The liberation of Wes Craven — at Johns Hopkins

How a year of intense study led all the way to 'Scream 4'

  • Director Wes Craven arrives at the premiere "Scream 4."
Director Wes Craven arrives at the premiere "Scream 4." (Frazer Harrison, Getty…)
April 13, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

No other director has left his name on as many horror-movie touchstones as Wes Craven. From "The Last House on the Left" (1972) and "The Hills Have Eyes" (1977) to "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984) and "Scream" (1996), his American nightmares have spawned scores of film or TV follow-ups, spin-offs or remakes.

His movies have engaged fresh crowds of collegiate audiences with each new filmgoing generation. His career is based on experiments in terror — the kind of filmmaking you'd think would come from "movie brats" who spent their youth hopping from theater to theater, in search of the next primal scream.

But the key to Craven's success, and perhaps to his career longevity (he's 71), is that he came to horror — and the cinema — as an adult. Three weeks ago, he said nothing was more crucial to his emergence as an auteur than a year he spent in a graduate writing program at the Johns Hopkins University.

Over the phone, while promoting "Scream 4," he warmed to the subject of his college years — and jumped at the chance to express his debt to Hopkins. "I was an undergraduate at Wheaton College in Illinois," Craven said. "It's Billy Graham's alma mater. When you enrolled as a student there, you signed what was called 'the pledge,' in which you promised not to smoke, drink, dance, play cards or go to movies. It was not a real party school." But it was consistent with his fundamentalist Baptist background.

Yet Craven had his feelers out for an escape route from his cultural confinement. He majored in English and minored in psychology, and "was always interested in being a writer." He learned that Elliott Coleman, founder of the department of writing, speech and drama at Hopkins, had graduated from Wheaton in 1928. "I wrote him a letter and said I was interested in checking out his program. He said, 'Come whenever you want.' So I hitchhiked to Baltimore after finishing at Wheaton. I had no money, no great plans. But Elliott was kind enough to find me a student loan and gave me a job as an assistant."

Working as Coleman's aide while earning his master's in philosophy and writing "was one of the best years in my life." Coleman was not just a scholar. "He was also a superb poet who knew literature inside and out, and personally had known James Joyce and T.S. Eliot and E.E. Cummings, and all those guys. Suddenly I was with this very worldly and funny and erudite and wonderful man." He offered Craven a portal into "an amazing world. After all, no one in my family had even gone to college — and Wheaton had been very insular. I read enormously — in philosophy, 19th- and 20th-century novels, and the theater of the absurd."

Coleman even foresaw Craven's future. "I wrote a novel called 'Noah's Ark: Journals of a Madman,' as my thesis, which was one of the options you had. After Eliott read it, he said to me and to the class, 'You know, this would make a terrific movie. It's so visual.' "

Because Craven had wanted to be a novelist, not a screenwriter — and because he had actually seen so few movies — he felt "crushed." But when Craven started teaching at Clarkson College in Potsdam, N.Y., "without realizing it, I began watching all the films I had not seen in the early part of my life. I fell in love with cinema. I quit my job and went to New York [City] and found my way into the film business."

Craven loved "Truffaut, Bunuel, Fellini and Bergman — their visual style was so remarkable and dreamlike that it captured my imagination." But his ah-hah! moment came with George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead": "Seeing that in New York City with a packed house and everybody screaming and running up and down the aisles, laughing or saying the lines by heart — I had never experienced anything like it. I thought, this is what the theater of the absurd must have been like in the days of Ionesco and Pirandello — fistfights in the aisles with theatergoers who thought it was blasphemy."

Craven often draws on the dual influences of the art film and the midnight movie. His debut, "Last House on the Left," famously paid homage to Bergman's "Virgin Spring."

"Scream 4," he said, "has got wonderful social commentary and a lot of comedy, too." It's partly powered by "this explosion of new media: smartphones, the Internet, Facebook and blogs. The movie touches on 'the meta aspect': how you make a third-person reference to your own life in the media around you, and it duplicates and replicates itself. Of course, there's also wonderful family intrigue."

Craven has made some notable departures from horror, including the inspirational-teacher movie "Music of the Heart" (1999) and the suspense film "Red Eye" (2005). "But 'Scream,' for me, stretches the genre so far that it's almost something other than a horror film. It's certainly not a simple slasher film. With a film like this, I don't feel confined at all."

Craven is still astounded by his good fortune. "I can't explain how I ended up being who I am. I trace so much of it back to Hopkins and that year of such intense submersion in creativity and thought and great literature."

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