Wes Craven has made an entire generation of moviegoers cringe with such groundbreaking horror films as The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street and the darkly humorous Scream series. But Craven never intended to pursue a career making scary movies. As a matter of fact, having been raised in a fundamentalist family in Cleveland, he never even saw any movies at all until he was in his 20s and never saw a horror film until after he made what has become a classic of the slasher genre: The Last House on the Left.
This month, Craven joins fellow fright directors Stan Winston (Pumpkinhead), Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th) and John Carpenter (Halloween), and blood-and-gore special effects legends Tom Savini and Gregory Nicotero in Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, premiering Oct. 13 on Starz. In his long and thoughtful interview with us, he discussed the documentary, his films and the odd relationship between the slasher genre and politics.
Where in Cleveland did you grow up?
Wes Craven: This is a vicious rumor. I was born in Paris and led a very exotic life. [Laughs.] Actually I was born on 82nd Street by Wade Park … on the east side. It was a nice neighborhood but it almost immediately started going down.
The special has an odd subtitle: “The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film.” Should they have added “Rebirth” to that?
The slasher films sort of wax and wane in a 10-year cycle. When somebody does something original or somebody touches the zeitgeist, then what happens is the next level down somebody gets an idea and they do it and it’s interesting. After that people who are just interested in making money see it and they start making copies and it gets less and less original and somebody declares that horror is dead. Then shortly after that somebody has another original idea and off it goes again and it’s not dead. I’ve seen it happen at least three discernable times in my career. Somebody will say to me that nobody is making horror films anymore [and now] somebody in the studio I’m making a deal with says that there’s 23 horror films coming out next summer. … Sometimes that happens.
The most outstanding example that I can remember was when I wrote Nightmare on Elm Street. Everybody said that horror was dead — that it was too bloody and that people don’t want to see blood anymore. Basically we’d had Friday the 13th times 20 and horror is played out and then it just takes one studio person, in that case Bob Shaye, to say, “No, that’s original. Let’s make it.” The audience has meanwhile not given up on horror but has given up on bad imitations and stupid scripts. And they’re suddenly lined up around the block, and off we go again.
[A slasher film’s] curse, if I may use that horror term, is that it makes a lot of money for very little money paid out, and therefore it attracts greed. [Laughs.] There’s a group of people who really love it and come to it with very high standards and say, “I’m going to do something original, and it’s going to be about something.” Those actually are the films that make the money. Then what follows are films made by people that don’t have that criterion. They basically will go out and look at what made money and will do Friday the 13th Meets Death or something. … It’s all from unoriginal minds where the priority is making money rather than an actual good movie.
I found the comment in “Going to Pieces” about the Reagan era killing the genre interesting but not entirely clear. Can you explain what was meant by that comment, and do you agree?
In some ways the Reagan era was good for horror because whenever greed and smugness and, you know, paternalistic culture, really cranks up to its highest level, that’s when horror films kind of step in and say, “Wait a minute, there’s much more chaos than you’re admitting to.” And the nice people, the authority figures with the well-manicured lawns, they’re hiding something and you get The People Under the Stairs and Blue Velvet and films that are about the darker side of things.
Has “Scream,” which is so deliciously funny and satirical, helped revive the genre or is laughing at the films ruining the terror of them?
Scream was scary but was also a little bit more arch. There was a bit of a wink to it in the sense that we said to the audience, “We know you are watching a scary movie and we know you know all the cliches, so we’re going to tell you what you are thinking here.” So at any moment you are directing a scene beginning with a cliche. Then you do something just the opposite. That’s exciting to an audience. It means you are coming to them with a high enough standard. That’s kind of delightful in a strange way because you’ve got to give something that’s fresh. … If a horror film is trying to scare you with stuff you’ve seen a million times, it’s not scary and therefore not addressing what’s really bothering you. Like somebody coming to get you in your nightmares. People had just not thought about that but it is a really common part of our lives — disturbing dreams — but nobody had really thought of going into that territory.
