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Remembering Horror Master Wes Craven

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Tribute to horror master Wes Craven, who died on Sunday. I pull an archive interview from 2006 when he discussed the state of horror and how he thinks audiences arrive at his movies already in fear.

Beth A: Welcome back to the KPBS cinema junkie podcast. I’m Beth Accomando. Wes Craven died on Sunday at the age of 76 after suffering from brain cancer. Now let me start my tribute by saying one thing, Wes Craven scared the crap out of me in ways other directors never have. It was his first film “Last house on the left” that did it. I was a teenager and the film wasn’t about monsters, demons or bogeymen, but rather ordinary humans with a particularly vicious streak. It was Cravens directorial debut and it was crude and extremely low budget, but that was partially what made it so terrifying. Its grittiness and lack of Hollywood gloss made it feel more real and Craven gave us characters that had a level of brutality that was terrifying and it wasn’t just the physical violence, it had to do with a total lack of empathy and intimate desire to not just inflict physical pain, but emotional trauma and humiliation. [Overlapping] [0:01:09] It’s a film of about what you could say is the most terrifying thing, a loss of humanity, so while other horror directors might be more sophisticated or cerebral. Craven got me in a visceral wave with “Last house on the left” that few other films have done. In fact it’s a film that I often hesitate to watch because I know it’ll put me through the wringer. I want to remind people of what seeing “Last house on the left” was like back In the 70’s. To start lets listen to the trailer.

Trailer: It rests on 13 acres of earth over the very centre of hell, here’s the first motion picture to offer to the daring a look into the final maddening space between life and death. “The last house on the left,” to avoid fainting keep repeating [indiscernible] [0:02:17] sights and sounds far beyond anything you’ve tested. “The last house on the left,” to avoid fainting keep repeating [indiscernible] [0:02:35] take as much as you can [indiscernible] [0:02:40]. As with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, which in some ways is the granddaddy of the modern slasher film? “Last house on the left” was disturbing in the way it undermined our sense of security and made us something of an accomplice in its crimes. Hitchcock was a polished master and Craven was a cruder craftsmen in his debut, but both of their films unnerve the audience with violence early on and then implicated viewers to a degree in the crimes committed. With Psycho we got caught up in the manouche [phonetic] [0:03:06] of Anthony Perkins killer cleaning up after his murder and reluctantly wanted to see him get every drop of bloody evidence disposed off because we were so wrapped up in his process.

In the case of “Last house on the left” we relish the revenge taken by the parents over the murder of their daughter. The parents are not much different from us and as in the best horror we discovered that the darkness can lie within ourselves. Craven’s 1972 film was an unofficial remake of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring.” Craven created a contemporary horror story from Bergman’s medieval tale of a young girl who’s raped and murdered and whose murderers end up seeking shelter at her parents’ home where her mother and father exact a chilling revenge. What made Cravens film so good as a remake is that the source material was unexpected and he didn’t have to tweak it very much to find disturbing horror elements plus the low tech look of Cravens film added to the creepiness of the proceedings while Bergman’s film tackled religion and morality overtly and seriously Craven’s approach was to present something of an amoral universe. Instead of an innocent young virgin on her way to church Cravens adolescent girls are on their way to a rock concert and looking for a good time. The assailants in Craven’s film are depicted as sadistic sociopaths devoid of any humanity as they brutalize the girls. The break and batter the two girls as if they were nothing more than a pair of dolls to be played with. In a documentary Craven discussed the brutality.

Wes C: Okay we got to that place, its good we got to that place, but that’s a horrible place, you know, and that’s always been something I’ve juggled the rest of my career places I went we went in the last house I haven’t gone again and don’t really have a desire to go again, but somehow for some reason at that time I felt like it was necessary just to get it to the guts of the matter and we had done it, you could feel it on the set and there was kind of a somberness there, you know, you really felt the death of the character and you felt not just the death of the victim, but you felt the kind of the death of the killers. You felt like they had lost whatever shred of innocence they had. There’s several moments in the film afterwards where they change clothes they wash they put on suits and ties they just, you can feel them desperately trying to forget that they had done what they’d done. One of the reasons why this film is so powerful is that I can’t define exactly what it was and I still can’t look at it. It’s not a film I’d go back I think I’ll take Saturday afternoon and watch this old film again. It’s like it is still an assaulted film, it is still a film that is completely uncompromising and does not make you comfortable and beyond that I can’t define it. All I know is that I did not have any restrictions on what I shot except that what I wanted to impose and wanted to deal with something very, very nasty. I was dealing with anti-personal violence and just how ugly it could be and you end up a film that’s in many ways ugly and it’s unjustified except that those things exist and art is about things that exist.

