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Raised in a strict Baptist family in Cleveland, Ohio, and ensconced in academia as a young adult, Wes Craven doesn’t seem to fit the profile of a master of horror. But when he and producer Sean S. Cunningham (who went on to direct Friday The 13th) got the opportunity to make a drive-in movie on the cheap, Craven responded with 1972’s The Last House On The Left, a crude but hugely resonant horror landmark that brought a new level of unvarnished realism to the genre. The film follows two teenage girls who are abducted and terrorized by an escaped convict and his three associates, and one desperate set of parents who take revenge when the perpetrators wind up on their property. From there, Craven become one of a generation of filmmakers—George Romero and John Carpenter among them—who used the genre both to scare audiences and to smuggle in political ideas. Among the highlights of a career well into its third decade: The Hills Have Eyes and The Hills Have Eyes II, Swamp Thing, A Nightmare On Elm Street, The People Under The Stairs, Scream and its sequels, Music Of The Heart, and Red Eye.
After giving his approval to retoolings of the Hills Have Eyes movies—he even co-wrote the second film with his son Jonathan—Craven returns to the producer’s role in the new Last House On The Left remake. Directed by Dennis Iliadis, a relative unknown from Greece, the film follows the basic outlines of Craven’s original, but deviates substantially in style and substance. In a recent conversation with The A.V. Club, Craven talked about those differences and shared thoughts on his first feature and his subsequent career in horror.
The A.V. Club: Lately, there have been many remakes of classic—and non-classic—horror films from the ’70s and ’80s, but few involving the original filmmakers. With the Hills Have Eyes movies and Last House On The Left, you’re the exception. Why is that?
Wes Craven: Good luck, I guess. The original contracts for both The Hills Have Eyes and Last House gave us possession of the film rights after a certain amount of years. Thirty years, I believe, was the time period. And there was just a moment where we looked at the contracts and realized that the rights to these films, which we long assumed belonged to other people, actually belonged to us. The discussion of whether we should do a remake of Last House came up, and it just seemed like there was a market for it, there was an interest in it. And with The Hills Have Eyes, we had already done it once or twice, and had had good luck and found it an interesting experience. So we started looking for a director and writers. You know, it took several years, but finally we found a director that we were very excited about, and that’s how Last House started its way to being remade. And reimagined, which I found to be the way to go about these things, finding someone who is passionate about the original, but wants to make his own picture. Give some guidance at the beginning, but then kind of turn them loose.
AVC: What guidance do you give them at the beginning?
WC: The original Last House is based on a Ingmar Bergman film [The Virgin Spring]. I had seen it years before I wrote the script for Last House, and I don’t think I even went back to it, but I remembered the core of the story, and then I knew Bergman had based it on a medieval folk tale from his region of the world. I said [to the new filmmakers], “Think about it more as a fantastic story that has a very, very strong spine. We’d like to have it recognizable to the audience, but we’d like you to make it your own.” And we developed several scripts and found the one we liked best, and sort of guided it. Then with [director] Dennis [Iliadis’] notes, we made it into a script that we felt comfortable with. And that seemed wise. Once we had that script and figured out what to keep from the original and what to take out from the original or alter, Dennis was given a modest budget and all the support we could give him, and told to be brilliant. [Laughs.]
AVC: So in your capacity as producer, how much influence did you ultimately wield over how your film got reinterpreted? And at what point did you have to just stand back and let other people do their work?
WC: I think in the original processes of laying out the deal, it was solid that we had final cut, and a budget that was realistic enough for us to feel like someone could go out and make this film in today’s day and age. The guidance and going over the story and script notes and meetings with writers—all that was very, very intense. And the search for the filmmaker… With the help of a young man named Cody Zwieg in our office who just pored over all the emerging films and emerging filmmakers, we found [Dennis Iliadis’] Hardcore. And we watched that and thought, “This is really a wonderful filmmaker.” The material was very dark, very edgy, and yet at the core of it were magnificent performances and totally believable characters. And about that time, you start to back away and say, “What do you see here?” You want to give the person as much freedom as you can within the boundaries of being a responsible producer with a contract to a studio. It’s about giving as much freedom as you can, and the more the filmmaker proves he or she is on the track that you feel good about, then you just kind of watch dailies.
And by that point, I was writing and in pre-production on 25/8, the film that I wrote and directed last year, and we’re in post right now. I had my hands full, too, but I still watched dailies every day and would e-mail him if I had notes. And not very frequently, frankly; more it was moments of encouragement, or that we were behind him, or that I thought he was doing terrific work. Things like that. Or if he wanted a piece of music that he was having a hard time having people get behind, I would step in and say, “Let the guy have this piece of music.” It had to be within an overall budget that the three producers agreed upon. Especially, I think, myself and Sean Cunningham, but Marianne Maddalena as well.
