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Though he originally intended to be a college professor, writer-director Wes Craven ditched academia to become one of the most widely recognized practitioners of the horror film, eventually becoming synonymous with the genre itself. After emerging onto the filmmaking scene with the reviled revenge flick "Last House on the Left" (1972), Craven worked as an editor and unproduced screenwriter until his next film, "The Hills Have Eyes" (1977), a cult classic that helped establish a fan base that propelled his career forward. He continued along with several mid-level horror films before striking gold with "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984), which introduced the malevolent Freddie Krueger to the world, one of the most iconic horror villains of all time. Though the film spawned numerous sequels that earned over $500 million at the box office, Craven was unable to reap the rewards due to signing away all financial rights in order to get the film made. Despite such a colossal business error, the director went on to make numerous film and television projects throughout the ensuing years, most of which lacked the ingenuity and freshness of the original "Nightmare." But he finally had a large scale Hollywood success with "Scream" (1996) and its sequels, which both reveled in and parodied all the horror conventions that Craven helped establish throughout his career. Eventually settling for his share of the "Nightmare" profits after negotiations decades later, the director settled into a comfortable groove of compelling shockers like "Red Eye" (2005) and "My Soul to Take" (2010), confirming that Craven was above all others as a true master of horror. His death from brain cancer at the age of 76 on August 30, 2015 was met with tributes from fans, friends and other film industry professionals around the world.
Born on Aug. 2, 1939 in Cleveland, OH, Craven was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist home by his father, Paul, and his mother, Caroline, both of whom instilled the idea that movies were the work of Satan. Seeking out something to fill his imagination, Craven turned instead to literature, soaking up the entire works of Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe and Fyodor Dostoyevsky while writing and editing his high school newspaper, which featured his own regular humor column. Craven moved on to attend Wheaton College, the alma mater of evangelist Billy Graham and John Belushi, where he majored in both literature and psychology while editing a literary magazine that was eventually banned. With bachelor's degree in hand, the erudite young man went to Johns Hopkins University on a full scholarship to the Johns Hopkins Graduate Writing Seminars, studying under Baltimore poet and scholar Eliot Coleman. Craven earned his master's in philosophy and writing in one year. Around 1964, he began teaching humanities and modern drama at Clarkson College, where he discovered experimental art and filmmaking via Luis Buñel and Federico Fellini. On a whim, he purchased a 16mm camera from a pawnshop and began his unlikely career making short films with students.
Quickly realizing that he wanted to become a filmmaker and not spend the rest of his life in academics, Craven left his teaching post and moved to New York City, where he took a job as a messenger for a postproduction company for $60 a week. After working his way up to assistant manager, he broke into filmmaking as the editor on the long-forgotten comedy, "You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose the Beat" (1971), which featured Richard Pryor as a wino. Eventually, Craven received an opportunity to make his own movie when an independent film company gave him a small sum to make what became "The Last House on the Left" (1972), an exceedingly violent horror flick about two young women (Sandra Peabody and Lucy Grantham) who are kidnapped, tortured and brutally killed by a Manson-esque gang. Despite its low-budget beginnings, "Last House" became a cult classic, thanks to its graphic depiction of rape and violence, which led to several countries across the world banning the film. Decades later, it remained Craven's most gratuitous and - according to Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide - "repugnant" movies.
Following the release of "Last House," Craven spent the next five years working as a film editor and unproduced screenwriter. He tried his hand at numerous genres including biopic, war, romance and comedy, but found no takers for his work. Finally, as his savings ran out, a reluctant Craven accepted an offer to make another horror film. This time, however, he found infamy in polite film-going circles thanks the extraordinary thriller "The Hills Have Eyes" (1977). Brought in for an impressive $225,000, the profoundly troubling tale of an All-American family becalmed in the desert and beset by cannibalistic mutants became a genre classic of the 1970s. The film was hailed by horror aficionados for being a classic example of the exploitation genre, later earning a large and long-running cult following throughout the years. For better or worse, Craven was firmly typed as a horror filmmaker. Meanwhile, four years passed before Craven was able to complete another feature, though he did manage to helm a television movie "Stranger in Our House" (NBC, 1978), starring B-movie queen Linda Blair in a tale of teenage witchcraft.
