When you approach Wes Craven’s Santa Monica house, you half expect the likes of Horace Pinker, the high-voltage villain of Shocker, or Freddy Krueger, the scar-faced scourge of A Nightmare on Elm Street, to answer the door. What you don’t expect is an erudite guy who could pass for a college professor, which he once was. “I’ve often thought that I should hire an actor to be Wes Craven,” says the director responsible for some of the most ghoulish stories ever to slither across the big screen. “People expect Charles Manson—somebody wild who lives in a cave. I don’t feel it’s necessary to go around dressed like someone crazy. I know that I’m crazy.”
Crazy in vulpine fashion, maybe. Craven, 50, who has directed more than a dozen fright films in 17 years, is so identified with the genre that upon hearing his name, horror buffs lapse into adulatory alliteration. The Sultan of Slash, they call him, the Guru of Gore, Father of Fear. But sitting cross-legged in his living room, his black cat, Hillary, curled by his feet, Craven seems the Mildest of Men. “I represent my crazy side in my films.”
His latest entry is Shocker’s Horace Pinker, a harrowing hulk in an orange prison-issue jumpsuit who enters his victims’ living rooms through their TV sets. Craven, who directed only the first of the five Nightmare films, is hoping Horace will be as horrible—and profitable—as Freddy is fiendish.
Both Craven’s good manners and his macabre turn of mind can be traced to his childhood in Cleveland. Wes was the youngest of three children born to a factory worker and a secretary, strict Baptist fundamentalists who separated when he was 4. A year later Craven’s father died of a heart attack. Craven’s nightmares during this period became the basis of A Nightmare on Elm Street. “That was when I realized the terror of going to sleep every night,” he says. “As a child, sleep is the one place where your parents can’t come with you.”
His daytimes were equally oppressive. Isolated from his peers by a faith that forbade most forms of fun—he didn’t even see a movie until he was in college—Craven still couldn’t find the strength to rebel. “It was all I knew,” he says simply. He entered Billy Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College in Illinois, where, shortly, all hell broke loose. As editor of the school’s literary magazine, Craven recalls, “I published a love story about a white woman and a black man and another story about a girl who was not married but was pregnant. The college president banned the magazine and denounced me from the pulpit.” Nonetheless, he graduated with a B.A. in English and in 1964 earned a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins. That same year, he started teaching humanities at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa., and married his college sweetheart, Bonnie Broecker.
Craven could have put a safe, academic seal on his future. Instead, a chance purchase of a 16 mm camera while he was teaching at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., led Craven to experimental moviemaking. Nine months later he decided to bolt from the classroom. It took two summers of knocking on doors in New York City, but in 1969, Craven landed his first film job—as a messenger. “I was 30, with two kids and a wife,” he says. Within weeks Bonnie split, taking Jonathan, then 4, and Jessica, 1, with her. “The marriage broke, as it almost had to, because of the strain,” says Wes.
Soon he was working as a part-time film editor and driving a cab at night to pay his rent and child support. In 1972, a Boston distributor asked Craven and Sean Cunningham, the owner of a small production company, to make “a really scary, totally wild picture,” says Craven. Cunningham jokes that they split the duties this way: “Since Wes could type better, he was the writer. I was the producer, he was the director, I was the editor, and he would make lunch.” The result was Last House on the Left, an ultraviolent flick in which two teenage girls are tortured and killed by a sadistic trio. “It was a real slap in the face of society,” admits Craven. “I’ve never made a film quite so violent or nasty since. But it got a lot of rage out.” Filmed for $90,000, Lust House went on to gross more than $20 million.
After Last House, both Craven and Cunningham became dominant forces in horror. Cunningham developed the Friday the 13th series. And after a string of quick hitters—The Hills Have Eyes, Deadly Blessing, Swamp Thing—Craven wrote A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Although it took Craven three years to find financing, Nightmare was released in 1984 by New Line Cinema and it became an instant hit, spawning four sequels. The five films earned a total of $171 million but Craven made only about $500,000, while the big money went to New Line. Moreover, though he created Freddy, Craven currently gets 0 percent of the millions the character generates for New Line through merchandising and a syndicated TV series. There’s a lawsuit in the works, and Craven says he’s doing things differently this time. “With Horace,” he says, “I made all the right deals up front.”
While horror fans flock to Shocker, Craven says he’s “going through a period of restoration. I’ll try to get back into some sort of shape, have some sort of relationships.” Son Jonathan, now 24, is a free-lance art department production assistant; daughter Jessica, 21, works on a ranch in Wyoming; both have bit parts in Shocker. But Wes, who is still smarting from the 1985 breakup of his three-year marriage to an airline stewardess, says he’s wary of romance. “It was a very long and expensive divorce,” he explains. “I think I’m just going to hole up with my cats for a while.”
—Mary H.J. Farrell, Michael Alexander in Los Angeles