AVC: The original Last House On The Left has a very crude, home-movie quality that the new one decidedly does not. Is something lost as a result of that?
WC: Crudity, I suppose. You know, the first film, not only did it have a modest budget, but even at the time, it was pretty miniscule. I think it was about $90,000 total. But I had never done a feature film before, I had never directed before, I had never cut before, I had never written a script before. So for me, who had just kind of left academia the year before, and was just learning the rhythms of how to cut film, it was a matter of discovering how to make a movie. And we had very limited resources as to actors. We used almost all people who had not acted before at all, so there were limitations imposed on us just by the reality of the thing. Given that, I think we did a very powerful film, and obviously it’s lasted and been influential for a long time. But with Dennis, we had a man who had done a great movie already, he had other works behind him, and had done commercials, too. So he had a great skill set and familiarity with cinematic techniques that I was just beginning to discover.
AVC: The original has a very famous tagline [“To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘It’s only a movie… it’s only a movie.’”] that spoke to its raw style. But that tagline doesn’t really apply to the remake, which seems more like a movie.
WC: I think that’s fair, but they were made under very different circumstances. When you look at the making of the original, it was basically me working for [producer] Sean Cunningham. It was a matter of Sean having an offer from some backers in Boston who owned outdoor theaters, to make them a scary movie so they could use it as a second bill and not have to pay for two movies to distributors and suppliers. And so Sean came to me and said, “I have some guys who are willing to give us a budget to make a scary movie. Do you want to write a scary movie? If they like it, you can direct it and you could even cut it.” And Sean owned a Steenbeck flatbed editing machine that was, back then, very, very new. It was like, “Okay, I don’t know anything about scary movies, and I was raised in a family and a church where filmmaking was forbidden,” so I had no background in film to speak of whatsoever. My whole background was in voracious book-reading.
But when I was a kid, I was taken to something called Telenews in Cleveland by my best friend’s father. My own father was gone by the time I was 5, I think, but this man would take us to Telenews at the end of World War II, and we’d watch all these newsreels. So I had seen film, but I’d seen real stuff. That kind of stuck in my mind. And in college, we were allowed to see documentaries and things of that sort. And then when I was teaching, it was a very intense period of about four to five years when I taught in a town where there was an art theater, and I happened to be plopped down right in the middle of this magnificent burgeoning of European filmmakers. We were seeing Buñuel and Fellini and Truffaut and all of these guys who were making these imaginative, wonderful films, and that’s where I fell in love with it. And it was just a matter of a certain point, my department chairman saying “Stop goofing around with cameras in student-film class. I want you to either get your Ph.D. or you’re fired.” And I quit on the spot. Finished out my term, but that’s when I started going to New York to get into films. And I was kind of clueless about that kind of horror film. I just fell in love with film itself. I think all that shows in the original Last House.
AVC: So you fell into horror almost accidentally?
WC: It was totally coincidence. My mother wouldn’t even let me read DC Comics. [Laughs.] I came from a very strict background. It was just that Sean had some guys with some money who wanted to make a movie that was interesting, and it had to be scary. I literally remember a conversation along the lines of, “Sean, I don’t know anything about making a scary movie.” And Sean said, “Well, you were raised as a fundamentalist, just pull all the skeletons out of your closet.” And we had this kind of wicked sense of humor between us. I always remember the clarity and purity of the bolstering story, how simple it was, and how wonderfully ironic it was, the turning of the tables. And also of the flipping of these very strict Christian parents into very barbaric behavior, especially on the part of the father. To the point where it got out of control and he realized he had become what he was fighting. That fascinated me then, and it fascinates me now.
AVC: Were you braced for the reaction the film got from critics? Did you have sense of what you were putting out there in terms of intensity?
WC: No. And I think that, especially at that time, it was something where we were trying to be a bit outrageous. At the same time, there was the part of me that had graduated from Johns Hopkins writing seminars under Elliott Coleman, the great 19th- and 20th-century novelist. So I had a side of me that wanted to do something worthy of some thought. I wanted to tap into the humanity of the characters, and the complexity of what seems to be a simple plot, but the way the bad guys suddenly are appalled by their behavior, and in the end, the parents are appalled by theirs—that sort of stuff was kind of thrust in there despite people’s protestations, in a way.
