Tuesday, August 08, 2023

2023: The Year of Wes Craven

Wes Craven (photographed by Chris Buck)
Wes Craven (photographed by Chris Buck)

Wes Craven passed away almost exactly eight years ago, and his loss reverberated strongly within the horror community. When, two years later, we also lost George A. Romero and Tobe Hooper, fans and film critics paid tribute to the three fallen Masters of Horror—and, apparently, made plans to celebrate them in a slew of academic publications.  


2021 saw the publication of “the first comprehensive scholarly study” of Tobe Hooper, University of Texas Press’s American Twilight. (John Kenneth Muir wrote the first comprehensive overview of Hooper’s career, Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre, in 2002, but the depth of analysis in American Twilight reflects the passing of nearly twenty years as well as newer work by the filmmaker.) That same year, Scout Tafoya published his intensely personal and intensely geeky monograph Cinemaphagy: On thePsychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper. Brilliant tributes, both.


In 2022, following the establishment of the George A. Romero Foundation and the George A. Romero Archive at the University of Pittsburgh, Edinburgh University Press released George A. Romero’s Independent Cinema, an in-depth look the business of Romero’s film company Laurel Entertainment, by Tom Fallows. Earlier this year, McFarland published Not of the Living Dead, a very welcome anthology of essays about Romero’s lesser-known, non-zombie films. Later this year, Oxford University Press will release Adam Charles Hart’s Raising the Dead, a study of Romero’s unpublished and unproduced work. In academic circles, Romero lives on.


In 2023, Wes Craven is getting an equally reverent treatment. In addition to the publication of a revised and updated version of Brian J. Robb’s study Screams & Nightmares, three books of essays about Craven’s work will be released. Vying for the title of the first comprehensive scholarly study of Wes’s world are Edinburgh UP’s ReFocus: The Films of Wes Craven, edited by Calum Waddell, and Lexington Books’ A Critical Companion to Wes Craven, edited by Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns and John Darowski. They will be followed, later this year, by Lexington’s Theology and Wes Craven, edited by David K. Goodin.


ReFocus: The Films ofWes Craven has an excellent editor in Waddell, an authority on horror and grindhouse cinema, whose stated goal is to prompt readers and viewers to look beyond the A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream series, and recognize Wes as a “nearly unrivaled influence within the genre” (“nearly” is qualified in a footnote about John Carpenter) as well as an “essential American filmmaker.” Through close readings of Wes’s minor works—as well as two new essays about the original Nightmare on Elm StreetReFocus makes a strong case for Wes as an auteur.


Finding intersections between life and art, the book is divided into four loosely-chronological sections. “The Early Wes Craven” looks at the director’s most primal horror films (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Hills Have Eyes Part II) as well as one lost and relatively unknown student film he shot (Pandora Experimentia). “Freddy Krueger and Beyond” features two new essays on Elm Street, plus analyses of two Wes-directed episodes of the 1980s Twilight Zone TV series amd the film Deadly Friend. The heavy-lifting “Hollywood Nightmares” section examines The Serpent and the Rainbow, Shocker, The People Under the Stairs (the only non-Nightmare film to warrant two separate essays), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and A Vampire in Brooklyn. Finally, “Lineage and Legacies” examines Music of the Heart, Scream 4, and Wes’s supposed influence on The Purge film series.


The first section of the book is uniformly excellent. Holger Briel’s essay on Last House within the context of that film’s censorship in Germany is well-researched and carefully considered; it illustrates how censorship can rob a film of its meaning and unfairly distort popular perception of the filmmaker(s). Mikel J. Koven’s essay on Hills 1 as an example of Folk Horror views the 1977 film through a 21st century lens, interrogating the film’s narrative point-of-view for sociopolitical implications—and making some intereseting points about the 2006 remake without ever explicitly mentioning it. Will Dodson takes on the ambitious task of resurrecting Hills 2, revealing the bones of a more insightful (unmade) film about trauma and cultural assimilation. Unfortunately, Dodson’s essay is limited by the author’s access to only one draft of Craven’s script—but all three drafts now reside in the Horror Studies Collection at theUniversity of Pittsburgh, so there’s opportunity for a followup.


Especially noteworthy is Brian R. Hauser’s essay on Pandora Experimentia, the source of many urban legends at Clarkson University, where Wes taught in the late 60s. Hauser also taught at the school (many years later) and organized a panel discussion about the now-presumed-lost student film, featuring members of the original cast and crew. Apart from Pandora co-directors Ken Lyon and John Heneage, Hauser is undoubtedly the foremost authority on the topic, and he brings a wealth of primary research that fans won’t find elsewhere.


