchise in 1994 with NEW NIGHTMARE. The film was like nothing else I had seen as it intentionally messed with convention and used the fictional character of Freddy Krueger to stalk the original film's stars Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon and even Craven himself. Craven cleverly creates and fictional family for the real Langenkamp and, in a case of life imitating art, her fictional son Dylan becomes a real-world version of Langenkamp's Nancy character to defeat Krueger. It may sound convoluted, but it actually works and, I remember, a group of us who went to see the movie were impressed with how Craven brought the whole thing together. This blurring of the lines has since come to be tagged as being META, due to the movie's self-referential story where the viewer needs an understanding of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series for the film they are watching to make 100% sense. It's META-NESS is nothing compared to what Craven served audiences next.
In 1996, Craven unleashed SCREAM upon audiences. With a script by up-and-coming writer Kevin Williamson and a cast of young, attractive actors, Craven set about redefining horror movies, allowing his characters to act with a level of self-awareness that was a departure from the Slasher film format of the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. The film drew a lot of attention with its opening sequence, where Drew Barrymore's Casey is murdered in the first few minutes, as Craven messed with audience expectations to near-Hitchkockian levels with echoes of Janet Leigh's demise in PSYCHO. While SCREAM didn't affect me in the same way ELM STREET had a decade before, I certainly appreciated Craven's skill in taking well-worn tropes, turning them on their head and messing with my expectations about what was coming next...
The success of SCREAM allowed Craven to finally develop a franchise in the manner of his choosing; unlike the ELM STREET series, where his limited involvement after the first film saw the franchise develop Freddy Krueger into a pop culture icon, whose wise-cracking lines to his victims became the focus and the central theme of teen isolation (so well explored in the first film) faded into memory. The subsequent SCREAM films continued to mess with convention and, by SCREAM 3, came to acknowledge the series' own inherent weakness of franchise-fatigue. The series appeared to have run out of steam by the end of the third film, but Craven returned for one last shot in 2011 with SCREAM 4. Not his best effort.
Craven's film output slowed after the success of the SCREAM series. Between 2000 and his death this week, Craven only directed four films, including SCREAM 4. While his earlier films prior to ELM STREET, such as THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES are regarded as horror genre classics, I've never had the chance to sit in a darkened cinema and experience those films in the manner which he intended. Fortunately, I have had the chance from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, I have seen all of his films on the big screen. Craven was a storyteller