Acclaimed filmmaker Wes Craven died Sunday at the age of 76.
Best known for creating the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream horror franchises, Craven reportedly died after a long battle with brain cancer at his home in Los Angeles.
Craven first captured the attention of Hollywood with his 1972 revenge thriller The Last House on the Left, which generated no small amount of controversy due to its intense themes and graphic imagery. Craven wrote, directed, and edited the film himself — a hallmark of many of his projects.
He later wrote and directed the disturbing 1977 horror movie The Hills Have Eyes, which cemented his reputation as one of the horror genre’s rising stars.
His breakout hit, however, was 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. A reinvention of teen-oriented horror films, A Nightmare on Elm Street gave the world one of the genre’s most famous — or infamous, in this case — supernatural-slasher icons: Freddy Krueger. The film featured a then-unknown Johnny Depp in one of his first major movie roles, and was massive success at the box office. Critically praised at the time of its release, the film is widely regarded as one of the greatest horror movies ever made and spawned eight subsequent films in the franchise.
A decade after directing A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven returned to the director’s chair in 1994 for Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a deconstruction of the Elm Street franchise that had many of the series’ stars playing versions of themselves as they’re stalked by a new, even more sinister Krueger made real by the franchise’s popularity.
According to Craven, the idea for the Elm Street franchise came to him after reading about traumatized refugees from war zones who refused to sleep due to terrible nightmares, only to die when they did finally succumb to their fatigue. Craven named Freddy Krueger after a childhood bully who tormented him when he was younger, and reportedly took the series’ iconic street name from the road that bordered a cemetery where he grew up in Cleveland.
In 1996, Craven continued his genre-redefining ways with Scream, a slasher film that used the tropes of horror movies as fuel for a scary — and seemingly self-aware — deconstruction of the genre. The film went on to become the highest-grossing slasher movie of all time in the U.S. and is credited with revitalizing the horror genre for a new generation of movie audiences.
That film’s 1997 sequel, Scream 2, was also directed by Craven and was similarly well-received by critics and general audiences and played with the conventions of horror sequels in much the same way its predecessor did with traditional cliches of the genre. Craven would go on to direct all four films in the Scream franchise, which collectively earned more than $331 million domestically and more than $600 million worldwide.
Along with his work in horror, Craven also directed Meryl Streep in the 1999 drama Music of the Heart, which earned the actress an Oscar nomination for portraying a music teacher in an inner-city school.
“We had a very difficult time getting an audience into a theater on my name,” said Craven in an October 2014 interview with Masters of Horror series creator Mick Garris. “In fact, we moved toward downplaying my name a lot on Music of the Heart. The more famous you are for making kinds of outrageous scary films, the crossover audience will say, ‘I don’t think so.'”
Craven also penned his first novel, The Fountain Society, in 1999. The story follows a brilliant physicist who receives a new lease on life from a secret organization, only to be hunted by that same organization when he refuses to assist in a terrifying project.
Later in life, Craven served as a producer on several remakes of his past films, including the 2006 version of The Hills Have Eyes and a 2009 remake of The Last House on the Left. He also served as an executive producer on the upcoming Scream television series. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the season finale of that series will pay tribute to Craven.
His last directorial project was 2011’s Scream 4, while his last film as both writer and director was the 2010 horror film My Soul To Take.
Along with being an accomplished filmmaker, Craven was known to be an avid nature lover who served on the board of directors for the California Audubon Society. He penned a monthly column titled “Wes Craven’s The Birds” for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.
“I think it is an extraordinary opportunity and gift to be able to make films in general, and to have done it for almost 40 years now is remarkable,” Craven told Garris in that 2014 interview. “If I have to do the rest of the films in the [horror] genre, no problem. If I’m going to be a caged bird, I’ll sing the best song I can.”
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