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Prince of Darkness Wes Craven initially wore the crown uneasily.
Wes Craven, the reluctant Master of Horror?
As “Scream 4” brings the iconic killer Ghostface back to stalk the denizens of Woodboro a decade after the last installment, Craven tells PopcornBiz he hasn’t always worn his Prince of Darkness mantle comfortably, but given his skill at scaring audiences “probably some part of me must be twisted up.”
Since making his writing and directing debut in 1972 with the low-budget shockfest “The Last House of the Left,” the 71-year old Craven has been Hollywood’s go-to guy for cutting-edge bloodbaths. His filmography includes such enduring horror classics as “The Hills Have Eyes,” “The Serpent and the Rainbow” and “The People Under the Stairs,” along with two bona fide blockbuster franchises, “Nightmare On Elm Street” and “Scream.”
“Look, I was born on the day that Hitler invaded Poland, so the first five years of my life were spent watching humans massacre each other,” he says. “There has always been in the back of my mind that the world can be a very dangerous and horrible place. So for me these movies are a way of countering that.”
But his crown as horror maestro sits slightly uneasily on his head. “It's a doubled-edged sword, however you put it,” says Craven. “I've gone to my share of conventions and done autographs, signing posters and all of that stuff and the people are all pierced and they're tattooed – but they're the sweetest people! They're so polite, and almost loving. That's one side of it that's really just counterintuitive.”
Non-fans of Craven’s films have not been so kind, he remembers, recalling a time in the 1980s when so-called “slasher films” encountered a razor-sharp backlash. “There was a period where some kid [reportedly] wore a Freddy Krueger mask and chopped up his sister, and there was a lot of fear that we were causing people to do things,” he says. “And we did a lot of investigation and found out that all that stuff was bullsh*t. It was really being made up by Republicans who wanted us to stop doing what we're doing.”
The self-aware, genre-skewering “Scream” films of the 90s served as something of an antidote to horror’s gorier elements, but as time passed, even Craven himself began to wonder about the increasingly extreme tastes of the horror genre’s aficionados. “In some ways the audience changed,” he says. “I think some parts of the audience got more cruel, watching sort of torture-porn stuff and [believing] the way to judge a good horror was if you had the stomach to watch the most wretched things that you could imagine. I just thought, 'Wow.' I mean, part of it is getting older and valuing life more, in a way – everything becomes more precious as you get on.”
“We're always worried and we're always watching ourselves to make sure that we're not just making movies that would induce people to do something or even induce them to lose feeling,” says Craven. “There are a lot of characters in our films that don't have feelings for the suffering of others, but there's always at the core of the film that gamble in Sidney Prescott and Dewey, especially. That's kind of the essence of the horror film. The central characters are people that I would be happy to have my son marry, or whatever. But there's craziness in the world, and these films are about the craziness that threatens the goodness.”
Craven never planned to become create the stuff of pop culture nightmares, originally toiling as a college instructor and aspiring novelist before finding an opening working in low-budget film, where a producer prodded him to pen a cheap horror film.
“He said 'You say you want to be a director – go write something scary,'” remembers Craven. “I thought 'What do I know about that?' He said, 'Well, you were raised as a fundamentalist – just go pull all the skeletons out of your closet.' So I thought, 'I'll just be as wild and as horrible as I can.' But when I wrote it I immediately started writing it as if it was real and novelistic. I kind of had fun with being evil and vicious, but at the same time I kind of imbued the characters with some reality, so that when it came out it really affected people – really to my surprise, in a way. I was teaching myself how to make a movie, but it also profoundly set the die for who I was.”
For a time, Craven was committed to writing off-genre projects that failed to get made (“Comedies and films about divorced fathers trying to keep in touch with their children,” he says, “and nobody wanted to know about it.”) and he ultimately accepted that it was horror that would keep him working in Hollywood. “It was just like, 'Okay, here I am,'” he recalls. “At a certain point I realized, 'Okay, if I have to be doing this kind of film, let’s make it really interesting.' I just kept putting more and more into them that was for my own pleasure, and the audience seemed to be willing to follow and go into that world, too.”
“I realized, 'What the hell? I was teaching mythology as a teacher, and this is the American mythology of the 20th century.' At that point I was kind of liberated and I didn't feel guilty about it. I thought, 'Okay, let’s make the best films that you can in the genre.'”
"Scream 4" opens everywhere April 15th.