“A Nightmare on Elm Street” was based on a news story, as I recall, about a group of young Asian men who died in their sleep. But you also commented that it had a philosophical component as well. Can you expand on that?
There was a Russian mystic [G.I.] Gurdjieff. I was fascinated by his theory of levels of consciousness. The closer to consciousness you went, the more frightening it became, [until] you were so terrified by reality that you go back down several layers.
A couch potato is a perfect example of somebody who is basically asleep. They’re not thinking of anything that’s really real. They’re immersing themselves in comforting dreams. And as you go up [in levels], you look at the world hard-nosed. And then there are world leaders who look at the world as blood and guts, and then philosophers and poets. And people start committing suicide up at that level. And then you surrender your ego and you’re relieved.
That’s the character of Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street — somebody who knew a painful truth and everybody around her said, “Don’t go there. It’s not true. You’re making this up.” Actually, these were the people, especially the parental figures, who had created this thing by murdering [Freddy Krueger].
You know, I just think George Bush Sr. said these are nutcases talking about the environment and global warming. And, you know, his generation was the one that killed Freddy Krueger. They’re the ones that cut all the corners, all the moral and ethical limits, so they could keep making this money selling this oil. And now their grandchildren will inherit the Freddy Krueger part of it. It’s very relevant in a strange way. It’s very, very relevant.
I recall that “The People Under the Stairs” was noted by some critics to be a dark satire on the Reagan era. Were the critics reading more into the film than you intended?
Again, that was based on a news story that happened in Santa Monica, Calif. A black guy broke into a local home and the person next door saw him and called the police. So the police come out and surround the house, and, sure enough, they hear sounds behind a door that had been barricaded. So they break open the door and they find two or three children — I’m not sure how many there were — who had been kept there their entire lives by these white-bread people … who could not cope with the exuberance and chaos of children. So they keep them locked up and completely dominate them and rob them of their own lives. For me that was the paradigm of the white horror with people of color, especially people in the ghetto … this fear of the life force of the younger generation, and of people who are different from us.
To me it’s always been really fascinating how horror films can so easily talk about things that are very complex social issues as long as [it’s] basically simple in representation. Just a couple of people, teenagers and their parents, and you can talk about things that are important to our culture.
Speaking of culture, we have a plethora of zombie movies out there. Are they representative of our current culture?
To get political, now we have an administration that has within it some truly brilliant people who understand media and know how to manipulate what we think, and, almost at will, can manufacture public sentiments that can aid their agenda. … They have manipulated the United States by use of fear to such an extent that nothing they do, it seems — whether it’s illegal or crazy or just lies — will get them into trouble. … This is the kind of unconsciousness of sleep that I wrote about in Nightmare on Elm Street. The majority of people are not thinking their own thoughts.
“Red Eye” was a very different film for you, much lighter on the blood, and at the end the killer isn’t killed by his potential victim. Are you getting softer in your old age or were you making a political statement there?
I’ve been doing this on and off in a lot of my films. Scream girl shoots the bad guy right between the eyes when he comes alive for the last time. But in Nightmare, Nancy just walks away after she tricks Freddy into coming into her house. … He has his claws in her face and she turns her back on him and says, “I take away all the energy I gave you.” And he sort of explodes and falls through the floor and disappears. I think we did the same thing in Red Eye. That final confrontation when he slams her against the wall. … We had cuts where she says “F*** you” and all these cliché things women say to villains in movies, and I kept saying, “I’ve seen this a million times.” [So instead] she says, “You’re pathetic.”
To kill him would be to come down to his level. I think there’s a profound thing going on in the world right now — this endless cycle of revenge. I think many American movies are sort of culpable in encouraging the idea that it’s OK to take revenge. But it’s impossible to say who did the original sin to somebody else. Look at what’s going on now in Lebanon and Israel. “You did this, I’ll do this.” … So they are literally slaughtering each other and each other’s children. It’s insanity. It’s true insanity.
