Wes Craven, the prolific writer-director who thrilled audiences with iconic and bloody suburban slashers like “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream” that made his name synonymous with horror, has died. He was 76.
In a statement, Craven’s family said that he died in his Los Angeles home Sunday, surrounded by family, after battling brain cancer.
A prolific writer, director and editor, Craven is credited with reinventing the teen horror genre with the 1984 release of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” starring a then-unknown Johnny Depp. The movie and its indelible, razor-fingered villain Freddy Krueger (played by Robert Englund) led to several sequels, as did his 1996 success, “Scream.”
Besides his work in horror films, Craven also directed the drama “Music of the Heart,” which earned Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination.
But Craven’s name will always be synonymous with graphic horror.
“Horror films don’t create fear,” Craven said. “They release it.”
Wesley Earl “Wes” Craven was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on Aug. 2, 1939. Though he earned a Master’s Degree in philosophy and writing from John Hopkins University and briefly taught as a college professor in Pennsylvania and New York, his start in movies was in pornography, where he worked under a pseudonym.
Craven’s feature debut under his own name was 1972’s “The Last House on the Left,” a horror film about teenage girls abducted by thugs and taken into the woods. Made for just $87,000, the film, though graphic enough to be censored in many countries, was a hit. Roger Ebert said it was “about four times as good as you’d expect.”
“Nightmare on Elm Street,” however, catapulted him to far greater renown in 1984. The Ohio-set film about teenagers who are stalked in their dreams, which Craven wrote and directed, spawned a never-ending franchise that has carried on until, most recently, a 2010 remake.
The concept, Craven said, came from his own youth in Cleveland — specifically a cemetery that lined an Elm Street and a hobo that inspired Krueger’s raged look.
Along with John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” “Nightmare on Elm Street” defined a horror tradition where helpless teenagers were preyed upon by knife-wielding, deformed killers in cruel morality tales; usually promiscuous girls were the first to go.
“There is something about the American dream, the sort of Disneyesque dream, if you will, of the beautifully trimmed front lawn, the white picket fence, mom and dad and their happy children, God-fearing and doing good whenever they can,” Craven once said. “And the flip side of it, the kind of anger and the sense of outrage that comes from discovering that that’s not the truth of the matter, that gives American horror films, in some ways, kind of an additional rage.”
The formula would work again for Craven with “Scream,” albeit with an added layer of self-aware spoof. By 1996, the Craven-style slasher was a well-known type, even if it wasn’t always made by him. (He had no involvement with many of the “Elm Street” sequels.)
“Scream,” written by Kevin Williamson and starring a cast including Drew Barrymore and Neve Campbell, played off of the horror clichés Craven helped create. It spawned three sequels, all of which Craven directed.
Craven increasingly oversaw a cottage industry of horror branded with his name, including remakes of his “The Hills Have Eyes” (2006) and “The House on the Left” (2009).
The director’s interests went beyond horror films. He was a published author (the 2000 novel “The Fountain Society”) and was a committed bird conservationist, serving as a long-time member of the Audubon California Board of Directors. He had recently penned a monthly column “Wes Craven’s The Birds” for Matha’s Vineyard Magazine.
He was active up until his death. He had numerous television projects in development, including a new “Scream” series for MTV. He’s an executive producer of the upcoming film “The Girl in the Photographs,” which is to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Craven is survived by his wife, producer Iya Labunka, a son, a daughter and a stepdaughter.