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Mark Kermode on… director Wes Craven, who made horror ‘a positive force in a world filled with fear’

<span>‘A bootcamp for the soul’ (l-r): Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street; Sandra Peabody and Lucy Grantham in the ‘gruelling’ The Last House on the Left; Scream 2.</span><span>Composite: Allstar; Shutterstock</span>
‘A bootcamp for the soul’ (l-r): Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street; Sandra Peabody and Lucy Grantham in the ‘gruelling’ The Last House on the Left; Scream 2.Composite: Allstar; Shutterstock

“Scary movies don’t create fear,” the American writer-director Wes Craven told me on more than one occasion. “They release fear.” This was a mantra for the horror maven, along with his equally forthright declaration that scary movies were a “bootcamp for the soul”, teaching psychological survival skills within the safety of the cinema.

Over the course of his career, Craven, who died in 2015 aged 76, made some of the most memorably influential scary movies of the 20th century, from gruelling grindhouse classic The Last House on the Left (1972; Plex) to the sequel-spawning, genre-defining popular hit Scream (1996). Yet in person, the softly spoken auteur seemed more like an avuncular academic than a Hollywood frightmonger.

I first met Craven in 1989, when I interviewed him in LA about his new electro-themed film Shocker. I was just a hopeful freelancer with little chance of publication, and when I asked him why he would give me an hour of his time, he smiled and said: “Well, you seem keen. And I want to help out, if I can.” Over the next quarter century I would interview him regularly; for newspapers, radio programmes and TV documentaries. Each time, his message was the same: that horror films were not bad for people, but could be a positive force in a world filled with fear.

‘When Last House first ran in the US, people actually stormed the projection booths, trying to get to the print and destroy it,’ Craven told me

This year, Craven’s most famous creation celebrates its 40th anniversary. In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), he introduced the world to the spectre of Freddy Krueger (played by Robert Englund) – a pizza-faced, razor-clawed dream demon stalking the children of Springwood, Ohio through their sleep. Publicised with the tagline “If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming she won’t wake up at all”, the film marked what director Brian Yuzna called the zenith of “plastic reality” – a new wave of popular surrealist horror that owed a debt to the works of David Cronenberg and Luis Buñuel, and paved the way for Yuzna’s own 1989 horror masterpiece, Society.

These were movies in which amorphous fears were given physical form – none more viscerally than in Freddy’s eerie combination of Struwwelpeter and the long-legged scissor man. Like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees before him, Freddy entered modern horror’s hall of fame. But he was a monster with a mission – an embodiment of the sins of guilty parents, coming back to haunt their innocent children.

Whatever their nightmarish trappings, all of Craven’s finest works can be read as down-to-earth allegories, often dealing with failing families and social inequality. In The Hills Have Eyes (1977), which took inspiration from the legend of Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean, the tables of “savagery” and “civilisation” are turned when a suburban family meet their mirror-image match while touring across the deserts of Nevada. Similarly, in 1991’s The People Under the Stairs (on the set of which I saw first-hand how much care Craven took of his young cast), the gothic horror masks a satirical tale of gentrification, greed and class conflict. No surprise that, alongside his genre films, Craven also directed Music of the Heart (1999), a moving biopic of Roberta Guaspari, a music teacher celebrated for her pioneering work in Harlem, which earned Oscar nominations for best original song (Diane Warren) and best actress (Meryl Streep).

Craven was always ahead of the curve. In 1996, he slyly deconstructed well-worn horror tropes in Scream, inspiring a slew of lesser flicks that attempted to repeat his trick of blending self-referentiality with genuine scares. But the groundwork for Scream was laid in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), in which the makers of the Freddy Krueger films are terrorised by their own creation after cancelling further sequels. It sounds preposterous, but the postmodern genre riffs are a smart vehicle for a more serious message about society’s need to tell ourselves these tales of terror – and what happens when we stop!

While the saleable figure of Freddy Krueger was immortalised on screen by actor Robert Englund, the character’s roots (and name) can be traced back to Krug Stillo, the psychotic killer (memorably played by David Hess) from Craven’s most infamous work, The Last House on the Left. In his documentary The American Nightmare (2000), director Adam Simon argues that violent horror films such as George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Last House on the Left (a brutal rape-revenge yarn inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) worked because they expressed pent-up outrage at the social problems of America in the late 60s and early 70s – often with deeply upsetting results.

“I remember when Last House first ran in the US, people actually stormed the projection booths, trying to get to the print and destroy it,” Craven told me, going on to explain that while he opposed official censorship, he was rather heartened by that spontaneous audience response. “We showed violence in its true ugliness, rather than taking the usual Hollywood path of making it glamorous and exciting and entertaining, which is in essence a lie.” Years later, when Craven walked out of a festival screening of Reservoir Dogs (“I thought it got to the point where they were just enjoying the violence”), Quentin Tarantino relished the opportunity to tell journalists that “the guy who made Last House on the Left walked out of my movie”.

Here in the UK, I played my own small role in the notoriety of Last House. When a British distributor appealed against the 16 seconds of cuts applied by the BBFC in 2002 to the previously banned film, I was asked to submit a report establishing the film’s historical stature – after which the BBFC doubled the length of the cuts. When I told Craven that his kindness in 1989 had ultimately been rewarded by me fouling up an appeal for his film’s uncut release, he gave me that same smile he’d given in a previous century and said: “Well, at least you were keen, and you wanted to help.”

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