By Ray Pride - Sunday, August 30th, 2015
Calm, bearded, loquacious, Wes Craven is such a smart, soothing professorial presence, you almost want to, well, scream. That’s the name of the newest thriller by the creator of Freddie Krueger, the “nightmare” hero of the most successful series of slasher movies. Through the years, Craven’s tried to get beyond stock genre movies, but with little success. In fact, he turned down neophyte writer Kevin Williamson’s teens-in-peril script at first, fearing that its twisty, knowing riffs on horror staples like Halloween and A Stranger is Calling and the gags among its teenage cast about “the rules” to follow in order to be a horror film survivor, would be yet another nail in his artistic coffin. (Ironically, Miramax is pleased enough with Scream to have promised Craven the chance to make an arthouse movie after the untitled werewolves-on-wheels movie he’s shooting for them now.)
Craven deconstructed horror once before, in his commercially unsuccessful, but sophisticated franchise-killer, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare two years ago. But Scream‘s virtue is that it toys with both the clever and the visceral in a way that could potentially satisfy a larger audience. “I’ve clearly had this impulse to get away from genre,” Craven says. “When I read this script, I said this is too hardcore. If I do this, I’ll never do another kind of film, ever. But at a certain point, I had this feeling that I could go back to my roots, because the script is smart, the characters are well-drawn and interesting. It takes a look at horror from the point of view of the audience, and Drew Barrymore was already attached. We were also hearing that agents around town were reporting a lot of interest from their young clients.” (Eventually, Fox sob-sister Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, the sharp and funny Rose MacGowan and up-and-comer Skeets Ulrich joined the cast.) “So I just had this feeling, screw it, man, I know how to do this, I can make a good picture, and it never hurts to make a strong picture. I kept thinking of Pacino in Heat, what was it he said? ‘I do what I do best!'”
Craven credits his knack for horror to his Southern Baptist upbringing, which forbade movies, dancing, drinking and card-playing. After grad school, while teaching college, he discovered filmmakers like Fellini, Buñuel, Bergman, Antonioni, and Polanski. “I borrowed a lot from those films for the American genre of scary movies,” Craven says. “Obviously, I think the horror genre could be served by more thoughtful writers and directors than it has been.” I wonder aloud why the thoughtful Craven didn’t wind up in a more “respectable” line of filmmaking. “That’s a question I’ve asked myself so many times I don’t have a flip answer. I think there was a lot of rage in my background. Things I didn’t know were there until I made Last House on the Left. Maybe there’s some level of self-assassination to make people think I’m somebody completely different than who I am. That’s why they don’t offer me a film like The English Patient! But then I think, I’ve made fifteen films, and as many television films. I’ve worked steadily my whole career.”
And it’s a career Craven is not at all ashamed of. “There’s something valuable in horror. Typically, kids comes out of a scary movie bubbling over with energy. There’s a very salubrious release, a deep sense of tensions and fears that get exorcised. I think laughter is a natural release for unbearable tension. I think the audiences unify in a way that’s unique in our culture, when they’re all scared together. The old buffaloes turn their backs to the wind and get the young ones in the middle. Boyfriends protecting the girlfriends, you know.”
And the most obvious question of all: What scares you? “That question!” After a moment, he adds, “What scares Wes Craven? My release date! It’s better than Halloween, but I wonder how we’ll do with the number of films out there. But what scares me, really? My standard answer is that I’m scared by what scares the audiences, which is why I can do what I do. The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you. That’s why the O. J. Simpson trial was so compelling. It’s because the crime was so primal. It had to do with that fact that three human beings, whoever they were, were locked, literally, in a cage, with somebody with a knife. I think horror also deals with the outskirts of paranoia and trust. Literally, who can you trust? Can you trust your perceptions, or trust your family to protect you? Will your boyfriend or girlfriend be there for you, instead of against you? It’s all the mind-body paradigm. Is my mind giving me accurate enough information that my organism will survive, or do I have an erroneous concept that will cause something calamitous to happen to me?”
Does that leave Craven with any philosophy to live by? He clicks a throat lozenge, smiles a little. “I run a friendly set. People get along. Around our office, we like to say, life is too short, get rid of the assholes.”
Originally published 19 December 1996.