Wes Craven died last weekend and it made me feel weird. Or maybe unsettled is a better word. I’m not sad or anything, it’s just strange that he’s gone. He was old and had brain cancer, if you were playing the famous person death lottery and didn’t choose Wes Craven, you’re kind of an idiot (or not an awful person I guess). The one guarantee in life is that death is inevitable, and as a seminal horror director I’m almost certain that Craven recognized this more than most people. I’ve been reading about a lot of people having impromptu Wes Craven film festivals after hearing the news. I didn’t join in with the fun. Not because I think it’s lame, but on average I’ve probably accidentally watched more Wes Craven films than any other director. I don’t even think he was that great of a filmmaker, but he brought so many memorable characters to life that it’s hard not to watch his films again and again.
What Craven lacked in directorial ability* he more than made up for in intelligent and thoughtful characters who he gleefully plunged into stories that gnawed away at the psyche of the viewer. He was able to take fears inherent to us all and spin yarns that were both relatively small yet still larger than life. A Nightmare on Elm Street, The People Under the Stairs, The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, and Scream are all based on very simple concepts, and that’s why they all work so well. Specifically Scream, a film that Craven seems to have synthesized with his lifetime of experience toiling in the slasher genre. The film is a modern masterpiece because Craven filled it with his disappointment of being typecast as a horror guy, his distaste for the myriad copycats that followed in his footsteps, and the ghosts of the PMRC that still haunt us today whenever a horror film watching doofus shoots up a school. After 20 years of storytelling he was ready to reinvent the horror film while still working within the structure of the genre.
I started writing this while watching Scream for about the 20th time (possibly an under-exaggeration), and it still plays as well as it does on the second viewing. The jokes still land, the scares are still there, and it’s still fun to watch Craven weave a new form of slasher story while dropping hints and red herrings from the first phone call. Almost accidentally this ties into something else I’ve been watching with varying levels of interest, Scream the television series. MTV’s reimagining of the film series does its best to keep pace with Craven’s original film but the show doesn’t have the teeth to recreate Craven’s masterstroke. Even while trying to bite Craven’s style, the series can’t seem to get the Cravenisms just right. Early on in the first episode, the horror geek stand in for Jamie Kennedy, Noah Foster (played by John Karna) posits that it’s impossible for a television series to follow the investigation of a serial killer. Tongue planted firmly in cheek he states that the medium isn’t suited for that kind of storytelling. Scream (the series) sells itself out right off the bat, and by doing so it undercuts everything that it had going for it. Never mind that we’ve seen multiple television series’ play out the familiar serial killer/slasher genre to varying degrees of success over the years: Twin Peaks, True Detective, and Dexter (sort of) all had a mystery (or mysteries) that they were able to investigate over at least 10 episodes. Obviously the scene that the series is drawing a direct parallel to is the famous scene from Scream where Jamie Kennedy lays out the rules for surving a horror film. Yes, it was a joke lobbed directly at the slasher copycats who followed all too perfectly in the footsteps of Craven, Toby Hooper and Sean S. Cunningham, but it was also a way of telling viewers that the only way to break out of the confines of a genre is to play into its tropes. One thing the series has over the original film is a keen visual style that the original is lacking. But Scream was never about having a flashy visual style, instead the film and subsequent franchise has always been about telling a story, and defending a genre while simultaneously deconstructing it from the inside out. Scream the television series flip flops on what it wants to be. Is it a smart genre busting mystery series? Or is it just another excuse to watch mean pretty people get hacked to bits? By the end of the first season the show seem to find its footing. It played the comedy up a bit more, and the kills almost reached Saw levels of goofy (the series definitely goes there with Will’s death by giant tractor chainsaw thing). Even though the show sort of lost its way with some psychic ghost mumbo jumbo it corrected its trajectory with a tightly directed episode by heir to the horror throne Ti West before ending the season with more of a fizzle than a bang. But that’s the nature of episodic television; always leave the viewers wanting more.
Despite many of Craven’s failures (Shocker, anyone?), he usually found a way to give the audiences what they wanted while still leaving us wanting more. Even if the more that we ended up with could rarely live up to the original story’s promise. If you haven’t watched ALL of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, do yourself a favor and pull a marathon on a long weekend, and then watch Scream 1 & 4. And maybe even watch the series, which despite its many flaws feels like a worthy member of the Craven canon.
*I’m not trying to tear the guy down, he just had a very workman like style that anyone would be hard pressed to consider groundbreaking. I’d consider him closer to Kevin Smith or George Lucas, two directors who prefer to lock the camera down, than to guys like Scorsese, or Tarantino. It doesn’t matter, email me and we’ll talk about it. Even I’m bored reading this footnote.