Thursday, September 07, 2023

Book Review: Theology and Wes Craven

Horror fans rejoice! This is the third academic book about Wes Craven published in 2023. Edited by Religious Studies professor David K. Goodin, Theology and Wes Craven departs from the previous two by focusing less on the case for Wes as an auteur, and instead drawing attention to “underappreciated theological subtexts” in his work that resonates with current social issues. The book’s ten essays offer new insights on some of Wes’s most famous creations (Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The People Under the Stairs) while heaping attention on some of his more neglected works (The Fireworks Woman, My Soul to Take, and even Coming of Rage, Wes’s 2014 comic book series with Steve Niles).


Goodin personally contributes three of the ten essays, including the two most groundbreaking ones. Following a regrettably brief (and occasionally inaccurate) overview of Craven’s career, he shines light on a nearly-lost 1964 novel by the future filmmaker. Wes talked about the unpublished novel, written while he was pursuing a Master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University in ’63-‘64, during a 2010 interview with author John Wooley, who repeated those comments in Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares (Wiley & Sons, 2011). A few years later, in 2015, Amanda Auble and Sarah Schreib reported in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter that “the Sheridan Libraries’ Special Collections & Archives still maintains Craven’s graduate thesis,” and they quoted a few excerpts from the manuscript. Goodin, however, is the first person (that I know of) who has attempted an analysis of Wes’s "lost" novel, which Goodin describes as “a roadmap” for Wes’s future filmmaking career.


Noah’s Ark: The Journals of a Madman is a complex allegorical novel that functions largely as a repository for ideas and deeply personal musings. As such, it is difficult to study as a piece of literature divorced from the filmmaker’s biography. Goodin wisely notes that any attempt to summarize or explicate the text “will be reductionist” and potentially “discourage others from arriving at their own personal readings.” He makes the attempt anyway, because (he says) the novel will probably never be published and most people will never read it. I have mixed feelings about the result. Although Goodin enthuses about having this “opportunity to explore the theological worldview of Craven when he was just 25 years old,” he doesn’t seem to have gathered enough biographical context to do so. What his essay offers instead is a very worthwhile scholarly introduction to the Biblical allusions in Wes’s novel, which serves as an excellent introduction to themes repeated in the filmmaker’s work.


Goodin has also written an excellent essay on Wes’s most ignored-or-maligned work, the hardcore adult film The Fireworks Woman. He convincingly makes the case that Fireworks is a deeply personal protest film, much like Last House on the Left. In much the way that the earlier horror film rages against American hypocrisy during the Vietnam War, The Fireworks Woman takes aim at “evangelical purity culture.” Goodin suggests the filmmaker “wanted to reveal the emotional and spiritual damage done to young persons who are caught between an untenable Evangelical faith and their own natural desires,” and claims Wes was specifically riffing on the Old Testament Song of Solomon. Although the writer/director never talked about this particular film, I completely agree with Goodin that it’s an important film worthy of study—and there’s plenty of room for an ongoing dialogue. For example, I’d like to quibble with the essayist’s reading of the film’s ending, which seems much more ambiguous to me.


The other essays in this collection cover familiar territory with flashes of brilliance that make old, familiar films seem new again. C.J. McCrary provides a pair of thought-provoking essays on Marian symbolism in Last House on the Left and Wes’s distinct humor in A Vampire in Brooklyn and Cursed. The former essay insightfully reflects on Wes’s ambivalence toward his first film and helps to explain—in a theological context—how a notorious horror film can be “a model of healing devotion.” McCrary’s subsequent essay on Wes’s “puckish” humor is equally insightful and helps this reader to recognize Wes’s voice in those two films. (And in this respect, the essay serves as a complement to Richard Sheppard’s Vampire essay in ReFocus: The Films of Wes Craven, and a counterpoint to Berns and Veteri’s Vampire essay in A Critical Companion on Wes Craven.) McCrary also briefly examines Coming of Rage and might be the first critic to carefully consider this obscure project as part of Wes’s oeuvre.  


Next, Amy Beddows takes on the daunting task of saying something new about the Nightmare on Elm Street series and Carol J. Glover’s endlessly-popular “Final Girl” Theory. She succeeds by invoking the Biblical “myth of feminine evil” to explain why male characters never listen to Final Girls, and by paying particular attention to actress Heather Langenkamp’s contribution to the Nightmare series. The essay is a strong complement to Crofts and Rijswijk’s Nightmare essay in ReFocus: The Films of Wes Craven, as well as Langenkamp’s 2011 documentary film I Am Nancy.


ReFocus contributor Kevin J. Wetmore returns with a second essay on The People Under the Stairs. While his previous study reflected on depictions of systemic racism in horror cinema, this one examines People as a critical commentary on warped Christianity (specifically, Prosperity Gospel and Dominion Theology) in Reagan-era America. Wetmore makes some astute observations about Wes’s religious worldview as well as past and present-day collusions between Church and State. Taken together, his essays also convincingly suggest that The People Under the Stairs might be Wes’s most salient and underappreciated film.


And speaking of underappreciated films… David L. Dickey has written a wildly enthusiastic and ambitious essay about My Soul to Take, proclaiming Wes’s final film as writer / director “a work of transgressive art” and possibly “the best example of his artistic skill in storytelling.” It’s a bold claim, backed up by a convincing argument that the film in many ways parallels Wes’s 1964 novel Noah’s Ark, echoing the Biblical themes as well as the allegorical approach of that novel. For anyone that values Wes as a storyteller, this is an important consideration.


For me, the two remaining essays don’t quite reach the high bar set by the rest. Christopher Garland’s notes on Serpent and the Rainbow hint at some tantalizing ideas—there’s a great passage about the film’s “particularly porous” line of demarcation between past and present, life and death—but they left me wanting more. Federico Andreoni’s essay on Music of the Heart uses Wes’s film as a thin excuse to teach a history of classical music theory. This essay seemed oddly placed at the end of Theology and Wes Craven… although, in fairness, I think Wes would have loved it. He was, after all, a former Humanities professor.


In final analysis, I do wish that more of Wes’s work had been studied in this volume. The absence of The Hills Have Eyes (from any book about Wes) and Deadly Blessing (from a book about Wes and theology) are especially glaring. An essay on the Nightmare CafĂ© TV series also would have been a nice addition. Luckily for readers, Theology and Wes Craven doesn’t have to stand alone. In the introductory chapter of Theology, David Goodin teases an unwritten essay on “colonial subtext” underlying a theological subtext in Hills. Stephanie Chang’s ReFocus essay on Last House on the Left lays the groundwork, and Mikel J. Koven’s essay on Hills takes up the mantle. As Goodin implores, the “seeds have been planted for further cultivation…. Get to it!” Three books in a single year is a lot but Wes Craven is an endlessly fascinating subject and I sincerely hope there’s more to come.


Theology and Wes Craven is available from Lexington Books.

No comments:

Post a Comment