But I don’t think either one of us thought it was going to have much impact. We didn’t think that it would have such a wide audience. We made it literally for a group of theater owners in Boston that owned, I think, 30, 40, 50 outdoor theaters. And it was specifically for those theaters, and no place else. We never thought we’d go beyond that. Going in, I thought I’d never have to worry about anyone in my past going to see it. Which proved to not be the case whatsoever. But at that time, that thought gave me a freedom to be outrageous, and to go into areas that normally I wouldn’t have gone into, and not worry about my family hearing about it, or being crushed. I was always very concerned about the disappointment from the world I’d come from, as someone who had left it in such an egregiously dark manner. That was something that haunted me for a lot of my career, until a lot of those people died off.
AVC: Did you get a lot of blowback in that regard? People you didn’t want to see the film seeing the film?
WC: Yes. My marriage had failed at this time, and I was living on the Lower East Side in a group apartment, and it was a very rich amalgamation of people. Academics and hipsters and dope dealers and musicians, and they all went to see my movie when it came out, and almost all of them were appalled. I literally had people who would no longer leave their children alone with me. Or people that would, when they found out I had directed the film, say “That was the most despicable thing I had ever seen,” and walk out of the room. So there was a very strong, very real revulsion, to the point where I almost didn’t want to talk about what I did for a living, or what I made. And that lasted a long time.
Last House offended a lot of people. The results in the theaters, even in Boston, reminded me a bit of things from when I was studying theater of the absurd, and the rise and the appearance of Ionesco plays, and things like that. Thinking, “My God, people actually are getting into fistfights. People are having heart attacks. People are actually trying to get into the projection booth to destroy the print.” You know, we set up a separate editing room just to repair prints that had been slashed and diced by people trying to get offensive moments out of them. So there was a very real sense of “Oh my God, what have I done?” And I think both Sean and I… Sean also came from a background of humanity. Sean had been a stage manager, and we tried very hard to move away from that. For a while, Sean had some money, and I wrote with and for him. I wrote, I think, half a dozen films that were completely out of genre. Comedies, love stories, even one serious film about Vietnam, and we couldn’t get backing for any of it. And we both sort of drifted from making, at that time, serious money on Last House to going through it all in the course of almost three years and only getting offers to do something scary again. And I think that’s how Sean ended up doing Friday The 13th, and I ended up listening to the urging of another friend, Peter Locke, and going out to California and writing and directing The Hills Have Eyes.
AVC: How would you describe the politics of the original film? It feels like the Gimme Shelter of horror movies, like the darker side of hippie-dom.
WC: I didn’t see it as that, so much as… There was a generation of kids who were just kind of emulating distant heroes and wearing peace symbols, and parents who were thinking of themselves as liberal and removed from barbarity, but it also was the era of Vietnam. And not to put too fine a point on it, I very much was influenced—and I think the whole country was kind of in a state of shock—for the first time seeing the horror and cruelty of war. Recently shot 16mm footage was coming back and appearing on television immediately, so there was little censorship of what you saw, and it was just appalling. And then there was this kind of creeping awareness that the government was lying about almost everything, and was losing the war, and that there was no real definable purpose. Sounds a little familiar now, doesn’t it? [Laughs.] So there’s a sort of despair, and I think a sense that the whitebread people, the people who were kind of on the surface of things, good Christians, far removed from any sort of behavior like that, were slipping into it themselves. And at the same time, the villainous people that did horrible things had their own personal concerns and uncertainties. And you’re to look at that if you’re going to have any understanding at all.
AVC: You’ve always been able to in a certain amount of political subtext into your movies. Even the recent Hills Have Eyes II, which you co-wrote, had a strong Iraq War subtext in that regard. But this Last House remake seemed freed from that. Are there resonances I’m not seeing?
WC: No. I think partially, it’s that Dennis isn’t from the United States, and doesn’t have quite the same feelings about specific things like 9/11. I’ve done a few interviews where I realized that 9/11 was the ultimate home invasion, not to be glib about it. You know, where the place that you think is safe and the people that you think are safe and far from evil are suddenly just slaughtered by it, and you have no control over it. The horror of that, for me certainly, was profound. It just knocked me to my bed for several days, and I think we all were stunned and in disbelief. That, to me, is extraordinarily resonant, but we didn’t set out to make a movie about that. That’s just in the American psyche now. With Dennis, the movie is much more about a broader feeling of loss, of seeing or sensing terrible things. But over the course of European history, even recent European history, there’s a plentiful supply of things that you can possibly reference for when things go terribly, terribly wrong. It’s not quite the same as in the United States. And we wanted that broader, more non-pointed view of something more eternal. Dennis very much felt this was an eternal story, of family and trying to defend those that are nearest to you, and having to face what you have to do in order to counter these dark forces that have come into your life, your home, and your child’s life.