The second section of the book delves into Wes’s subtextual criticisms of the Reagan era. A Nightmare on Elm Street has been extensively mined, but Sinead Edmonds finds something new to say about this iconic film as a narrative of personal and cultural trauma. In a second essay on Elm Street, Penny Crofts and Honni van Rijswijk helpfully point out that the parents in the story—as well as their children—are damaged. Both essays could be expanded meaningfully through close readings of earlier drafts of Wes’s scripts for A Nightmare on Elm Street (in which Nancy seeks institutional help from a psychiatrist and the church) and A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (in which Nancy’s father starts out as a weary vigilante, hellbent on finishing Freddy).


It is refreshing to see Matthew Sorrento pay some critical attention to Wes’s Twilight Zone episodes, an important part of the director’s body of work. Writing about the episode “Shatterday,” Sorrento parses differences between writer Harlan Ellison’s authorial intentions and Wes Craven’s auteurist interpretation. He also suggests a way of reading “Her Pilgrim Soul”—my favorite Wes episode—that I’d never considered.


As something of an apologist for Deadly Friend, I was happy to read Norberto Gomez Jr.’s essay, presenting the film within the context of early 80s optimism about new/future technology. Gomez’s interpretation of the film reminded me of George Romero’s Martin, another neglected horror film about a lonely hero searching for human connection using inhuman (or, possibly, superhuman?) methods. The author also makes a good case for Deadly Friend as a forerunner of Scream and Pulse. He could have easily included Wes’s novel Fountain Society as well.


The third section of the book maps a surprising turn toward optimism in Wes’s work. James Kloda indicts The Serpent and the Rainbow as a “white savior” narrative but suggests a way of viewing the film that makes it nonetheless progressive. Melody Blackmore acknowledges Shocker as a film about “cultural terror of technology” but also redefines it as a hidden ghost story about transcending the mind-body connection. In two complementary essays on The People Under the Stairs, Catherine Lester and Kevin J. Wetmore Jr. view that minor classic as a genuinely cathartic children’s horror film, a prescient Black horror film juxtaposing economic and racial disparity, and a “strikingly optimistic” story from a reputed master of horror. Max Bledstein outlines the positive effects of horror cinema in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and Richard Sheppard makes A Vampire in Brooklyn sound (dare I say it?) smart, by characterizing the critically-dismissed horror-comedy film as a “post-O.J. Simpson” commentary on American society. I’ll never watch it the same way again.


The fourth and final section of the book is disappointingly brief but nonetheless valuable. It is also the most heartfelt section of the book. Waddell’s essay on Music of the Heart argues a case for Wes Craven as a “revolutionary” filmmaker, and positions the director’s neglected non-horror film as a thematic capstone to his career. Next, Erika Tiburcio Moreno contends that Wes’s revolutionary voice resonates posthumously in The Purge films—but her contention that Wes’s heroes “all turn to violence as a (perhaps short-term) solution” gives short shrift to the heroes and heroines of Elm Street, Shocker, Red Eye. Waddell returns and rounds out the collection by suggesting that Wes’s last three feature films (Red Eye, My Soul to Take, and Scream 4) reflect his “postmodern sense of Self.” I’m not completely sold on the theory, and I wish Waddell had spent a bit more time on Red Eye and especially My Soul to Take, but I love some of his insights. Bottom line: I am very grateful that this book exists, and any serious fan of horror cinema should be too.


Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns, an authority on international horror films, and co-editor John Darowski cover some of the same ground in A Critical Companion to Wes Craven, but their book stands on its own as an even more comprehensive look at the filmmaker’s career. Touting Craven as “a true auteur” whose “personal voice” is “present even in his less celebrated work,” the collection gives due attention to projects that are mostly ignored in ReFocus—including The Fireworks Woman, Deadly Blessing, Swamp Thing, Wes’s TV movies (Summer of Fear, Invitation to Hell, Chiller, Night Visions, even Casebusters), the TV series Nightmare CafĂ©, and My Soul to Take. The editors don’t seem to have quite the same level of in-depth knowledge of their subject—the introduction contains several factual errors—but the enthusiasm behind this book is undeniable.


Instead of taking a chronological approach, Critical Companion divides essays into four sections according to “different aspects of the director’s oeuvre.” Part 1—“Space, Time, Urbanities”—offers an overview of Wes’s major themes and methods for visualizing those themes. Part 2—“Traumatic Aspects”—interrogates some of the filmmaker’s most thematically complex and troubling/troubled narratives (Last House on the Left, The People Under the Stairs, and My Soul to Take). Part 3—“The Authorial Voice”—highlights some of Wes’s more idiosyncratic works, and Part 4—“Sociological/Philosophical Inquiries”—returns to the major themes with impersonal/theoretical readings of key films.


For me, the highlight of Part 1 is Michael J.T. Stock’s essay on EcoGothic, a subgenre that Wes wanted to explore during the final years of his life. The last line of Stock’s essay reminds me of an anecdote Wes shared in 2010, about an intended shot for the original Hills Have Eyes movie, in which the camera pulls up and away from a character—all the way into outer space—giving a cosmic sense of humanity’s isolation and vulnerability to a cruel or indifferent universe. I also enjoyed Daniel P. Compora’s essay on Nightmare, Shocker, and Scream as “an evolving narrative of the dangers of suburban life,” which puts a finer point on some comments made by Calum Waddell in his essay on Music of the Heart.


