Sunday, August 30, 2015

RIP Wes Craven

Wes Craven's distinctive talent as a horror director - and it was ironically mistaken as a weakness by many - was his ability to make supernatural and human horrors feel like part of the fabric of everyday banality. There's a quality to the deeply unpleasant LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) where you feel like you're channel flipping back and forth between an episode of ALL IN THE FAMILY and Manson Family home movies, and as a movie born out of the experience of seeing the Vietnam War as prime time event programming, that apparent tonal disjunction is absolutely part of what makes the movie so effectively disturbing. Similarly, the sitcom banter and televisual quality of some of the early scenes in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) make the eruptions of grim, eerily impossible imagery - like Freddy Krueger sauntering down a dark alleyway with his arms stretched out eight-feet in either direction like a demonic Reed Richards, or Johnny Depp rendered into a geyser of blood gushing up from his bed sheets- all the more unsettling.
Craven had a way with actors that created a believable vibe of easygoing familiarity and warmth between his characters, a virtue more important to the success of something like SCREAM (1996) than its much-vaunted meta-horror content, and which helped NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET stand out from the stalk-n-slash crowd precisely because it was one of the few slasher movies that conveyed a genuine sense of fragile community amongst its teenage-going-on-21 denizens. Even a rather wonky mercenary effort like SHOCKER (1989) kinda works because it quietly sells Peter Berg and Michael Murphy as a somewhat estranged father and son so effectively. Most of his good movies - which also include THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977), THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991), and THE NEW NIGHTMARE (1994) - are about families and communities under siege, and they work because the human relationships in them feel well-worn and authentic, and never fall victim to the kind of insistent underlining that sacrifices characterization at the altar of theme.
After his brief grindhouse period, Craven developed a' relaxed, almost avuncular signature style that long-ago endeared SWAMP THING (1982) to me. It's a superhero comic book adaptation with a sense of low-stakes whimsy and genuine playfulness distantly removed from the urgent gargantuanism of most modern superhero movies. So here's a clip of Siskel & Ebert - not always the most reliable guides to B-movie bliss but right on the money in this instance - celebrating that film's considerable charms.

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