My Date with Wes Craven: Considering a Master

By Michael Varrati

I don’t want to brag, but the best date I ever had was with Wes Craven.

…unfortunately, ol’ Wes is completely unaware it happened.

Late last fall, I found myself with a rare Saturday wherein I had absolutely no commitments. Determined to not waste such a gift sitting around my house, I decided to take myself out for a nice romantic dinner for one.

Grabbing a prime seat in the window of a local eatery I enjoy, I casually picked at my meal while watching the bustling masses rush by in an autumnal blur, appreciating the colors and human spectacle. Meanwhile, across the street from my vantage point, employees at a movie theater situated in my line of sight began to set to work hanging a new poster in the display box. Being the movie nerd that I am, my curiosity got the better of me, and I found myself fixated on what they were doing.

Soon, the image was revealed to me, a splash of deep reds and eerie shades of gray:

Wes Craven’s My Soul to Take.

Paying my check, I hiked it over to the theater to see the master of horror’s new advert up close and personal. As it turned out, the movie was already playing, and the cinematic servants were just shifting their posters around for better viewing from passersby. Obviously, their scheme worked.

Since I was there and already in “date-mode,” I decided to grab a ticket for the next available showing.

What followed was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable solo film adventures I’d ever had. Light and playful, My Soul to Take perfectly evoked the kind of horror film that rose to prominence in the 90s, a reflection of the cinema that I had been weaned on as a fledgling fright fan. The cast, compromised of pretty teens, were capable and charming, and the direction seemed to give a knowing wink to the audience, suggesting that this was a film meant to be an echo of those films from the decade past.

For me, My Soul to Take was perfect because it was the definitive 90s horror, just somehow only appearing onscreen in 2010.

Of course, it was also perfect because it was Wes Craven, and who knows more about the definition of horror in the 90s than he? After all, Craven was the one who created that vibe in the first place.

When Scream arrived in 1996, it was the startling breath of fresh air horror needed. Completely aware of the oversaturation of slashers the market saw in the 80s, Scream not only paid homage to that onslaught, but had the audacity to satirize every trope horror had ever had to offer. By creating a truly self-aware horror film, Craven redefined what the genre could be. It was no surprise that all the films that followed tried to emulate whatScream achieved, and though none really came close, that little film became the game changer, for better or worse, of horror’s place in the zeitgeist.

Now, as Scream 4 makes its debut nearly a decade after the franchise’s last installment, Craven fever has yet again seized the cult community. Questions as to whether the return of Sidney Prescott and the Ghostface killer can live up to the hype that the fourth film has generated, at this point, seem almost irrelevant. Instead, what matters more than anything, is the man behind the scares. For Craven, the resurgence is nothing new, but a continued testament to a man who has continually changed the face of terror since he stepped onto the scene.

In 1972, when Craven debuted with the malicious Last House on the Left, I imagine none involved were quite prepared for the reaction that followed. Visceral and stark, the film’s presentation of a family’s railing against the man (played with creepy aplomb by David Hess) who raped their daughter set off a shotgun blast through the exploitation film community. Producers and film studios the world over scrambled to make their own Last Houserip-offs, saturating the market with a bevy of rape-revenge thrillers that defined an era of 70s exploitation.

Many other successes followed, including The Hills Have Eyes and Swamp Thing, ensuring Craven’s place in genre history was confirmed. Yet, even with changing the way the game was played with Last House, his biggest success was still to come.

Of course, I can’t even allude to A Nightmare on Elm Street without every fan boy knowing exactly what’s coming. The 1984 iconic dream slasher introduced to the world the visage of Freddy Krueger, and quite literally set the 80s ablaze in his wake. Even Craven, I imagine, had no idea the heights to which Freddy would climb before the decade was done, but in crafting that character, gave the boogeyman a definitive face for all of the children of the 80s.

The world hadn’t seen a movie villain like Freddy before. A charismatic, fully realized persona (played breathtakingly by Robert Englund), Freddy Krueger was Ted Bundy meets Ethel Merman…a frightening fiend who entertained us as much as he terrorized. Whereas most of the slashers of the 80s were lumbering, silent stalkers, Freddy was all showbiz. Even if you weren’t old enough to see the Nightmare movies, there was not a single child on the playground who didn’t know Freddy Krueger.

To have crafted a character of such popularity that he is now ingrained in the very fabric of the American zeitgeist is astounding. It’s something most writers only dream of achieving and if they do, happens once in a lifetime.

Yet, for Wes Craven, what is meant to only happen once has happened continuously again and again. Last House on the Left helped to kick-start the exploitation movement, A Nightmare on Elm Street ruled the horror of the 80s, and Scream openly mocked that era in the 90s, all the while inspiring its own legion of followers. If one considers just how pivotal each of these films was to pop culture, it follows that Wes Craven must be hailed as one of the greatest voices of his time.

Though, through it all, the maestro seems to remain forever humble and appreciative of the role he’s played in unfolding cinematic nightmares to the world. Never really resting on his laurels, Craven’s earnest and humble nature is evidenced in his continued diligence to create. For his successes, he’s had films that didn’t fare quite as well at the box office, yet have each found a home in the hearts of horror aficionados. His name evokes a certain sense of nostalgia for those of us who have grown up with his work, and a tremendous amount of respect from his peers. There are many legends in horror, but there are few who appeal to the working man quite like Wes Craven. He crafts movies that strike at the very core of what scares us as a people, and yet delivers them with an almost tender (but always sinister) smile.

It is this deft touch of a true artist that made me appreciate my afternoon with My Soul to Take. I knew in seeing it that it wouldn’t be as popular asScream or Nightmare, but it had that intimate sense of a love letter. Insinuated in every frame of the film were the echoes of Craven past, a reminder of all the reasons I have loved his work through the years. Sitting there, watching those kids get terrorized, I was reminded of my youth, and felt pangs of happiness amidst the horror. Wes Craven made me feel young and energetic, which the best dates always do. Although the day had started as a day for me, it wasn’t until Wes Craven cinematically took me by the hand that it became practically perfect.

Sure, it may sound a little lame, but for a monster movie nerd like me, a little fun, a little nostalgia, and a whole lot of scares? Well, that’s just the perfect romance, isn’t it?

So, rest assured, my dear children of the popcorn, I’ll be one of the first in line for Scream 4. To take that trip back to Woodsboro is something I not only am intrigued by, but am elated to do. While I fear for the fate of my dear Sidney (I remember how Nancy fared against Freddy in the Nightmare sequels), I wouldn’t miss her return for the world. Will Scream 4 ignite a new era of Craven the way his films in previous decades have? Will it just appeal to the ardent fans, such as yours truly?

That remains to be seen, but it will inevitably be one wild ride.

So, I’ll see you at the theater…

…and Mr. Craven?

This time I’m bringing you flowers.

Until next time!

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