One would think that with a name like Wes Craven - his real name, by the way - that a life as a director of horror films would be the man's inescapable fate from the very start. While the 66-year-old Cleveland-born Renaissance man has created some of the most revered films of the modern genre like A Nightmare On Elm Street and the breakout Scream trilogy, there is more to him than that. He studied writing, psychology, philosophy and literature at Wheaton College and Johns Hopkins University, taught college, and did not even start working in the film industry until the age of 31 as a sound editor.
It was in 1971, though, when his path would intersect with that of another future horror legend - Friday the 13th creator Sean S. Cunningham. Their meeting first resulted in the largely forgotten Together, footnoted only because it starred a 19-year-old woman named Marilyn Briggs (who consequently met brothers Artie and Jim Mitchell, who rechristened her Marilyn Chambers and made her a porn icon in Behind The Green Door). However, the collaboration made fellow tyro Cunningham want to work with Craven again. The next year saw the release of the Cunningham-produced, Craven-directed The Last House On The Left, a remake of Swedish titan Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, believe it or not, a raw and grimy low-budget effort about a pair of murdering rapists who unknowingly hole-up in the house of the parents of one of their victims. The film became a cult favorite and launched Craven's career in movies.
Craven's second film, the savage and effective 1977 survival tale, The Hills Have Eyes, was about a family who, while traversing the desert, encounters a group of inbred maniacs who prey on these seemingly helpless castaways. Nearly three decades later comes the first remake of Craven's own work, with the new version helmed by French it-director Alexandre Aja (High Tension), released in the U.S. on March 10. Craven, who produced the film for Fox's boutique arm Fox Searchlight, was cool enough to call me at home for an impromptu chat. After I insulted his parentage and suggested a scenario in which he couple with a Cheerio (thinking I was being pranked by my friend Eric), I apologized and basked in fanboy glory for the remaining 22 minutes of our phoner.
Cinematical: Whose idea was a Hills remake?
Wes Craven: It was a combination of myself and [longtime friend and producer] Peter Locke. We both thought it would be interesting to try to redo Hills. Part of it was that so many horror movies are getting remade, and we saw the field as wide open if we could do it in an unusual way. We haven't been thinking about just since Alex's involvement either - it's been about 3 or 4 years now. We were looking for way to make it more original, which is why Alex and [co-writer] Grégory [Levasseur] created the Atomic Village and the miners.
What turned out the best?
The fight in Atomic Village is really scary, loaded with some great action.
What was your first impression with High Tension?
I was completely wrapped up in it, even though I didn't like the ending. Overall, it was really technically advanced for someone so young. It featured great use of sound, and was obviously made by someone who really loved the genre. I think Alex is going to have a long and interesting career.
What are the chief differences between your Hills and Alex's?
The obvious one is the Village and all the detail of that. Alex's concept is very different, with the miners being less defined as a family, existing more as a pack. Alex builds his like a good video game by continuously upping the ante as the movie goes on.
Does directing genre films still appeal to you?
It depends on the material. I'm blessed to be able to write and have stuff assigned to me, too. I'm not really getting away from genre so much as I am getting away from stuff that's not ready to be filmed.
How do you feel about your success in reaching a wider audience with Red Eye, and to a lesser extent, Music Of The Heart [the drama starring Meryl Streep]?
I like it a lot. It was important to me to be able to demonstrate that I could perform outside the genre. Red Eye was fun, because it started as a romance, then became a comedy, then a thriller, so in a way, it was a director's reel. I started getting a lot of comedy scripts as a result.
After four spoof-chocked Scary Movie movies, is a fourth Scream a moot idea at this point?
That will be Dimension's call. Three months ago, I had lunch with Neve [Campbell], and she asked if I was willing to do a fourth. She mentioned that Dimension had her in to ask her if she would do one if asked. The actual answer, though, is, "I just don't know."
Would you do another Project Greenlight?
Sure, though the resulting film [Feast] is still shelved. I really wish they would release it, because it's a fun film which deserves to be seen.
What was your favorite part of that whole process?
I wasn't involved too much because of the shooting I was doing on Cursed. It was fun was reading scripts and watching movies - especially the shorts - and talking them all over with the other guys. They were an interesting group, and I really enjoyed the collective spirit.
And the inevitable Freddy question: What's that guy up to now?
I don't know - he's wholly owned by New Line. I heard they're thinking about it, but haven't heard anything specific as of yet. They play things very close to the vest.
Here's a chicken-or-the-egg question - Which came first: Freddy Krueger or the deranged villain from Twisted Sister's song "Street Justice" (which frontman Dee Snider brought to the screen in 1998's StrangeLand)?
It was a coincidence that they came out the same year. I know he was a fan of my stuff, but Nightmare was written three years before, right after I finished Swamp Thing.
Speaking of Swamp Thing, I had the joy of meeting Adrienne Barbeau this past fall, and thanked her, for my grateful late father, for the [erroneously released 'top heavy' Region 1 DVD version] European cut of the movie...
[Laughs] Yeah, I didn't know about that until recently...
What else is up for you this year?
Actually, I'm working on a revision of a script for a magic show. John McColgan, the developer of Riverdance, bought the rights to this bloody show he saw in Dublin that was full of dark humor, and that's turning out well. It will be called "Wes Craven's Magick Macabre". I'm told by [Las Vegas hotelier] Steve Wynn that the whole process takes about 2 years, so we'll see how that goes. Other than that, I'm working on some other ideas as I look for my next feature.
Before we wrap up, would you please sign my Nightmare poster?
I'm in Los Angeles. You're in Boston. That would be problematic.
That's right...sorry, and thank you for the interview.