The filmmaker Wes Craven battled brain cancer at the end of his 76 years, and his death Sunday brought forth a flurry of tributes to, among others, his most influential demon child.
Craven named Freddy Krueger, the dream-wrecker with the metal fingers and cinema’s least romantic-looking fedora, after a boy who bullied Craven as a child. Revenge is sweet, and sometimes extremely profitable. Although Craven’s screen monster became one of those quippy unkillable adversaries you’re supposed to love to hate, across various sequels, when “A Nightmare on Elm Street” came out in 1984 it took care of Job One.
It scared the hell out of millions with its inspired dream invasion scenario — simple, endlessly adaptable.
Watch it today, and you know what’s coming. Too many inferior, increasingly jokey franchise additions have a way of ruining a true original. But when you witness the scene in which the sleepy high school student looks past her classroom door and sees the splattered body bag upright, with someone beckoning inside, you’re really seeing something.
The first “Nightmare” came four years after the launch of “Friday the 13th,” which was not and is not and never shall be a good movie. That franchise is about one thing: a hockey mask, now worn annually at Halloween by the children of the parents who were freaked out by the movie when they were too young to have seen it. Every Halloween, of course, millions more make themselves up like Freddy Krueger. With “Nightmare,” there was a truly nightmarish film to back up the attendant pop culture phenomenon.
A decade following the first “Nightmare” movies, Craven scored with a Kevin Williamson script titled, simply, “Scream.” It was time for a horror film with a sense of humor and playfulness about the genre’s cliches, and Craven finessed it just so. Millions screamed on cue, and laughed at being jerked around so artfully, and Craven became more than a horror director. He became a brand, like Heinz.
Horror, he once said, acts as “an inoculation against a deeper and darker and more frightening reality.”
In many Craven films, heroines of real backbone and intelligence — Adrienne Barbeau in the winsome “Swamp Thing” (1982), Neve Campbell in “Scream” (1996), Rachel McAdams in the crafty, atypical thriller “Red Eye” (2005) — guide the story and humanize the genre conventions. I suppose “Swamp Thing” is two-faced, too. The epic presence of Barbeau is exploited for more than backbone and intelligence, and the college-aged me was eternally grateful for this. But Craven didn’t bring the drooling lunkheadedness so many male genre directors bring to a movie like “Swamp Thing.”
Rose McGowan, a “Scream” alum who has lately turned into a valiant whistle-blower regarding the corrosive misogyny in the film industry, tweeted after Craven’s death: “Thank you for being the kindest man, the gentlest man, and one of the smartest men I’ve known.”