Beth A: Craven says his film was in part a reaction to the violence he saw on TV in news footage about the Vietnam War. He said that he wanted to capture that same sense of reality in the violence he put on the screen. When it came out Craven’s film was controversial for its violence and brutal sexuality. It divided critics; some felt it was pure exploitative thrash while others saw the film as breaking the rules in an artistically challenging manner. The film was banned in the U K and Australia and initially was given an X-rating from the MPAA. In the documentary Craven describes the kind of censorship the film received after its release.

Wes C: And wasn’t there a special editing room set up some place that just tried to go through all the film cans, with all these pieces of film edits and spliced together one more intact version of the film because everything always came back always cut up by irate projectionist or religious group, or whatever …

Beth A: When I interviewed Craven in 2006 for the remake of “The hills have eyes” he explained that he had devised a theory that the first monster you must frighten an audience with is the director and that’s precisely what he did for me with “Last house on the left.” What scared me in part was that I thought the director had to be sick and twisted to create such a sadistic film. He had me so scared I could no longer separate the film from the film maker and that’s what the remake of the “Last house on the left” completely missed. The remake looks like a product produced by a slick corporation, there’s a gloss and sheen to everything and even the violence has high production values. It all looks planned and staged in a way Craven’s original film did not and all that slickness works against the remake because it helps to distance the audience from the unpleasantness on the screen. Like Henry Portrait of a serial killer Craven’s “Last house on the left” used its lack of funds to create a film with a do-it-yourself approach made it seem somehow real and therefore more terrifying because we believed it could happen. The 2009 remake also takes the violence to ridiculous extremes with an elaborate saw like torture gimmick at the end.

In the original film Craven did more with less, he upturned his comfort by having the young girl raped and tortured right by her house as the police were talking with her parents and assuring them that she was most likely safe. That’s a scene from every parent’s nightmare. The assailants were also much more vicious in their attacks and more deliberately cruel. In the original the law represented by inept cops and social order seemed not to exist and that creates a more unnerving moral universe for the story to play out and that probably reflected the way a young man like Craven felt about the Government, Military and cops during the Vietnam War era, but Craven quickly moved away from realistic horror and onto more supernatural scares by creating Freddie Kruger in a “Nightmare on Elm Street” and launching his first horror franchise. Here’s the trailer for the first film to give us Robert England as the iconic Freddie Kruger.

Trailer: “Nightmare on Elm Street”: The kids of Elm Street don’t know it yet, but something is coming to get them. There’s something out there isn’t there? [Indiscernible] [0:09:25] did you see what’s happen? What did happen I don’t know, [indiscernible] [0:09:47] they’re going to kill me for sure. Did you do it? It was somebody else there; it was locked in a room with a girl alive and came out in a rubber bag. [Indiscernible] [0:09:50] Nancy there’s something wrong with you you’re imagining, “Nightmare on Elm Street.” Do you believe in Bogeyman? No, whatever you do don’t fall asleep. [Indiscernible] [0:10:15] he’s the only one who can stop it. I’m your boyfriend now Nancy, no one will survive, help, where are you? From Wes Craven, director of the “Hills have eyes” and “Last house on the left” a new masterpiece in fantasy terror “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Beth A: In 1994 Craven created the midi sequel Wes Craven’s new nightmare in, which actress Heather Langenkamp plays herself and finds Freddie Kruger trying to cross over to her real world. Craven appears as himself and discusses his new script with the actress.

Wes C: I can tell you what the nightmare is about, so far it’s about this entity whatever you want to call it its old it’s very old. It’s existed in different forms in different times, but the only thing about it, it stays the same for what it lives for really.

Heather L: What is that?

Wes C: The murder of innocence.