AVC: Having the experience you have now as a filmmaker, is there anything you’d change? Did this remake rectify anything you weren’t happy with?
WC: I try not to look back too much. I think the important thing about staying creative and staying sharp and original is not to look back too much, and to kind of look to where your vision is going now. But I have felt over the years a definite progression or arc from feeling guilty about what I had done with the first one, because certainly there was all that fundamentalist guilt that came pouring back in. Feeling like I’d done something horrible, “I’m a despicable person and I’m perverse,” and all these things, to a sense of the power and the necessity, in a sense, of horror films and dealing with dark material. And I did have the resource of having taught Greek mythology and the history of Western civilization, and you can go back into the plays of Aeschylus and follow what happens when people seek revenge, and there are people plucking their eyes out. And Greek mythology is filled with all kinds of monsters and whatnot.
So I realized that I really, almost by accident, had fallen into a labyrinthine, very powerful paradigm for dealing with these things through genre films. And once I realized that and realized the power of it, and the fact that because horror films aren’t, in general, studio products—studios back them sometimes, but they don’t try to meddle too much, because they kind of don’t want to sully their skirts—you have a lot of freedom. And as long as you keep the audience on the edge of their seats, either scare them or keep them guessing, you can put anything in there that you want.
So something like Nightmare On Elm Street, to me, was kind of an examination of levels of consciousness and the pain of facing the truth, and how easy it is to fall asleep, or want to fall asleep. And only a few of us struggle to stay awake. And you know, you can look at what’s happened to America in the last eight years and say a lot of people were asleep. A lot of people were not staying awake and watching what was going on and facing the pain of that and dealing with it. So to me, that goes a long way to making the work important to myself. At the same time, I don’t care if the rest of the audience doesn’t think along those lines at all, because the audience is a huge spectrum of people, from people who are introspective to people who just want to be scared and have fun, and all the points in between. So in that sense, I came to terms with living mostly in a world of horror pictures or genre pictures. I have had a few chances to get outside and do something different, like Paris, Je T’Aime or Music Of The Heart, but mostly it’s been my lot. And to have created, with a few shocking films, an awareness or a perception of me as somebody dangerous and scary—that can be sold, but trying to sell me for some other kind of picture, like Music Of The Heart, was very difficult.
AVC: And it continues to be? Or you just found that this is the genre where you can express yourself best? The great thing about horror films and genre films in general have is an ability to respond to the times in a way that most other films can’t, at least directly.
WC: They do. And I love the fact that a lot of my audience is people from the inner city. African-Americans love my films. Whenever I go to have a meeting at Universal, the security guard just leaps to his feet and comes over, bumps my hand, and says, “Thank you! Thank you, I love your films!” And it’s people who are kind of at the cutting edge of life and survival, and being near the nitty-gritty, who like my films, and I like that.
At the same time, I think that there has been a slow recognition that there’s a mind at work here, and there’s a skill and some bit of artistry, and that I could probably do other things. Otherwise, I don’t know that I would’ve been given the opportunity to do Paris, Je T’Aime. On that one, I was told, “Okay, we want you to do something around this month that has a big cemetery, but you can write anything you want.” So I wrote, you know, a romantic-comedy moment. I pulled it off well, and I think there is a slow perception that I can do all sorts of different material. But I think if anybody had a roll of dice with a lot of money at stake, they would not want Wes Craven and a romantic comedy. It would have to be a small film, and what I’ve done instead, in the interim, is to insert into my films comedy and romance and moments of tenderness. 25/8, if I do say so, is an extraordinary film in the sense that it just kind of expands what a genre film can be. And I was given final cut on it, so in that way I’ve reached a place that many directors and filmmakers get to, and I’m grateful for that, and I can work within those boundaries. If something comes along that is totally outside of horror, fine, but I find there’s an immense amount of freedom within the genre.
AVC: Is that an unusual circumstance for you, having that kind of freedom? Have you had to deal with a lot of constraints in the past?
WC: I think there’s been a gradual movement toward a lot of freedom. Onscreen, in my head, a great deal of freedom. And I believe with Scream, the first test screening determined whether I would have final cut, and if it rated above a certain level, they were perfectly happy to let me have it. And I wound up having final cut on all three movies, so I think it was built on years and years of making movies and having a reputation of being somebody who will not be crazy. Not descend to doing drugs and spending an enormous amount of money, and instead delivering a product to these people, because that’s what it is to them. Something they can sell and recoup their money and make a profit. And at the same time, I make something I can look at and say, “That’s a good piece of work, and there’s some terrific directing and acting in it, and you should be proud of it.”