Wes Craven and Real Horror

Wes Craven's real name was actually Wesley Earl Craven. For some reason, that thought has been rattling around my head since I learned of his death from brain cancer at the end of last month. Forty-plus years after his first feature film debuted, and with a filmography so full of slasher flicks it's tempting to credit him as being 75 percent of the inspiration for The Cabin in the Woods, it would be easy to assume that Craven was some sort of twisted nom de plume -- a silly play on an adjective for fear and cowardice.

Wesley Earl Craven was the real deal, though -- as responsible as anyone, except perhaps John Carpenter, for the slasher film rising to mainstream prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That might make him partially responsible for the rote, tired tropes that have permeated the subgenre from almost the moment when Carpenter's Halloween and Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street introduced their iconic mass murderers to the world.

But knocking Craven for inspiring a legion of less-skilled imitators feels particularly unfair -- a bit like blaming The Beatles for every lousy concept album that came out after Sgt. Peppers. It also ignores the substance of his actual work in favor of its cultural impact. One thing, it seems fair to judge an artist on. Another, it does not.

And Craven's work did have substance. Maybe, it wasn't the kind that could win him a Best Picture. But it was unquestionably the kind that left an indelible mark. Think of Wes Craven and you immediately think of Freddy Krueger's claw, or, failing that, certainly the Scream mask.

Just as importantly: Craven's work actually made you think. The slasher flick is as synonymous with formula as the romantic comedy. But this is not a charge easily leveled against A Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream or The Hills Have Eyes or The Last House on the Left. Craven managed to be meta long before that was a whole thing with Scream. He toyed with our perceptions of reality in A Nightmare on Elm Street (and with an unforgettable gush of blood canceled out the sins of Johnny Depp's Mordecai). He didn't shy away from gore, but he didn't leave out pyschological horror -- like the realization that your vigilante parents might have created the monster tormenting you -- either.

Craven understood being scared on a whole host of levels, and it translated to his work. That might feel ordinary, but I assure you it is not.