Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Origins of an auteur - Wes Craven


John Hitchcock (Hitchcock's World) came with an idea a blogothon that analysed and compared the first film of a director's career to discuss whether the director in question is an Auteur. In a nut shell an Auteur is theory that the director is a the author of their film. I can't fully recommended John Hitchcock's blog enough, a lot of his work is very focused on female representation in cinema, plus there loads of interesting other essays that are certainly worth reading and he hates the films of Jean Luc Godard.

Edit: Just a week after I published this article, Wes Craven sadly died from brain cancer, he will be sorely missed but his legendary legacy will live on.

Rules

  1. Pick one director and identify his or her first feature film. It must be the first feature film (i.e. over one hour runtime) listed in her/his filmography.
  2. While you will be primarily discussing that one film, you should have an understanding at least some of the director's later films, enough to be able to recognize his or her style.
  3. Analyze your chosen film in relation to the director's later projects. What elements of his or her style do you see here?
  4. Keep in mind that this blogathon is based on critical thinking and analysis, not simply on whether you liked the film. Your post should not be so much on the film itself as what it says about the director.
  5. Repeats (i.e. two people writing about the same director and film) are acceptable, but discouraged. If you do choose a topic someone else is writing about, try to find something different to say on the subject.
  6. Include a banner and a link back to this post. There are several banners to choose from below, and you are permitted to create your own provided they fit the blogathon's themes.
Wes Craven is a director who built his reputation in the horror-thriller genre, his career includes highlights such as the controversial The Last House on the Left, the iconic Nightmare on Elm Street and the post modern Scream. His career has hit a few road blocks along the way (both Vampire in Brooklyn and My Soul to Take are universally recognised as dire films) but Wes Craven is one the biggest names in the horror genre.

Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left was released at a time film directors really began to push the boundaries to what you can show on screen. Much like what Wes Craven did in The Last House on the Left, Sam Peckinpah pushed the censors to braking point with a realistic depiction of sexual and violent content in his sadistic and controversial 1971 film Straw Dogs (which could so easily be mistaken as a Wes Craven film). Like Straw Dogs, The Last House on the Left was a film that troubled the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) considerably. The BBFC were so concerned by the film's content that it wasn't until 2008 that the film was released completely uncut in the United Kingdom. Before that, a 2002 release saw the BBFC cut the film by thirty seconds eliminating the film's more violent and graphic content because it was those thirty seconds that was line between corrupting the viewer and not.

The Last House on the Left was Craven's debut film, it's a notorious and quite shocking film but one that's not actually that good. The film's biggest flaw is the woeful misjudgement of the tone as the film's jumps from the torture and humiliation of the girls in the woods to a pair of bumbling cops falling off a truck that's full of clucking chickens. The film was very low budget (about $78,000) and it shows with its crap sound and visual quality, but there are moments that would be deeply horrifying if Craven didn't misjudge the tone of the film as much as he did. However, how does The Last House on the Left compare to the other films of horror auteur Wes Craven? 

Craven followed up The Last House on the Left with his far superior effort The Hills Have Eyes. Even by his second film Craven was building a reputation as director who specialised in the exploitation genre with its cheap filmmaking, grotesque violence and low budget shocks (The Last House on the Left was made on  budget of $78,000 and The Hills Have Eyes had budget of barely $250,000). Craven would continue to make such low budget films with Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984 ($1.8million budget) which, like many films of that era (such as Friday the 13th and Halloween), dealt with sexual promiscuity in teenagers.

All three of Craven's first films were low budget and had that low budget aesthetic that appealed greatly to fans of low budget, exploitation flicks. The grainy picture quality, the extreme violence and questionable acting were very much part and parcel of the first trio of films directed by Wes Craven. One unifying theme between the three films was that they dealt with the acts of brutality which, when pushed to the very limits, normal, middle class people were capable of.