Part 2 is a deep dive and, inevitably, a mixed bag. Taking the plunge with My Soul to Take, Reece Goodall declares that film “worthy of scholarly re-evaluation in that many of its perceived flaws are in fact significant to how it should be understood.” Goodall presents an intriguing thesis, but I don't agree with her implication that Wes intended those “perceived flaws.” Even in a critical analysis, I think it’s important to recognize that some films are  assembled from uncongealed ideas, random suggestions, business-related compromises, and a lot of second-guessing. I  love the idea that Wes intended to make a film about “the instability of identity for young people,” as well as an interrogation of “issues of faith and storytelling,” but I don't think he consciously crafted a piece of Junk Art to illustrate those themes. On the other hand, I agree that My Soul to Take deserves more attention, and this is the most thought-provoking take I've read on the film.


Equally challenging is the group-authored essay “Wes Craven and BIPOC Horror: Contrasting The People Under the Stairs with The Possession of Joel Delaney.” The group consensus is that Possession is the more laudable film, and that Wes undercut his own message by trivializing the racist villains in People. It is a fair criticism—but I think the authors go too far in questioning whether a white, middle-class director “can or should examine social issues outside of their lived experiences.” (Worth noting: Wes Craven grew up poor in the racially-diverse Hough Avenue neighborhood of downtown Cleveland during the post-WWII years, and he was a firsthand witness to plenty of racial tension, economic disparity, and violent injustice.) This is still the most insightful essay I’ve read on The People Under the Stairs.


Part 3 of the book may be a bit too esoteric for most readers, but I love Will Dodson’s devotion to the Television Films of Wes Craven. The guy actually sat through Casebusters and managed to find “embryonic sequences that would be fully realized in The People Under the Stairs.” He also connects Chiller to The Fountain Society, and Night Visions to My Soul to Take. Hats off to you, sir! I also enjoyed Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns and Eduardo Veteri’s essay on authorship and studio interference. Reflecting on The Fireworks Woman, they ask ask, “Is it possible to find an authorial voice even in a porn film?” The answer is yes; they argue convincingly that The Fireworks Woman is more of a Wes Craven movie than Vampire in Brooklyn or Cursed, “because it did not suffer from studio intrusion.” John Darowski rounds out the section with a look at Wes’s adaptation of Swamp Thing and the art of “filtering another’s text through his own sensibilities.” Any serious consideration of Swamp Thing—which the director regarded as a representative work—is a worthy addition.


The fourth and final section of A Critical Companion makes a case for Wes’s continued relevance as a cultural critic. Ezra Brain and Olivia Wood declare that the director was instrumental in turning slasher movies into “a more queer-friendly subgenre”—with his outsider characters, critiques of repressive societies, and fantasies of resistance. (For more evidence of this, see Tucker Lieberman’s essay “The Trail of His Flame” in the 2022 anthology It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror.) They draw together all of the filmmaker’s work with a simple insight that Wes’s stories always emphasized “empathy and compassion,” “kindness and humanity where darkness is explored and conquered.”


Sony Jalarajan Raj and Adith K. Suresh go on to highlight what is arguably the most provocative undercurrent in Wes’s work—questions about religious faith and the nature of evil. I especially love their attention to Deadly Blessing, aptly described as “a transition from the depiction of explicit violence to an exploration into areas of fantasy and evil that disrupt the realm of belief.” Observations about that film’s trans character dovetail nicely with details from the preceding essay. The authors’ interpretation of Deadly Friend—as a different type of “Final Girl” film—is also intriguing. (This seems like a good jumping-off point for the forthcoming book Theology and Wes Craven...)


In the final essay, Andrew Smith presents Scream 4 as a film that true crime TV writers should reckon with. Because it speaks to our pop cultural moment (the True Crime Entertainment / Social Media Influencer era) while also vaguely hinting at important metaphysical questions, Smith contends that Scream 4 is “perhaps the most interesting of the Scream franchise"--and, therefore, a fitting capstone to Wes’s career.


So where does horror cinema go after Wes Craven? It’s a question that both of these new books pose (the former more explicitly than the later), leaving little doubt that Wes endures as a ghost in the machine, a persistent spirit in the semi-fictional world that has arisen since he died in 2015... before President Trump, before Covid, before the first photograph of a black hole... These books stand as evidence that Wes was—and is—American cinema’s great Philosopher of Horror. He didn't just see the future. Like his fellow Masters, he saw us.


ReFocus: The Films of Wes Craven is available from Edinburgh University Press.


A Critical Companion to Wes Craven is available from Lexington Books.

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