Wes Craven gentrified the exploitation genre, but by the end of his career he was priced out himself
Critics will say, all irony ignored, that the rules must be learned in order to be broken. This rule is our kind way of saying that experimentation should be left to those with technical mastery of a medium. This is good advice for a young artist; it is also largely a method of gatekeeping. The “rules” affirm and uphold the critical canon and its established concerns. Artists who abide by them with some degree of competency and visibility will eventually bring about some critical valuation of the works they have produced. Follow the rule about how to break the rules, and you’ll be guaranteed some space in the dialogue (even if it is short and small); break it and be, at best, fetishized as “outsider” art, and at worst ignored altogether.
Wes Craven followed that rule his entire career, from his debut, The Last House on the Left, through his last original property, My Soul to Take, long after the rules had completely changed. Even though he had been the one who changed them. In spite of that, his canonical status has never seemed quite guaranteed, unlike his contemporaries — Carpenter and Cronenberg, De Palma and Hooper. Craven’s contributions are too diverse to fit an amenable narrative, his career too successfully variegated to associate with a particular style (like Dario Argento with giallo): He directed two of the most striking exploitation films of the '70s, created of one of the most iconic slashers of the '80s, and then utterly redefined the horror genre's relationship with its audience in the '90s. And yet he always played by that rule, even to the point of demonstrating its ridiculousness. For that alone, his spot at the table seems to me very much deserved.
Craven’s first two films, The Last House on the Left (a nuclear-family revenge fantasy in which a woman famously bites off a man's penis) and The Hills Have Eyes (about a family lost in the boonies, contending with cannibal hill-dwellers), not only established his career-spanning interest in the violence in and on families — with the house as metonym — they also prefigured the other role he would play throughout his career: the gentrifier.
Last House, a well-executed adaptation of arthouse auteur Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring into an exploitation film, was released in 1972, entering into what had clearly been a nonwhite genre. Blaxploitation, cemented the year prior, had picked up from the exploitation genre's largely Italian forebears. The spaghetti westerns and Mondo films may not have been made by people of color, but they were also distinctively not made by white Americans. The success of Craven’s film, however, was proof that money could be made here, if the neighborhood were developed.
Remaking Bergman opened the door, but there weren't enough auteurs (even European) to allow that to constitute a risk-averse strategy. It took The Hills Have Eyes (1977) to get eyes on the young director. Its technical aspects were more well accomplished, and its set pieces – particularly the closing explosion of the car – significantly better realized. But Hills's real innovation was simpler: it was reproducible. Hills had a generic setting, template monsters, and a simple structure, so one needed only to replace a single aspect to generate sequels or formulaic repetitions. Craven's own (under duress) The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985) is a case in point; an unholy amount of the film is recycled footage from the first, and the rest might as well be.
Craven's next feature after Hills was Deadly Blessing, a prime example of his following the rule before breaking it. Released in 1981, Blessing is a slasher film about a technophobic religious cult. Competently acted, productive of tension in the right amounts and times, and even starring a young Sharon Stone, Blessingis still a minor note in his body of work. His other notable film in this period, Swamp Thing, on the other hand, is an absolute mess. The first of something like a shadow trilogy of Craven’s – his nonhorror feature films, broadly – Swamp Thing is so wracked with sentiment and obsessed with telling a moving story that it lacks even the most basic filmmaking sense.
The second of these nonhorror films, 1986's Deadly Friend, is more interesting, not least because Craven's hopes for it were scuttled by studio meddling: His fantasy of a movie about a robot friend and young love instead is most memorable for scenes of a woman's head being exploded by a basketball and a horror-dream sequence. This meddling makes it a significantly more interesting film, giving it a giddy surreality and highlighting the familial themes seen first in Craven's exploitation films to a degree they would never quite again reach. Murdered by her abusive father, Samantha is brought back to life as a robot by some college-bound rando she kissed one time and proceeds to seek vengeance. Killed by violence intrinsic to the family and resurrected by the violence constitutive of it, Samantha, once revived, becomes the agent of violence upon the family. The late addition of much of this latter portion is extremely evident, but Craven knew how to construct horror scenes adeptly enough so that when the reborn Samantha drags her abusive father down into the cellar and methodically breaks him, it is as discomfiting as any scene he ever would direct. And fittingly so: Samantha herself highlights that, in Craven's films, no matter how much he might try to obscure it with larger thematic concerns, violence is not simply associated with the family; it is identical to it.
The film that would defined Craven's '80s was, of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which introduced one of the most famous movie monsters this side of Hammer Horror in Freddy Krueger. Krueger's character design, with claws and a ratty striped sweater, was on point, but his disfigured face was what truly set him apart. The iconic slasher villains up to that point were masked: Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, Halloween’s Michael Myers and Friday the 13th’s Jason, by the third film in his franchise. Krueger, on the other hand, showed his true face. Myers was a resolutely material threat — complete with origin story and belabored psychology — whose mask allowed for the brief supernatural sting with which Halloween closes. Jason’s entire existence in the first Friday the 13th is relegated to that sting. But unlike them, Krueger did not inhabit a liminal space between the material and supernatural. He needed no mask. He simply was supernatural, a ghost in the dreams of a guilty town; only his effects were material. His purpose was to do the opposite of hide. His story is of a dead man who refuses not to be seen.
