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How Wes Craven reinvented the horror genre, twice


“Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.” – Wes Craven

“To avoid fainting, keep repeating… ‘it’s only a movie!’” the iconic poster of Wes Craven’s 1972 controversial debut feature reads, sitting somewhere between a genuine warning and a self-reflective comment, as whilst The Last House on the Left is, of course, ‘just a movie’, its subtext speaks to something far more real. The first film in his career-long symphony of horror, the contentious debut feature that concerned itself with graphic rape and torture, would help to shape the future of the horror genre into the 1980s. 

Raw in its unrelenting depiction of reality, The Last House on the Left is loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1960 film The Virgin Spring, following two teenage girls heading to a rock concert when they are captured by a brutal gang of psychopaths. Bound, gagged and taken to a nearby forest, the two girls are forced into doing humiliating sexual acts on each other in some genuinely disturbing scenes of mental and physical torture. 

Sandra Peabody, one of the two girls in the film, describes her time on set as “very upsetting”, with the low-budget horror swirling a nasty tone due to the upsetting subject matter. As Peabody notes, “I had a really hard time with some of the scenes, because I had come out of American Playhouse, where it was all about preparation, and everything had to be real. I ended up doing a horrible job in the film. I was very upset, and I felt like I should have channelled that, but I couldn’t”.

Banned in multiple countries, including the UK and the US, The Last House on the Left remains a seminal piece of horror cinema, particularly for the subtext that Craven ingeniously stitches into the film’s fabric. Taking us into the depths of human depravity, Craven dissects the human spirit and questions the true extent of individual capability, with the film’s true horror coming from the fear of what could happen as opposed to what is currently happening. There is nothing supernatural about the torment on screen; it is truly genuine, depraved horror, evoking an innately human fear of the sadistic capabilities of those around us.

The Last House on the Left would help spark the gritty, realistic underbelly of the genre that would simmer underneath the popular slasher genre throughout the late 20th century, causing an outcry against ‘video nasties’ in the process. Its sly, intellectual take on horror exploitation would inspire the gritty, nasty horror of William Friedkin’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacreitself a critical piece in the makeup of the incoming slasher sub-genre. 

Wes Craven would bolster the reputation of The Last House on the Left with his equally disturbing follow-up film The Hills Have Eyes, helping to establish a gritty horror underworld for dogged fans of the genre to seek out. More famously, he would also add to the growing roster of slasher icons with A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, though whilst this fantasy horror project would certainly turn heads, it was 1996’s Scream that would change the genre once more. 

Set in the sleepy town of Woodsboro, Scream conducts a terrifying, hilarious and self-reflexive examination of the conventions of horror which Craven himself helped to establish. It is a brilliant work of art that is aware of the limitations of the governing rules of the genre, constantly undermining the fear with mockery. In an interview, Craven elaborated on the nature of the film, stating: “Most of the scripts that come across your desk are terrible. They’re derivative, they’re ugly and they’re just gore for gore’s sake…I found it a very appealing script,” the director added. “It’s really wonderfully written, it’s very funny. It’s scary when it means to be scary, extraordinarily well-informed about the genre itself”. 

With its invigorating reimagining of the genre, Scream’s success signalled a revival of horror, paving the way for a “post-Scream” era where other films began to imitate the delightful self-reflexivity of Wes Craven’s masterpiece. Works like I Know What You Did Last Summer and, of course, Scary Movie, was vastly influenced by Scream’s brand of meta-horror, indicating that the sensibilities of the genre had shifted for good. 

Whilst its intentions were well-meaning, Scream’s legacy left a double-edged effect, creating a new brand of horror that was able to shift and change its rules whilst inextricably linking the genre to self-mockery. The wounds of the genre were now exposed to heavy criticism, and for many years the genre failed to gain the respect it deserved, with the Scream-inspired Scary Movie franchise, along with frivolous titles like Freddy vs Jason attracting ridicule from afar. 

Six years on from the death of the great horror director, Wes Craven’s legacy in the genre is undisputedly impressive, helping to sculpt its popularity through the 1980s and ’90s whilst pioneering its 21st-century future. With the genre needing a sagacious voice to lead it forward once more, the recent horror revival from filmmakers such as Jordan Peele and Ari Aster, threading a rich social subtext through their films, echoes with the same great innovative spirit as the great mastermind of horror

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