The Greeks, a long time ago, in the great trilogy of Sophocles — and Oedipus Rex is part of it — the culmination is you have to leave it to the gods and turn your back on the person who has wronged you because you have also wronged. That’s what you have to do, you have to be willing to break that cycle, to step back and not reciprocate, which is very, very hard to do. The alternative is that endless cycle of violence that we are all caught in now. “You did 9/11. We’ll attack Iraq. It will make it all better.”
Do you find that your work has a sort of ongoing theme, and if so, what is it?
I think there’s a bunch of themes. Certainly important is thinking independently — that is, being conscious. There’s a theme of the struggles and the hatreds and the rages, and the good things about families themselves. There’s a theme about them and us, and discovering that them or they are actually us. Even in The Hills Have Eyes, it seems that these people are just monsters and then you find out they have a family structure and they have their family squabbles just like everybody else. And the people who are suburban whites are just as crazed as anyone else. And I think that idea of looking at the monster and seeing the humanity in it and looking at the human and seeing the monster is very important. Because the only way I can explain much of world history is to realize that we’re all capable of monstrosities. It’s been the civilized nations who have perfected killing, not the savage cultures.
What inspired you to choose making terrifying films for a career?
Absolutely nothing. I had no intention of doing this, and I’m serious. I had come very late to watching movies at all because my religious upbringing forbids that. And I really didn’t start seeing movies until my 20s, and the force of cinema just struck me so hard. And it wasn’t horror films; it was kind of European new wave films, [and] I just quit my job and went to New York to learn how to make movies. I was thinking I’d make movies like [Ingmar] Bergman or [Federico] Fellini or whatever, with totally my head up my butt since I didn’t know anything about anything. About a year into sweeping floors, somebody offered me a job on a little film. In the course of working on it, I just kept getting more and more responsibility. … It was two guys making the film, and one guy left and it was just me and the producer, Sean Cunningham. At the end, it made money for the investors. It cost $70,000 and they said, “We’ll give you $90,000 to make a scary movie.” And Sean said to me, “You want to make movies. Write something scary and, if they like it, we’ll make it. You can direct it and we’ll cut it in the office and we’ll have a lot of fun.”
And I told Sean, “I don’t know anything about writing scary.” And he said, “You were raised fundamentalist — just pull all the skeletons out of the closet. That’s how Last House on the Left was made, and it was really made … laughing and scratching. We didn’t take it terribly seriously. We did it in a way that established a lot of themes that run through all my pictures. And it came out and made a lot of money and also offended a lot of people So the only way I could make another movie turned out to be to make another scary movie, because everybody else thought I was reprehensible. Off I went and made The Hills Have Eyes, and then I was typecast. At that point it was just about: Here I am. I can make movies but they have to be scary. So let’s explore. Let’s see what we can do with this genre and still have fun.
Of your body of work, do you have a favorite, and what is it?
I don’t have any favorites. Every movie you love dearly and then you are off making another one and kind of forget it. But certainly Nightmare on Elm Street I like because I wrote and directed it. Those I wrote and directed I’m a little more fond of just because they are purely me. But Scream was great, a true trilogy and the only time I’ve done a true trilogy. … The Serpent and the Rainbow was kind of life altering because it was done in such an exotic and strange locale.
Where did you shoot “Serpent?”
We shot it in Haiti for all of our exteriors, which was quite dicey. It’s not a safe place. We went to the Dominican Republic after, to do the night shots, except for the big procession at night, which we also shot in Haiti.
You did an accurate portrayal of vodoo, especially the dark and light sides of it. How much research did you do?
I read everything I could on voodoo and [discovered] that it’s a religion, not just mumbo jumbo, and, like all religions, it covers all facets of human life from burials to the planting of crops. The creation of zombies is a very thin slice of it. … So we went to Haiti, but the real key man was Wade Davis, the writer of the book, who is a scientist and a poet. He had gone to these places and done the things which were in the book. He was there during the shooting of the movie, and the people in Haiti knew him. So we got into places no white guy except Wade has ever been in before.