Heather L: But, this is still a script we’re talking about right Wes?

Wes C: Well, let’s think of it as a nightmare in progress.

Heather L: Well, in this nightmare in progress then does thing have any weaknesses?

Wes C: Well it can be captured sometimes.

Heather L: Captured? How?

Wes C: By story tellers of all things, every so often they imagine a story good enough to sort of catch its essence and then for a while its held prisoner in the story.

Heather L: Like the genie in the bottle?

Wes C: Exactly, exactly. But, the problem comes when the story dies and that can happen in a lot of ways. It can get too familiar to people or somebody orders it down to make it easier, so maybe its just so upsetting to society that it’s banned outright. However it happens when the story dies, the evil is set free.

Heather L: You’re saying Freddie is this ancient thing?

Wes C: Right, current version and for ten years he’s been held captive pretty much as Freddie in the nightmare on Elm Street series, but now that the films have ended the genie’s out of the bottle that’s what the nightmares are telling me and that’s what I’m writing.

Heather L: Well if is Freddie is lose in your script. Where’s he going to go, another page, another form?

Wes C: No that’s not what the dreams have him doing though.

Heather L: What is he doing?

Wes C: He’s certainly got him used to being Freddie now and he likes that time and space, so he’s decided to cross over out of films into our reality.

Beth A: The film ends with Langenkamp reading the script for the proposed sequel

Heather L: We open on an old wooden bench, there’s fire on tools and a man’s grimy hands building what soon is revealed as a gleaming set of claws and the claws are moving now as if awakening from a long and unwanted sleep. Then the man lays one trembling hand flat upon the table and with his other picks up a thick sharp blade behind the lights faces watch from the darkness ready to laugh or scream in terror.

Beth A: New nightmare was a turning point in Craven’s career. The point in, which he decided he no longer wanted to make people scream in terror, but rather laugh. New nightmare paved the way for the joking self reflex of style the second franchise “Scream.” In new nightmare the tone was not yet that jokey, self reflexive, yes, but joking no. Craven was still constructing a horror drama in, which we cared about the characters and we’re not rooting for them to killed off, but with “Scream” Craven announced that he’d grown less serious about horror. His “Scream” franchise may have made lots of money and wanted devoted following, but it did major damage to the horror genre by turning it silly and comedic. It’s not that horror and comedy can’t mix, the great examples of that in the “Fearless Vampire Killers” and “Shaun of the dead,” no. The problem has been that “Scream created a style of horror that was self reflexive, jokey to the point of annoyance and desperate to be oh, so hip and cool. It was as if it resorted to laugh because it was afraid that its jaded audience could no longer be scared, so the film didn’t even bother to try and scare them, just listen to the trailer.

Trailer of Scream:

Actress: Hello.

Actor: Hello.

Actress: Who is this?

Actor: Tell me your name I’ll tell you mine.

Actress: I don’t think so.

Actor: What’s that noise?

Actress: Popcorn.

Actor: You’re making popcorn?

Actress: I’m getting ready to watch a video.

Actor: Really? What?

Actress: Oh, Just some scary movie.

Actor: You like scary movies?

Actress: Uh huh.

Actor: You never told me your name?

Actress: Why do you want to know my name?

Actor: Because I want to know who I’m looking at.

Scary movie is playing a deadly game. It all began with a scream of one 911, someone who’s seen one too many scary movies, now he’s taken his love of fear, “hello Sidney,” one step too far. Do you like scary movies? What’s the point they’re all the same, some stupid killer is stalking some big breasted girl who can’t act and she’s running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting; there are certain rules that one must abide by to successfully survive scary movies. # 1) You can never have sex. # 2) Never ever, ever under any circumstances say I’ll be right back because you won’t be back. I’m getting another beer, you want one? Yeah sure, I’ll be right back. Oh [indiscernible] [0:16:31].

Beth A: “Scream” forced me into a love hate relationship with Wes Craven. I loved his early work, but I hated what “Scream” did and how it turned horror into a shell of its former self. I couldn’t understand why Craven took this turn, but he seemed able to joke about it when he made a cameo in the film “Jay and silent Bob strike back.”

Trailer: [Indiscernible] [0:17:20].