Craven returned to features with "Deadly Blessing" (1981), an uneven but frightening tale of a woman (Maren Jensen) terrorized by a rural religious sect led by a repressive leader (Ernest Borgnine). Largely ill-received and forgotten after its release, the film remained nothing more than a curiosity for hardcore fans of the director. He moved on to direct "The Swamp Thing" (1982), a departure from the horror genre into a spoof of 1950s science fiction thrillers about a scientist (Ray Wise) who is accidentally turned into a half-human, half-plant after a thief (Louis Jordan) tries to steal his secret potion. Though derided by some for its cheesy special effects, the film nonetheless was another cult classic for the director. Craven finally gained some measure of success and industry clout with "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984), in which the horrific Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) haunts the dreamscapes of small-town American teens. The hard-edged and strikingly surreal original - which starred a then-unknown Johnny Depp - was followed by five popular and increasingly campy sequels, all of which Craven had very little, if anything, to do with. But unfortunately for him, Crave signed away his rights to the profits from merchandising, sequels and pretty much everything else in order to assure that his film was financed and that he would have other opportunities to direct.
Over the ensuing decades, the franchise generated over a half a billion dollars worldwide, but Craven received a paltry $400,000. Nonetheless, having his name associated with the successful series led to expanded career opportunities. Going back to the well of one of his previous successes, he directed "The Hills Have Eyes II" (1985), which focused on a group of wild motocross racers stalked by a group of cannibals. Made out of desperation for money, the film bombed at the box office and was later disowned by Craven himself. Meanwhile, the director began working regularly in television in the mid-1980s, helming projects like first season episodes of CBS' revival of "The Twilight Zone" (1985-87) and the made-for-television supernatural thriller, "Chiller" (CBS, 1985). Back to features, he made "Deadly Friend" (1986), a gratuitously violent thriller that was seriously marred by censorship and studio interference, while suffering from a decidedly unsure hand by Craven himself, who seemed intent on drawing reference to "A Nightmare on Elm Street" regardless of how awkwardly such elements fit into the plot.
After co-writing the script for "A Nightmare on Elm Street Part III: Dream Warriors" (1987), one of the most successful entries in the franchise, Craven rebounded significantly with "The Serpent and the Rainbow" (1988), an ambitious and atmospheric period piece set in a pre-revolutionary Haiti that earned a fair share of admirers over the years. He failed in his attempt to create another Freddy Krueger in serial killer Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi), the persistent villain of the violent, but silly thriller "Shocker" (1989). Staying with the serial killer story for a return to television, Craven wrote and directed "Night Visions" (NBC, 1990), a toned-down mystery thriller about a criminal psychology grad student (Loryn Locklin) caught up in a serial killer investigation. He next attempted to blend social commentary about racism and the poor into the horror genre for "The People Under the Stairs" (1991), which resulted in a clever, but ultimately uneven film that nonetheless became a mild box office success. Meanwhile, Craven reunited with "Elm Street" star Robert Englund for the short-lived anthology series "The Nightmare Cafe" (NBC, 1992), which centered on an unusual café where patrons have a second chance to change their pasts, often realizing their most feared nightmare in the process.
Craven finally returned to classic filmmaking form with "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" (1994), a complex and highly reflexive narrative about the nature and function of horror films that incorporated dreams he had while making the film. Set in the so-called real world of filmmaking, Craven appeared in the film as a fictionalized version of himself, playing a filmmaker struggling to reign in a film project, only to find his fictional creation, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), terrorizing the actors on his set. With the director wisely eliminating the campy humor that had overtaken the series, "New Nightmare" earned its share of critical praise, though box office returns were unfortunately lacking. Craven followed up with a relatively high-profile horror comedy vehicle for Eddie Murphy, who was then in the midst of a serious career slump. Unlike his last Freddy opus, "Vampire in Brooklyn" (1996) was clearly a work-for-hire assignment for Craven. A horror fan himself, Murphy contacted the genre auteur with a script he had co-written with his brothers. Though billed as a comic tale of horror and seduction, the film played like an uneven vampire outing with moments of comic relief. Both press and public were unimpressed and the film retired to an early grave.
