Since I’ve gotten rather behind on the writing, I’m planning on doing two posts to sum up my last week of movie watching. For the last week (and a half I guess) I’ve been focusing on just two directors: Wes Craven and Joe Dante. It’s been an interesting exercise and I’m going to sum up my thoughts on each of them here.
In this first post, I’m going to talk about the films of Wes Craven. I tried to get a bit of everything (except maybe Music of the Heart because what?) from his early career to what he’s currently up to. It was fascinating to see not only how he’s evolved as a filmmaker and story teller but also how he’s carried through many of the same ideas and themes from the beginning of his career until the end.
So here we go, a look at Wes Craven.
Craven was born in Cleveland, Ohio and after an early career in academics, entered into the world of filmmaking. He got his break in the porn industry so it’s maybe not terribly surprising that his first feature is the b-movie exploitation flick Last House on the Left. Matthew’s written about both the original and the remake as part of his 31 days and I’ve conveyed my dismay with the rape/revenge genre in my post on I Spit on Your Grave. So I’m not going to go much more into that here.
The first time I tried to watch Last House on the Left, I never actually made it to the revenge part of the rape/revenge. My friend and I turned it off half way through. Since then, I’ve watched a lot more horror in general and most notably for this discussion more of the rape/revenge flicks like I Spit on Your Grave. So I was curious to see how I would feel about Last House on the Left now. Would I make it to the end? Would I be just as horrified and disgusted? Or would the whole thing seem like just a lark? And tame version of the brutality that these films have evolved to?
It’s a little bit of both. I won’t go so far as to defend Last House on the Left, I’m still not overly fond of it, but watching it again and most importantly watching it in this different context, I found I wasn’t nearly as upset by it as I have been in the past. It’s never going to be a favorite of mine, but it’s got a goofiness to it that I probably would have really enjoyed had the subject matter been different.
In the context of Craven’s career, it’s easy to see the seeds for his later post-modern take on the horror genre. There’s already a level of self-awareness and humor. There are also a lot of ideas here that he carries through his career (i.e. the uselessness of law enforcement). I particularly enjoyed the introductions of the villains, the newscaster voice-over as we see our bad guys interacting in their current hideout. It’s a hint of his later use of meta-filmmaking, pushing the boundaries of the 4th wall approach to horror films.
All that being said though, this isn’t a film I really can get behind recommending. It’s still hard to watch and, well, not really all that good. But I can see why it has it’s place in the history of horror films and in the context of Wes Craven’s career, it totally makes sense.
I think his next film The Hills Have Eyes is stylistically much more in line with the rest of his films. The dialogue and acting can still be pretty bad but overall this film is a lot more fun. And that’s one thing about Wes Craven, not matter how horrifying and scary his films can be, when he’s at his best they are always fun. The characters here are ridiculous (sometimes in a good way, sometimes not), the rape while still present is at least toned down, and the filmmaking is clearly improving. It’s a better made film and kind of batshit crazy. Just the kind of film I like!
The film itself tastes of horror meets western, eventually turning into action/survival flick. The transition in tone worked well for me, alleviating some of the discomfort from some early brutality. And yes, this film can still be brutal. Not nearly as hard to watch as Last House but in some ways, what happens here to these characters is worse. If you haven’t seen this yet, I’m talking about the scene in the RV when the women have been left alone with the baby. While not as unrelentingly awful as the first half of Last House on the Left, the Hills Have Eyes doesn’t pull any punches. At it’s heart, it is hard and horrific. It’s also something Craven moves away from over the course of his career.
While he does go back and make a sequel to The Hills Have Eyes (I haven’t seen that one but I hear it’s not good?), he moves away from rape/revenge flicks to the surreal nightmares of his imagination pretty quickly. I didn’t watch it this year, but it wasn’t long after The Hills Have Eyes that Craven gave us one of the scariest horror icons ever set to screen. Yeah, I’m talking Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger. I think the cheesiness of his b-movie, porn roots are still evident in Nightmare on Elm Street but in the Nightmare series he made the move to not just exploit, he actually starts to explore the idea of fear itself, the nature of reality, and over the course of it, the line between reality, fiction, and the role of storytelling in society. Perhaps starting before New Nightmare (it is in the Dream Warriors that he first kills someone with a TV, right? Am I remembering that wrong?), New Nightmare is where these ideas really take off.