Beth A: I always respected Craven as a smart articulate man. He earned an undergraduate degree in English and Psychology and a master’s degree in Philosophy in writing. He even taught English and was a humanities professor. You’ll find a few literary references in his first nightmare on Elm Street and it’s an English class that puts Nancy to sleep for one of her encounters with Freddie, so because he was smart and articulate when talking about horror I was disappointed that he never topped his early work. I do want to mention that Craven directed a non genre film “Music of the Heart”, which garnered Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and he also wrote a novel “The fountain society,” but whatever struggles have had with Craven’s recent films he’ll always hold a special place in my heart for scaring the crap out of me. I respect anyone who can do that, here’s my 2006 interview with Craven regarding the remake he was producing of his own film “The hills have eyes” hope you enjoy it?

Interviewer: Well, I just want to ask you how does, it feel to be at a point in your career where you’re producing a remake of your own film.

Wes C: I think it’s amusing, it’s kind of fun. I don’t think a film should be remade, you know, 10 years after it came out, but 30 years later I think that’s permissible and it’s interesting to see something that I did as a young man being done by another young man who makes it his own, so it’s fun. It’s been a very interesting process.

Interviewer: Now in that 30 years time how do you see the horror genre having changed?

Wes C: Wow Well, I think it’s gone through a lot of permutations and certainly gone up all the way through kind of “Scream”, which branched that out into self reflective looking at the audience themselves and I think now is starting to swing back in a way to finer films that was more common in the 70’s, so I think it’s in kind of a revisiting of its origins if you will.

Interviewer: Do you see anything in terms of current events or the timeframe we’re in now or that somehow reflect the 70’s that explain why we’re having a return to that or is it just kind of the cycle of Hollywood?

Wes C: Its probably dangerous to think of a one to one connection with things, but you certainly have to take into account that both times were times when our government was in unpopular war or a very controversial war and this one particularly I think has been unsettling to everybody because we’ve been through 9/11 and because of just the everyday brutality of it and the fact that you have an enemy if you want to call it that who doesn’t wear a uniform and seems so totally alien, you know, that they can saw somebody’s head off in front of a TV camera as just part of their pressure agenda, so I think those things are profoundly unsettling and in some ways these films that deal with people that are completely outside of our sort of “Civilized” can help us deal with these very conflicting things that are happening in real life.

Interviewer: Do you think it’s gotten harder to scare people because of the things that they can see on Television and what things that are going on in the world.

Wes C: No, because you know, I don’t think it’s not like, I don’t think that any of us that make these films feel like we’re going to scare the audience in a way that they’ve never been scared before i.e. they’ve never seen anything like it in real life. I think it’s actually the contrary, is horror films, films in general, but horror film certainly when it comes to violence deal with things that are out there now. Frankenstein was done when modern medicine science was kind of blossoming into doing things with human beings; I think in this case where you have people doing thing on a very, very primal level just right down and dirty in the war. The irony of quarter of the world’s most powerful nation going to war with I don’t know what you know, a $45 million dollar jet and they get shot down by a $10 dollar rocket, that’s sort of feeling like a horror film is equivalent of a telephone breaking. The technology does not work, it doesn’t work with this kind of stuff and so it all comes down to you versus this other way of looking at life and the world and so they play out a theatre of things they’ve actually seen in real life, so the more bizarre real life gets the more bizarre the movies will get.

Interviewer: Well, I think what made your films so scary like “Last house on the left” was not so much scary as disturbing, but “Last house on the left” and “Hills have eyes” was almost the low budget-ness of it somehow made it seem more realistic and therefore more bothersome.

Wes C: Well, it’s interesting the first time I watched the “Texas chainsaw massacre” I concluded I went to see it by myself in a theatre in 42nd street. I concluded that it must have been made by a group of mansonites because it had exactly that quality, it was kind of greenish greeny and the whole thing just looked homemade. It was always ironic to later meet Toby Hooper the sweetest guy in the world, so I kind of devised a theory or a statement that covers that kind of for me and that is that the first monster that you must frighten an audience with in horror films is the director because I think it’s very important that the audience feel like this is outside the boundaries of anything that’s controlled or acceptable or polite or civilized because that’s kind of where these series come from. It doesn’t come from the civilized matrix; it comes from you know, outside of that and you know, a film that looks like was made by just a bunch of people instead of a corporation you know, immediately puts you in footing that’s shaky.