Eschewing the masked villain for a character who demanded visibility caused a sea change in the slasher genre. With Elm Street's success, the genre that boomed with cheap props and calculated empty spaces suddenly started requiring entire divisions dedicated to makeup and effects.
On the film's own terms, Krueger's backstory — a pederast who evaded court justice and was burned alive by a group of mothers — is almost completely unnecessary. His portrayal (in particular, his irreverence) and the children singing while skipping rope are sufficient to suggest a fully developed character; the explanation of how he came to be is hard to see as anything other than filler. From the perspective of Craven’s directorial career, however, the backstory makes nothing but sense. Krueger is not just an existential threat to some teenagers but is a symbolic victim and perpetrator of the violence of the family. His face keeps the signs of his burning — the signs of violence performed by the synecdoche of the family, in retribution for violence performed on it.
Through the lens of Deadly Friend, in other words, Krueger's face was nothing less than a figuration of the family. In the film, his own territory was imagined as an industrial underbelly, full of piping and cold blues. But his most elaborate kills (especially of a young Johnny Depp) all took place in that other image of the family and violence that Craven returned to: the house.
If Deadly Friend was the most overt rendering of Craven's preoccupation with family dynamics, 1991's The People Under the Stairs saw him taking the image of the house, which he had always relied on to visualize that theme, to a new level.
But Craven's most striking image of a house is actually of a broken-down car. In The Hills Have Eyes, the family vehicle breaks down to strand the family among the cannibals. The unreliable car also acts as their home base throughout the film. When the survivors trick some mutants into it and use booby traps to send it up in flames, it is both their final salvation and damnation. They are just as stranded, only now without shelter. This sequence, in which the enemies are brought into a booby-trapped home to wreck it, became a template for Craven. A surprising bulk of his films reach their peak with a chase through a house to the point that it became his signature climactic scene. Craven's house is not just a setting; it is a character designed to fight back.
Five years ago, I argued that in Craven's chase scenes, "the house's interior becomes an interiority, and the booby traps a conscious mode of interacting/shaping the trajectories of the (human) objects, as well as determined reactions to sensory stimuli." That is, the house as character came to life through these chases, "which structurally effects the reduction of all participants to objects in order to clear space for the tension of mapping interiority onto the landscape." The house that fights back, then, is the house that thinks, but prior to that it must be a site of (gendered) violence. The house is the image of the family; the family is violence. For Craven, the house is violence objectified, weaponized, against itself.
If the chase through the house is Craven's typical climax, then The People Under the Stairs is functionally a two-hour-long climax. It opens with an eviction in a poor black neighborhood instigated by inbred quasi-aristocratic landlords, who are, of course — this is a Craven movie — physically abusive to their daughter (and to the dozens of other failed children they keep under the stairs). A central casting “Black Radical” recruits a character called Fool to rob the landlords, who are supposed to be sitting on a stash of "gold coins." After stealing these, Fool returns to try to save the landlords' daughter, finds even more money and, in a move highly uncharacteristic for Craven, redistributes it into the community by way of blowing the entire house sky high and sending the money raining down.
By the time Fool escapes the house after the initial robbery, the house feels like the only character in the film: All the people in it, and perhaps especially the guard dog, seem mere extensions of it, embodiments of the actions it takes. A father riddles it with buckshot; an escaped substair dweller makes it laugh and gibber; the dog ensures that even the crawl spaces can be weaponized. The film's end, with its echo of The Hills Have Eyes, feels like an expression of the house's will. With the twisted family it represented gone, all that was left was to expel its cash reserves and merrily burn to the ground.
If the horror genre is fundamentally structured by the return of the repressed, this is when Craven's life began imitating art. The gentrifier finally became an explicitly absent figure in his film, but the director's own role as one — entering a nonwhite genre and making it profitable and then turning a historically cheap subgenre into a character-driven, design-intensive field — was never addressed.
The People Under the Stairs gets "kill your landlord," of course, even to the point of having mother-landlord paraphrase Margaret Thatcher. But it has a distinct boots-on-the-ground-shaped hole. The landlords expect a lot of money turning their building into condos, but Craven gives no indication of who will be living in them. Even when the repressed returned for Craven, he was unable to conceive it directly. Even in his most explicit film about gentrification, the gentrifiers are absent.
If Wes Craven is assured of any legacy at all, outside of licensing deals for Freddy Krueger’s likeness, it certainly stems from his last great shift. The Scream trilogy is widely acclaimed, and for largely accurate reasons. When slasher films and the horror genre in general seemed spent in the mid-1990s, Craven found a way to refuse what seemed the subgenre's inevitable death and make a lot of money doing so.
