Wes Craven: The Man and his Nightmares (2011)
Author: John Wooley
Wes Craven is a fascinating figure, having a director’s filmography dating all the way back to 1972. The new Wes Craven biography, called Wes Craven: The Man and his Nightmares, comes from author John Wooley, who paints an interesting portrait of the influential cult film director, drawing on new interviews with Craven as well as other source materials. A running theme in the book is the influence of Craven’s religious background, which was deeply conservative and Baptist. It is suggested, and almost certain, that his rebellious tendencies caused him to later turn against this upbringing in an extreme manner, resulting in the shocking directorial debut of The Last House on the Left (1972). The author touches upon all the films in the director’s career, including those movies he executive produced, and ends with mentions of the more recent My Soul to Take and Scream 4. Since the book is a relatively short read, the end result leaves the reader wanting more, but there is enough interesting stuff here to give an idea of what is going on in the man’s head.
You should approach this book as a general retrospective on Wes Craven’s career, with personal details interspersed. Subtext underlying each of his films is talked about – the parallels of Last House… with the Vietnam War and the death of the 60s hippie movement, for example. The inability of parents to protect their children is another running theme, as seen in movies like Last House… and Nightmare on Elm Street. Notable is Craven’s continuous attempts to break out of the horror film stereotype, but unfortunately (or fortunately, for us) Last House… and The Hills Have Eyes set him on a course that could not be easily changed. As much as he tried to break away, Craven, like other directors in his position, still had to put food on the table. What I didn’t know was that Craven would be able to get in one acclaimed drama – 1999’s Music of the Heart, which starred Meryl Streep, Aidan Quinn, Gloria Estefan, and Angela Bassett. It took him 27 years to do it, but he got it done.
Some surprising facts from the biography include: Craven’s joint ventures with Sean Cunningham in the 70s, which included Together (1971), a soft core hippie pseudo-documentary that starred a young Marilyn Chambers (then known as Marilyn Briggs, who would be discovered by the Mitchell Brothers and used in Behind the Green Door). There’s Craven walking out of Reservoir Dogs because he found the violence disturbing, the irony being that Tarantino was inspired by Last House on the Left. Then there’s the rumor that Sharon Stone (who appeared in Craven’s 1981 film Deadly Blessing) seduced his second wife, leading to their divorce. All of his films are given mention, but the ones that get the most attention are, as you might expect, Last House…, Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People Under the Stairs, and the first three Scream movies. The discussions of Craven’s fascination with dreams and self-aware meta-commentary (as seen in New Nightmare and the Scream films), make sense when learning that he was a college teacher of literature, English, and writing. Only a few times did I spot certain inconsistencies in Craven’s philosophy, as when he is occasionally quoted that he needs to make films that are original: There are two criteria I have for making a film. One is, “Is what I’m about to do been done before? Have I seen this film before?” A brief rundown on The Hills Have Eyes, Part 2 seems to break that rule (but I still understand why he made it – Craven gotta eat!). Scream 2 and Scream 3 might be seen as breaking that rule as well.
No matter; this is the story of a guy who did the best he could with being pigeonholed as a slasher/blood-n-guts/exploitation guy. He is a man with something to say; someone who tries to make his films just a little bit different, despite undergoing a lot of pressure by studio heads on his bigger-budget pictures (your feelings about Deadly Friend and Cursed being messed with by the studios are more than confirmed here). While I think Wes Craven: The Man and his Nightmares could stand to be a bit longer and more personal, it’s still a pretty good overview of the man and his career.
– Bill Gordon