Interviewer: The group of horror films that came out in the 70’s, what do you think as a group that those filmmakers were kind of pushing, what kind of taboos or conventions were they challenging at that time?

Wes C: Well, I would give it a version of Marlon Brando’s answer, which is what you got? You really have to break all the boundaries because you feel like the boundaries have started to stifle the culture and make it insane, so it’s kind of shattered everything and get down to basics and also just to look behind the construct the court in the culture has erected of itself, which you feel like is a lie, so I think all horror films have to do with going back to individual. They’re not anti technology so much as they’re warning that technology will not save your ass when it comes down to the nitty-gritty and they’re not anti government so much as ultimately we’ll probably have to end up defending ourselves and our own lives. New Orleans is a classic example where all the technology in probably the world’s most technological culture, when Mother Nature comes in and when something big and primal comes in all that stuff is gone, it’s just gone and it’s not there to help you. The government is not there to help you and that is a classic generator of a horror film and that is what’s in the back of all that just kind of common people is that ultimately there’s nobody out there to help you, but you have to be able to do it yourself.

Interviewer: And is part of what creates this disturbing quality also is how far the quote unquote’s civilized people will go to survive?

Wes C: I think so, in a way you can take that negatively or positively, but certainly either way it’s a bitter pill. The good news I think that is buried in those kinds of scenarios is that you do have it in you to stand up to this kind of thing. The bad news is that that kind of stuff is in you that you’re not innocent either. I don’t think without articulating [indiscernible] [0:25:50] it’s not like all the horror films directors sit around coffee tables and cafes and say yes well, that’s the mistake we’re making, but I think that is the general substance of a lot of horror films.

Interviewer: A lot of times people kind of downgrade horror in the way they talk about it, its B movie horror or it’s just a horror film, but if people ask you something like why should I put myself through the grinder of going to see some of these horror films, what kind of an answer do you give them?

Wes C: Well, the answer I give them is you’re going through a grinder, its called life and what a horror film does it gives sort of a narrative to what is in real life chaotic and unpredictable and not under anybody’s control. In a horror film you’re under the control at least of the director and the film makers, but you’re confronted with things that are very primal and very frightening, so I’ve never felt like an audience goes in to be frightened, I always feel like whether they know it or not and always goes in frightened already and they’re looking for a narrative that somehow reflects that fear and gives it some shape and some resolution, I’m being waved at there, so I guess I…

Interviewer: Let me sneak one last question. Can you just comment briefly on the source material that inspired you on what it was about that source material that hooked your interest?

Wes C: I think I’m attracted to stories where things kind of flip half way through in so far as civilized people become uncivilized and the uncivilized are revealed to be a lot like us much more than we’d like to admit. It was in a book called I believe “Murder and Mayhem” in England and it was about the historical account of the Shawnee Bean family, which it was a family of feral people who had gone feral and who cannibised the travelers who were driving off their horses and killed the horse and killed the person and virtually eat them and they were rather obscure, but very direct road between Edinburgh and London and it was a shortcut people wanted to take, but after a while thought was haunted and a couple were attacked and one person got away and he was a very important at court and so people listened to him and they went back and after searching a dog went down a path that was along a cliff ace and looking on an English channel and there was a cave and they went in there and found 17, 20 people that were all interrelated and there were bodies pickled in sea brine and they were like completely the equivalent of mutants and the part that really fascinated me beyond that, which is fascinating is they were all taken back to London and horribly tortured for a very long time by the most civilized people, so it I just to me the irony that I like. I guess it’s my last answer to my last question.

Interviewer: Well, thank you very much for your time, I appreciate it.

Wes C: Okay bye, bye.

Interviewer: Bye.

Thanks for listening to this special edition cinema junkie podcast paying tribute to director Wes Craven who died on Sunday from Brain cancer you can new film reviews every Thursday and interviews every Friday by subscribing to the Cinema Junkie podcast on iTunes. So till our next film fix I’m Beth Accomando you resident Cinema Junkie.

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Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place