Scream is largely remembered for its quotable lines — it is hard to say whether "what's your favorite scary movie" or the Rules of Horror are more widely known, because they became foundational to the genre. The trilogy is largely talked about in terms of irony and metafiction, but how Craven deployed them is less discussed.
The horror genre is unique in film history for hosting a wide range of the film medium’s most successful experimentation. From The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Psycho and Eyes Without a Face to The Shining, horror has allowed directors the opportunity to stretch the limits of the camera while keeping the audience invested. Scream’s gambit was to call out not the genre’s experimentation but the formulaic structure that allowed for it. It ostensibly argued for a more respectful relationship between the film and its audience. After the Rules of Horror, no one would be able to get away with rote killings linked to moral prurience anymore — at least, not unless they noted that this was precisely what they were doing. Because for all its irony, the most important aspect of the metafictional in Scream is that it never devolves into parody. Had Scream fallen into that trap, it might still have been an interesting film, but it would also have put the film at an ironic distance to the horror genre, lessening its ability to have an impact on the actual audience of the genre.
Scream is the antithesis to Elm Street's thesis: Where the earlier film did away with the mask because Krueger was resolutely supernatural, Scream returns to the mask for its material killers. They do not vanish after they are shot and fall out a window; they show up minutes later, bleeding heavily, about to die. They are not embodiments of sexual or moral fetishes or past transgressions. They are simply people with a plan and access to a way to execute it. And most important, they are multiple. The mask isn't a way to make them alien to subtly justify their eternal return. It's a way for multiple people to hide their identities and present them as a single one.
Because of this, the unmaskings in Scream rarely dwell on familial violence the way they had in Craven's previous work. Familial violence is still a strong theme, but the killers are boyfriends, mothers, half-brothers and cousins committing specific violent acts rather than avatars of the kinds of violence inflicted upon and by families as such.
What the Scream films do — especially Scream 3 — is update the image of the family so that it is central to the revamped rules. Scream 3’s climactic house chase is set in a mansion owned by the director of Stab 3, the film series within the Scream universe that fictionalizes the events of the Scream movies. It’s one of the most visually interesting chase scenes of Craven's career, replete as it is with film props, both diegetic and not. That it layers on top of an earlier scene in which a character is chased around the re-creation of the Scream house on the set of Stab is functionally an argument: The house is a staple of the rules being usurped, but it is also the tool by which the genre’s future can advance.
The house itself, especially in horror film, is associated most strongly with hauntings; Scream's implicit argument was not just that the slasher genre was getting stale but that its staleness was an indication of the state of the genre as a whole. A corollary of this, then, would be that the other staples of the genre were more outdated than the stuff being explicitly called out. By including the trope of a house, and by including it in a way that brought it in line with the values of the new normal, Craven insured his most central image still had life under the new rules.
By the time Scream 3 came to theaters, the tides had turned on Craven; where once he was the director changing the face of the genre, he now was being priced out himself. He largely disappeared from cinemas, chiefly lending his name to the Wes Craven Presents… direct-to-DVD titles. The films he did direct met largely with indifference, both critically and commercially. Even as a producer his only successes were remakes of his exploitation films, no matter how good Dracula 2000 was.
By the end of the 2000s, both of his exploitation films had been remade; a Nightmare on Elm Street remake followed in 2010. Five years later, he seemed to finally reclaim some, at least, of his producer credibility, helming a television spinoff of his Scream films. Craven had done some work in television during his career — his early work in made-for-TV movies, as well as directing episodes for shows like the Twilight Zone remake and Disney's The Disney Sunday Movie anthology series — but always in what seemed a mostly mercenary fashion. After over a decade of failure at the box office, though, his inability to hang either as a director or producer, at least in terms of capital, was clear. It didn't matter that Craven's directing had in many ways gotten better — Cursed with some of his most visually joyful filmmaking since the '80s, Red Eye with easily his best direction of actors, My Soul to Take with a surprisingly meticulous eye for cinematography.
That Craven, the man who proved the exploitation genre was for whites too and who blew up slasher budgets and forced new lines of association on them, ended up pushed out of film entirely by the end of his life is fitting. It is rare that those who actively gentrify see the fruits of their own disruptions; either they leave of their own volition or they get priced out themselves. Craven got priced out; the Hostel and Saw and Paranormal Activity booms that swept the industry made sure his own filmmaking style was not just no longer risk-averse but incapable of recouping its outlays. He cleared the ground and raised the prices and set the rules of engagement and then fled to the suburbs of television when his skills became as useful as the rule he followed all along.
Similarly fitting, perhaps, was that he was never able to connect his own conflation of the family with violence to his own role within his genre. The answer, glimpsed briefly in the ending scenes of The People Under the Stairs (and never elsewhere), to the violence of and in the family has always been the creation or fostering of new communities, ones not exclusively capable of reproducing patriarchal violence — ones that might not be reducible to a house.