The calm, quiet Wes Craven is no stranger to our 31 Days of Horror project. He’s the most visible name when it comes to the genre, emerging and re-emerging Travolta-style from the rubble every few years to remind us why he’s so damned good at what he does (which usually happens after his movies make us forget).
Batting averages aside, he’s delivered an outstanding amount of great films in a genre injured by low budgets and rip-off artists. If it’s easy for some to dismiss horror, it’s hard not to take movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Serpent and the Rainbow and Scream seriously.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who lives in the last house on the left.
Use the Rules of the Genre For Something More
“Well, it’s very difficult for me to even define what a horror film is. I think a lot of the films I’ve done are quite far from the ‘classical horror film.’ You know, the car stalling in the middle of the woods in a dark night beside a haunted mansion and things of that sort. Even the Hammer films. I’ve never really felt that close to that particular part of the genre. A lot of the films I’ve made are just kind of using the genre, because that’s where I was in effect, to talk about violence and hallucinative reality and kind of the irrational curve of the 20th century. I mean Last House on the Left didn’t feel like a horror film so much as a bizarre political commentary in a B-movie format. People Under the Stairs was certainly very political. I’m kind of talking about the ones that I wrote myself because I kind of did some real dogs in there, too. [Laughs.] And even the end of Nightmare on Elm Street–the seventh one I did there last–was already kind of deconstructing the whole format and looking behind the scenes at the people who made it and confronting issues of censorship and everything else. I don’t know if anyone in the genre has, but I’ve never felt–especially since I didn’t have a big background in the genre–that I was ever consciously making ‘horror films.'”
The best horror taps into intimate fears that are often representational of something bigger. It’s why The Twilight Zone was so successful and why any genre top ten list you might personally make contains a host of movies as metaphors. You can make a solid flick following the tropes of a genre, but to make something really memorable, it’s almost guaranteed that you have to look beyond the monster you’ve created to the one it can represent.
Girls Don’t Always Fall Down
“When I made Swamp Thing, my daughter was watching it with me, and I had a scene where a female character was running away, and as in all such situations in horror movies, she stumbled and fell. My daughter turned to me and said, ‘Dad, girls don’t always fall down.’ This made me realize I had fallen into the old horror cliché of the girl running from the villain and tripping on a rock or some other debris. I didn’t really care for that, so it got me thinking about taking it in the other direction and creating some strong female characters. I certainly did that with A Nightmare on Elm Street, and then of course we got to revisit that again in the Scream films with Neve Campbell and some of the other female characters.”
There’s an obvious lesson here in bucking trends and breaking stereotypes, but this should also serve as a loud call not to do stupid things in your movie. Can characters be stupid and do stupid things? Sure. Can they even do them against type? It’s possible. But don’t let your characters trip on the proverbial rock when 1) it’s been done and 2) it looks ridiculous. Search beyond the cliché, and you’ll find something that works to replace your action space-filler.
You Don’t Have To Think Up a Movie Idea
Just keep your eyes open to the story/horror that’s right in front of you:
Worry About Your Feet First
“I learned to take the first job that you have in the business that you want to get into. It doesn’t matter what that job is, you get your foot in the door.”
When I was working in production, I remember groaning to a friend that I was at the bottom of the totem pole, and she said, “At least you’re on the totem pole.” Sage, reasoned advice. “Get On the Pole” sounds wrong, but you get the gist. Once you’re in the door, you can become part of the conversation. Once you’re part of the process, you can convert that into taking a bigger role in it.
Twist the Greats Into Something New
Craven got his start in 1972 with The Last House on the Left, a film that demanded a visceral response. It’s impact was undoubtedly heightened by the social conditions of the time (see tip #1), but the plot was inspired by/lifted from a master filmmaker’s work:
“The original Last House is based on a Ingmar Bergman film [The Virgin Spring]. I had seen it years before I wrote the script for Last House, and I don’t think I even went back to it, but I remembered the core of the story, and then I knew Bergman had based it on a medieval folk tale from his region of the world. I said [to the new filmmakers], ‘Think about it more as a fantastic story that has a very, very strong spine. We’d like to have it recognizable to the audience, but we’d like you to make it your own.'”
This is a Criterion Collection film from an icon of filmmaking that Craven ran through the grindhouse. This isn’t a call to plagiarize, but what works can be twisted beyond recognition? What could you do this those masterworks as inspiration?
Keep It Real
That may extend beyond looking for true stories to base your fiction off of. Sometimes, you may have to buy a bunch of gold necklaces for a voodoo priest.
What Have We Learned
Craven is an incredibly savvy director who speaks with a kind of calm wisdom. He also reflects a unique time in our culture where horror was ready to emerge from its B-movie roots to become something deeper and more allegorical. Since that threshold has already been breached, it’s impossible for horror filmmakers today to craft a similar transition (although given enough time, that could change). Still, it’s interesting to think of the major horror franchises of our times — namely Saw and Paranormal Activity — and attempt to find their resonance in the zeitgeist. Are we afraid of incredibly smart figures determined to make us live our lives to the fullest? Afraid of our own homes? Afraid of franchises that get mined of all the cash they can possibly make?
An even better question might be what kind of social statement we’re making by remaking the social horror statements of the 1970s and 80s.
While we ruminate on that, it’s nice to get some insight into Craven’s philosophy. His tips here are practical and mostly have to deal with research. Of course, he left out an important one: have a really cool last name.