Doctor Gash’s Tip of the Scalpel: A Tribute to Wes Craven

“To avoid fainting, keep repeating: It’s only a movie … only a movie … only a movie …” Of course this was the infamous tagline that accompanied the directorial debut of the man who would become one of the most successful directors the genre has ever seen. Wes Craven helped to mold modern-day horror with his early work, then reinvigorated it when needed the most.

Craven has been in the horror business for four decades, but he may never have been more shocking than in the first two genre films he directed. A script he penned in 1971 entitled Night of Vengeance blew audiences away when it was released as the legendary, trailblazing film The Last House on the Left. And for those who’ve seen it (and since you’re reading Dread Central right now, I’m assuming you have), it should be noted that Craven actually envisioned a much more brutal nightmare with Last House and the film was actually toned down during filming. Wow.

Doctor Gash's Tip of the Scalpel: A Tribute to Wes Craven
The Last House on the Left is an assault on the senses, and Craven masterfully crafted the tale. He demonstrates the innocence of the victims before releasing the hounds on them. He then somehow fuses slapstick comedy between scenes of hideous brutality. The film stands as a benchmark of horror, violence and onscreen debauchery nearly 40 years after its initial release.

Craven certainly had set the bar high for himself with his directorial debut, but five years later he would deliver another film that cemented itself into the history of horror. In 1977 Craven moved the site of his horrific vision from the suburban woods of Last House to the desert, and The Hills Have Eyes was born. With more rape, brutality and madness, Craven again showed us, as he did in Last House, the extent of what it takes to push an everyday citizen over the edge, making him as maniacal as his tormentors. Together, Last House and Hills have to comprise one of the greatest one-two punches a new director has ever delivered.

Now a mainstay in the horror industry, Craven delivered a couple more films, but even with what he’d already accomplished, his iconic character was yet to come. After Deadly Blessing (’81) and Swamp Thing (’82), Craven dropped the Krueger bomb with A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. Although it was out-earned at the box office by another horror film during its opening weekend (Silent Night, Deadly Night), that would be the last Nightmare to ever be outdone, as it would go on to be one of the most lucrative and beloved franchises in the history of horror. Freddy Krueger and Wes Craven would go on to become household names.

Doctor Gash's Tip of the Scalpel: A Tribute to Wes Craven
Craven kept busy for the next 10 years, directing such memorable (for one reason or another) films as The Serpent and the Rainbow (’88), Shocker (’89), The People Under the Stairs (’91), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (’94) and A Vampire in Brooklyn (’95) to name a few. Some were good, some … not so good. But independent from what Craven was doing, mainstream horror was beginning to lag. The major franchises that made the genre so great in the 80’s were churning out tired sequels that were becoming increasingly less entertaining, and nothing new was emerging to take the place of our former heroes. Horror needed help, and who better than Wes Craven to answer the call.

On December 20, 1996, Craven treated horror fans to a Christmas gift that the genre needed. Eager audience members piled into theaters with high hopes for the newest offering from the mastermind of horror who brought us the iconic Freddy Krueger. In one of the most impressive opening scenes since Carol Kane in When a Stranger Calls, Drew Barrymore (initially slated to play the lead role of Sidney Prescott before scheduling conflicts landed her in the memorable opening scene) lit up the screen in a tense back-and-forth with a mysterious telephone caller… and the rest is history.

Scream would go on to reinvigorate the horror genre for mainstream audiences and earn nearly $175 million on a $15 million budget.

Craven directed three Scream sequels that never really lived up to the power of the original, but the success of Scream was enough to keep audiences interested up through and including Scream 4 15 years later. Craven also had a hand in producing some quality films in the meantime, like Wishmaster and Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes remake. He’d also helm the impressive thriller Red Eye, but as far as horror fans were concerned, Craven was already a two-time hall of famer for his stunning early work and his resuscitation of the genre later in his career.

Doctor Gash's Tip of the Scalpel: A Tribute to Wes Craven
Wes Craven has created some of the most memorable characters and franchises in the history of horror. And his longevity speaks for itself. The man has been giving us nightmares for the better part of 40 years. And it’s for Freddy, Krug and all the other characters we’ve grown to love that Craven has given us that we are proud to give the final 2011 Tip of the Doctor Gash Scalpel to the legendary Wes Craven.

This is 2011’s final installment of Doctor Gash’s Tip of the Scalpel tribute column, and we’re featuring a legendary director to round out the year. If you missed any of the previous pieces, now’s a great time to go back and check out Bruce Campbell, Angela Bettis, Tom Six, Derek Mears, Alice Cooper, Lance Henriksen, Robert Englund, Kane Hodder and, the inaugural Tip of the Scalpel honoree, the man of your nightmares and mine, Bill Moseley. Thanks for reading, guys, and here’s to a great 2012!

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Scott Hallam

We all go a little mad sometimes...haven't you?