"I think what, really, horror films deal with is vulnerability and inattention," director Wes Craven said in a 1996 interview promoting his meta-horror opus Scream. "They show you the penalty of...not admitting to what's really out there."
Craven succumbed to cancer on Sunday in Los Angeles. Having been raised by strict disciplinarian parents, received his bachelor's degree from a Christian college and his master's in philosophy from Johns Hopkins, Craven's background seems incongruous with his later status as a horror icon. But many of the director's own statements about his life provide a context for his body of work that owes much to his formative years.
"These are real questions that kids want to know the answers to," Craven said of the practical and philosophical dilemmas surrounding violent death. It's significant that he characterized them as questions that "...adults would just as soon not talk about."
The conflict between children and adults recurs constantly in Craven's films. "A father who beats a child is a terrifying figure," Craven said in reference to his 1986 film Deadly Friend. "That's the one person you're afraid of in the movie...the idea is along the lines that adults can be horrible, without being outside what society says is acceptable."
When asked to name his five favorite movies by Rotten Tomatoes, Craven named Red River, about which he said:
“For some reason. I think the combination of the gruff, tyrannical old man pursuing the unruly, rebellious son really appeals to me. The scenario is, in some odd way, almost as scary as Freddy Krueger, you know! The evil father is an idea that’s really fascinating to me.The origin of Craven's fascination with paternal conflict is no mystery. He himself mentioned his father's drinking problem and violent temper. The elder Craven's sudden death at age 40 left a permanent mark on his son.
The first visible sign of Craven's internal rebellion against his upbringing may have occurred when he left his position as an English professor to direct porn flicks (it also didn't hurt that the money was better). But his entry into the genre that would make him famous was directly related to his strict Christian formation.
"A producer said, 'Make a horror movie'. I said 'I've never seen one.' He said, 'You're a fundamentalist, you must have demons rattling around."
By all accounts, Wes Craven never set out to make his name as a horror director. Even in his seminal revenge thriller The Last House on the Left and supernatural slasher breakout film A Nightmare on Elm Street, the horror is mainly a vehicle for exploring questions and themes that had haunted Craven since childhood. (Freddy Krueger's inspiration from a childhood bully and a harrowing brush with a vagrant hardly needs repeating.)
Indeed, Craven's refusal to direct the sequel to Nightmare and his initial vision for Deadly Friend, which he disowned after the studio insisted on playing up the horror element, lends credence to the idea that he didn't want to be pigeonholed in the horror genre.
Consider Music of the Heart--perhaps Craven's most accomplished film, and the only one of his that he ever let his mother see.
Though Hollywood meddling and insatiable fan demand may have decided the path of Craven's career for him, it seemed that he made peace with his strange destiny. "If I have to do the rest of the films in the [horror] genre, no problem. If I’m going to be a caged bird, I’ll sing the best song I can."