Regardless of the commercial and critical failure of "Vampire in Brooklyn," Craven emerged not only unscathed, but on something of a roll. The following year found him with half a dozen projects in various stages of development. Craven moved on to direct his most commercially successful film, "Scream" (1996), a mainstream comedy-thriller boasting a fashionable young cast (Courteney Cox, Drew Barrymore and David Arquette), and a clever script from Kevin Williamson that both satirized and used to great effect the conventions of the horror genre. Self-referential without being coy or campy, "Scream" became a huge hit for Craven, whose career ascendency in Hollywood may have left longtime fans feeling that something vital had been lost. Nevertheless, Craven had found himself a new and lucrative film franchise, which saw him helm both sequels, "Scream 2" (1997) and "Scream 3" (2000). In between, Craven veered far off the horror path and completed an unusual project, "Music of the Heart" (1999), a heartwarming and inspirational biopic of music teacher Roberta Guispari-Tzavaras (Meryl Streep), who believes music, not discipline, is the key for a group of Harlem children trying to find purpose in life. Though the film received mixed critical reviews, Craven was nonetheless praised for taking a risk and going outside his comfort zone.
After a short hiatus from the big screen Craven, reunited with "Scream" screenwriter Kevin Williamson for the werewolf thriller "Cursed" (2005) starring Christina Ricci. But a rather predictable storyline coupled with cheap special effects and few scares resulted in a poor showing with both critics and audiences. Craven fared much better with his next horror thriller, "Red Eye" (2005), which featured a resourceful hotel employee (Rachel McAdams) secretly menaced on a red-eye flight by a mysterious stranger (Cillian Murphy) threatening her father's life. Craven again showed his extraordinary skill in building suspense and crafting scares while still respecting his audience's intelligence with a strong, but simple story. While serving as the producer on remakes of his own films, "The Hills Have Eyes" (2006) and "The Hills Have Eyes 2" (2007), he directed a segment in the anthologized "Paris, I Love You" (2007), which featured a large and diverse contingent of directors, including Joel and Ethan Coen, Alfonso Cuaron, Alexander Payne and Walter Salles. After writing and directing "My Soul to Take" (2010), a horror thriller about seven teenagers slated to die after a serial killer's curse, Craven directed "Scream 4" (2011), his final film. Wes Craven died of brain cancer on August 30, 2015 at his Los Angeles home. He was 76.
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Was an assistant producer on the documentary feature, "Together/Sensual Paradise"; first collaboration with Sean Cunningham
Made first film as editor, "You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat," known primarily for its score by Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen
Made feature directing and writing debut with "The Last House on the Left"; produced by Sean Cunningham
Wrote, directed, and edited his second horror feature, "The Hills Have Eyes"
Directed first TV-movie, "Stranger in Our House" (NBC)
Wrote and directed the blockbuster horror film, "A Nightmare on Elm Street"
Provided story and co-wrote screenplay for "A Nightmare on Elm Street Part III: Dream Warriors"
Executive produced the short-lived series, "The People Next Door"
Created the short-lived fantasy series, "Nightmare Cafe"; also wrote pilot and several episodes
Wrote and directed "Wes Craven's New Nightmare," where Freddy Krueger as a fictional movie villain, invades the real world
Had box-office hit with the self-reflexive horror film, "Scream"
Directed the sequel, "Scream 2"
Directed first non-horror film, "Music of the Heart," starring Meryl Streep and violinist Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras
Once again returned to direct "Scream 3"
Directed Christina Ricci in the thriller "Cursed"
Directed Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy in the thriller "Red-Eye"
Executive produced "Feast," the horror film that won the third season of reality competition "Project Greenlight"
Wrote the screenplay for "Pulse," a remake of cult Japanese helmer Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Kairo"
Produced a remake of his 1977 film, "The Hills Have Eyes," directed by Alexandre Aja
Wrote and produced the sequal, "The Hills Have Eyes 2"
Produced a remake of his first film, "The Last House on the Left"
Wrote and directed "My Soul to Take"
Returned to direct "Scream 4"