When he was young, Wes Craven was strictly forbidden from seeing films – except for Walt Disney movies. He never dreamed of being a filmmaker, but after sneaking out to see To Kill A Mockingbird he knew that he loved the forbidden world of film.
We write fondly in memory of Wes’ life as the iconic filmmaker and former academic passed away Sunday of brain cancer, at the age of 76, in his Los Angeles home.
Craven was raised a fundamentalist Baptist in Cleveland by his mother. His father died when Wes was four. He was looked after by another religious family during the day while his mother worked. The extreme and terrifying values of religious extremism, including the evil of humans, the importance of chastity, and the nature of sin, were ever-present parts of the young boy’s life.
Craven began adult life as an academic and was well-spoken and thoughtful. Before entering the world of professional filmmaking, Craven had a brief stint teaching English at Westminster College. He also taught Humanities and was a campus DJ at Clarkston College.
His first job in the film world was as sound editor for a post-production studio in New York City. He then took what may seem a surprising route in retrospect: Craven’s lesser-known works were created under pseudonyms in the ’70s when he worked writing and editing hardcore pornography. But it was in the realm of horror films that he made his lasting impression.
Wes Craven is responsible for some of the most memorable films and characters in horror. Nightmare on Elm Street, arguably Craven’s masterpiece, was inspired by articles in the L.A. Times detailing young men from the Hmong tribe of Cambodia who had come to the United States to escape the reign of Pol Pot. The stories detailed how three of the men died within a year of arriving in the U.S. after suffering horrifying nightmares which rendered them unable to sleep. The men would eventually collapse from exhaustion, wake up screaming and die.
In one case, a man had a series of frightening nightmares,, causing his entire family to come running after hearing his screams and ghastly shrieks. When they arrived in the room, the man fell down dead. Autopsy results were nothing short of confounding – the man’s body and organs were in perfect condition. Cause of death, as with all three men, was listed as unknown. Craven could not get the idea of a mysterious presence that pursued people in their sleep to their deaths out of his head.
Among the more positive details of Nightmare is that the film provided Johnny Depp his first major role, after Craven spotted him during casting auditions. Depp himself was not auditioning for a role; he was accompanying a friend (interestingly, Depp’s friend was Jackie Earle Haley, who would go on to play Freddy 26 years later in the film’s re-make). Craven convinced Depp to give it a try, however, and the rest is history. Nightmare on Elm Street, shot in just 30 days, was a box office success. It not only saved New Line Cinema from its impending bankruptcy, it also launched Depp’s prosperous career and made Wes Craven a household name.
Real life events continued to inspire much of Craven’s future work. He created The People Under the Stairs after reading about three children who had never been outside their own homes. Scream was based on a real school shooting. Craven was especially moved by how so many classmates described the shooter as a “friend.” He was not simply making genre-horror for a quick buck. Craven put everyday life and emotions, especially rage, directly into his work. Themes of family dysfunction, drawn from his own life, and the more severe fringe elements of society were direct inspirations. Freddy Krueger’s appearance, for example, was inspired by a hobo Craven had seen from out of his window when he was a 10-year-old boy.
Craven also is responsible for one of the first films ever to take zombies back to their origins in Haitian voodoo, 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. He was fascinated by the idea of a place where zombies were known to be real.
Craven was nominated for, and won, multiple awards including the Saturn Award presented annually by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films. His work was twice nominated for the International Film Fantasy Award and twice won the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival. One of the latter awards, Avoriaz’s Critic’s Award, was presented to Nightmare on Elm Street.
In his personal life Wes Craven was married three times, most recently to producer and former Disney Studios VP Iya Labunka. He was a bird enthusiast and a member of the Audubon Board of Directors in California. It is reported that his favorite films included Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Virgin Spring (1960), and Red River (1948). Craven was also a donator to Planned Parenthood, and other charities. One of his acts of philanthropy was donating the original mask of Scream.
YouTube star and Director Shane Dawson is reportedly creating a horror/comedy film dedicated to Craven. No further details are available, but Dawson says that Wes Craven inspired him to direct his first film. Word is that it will “scare the shit out of you guys”. We can only hope Dawson is successful. It’s a legacy Wes Craven would have wanted.
Craven is survived by his wife, older sister Carol Buhrow; son Jonathan Craven and his wife Rachel Craven; daughter Jessica Craven and her husband Mike Wodkowski; stepdaughter Nina Tarnawksy; and grandchildren, Miles Craven, Max Craven, and Myra-Jean Wodkowski.