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Book Review: Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares

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Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares by John Wooley Wiley: Hoboken, NJ: 2011 Wes Craven has had a long and productive career, spanning over 40 years of near-constant film and television work, as well as forays into acting and prose writing. But as John Wooley’s readable biography of the man points out, he has consistently resisted his association with the horror film genre, the fan frenzied place that has proven flexible enough to accommodate the pop surrealism of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the zealotry of Deadly Blessing (1981) and The People Under the Stairs (1991), and the streamlined awareness of the Scream franchise. The narrative that Craven tells about his own work—collected by Wooley through the diligent sleuthing of interviews and press clippings—is of constant disappointment over the critical discourse around horror cinema, especially the mass media accusations around moral bankruptcy (The Last House on the Left, 1972) and his having to answer for copycat murders (Scream, 1996). The general story of Craven’s entry to the film industry is something like this: raised primarily by a devoutly religious mother in the Cleveland area, he lead a very ordered and strict life until he reached Wheaton College, where he shrugged off some of the cultural shackles and began to watch movies in greater earnest, as well as caused enough scandal to get the literary magazine Kodon shut down under his editorship (22-23). This sets the tone for the conflicts in the rest of his creative career, where Craven—a reasonable, soft-spoken man equally attuned to the religious right as to the counterculture—tests the limits of an idea, while philistine critics who do not share his sensibility balk at his attempts. In Wooley’s account, Craven usually emerges as the reasonable artist, while the public and the critical establishment remain a few steps behind. It were ever thus. Anyone familiar with Craven is already familiar with the controversies. The Last House on the Left (1972) now plays like a founding document in the “savage cinema” modality of the 1970s, willing as it is to showcase a world in which no one is safe and in which the innocent can turn on their oppressors with equal ferocity. The “rape-revenge” plot underpinning the film might have been what initially caused a minor moral panic, but today the film’s aesthetic trumps in astonishment. Shot cheaply and (truth be told) crudely, the movie’s grim immediacy makes its transgressions appear like nothing else that had made it to screen to date. Craven’s invention of Freddy Krueger might be read as another such controversy. In his A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven synthesized several past experiences into a villain whose threat treads in a similar sense of uneasiness as the one set up in Last House. Krueger attacks children in dreams, and his past contains pedophilia and other unmentionable deeds. In fact, the threat he represents has to do with his ability to “strike anywhere,” in increasingly inevitable circumstances (despite caffeine and other aides, we’ve all got to sleep sometime). The controversy, though, has to do with what New Line Cinema and the other creative partners in the franchise did to the character. Craven’s initial Krueger is a true threat, a monster in the most classical sense. By the early 1990s, Freddy had his own tongue-in-check anthology TV show Freddy’s Nightmares, could be bought and sold as a doll (or a Halloween costume) to pre-teen children, and had become more memorable for his quips than for his claws. Craven addressed this shift in his greatest film, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), one of the most inspired pieces of populist meta-fiction ever to secure wide release. But Krueger was always a balance of monster and master showman. The eventual reboot of the franchise offers an even grittier and grimier Krueger, and largely falls flat. I should make clear that Wooley hints at the cultural and filmic significance of Craven’s movies without delving too deep into them. For better or worse (probably for the better), this book is a biography. It is about Craven’s triumphs and defeats, the changes in his life circumstances, and how he saw his own career unfolding. Brian Robb and John Kenneth Muir have each done books on Craven that analyze the films in greater detail, and numerous academics have extracted all sorts of significance from his work. Craven has a particular appeal to academics because he almost was one. After getting his BA, he did an intensive Masters program at Johns Hopkins, and then went on to teach at both college and high school levels. As Wooley and Craven demonstrate, he is quite attuned to the implications of his work (a refreshing change from directors who claim that their work totally speaks for itself, or who go one worse and claim that it has no meanings beyond the surface whatsoever). That said, while the book mainly consist of Wooley constructing a clear, mostly linear narrative of Craven’s life, it does have some rewarding digressions. Wooley astutely makes a structural comparison between Craven’s career and that of his contemporary John Carpenter, who (especially in the 1980s) made similar pictures in an almost one-to-one correspondence (153-154). More compelling still is Wooley’s attention to Craven’s failed and unrealized projects. Among other ventures, Craven produced several canceled television shows, including The People Next Door (1989) and Nightmare Cafe (1992), and nearly directed an adaptation of V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic, which did eventually come to the screen through a different director in 1987. For a film scholar, the book provides ample biographical detail, but reminds that Craven’s career is rich for academic (re)discovery. Kevin M. Flanagan

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