As with many directors of horror, it is hard to pin down exactly what makes them an auteur, or even if they can be classed as one. Wes Craven, alongside others, have made huge contributions to horror as a genre and helped not only set conventions but work towards breaking them. His films helped redefine horror in Hollywood on a number of occasions and his impact can be seen on many current directors.
Craven’s Point of View
Wesley Earl Craven was born in Cleveland Ohio in August 1939 and died in August 2015. He was raised in a strict Baptist household and therefore saw very little films due to his parent’s religious beliefs. Craven taught English for a brief time before moving to New York where he became a humanities professor. This move to New York helped introduce him to art house theatres and the work of directors such as Ingmar Bergman whose work, he had stated, inspired him to pursue film-making. At the age of 28 he left teaching and after a brief stint working in the porn film industry, he turned to making horror.
In 1972 he made his debut with The Last House on the Left, Cravens take on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), which was accompanied with taglines such as ‘Can a movie go TOO FAR?’ and ‘To avoid fainting, keep repeating: “It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…”. Despite its violent nature, the film was generally well received though it was censored in many places and, although available uncut in the UK initially, it was later banned through the late 80s-90s.
Later in 1984, he directed one of his best-known films A Nightmare on Elm Street, which introduced the iconic Freddy Krueger and further cemented Cravens reputation for being a master of horror. Following from this, Craven made a number of films before creating another costumed character in the form of Ghostface for his 1996 film Scream, a film that played with the genre he had worked in for so long and helped reinvent a style of horror that had a clear impact on the next generation of horror.
Craven almost always worked within horror, with the only real exception being the musical drama Music of the Heart. However, his use of horror is always combined with a range of subgenres which can include thriller, fantasy, mystery or even some elements of comedy.
One of the more prominent themes within Craven’s work is that of the psychological idea of the villain. His films tend to subvert the idea of the villain/hero leading the viewer to believe they are completely aware of a situation before abruptly leading us in a different direction. One of the clearest examples of this can be seen in his directorial debut The Last House on the Left where our initial antagonists are Krug et al. However, by the end of the film, we see Mari Collingwood’s parents take on this role. Craven can be seen using horror to investigate certain aspects of human nature. Most predominantly the idea of fight or flight and how this can transform someone into a killer. For example, in The Hills Have Eyes, our protagonist family, the Carters, are forced to make extreme decisions to escape Papa Jupiter and Co, with an ending that reflects the impact the actions have had on people such as Doug.
This investigation of the mind can best be seen in The Nightmare on Elm Street where Craven took the conventions of the slasher horror and transported them to the world of dreams. Within this film, Craven introduces the idea of literally overcoming the thought of fear in order to defeat its incarnation. By introducing this element of fantasy Craven was able to take horror in a different direction while giving it a recognisable feel in relation to other films such as John Carpenter’s Halloween or Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th.
Another common theme is that of strong female characters. While he has some films such as Swamp Thing following clichés in relation to the female characters, we then have many of his other films that whereby Craven actively avoids these stereotypes. For example, the character of Sidney in Scream, Nancy in Elm Street or Lisa in Red Eye. Each of these women overcome the problems created for them in a way that showed thought and conviction to outsmart their opponent as opposed to simply having the trope of the ‘last one standing’ as is typical of many slasher films.
Art of Filmmaking
Wes Craven’s general style of filmmaking is visually similar to a number of horror film-makers. The conventional use of camera angles, editing to create scares and using lighting to enhance a scene are all evident within his work. However, as mentioned before, his understanding of the genre and the conventions have allowed him to use them to his advantage. This is most notable in his film series Scream where he dictates to the audience the conventions of the genre which had become familiar to audiences and then used this as a way to drive the narrative, attempting to break each of these clichés. For example Scream’s Sidney loses her virginity despite the fact a friend has already noted that the No. 1 rule of horror-movie survival: “Sex equals death.” Yet this generic convention never comes to pass. This ability to identify the elements of horror that viewers expect allowed Craven to continuously make changes to the narrative expectations of the genre and something that can be seen throughout the vast majority of his films.
As noted, the actual filmmaking techniques are relatively generic and, even if used slightly differently to other horror films, Cravens visual style is not the most prominent. Therefore it is within his storytelling and use of characters and actions that help define his films. Wes Craven, like many considered an auteur, wrote many of his films and therefore this acts as his personal stamp. With narratives that involve witty villains, the indication of convention, an ability to use sub-genres to great effect and his females are not the dim-witted, hysterical token characters so often seen within horror. Although Craven has directed films written by others, such as Red Eye, the films he chose to direct share similar themes to those he has written and therefore help to indicate his narrative preferences.
Is Wes Craven an auteur? There are definitely arguments for and against. However, it is clear to see that people are able to identify his films and that his narrative style has had a clear impact on modern horror, with many trying to emulate his films and methods of storytelling. His films stand out clearly among the very many horror films that exist and he was undoubtedly the creative force behind his films. Therefore, in relation to the definition of the word, it is fair to say that Wes Craven is indeed an auteur of the genre.