I came home last night to the shocking news that Wes Craven had died at the age of 76, from brain cancer. Anyone who knows me, or even just knows my work, knows how much I love horror films. In conversation with a friend online, I mentioned how John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and David Cronenberg where the holy triumvirate for me. The loss of Wes Craven is a major blow to filmmaking, and to fans like me.
Though I’ve seen just about all of films he directed, I have to admit only a handful are anything I’d call favorites. (I can, for instance, recognize the historical importance of his early films The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), but I don’t like them. I don’t see the artistry in them, only the violence.) But the Wes Craven films I do like, I like a hell of a lot. There’s the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), of course, and the only sequel I like as much, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). His 1982 adaptation of Swamp Thing likely doesn’t hold up now, especially in this age of far more sophisticated comic book movies, but in my youth I thought it was something special. I thought Scream (1996) was great because it seemed made just for lifelong horror movie fans like me, and I even liked Scream 2 (1997), although not as much.
But my favorite Wes Craven film, far and away, is 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. It’s a trippy, creepy, beautifully shot film that packs some solid scares. In a pretty transgressive way, it also upends the expectations one goes into a horror film with. Here, the zombies are the ones you’re rooting for, because they’re not the shambling corpse type, they’re the political prisoner/dissident type. Also, the creepy corpse-bride in the picture above is one of the good guys! The bad guys are Haiti’s government and police, the very entities you would normally want help from in a horror movie. I loved this film so much I even bought Brad Fiedel’s percussion-heavy soundtrack (on vinyl!) and listened to it constantly. I wish I still had it. It would be good music to write to.
I saw The Serpent and the Rainbow in a small, nearly empty theater in Times Square when I was back from college on some vacation or other. The only other people in the theater with me were a contingent of people I assumed were either African or Caribbean, dressed in colorful, traditional garbs that had me imagining they were visiting from another country, or perhaps were UN delegates. Whatever the case, they fucking loved this movie as much as I did. At the end, when Bill Pullman’s spirit animal shows up again to help him defeat Zakes Mokae’s perfectly portrayed villain, they cheered like crazy. I think part of the reason I love this movie so much is because I saw it with such an appreciative crowd!
By the way, if you haven’t read Wade Davis’s nonfiction book that the movie is based on, also titled The Serpent and the Rainbow, it’s well worth your time. It relates the extraordinary journey ethnobotanist Davis took through Haiti trying to find and analyze the powder used in vodoun rituals to make so-called zombies in order to create a safe, new medical anesthetic. It’s riveting stuff, but obviously the film is a completely different animal.
To be honest, I’m still a little in shock about Wes Craven’s death. I don’t know what else to say except that his movies meant a lot to me, and I’m sorry I won’t get to see whatever movies he would have made in the future. Rest easy, Mr. Craven. As so many others have said already, thanks for the nightmares.