We’d go into a town and guys would start coming out of the shadows and coming toward us and looking like we’re dead. Then Wade would get out of the car and they’d stop and smile, and he’d go over and give them some secret handshake and they’d wave us in and we got into all these spots that are completely hidden from any outsiders. Wade Davis … went in and lived with the people and learned all the processes in a nonjudgmental way, so when we went in we were benefactors of all that incredible experience he already had.
What is your favorite scary movie?
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead were the two I first saw when I went to New York, and that’s when I really discovered these types of film. They were interesting. Night of the Living Dead had a sense of humor about it and also a political point of view, and it was really fascinating to me that there was somebody smart in there and he had a worldview and here it is in this crazy, scary movie.
Texas Chain Saw seemed to be so completely free of any sense of Western civilization or boundaries or sanity or propriety that it has this primal force to it that was just incredible. I literally was crouching behind the seat in front of me in a theater on 42nd Street, not knowing — I don’t know what — if my soul was going to be dragged onto the screen.
I can imagine what it was like, not having grown up on these films and seeing them for the first time. Whatever put you in that theater in the first place?
It was research. I’d already shot Last House, so I’d already done one of my own that would scare other people, but I’d never really gone out and seen other films. I wanted to see this one. The look of it and everything else. It was kind of around the time of Charles Manson, and I just thought it was made by a bunch of asinines out in Texas someplace and obviously outside the bounds of any civilized behavior. About a year later, I realized this is what you have to do in a horror film: The first maniac in a horror film is the director himself. He has to be the scariest monster. [Viewers] have to sense that the person making the film is dangerous, not following the rules — crazy.
How old were you when you were first really frightened of something, and what was it?
The man next door raking leaves on our front lawn. He fell over and died. I was 4 years old watching there, and bang.
But literally, the month I was born Hitler invaded Poland and the first five years of my life had that tonality of World War II going on, and me realizing dimly as a child that the world was trying to kill itself. … My uncle came back and talked about being on one of those landing barges and the barge in front of him got hit and there were bodies flying everywhere. He had this tic he never lost for the rest of his life. And also [I remember] being taken to see something called telenews, a black-and-white newsreel that played in special theaters. My foster father would take me to see these films of Europe being blown up and people dying. You realize that grownups can be very, very scary.
I didn’t see movies, but I saw newsreels, and those are twice as scary.
Can you talk about “Bug,” your new film?
No. [Pauses.] But I’ll probably have to change the title because Billy Friedkin has a film coming out by that name. … The interesting thing about Bug is it is the first film I’ve written and directed for a while.
What do you store on your DVR?
Boston Legal, The Sopranos, 24, all sorts of stuff on [TLC], high-speed chases — I’m forced to admit — Full Force Nature, How It’s Made and specials like Baghdad ER, for example.
Who is your hero, the person who inspired you to become who you are today?
A tough one. There are half a dozen guys. Certainly all the great European filmmakers making films when I was watching movies. Certainly [Alfred] Hitchcock. And then a guy whose picture I still have up on my wall, John Huston. I just think he had a wonderful sort of wisdom and humanity about him that was wise and smart and tough, and he sort of became my father figure.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I think it’s important for people to realize that scary movies or movies about people dying are forms of defense, not offense. They are always taken as offensive by society at large. “Oh, why do you make those horrible films?” And it’s just people who are trying to defend themselves against the brutality of reality. This is the crazy way that we do it. So rather than smashing the mirror, take a look at yourself and take a look at the world we are living in, and then admit that in many ways it’s very chaotic and very murderous and we don’t seem to be able to really control our behavior. As much as we would like to think we’re all civilized, you turn on the television and the top stories are about people killing each other, and the world always seems to teeter on the brink. It’s really pathetic and tragic commentary that what children perceive going on behind all the niceties and situation comedies are these grim sort of grinding of the gears of history, which itself is very bloody and very scary.