For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved scary movies.
When I was a kid, they had a distinct and very physical effect on me. I would yell. I would toss away the blankets, horrified. I would jump off the couch and pray in a sort of knowing, mischievous way, that the boogie man would not get me. That feeling of unfiltered, pure fear was ambrosiac to me. It’s a kind of rawness I chase every time I see a movie. It’s why I’ve never stopped watching horror.
Nowadays, I pay attention to different aspects of horror movies, not the jump scares or the cheap tricks, but the narratives and what they may say about our understanding of fear. My favorites of the genre are the movies that meant one thing when I saw them in childhood and express a message entirely new when I watch them now. The truth is that, of the unhealthy heaps of horror I have seen, only one filmmaker consummately encapsulates the duality between my infantile adrenaline-seeking and my more mature reinspection: Wes Craven.
Among the most successful horror directors, Craven has sustained his mordantly brooding impact in the popular consciousness because his work transcends any single era of horror. From his voyeuristic 1977 cult classic “The Hills Have Eyes” to his decade-defining “A Nightmare on Elm Street” seven years later to his cinematically reinventive “Scream” in the ’90s, the master of his craft has engendered a revitalized adoration for horror on a multigenerational scale.
Sure, on the surface, Wes Craven’s filmography is not astoundingly iconoclastic. At its core, it is a catalogue of slick grimy flicks with psychotic killers and (mostly) helpless victims awaiting their demises. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I remember watching the opening scene of “Scream” when I was 10. At first, all I could do was stare wide-eyed in disbelief, an indignant refusal to accept the bloody insanity I was seeing. Looking back, however, it was among the first times my reaction to a movie was so involved, so intensely visceral.
In hindsight, that is the first solid memory I have of a film — any film — leaping so violently out of the screen and urging me to reflect on the medium outside of simply watching it.
It was a pretty scarring experience that I probably shouldn’t have had so young, but it also opened my mind to the capability of a movie, horror or not, to pull a viewer in so completely.
There was always a layer of Wes Craven films that escaped me in my first viewings, even though I knew it was there, lurking in the background.
I have, time and time again, revisited “Scream,” because, in myriad ways, it is an indictment of the genre itself — its lazy clichés, its predictability and its sanctimonious parables. On top of remaining the somewhat silly serial killer movie I’ve always cherished, the film is layered with metatextual messages in practically every line.
Most memorable for me is when Jamie Kennedy is watching another horror film, “Halloween” and urging Jamie Lee Curtis to turn around. “Look behind you Jamie, look behind you,” he desperately mutters just as the very real killer looms behind him.
A moment that had deeply frightened me as a kid had turned profoundly illuminating. This wasn’t just a scary movie; it was a scary movie that could speak volumes about the fallacies of its own genre. I often laugh at this scene now, not just because of the general ridiculousness of the movie but because the double-entendre is strikingly clever.
Another gem of the series comes from “Scream 2,” in which a group of college students in film class debate at length about the validity of movie sequels. The conversation is endlessly hilarious because of its interactivity; we, as viewers, are forced to evaluate our own perceptions of second installments. Craven openly plays with our own expectations of the very movie we are seeing now. It’s brilliant.
And while it may be too generous to similarly laud the additional sequels the franchise, they too toy with our reality and its relationship to film, establishing a cartoonish mirror of our world in which the fictional “Stab” film series suffuses the fervor of horror fans.
Of course, it is impossible to discuss the ways in which Craven interacts with our reality without “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” the harrowingly astral gorefest that gave birth to an equally famous razor-handed antagonist: Freddy Krueger.
His particular brand of evil always terrified me more than any other because he took advantage of a necessity of human behavior: sleep. How could I find comfort in turning off the TV and tucking myself in when I knew the movie’s dangers were never really gone?
There’s one line from “Scream” that embodies Craven, his outlook on cinema and his palpable reach: “It’s all a movie. It’s all one great big movie.”
The truth is that the source of my appreciation of Craven years ago and today is one and the same: His films are a reflection of my relationship with cinema. They offer this basic lesson regarding our involvement with the screen. The more you want out of a film, the more you will receive.
With this realization in mind, I will never stop watching Wes Craven movies. They remind me and can remind all of us of the reason we turn on the TV at all.