Once again returning to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Heather Langenkamp is back not to play Nancy but to play herself. Honestly, I was a little disappointed with New Nightmare overall, I really wanted to like it but it’s not always very good. However, I did quite enjoy the meta nature of the narrative and his jump into post-modern filmmaking. There’s a lot of Joseph Campbell type stuff in here as well which is always fun. Who is the author of the work of fiction. Ideas come from a collective unconscious. What are the nature of dreams. Overall though, I feel like the ideas never quite play out and the film is trying to handle a little more than it can really hold up. It takes a weird turn into a child abuse drama for way too long in it’s second act and there are a number of characters and sub-plots that are just poorly developed or explained. Worse though, I was disappointed in Freddy himself. There was something weird going on with his make-up and the special effects in general were a let down. A couple of cool scenes maybe but Freddy somehow seemed less menacing, less capable, and less terrifying.
I liked the idea and I liked the Clive Barker-esque set design of the end, but overall I found New Nightmare to be a disappointment. Maybe even more so because of it’s ambition and cool premise. I could see where this movie could have been amazing which makes it even sadder that it wasn’t.
However, after watching this movie it makes total sense that he made the Scream franchise. He was starting to do some of the same things in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies that he goes on to do much more successfully in Scream.
Of course, before I get to Scream, I have to give a shout out to People Under the Stairs. Talk about a wtf is that experience, People Under the Stairs totally feels like a Wes Craven movie without the post-modern, deconstructionist approach he’s since adopted. I’m talking a little out of order here since People Under the Stairs chronologically comes before New Nightmare. But I’m not sure that really matters. This movie is so weirdly awesome, it’s kind of it’s own thing. Of course it does still explore the same themes of child abuse, terrible parents, and even has the weird mutant like children reminiscent of the Hills Have Eyes. Oh yeah, and cannibalism. Did I mention the cannibalism? It also has Craven’s signature dark yet over the top humor. I feel like this one though tries to dive a little more into the social commentary than he normally goes which works as a narrative device but doesn’t really do much more than that. I love People Under the Stairs, even if it is more weird than necessarily scary.
So after People Under the Stairs, comes New Nightmare then Vampire in Brooklyn (again, huh? Though this one totally makes sense as a follow up to People Under the Stairs) and then finally, Scream. While the 90’s saw a number of other Wes Craven flicks, his most notable are obviously the Scream movies. I wrote recently about Scream and the slasher genre and you all know that I think this movie is brilliant. I also really enjoy Scream 2 and think it’s definitely one of the most solid sequels out there. Scream 3 is kind of terrible and, I think, skippable. What about Scream 4? The only installment I hadn’t seen prior to this 31 days of horror.
Well, I finally watched Scream 4. And I enjoyed it! While I don’t think it quite lives up to the first and second Scream films, it does it’s own thing and it does it well. Filled with generic expected kills, flat and undeveloped characters, and basically just rehashing a movie we’ve already seen rehashed multiple times, this movie really shouldn’t work. I should be sitting here writing about how awful it is and how the Scream franchise is dead once and for all. But that’s not what I’m doing. That’s not what I’m doing at all.
Scream 4 is hilarious. And it feels like a big joke on us, the audience. Like Wes Craven is sitting there, daring us to take it too seriously. This is what we ask for when we go to all of the sequels, when we talk about how good a kill scene is, how awesome an effect, how spectacular a bucket of blood. When we sit and analyze and make simple slasher flicks into something more than they are.
He also makes fun of not just genre conventions, but, well, hell, everything. Talk about self-awareness and in jokes, this movie is everything.
I think the biggest thing for me though, is how he comments (purposefully or not, who knows) on the experience of being the audience of these films. The premise of Scream 4 is Sydney is returning home for a book tour when the horror begins again and a new generation faces slaughter. It’s a thing we’ve seen before, they’ve done similar set-ups in other franchises like Halloween in order to bring them to a new generation of film goers. Scream 4 is definitely trying to appeal to the new generation. But it’s not necessarily admitting that the new is ultimately better.
Scream 4 takes everything Craven has been building to and puts it out there for us. This isn’t just about making a scary movie, it’s about the experience of watching these movies, the experience of immersing ourselves in this genre, and it’s also about the experience of going from a teenager watching the first Scream on opening weekend to a 30-year-old watching Scream 4 on iTunes. Things change, times change, new generations grow up, but we’re all still watching the same movies.
Scream 4 is smarter than it may at first seem. It also references Peeping Tom so points for that. Do I want more Scream movies after this? I don’t know, maybe? Do I want more Wes Craven after this? Most definitely yes.
Also, sometimes, the original is still the best.