Wes Craven's Beauty
Wes Craven in the documentary Scream: The Inside Story. Photograph by Bob Bekian.
by Nicholas Rombes
“I thought you were supposed to be the Love generation.”
— Last House On The Left (1972)
“This is still a script we’re talking about, right Wes?”
— New Nightmare (1994)
Wes Craven (“craven: contemptibly lacking in courage”, Old English) taught English and was a humanities professor at Clarkson College in 1968, having earned a Master’s degree in Philosophy and Writing from Johns Hopkins University. A true outsider to Hollywood, his best films are really deconstruction machines, devouring the very narrative frameworks that make them possible. There’s nothing better (or worse, sometimes) than some English professor demystifying this or that “text,” but that’s exactly what Craven’s movies did, even while delivering a real narrative jolt.
Like punk, Craven’s 1970s films Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) were vicious assaults on the 1960s counter-culture, the hippies; a harsh look at the hazy narcissism that lay at the center of it all. Craven’s closest cinematic relative from that era was undoubtedly Brian De Palma (just one year older) whose Sisters (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Carrie (1976) also turn machine guns on the generation that gave us the viciousness of Manson and Altamont. Both directors understood that in the horror/slasher/revenge genre was a ready-made formula ripe for detouring. The response? Movies themselves became the object of “serious” study, and a generation of see-through artists was born, as in The New School, from this advertisement from a 1972 issue of The Village Voice.
And yet there are moments that defy theory, that lay waste to the parts of our minds that remind us that this is just a movie: the rich color of the exploding watermelon in the near perfect Deadly Blessing (1981), the watermelon that because of the way the movie is cut we think, at first, is a person’s head.
Deadly Blessing, United Artists, 1981
Wes Craven’s movies were about movies, even when they weren’t. And in this sense they helped bring cinema back to its self-reflective origins. One of the most significant pre-studio era films, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), features the lead bandit firing his pistol directly into the camera, at us, the audience.
The Great Train Robbery, Edison Manufacturing Company, 1903
Charlie Chaplain’s Modern Times (1936) couldn’t exist without the Little Tramp’s awareness of the relentless presence of the camera. Cinema was self-aware from the beginning, continually, and in a panicked sort of way, examining its own foundations, limitations and status. As film historian Tom Gunning and others have demonstrated, the very idea of the director of a film is fairly recent: up through the 1930s and 40s, films were more associated with producers (David O. Selznick or Darryl Zanuck), or the studios. Scream’s famous taking apart of the sort of slasher film that it itself was, was Craven’s hollowing out of storytelling only to backfill it with storytelling about storytelling itself culminated in the operatic, critically neglected New Nightmare, which situated the entire Freddy Krueger franchise at the nexus of creativity and commerce.
For here we have the meta-nature of the enterprise reaching almost in grand theory of Marxist territory (from The German Ideology, 1845): “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production.” New Nightmare is almost too spot-on: it identifies and targets in on the weird truth that the stories we love most because we lose ourselves in them are precisely those stories that reveal themselves to us as stories. Without that thread, without that tenuous connection to the real that makes the unreal real, there would be madness. The madness of real time, the endless streaming of reality. That’s what art—what movies—save us from without us even knowing it because we try to cage and shape the horrors we experience or read about or see all the time.
Scream (1996) is less a postmodern pastiche than an acknowledgement that all movies are, really, movies about other movies.
Scream, Dimension Films, 1996
All objects are, finally, chronicles of their own selves.
“Modern horror films, of which I am admittedly a practitioner, are to me simply post-traumatic nightmares of a world that has seen more horror than it can handle alone,” Craven has said. “Why do people pay good money to go into a theater and to be terrified by a movie? They don’t. They’re already terrified by real life. What they go into that theater for is to have the terror of real life marshaled into some sort of order, so it can be dealt with. The chaos is caged for a few hours in a graspable narrative. “
That’s the siren call, the heartbeat of almost any film. For in the emotion—the affect, to use today’s parlance—is the desire on the film’s part (for it is films that desire us, not the other way around) to seduce and then discard us, which in a terrible sort of way, is what life is, is it not? Not to use, but to be used?
In truth, I was jealous of Wes Craven. A professor who had made the leap, the boundary-crossing leap, between “the study of” and “the making of.” He was everything I wanted to be: the navy blue tweeded man who jumped from the ivory tower into the storytelling thistle patch, and there to create a different language of theory.
To make movies that went full circle, that killed all objection, that terrified and that reminded you that you were terrified, that spilled blood in such excess that it could not be true, as if the screen there in Midwest Ohio, United States (or wherever this finds you now, dear reader) was made not of nylon but of stretched human skin tight enough to hold the projector’s light and the palm-prints of the young, the young who shall come among us one day soon, perhaps even as we read these words, from under the stairs or the poorly-lit back patios or the hidden undersides of lorries, of course, our dreams and nightmares, which carry-on like horses broken free from all corrals and galloping free into the sort of sunset that just keeps going and going like spurting blood or the way that flowers and weeds grow, still, in the cemeteries over the dead bodies of those buried.
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes is author of the forthcoming novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio Press) and Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series. His work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine. He is a professor in Detroit, Michigan.