One underlying theme between all three movies is how middle class American suburbia deal with savagery. In The Last House on the Left the parents of the murdered and raped teenage girl react with equal savagery as Krug and his gang as they kill Krug and his fellow gang members with equal viciousness. The Hills Have Eyes sees a middle class family fight for their the lives out in the desert and in a Nightmare on Elm Street Freddie Kruger rose from the dead to avenge those who burnt him to death in an act of vigilante self justice. 

Craven's films all depicted a brutality to the middle class, this was used as a metaphor to show how the North Vietnamese were not only ones committing cruel acts in the Vietnam War. The Last House on the Left in particular is easily seen as a metaphor of the Vietnam War. In his explanation to why the middle class' parents killing of the gang was so long Craven stated “That was the sort of attitude that America had gone into Vietnam with... that they were the bad guys and we’d go in like in Gunsmoke, face ‘em down, and bang, they‘d be dead. The fact of the matter was that the war involved horrendous killings piled upon killings”.

An interesting comparison between The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes is the way it humanises the main villains. When I say this I don't mean that the films don't present them as evil people doing evil things which they certainly are but we spend enough time with Krug and his gang and the mutant family long enough to give each individual member of the group a personality. For example, both The Hills Have Eyes and the Last House on the Left have a member of the gang or family that isn't fully comfortable with what they are doing. Both the youngest members of the gang or family are more morally conflicted about what they are doing than the others.

It's also noteworthy that Krug and his gang and the mutant family have interactions with one other much like a normal, middle class family, albeit a very dysfunctional one. In both The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes the opposing families are examined equally and are very different, however in regards to the extremity of their violence they are markedly similar. You could argue that when both middle class families from the two films are thrown into a situation that puts them at the very threshold of destroying their own civility that there is no difference between the opposing families. 

That said, however, the difference in the reasoning for the violence between the opposing families is very stark as in The Hills Have Eyes the middle class family use the violence in the aid of survival and in the case of The Last House on the Left for vengeance. In contrast Krug and his gang and the mutant family commit violence for fun and enjoy such sadistic acts. In both films the bourgeoisie family are driven to violence when pushed to the very limit suggesting that the bourgeoisie have an equally brutal capacity for violence hidden within them.

The first three of Craven's depicted sexual assault - such as rape and child molesting (the original script of Nightmare on Elm Street called for this but in the film he was a child killer - the remake, however, would make Freddie a child molester). Most controversially The Last House on the Left depicted the rape and murder of a young virginal girl (her friend is more sexually experienced) whilst The Hills and Eyes depicted the double rape of young teenage girl by the mutants who live in the desert and In A Nightmare in Elm Street Tina's death scene visually evoked rape. The most questionable thing about The Last House on the Left was Craven's error in following the clumsy behaviour of the two cops and the humiliation of the two girls by Krug and his gang. It was an error that Craven would not repeat in The Hills Have Eyes where the rape sequences are not juxtaposed with moments of humour or slapstick. 

To go slightly off topic this reminds me of when Sam Raimi said that he regretted the tree rape sequence in The Evil Dead adding that it was the product of immature mind. Perhaps it's a similar thing with Craven who realised his error is balancing such scenes together unsuccessfully and whilst Craven never trivialises the horror of such a vile attack, the mixing of slapstick comedy with gritty exploitation didn't fully work and he wouldn't do the same is his much more serious work The Hills Have Eyes.

However, Craven would once again return to black humour in the 90s with films like Vampire in Brooklyn, Scream and many others where the balance between humour and bloody violence is by far better judged than it was in his 1972 shocker The Last House on the Left. In the case of his 1996 classic Scream the type of humour is of course very different to The Last House on the Left as Scream's humour is more meta and pokes fun at the horror genre's clich├ęs, conventions and history. Once again, Scream is set in middle class America and once again deals with violence and once again focuses on a female character under attack by her male attacker, something that is commonly found in Wes Craven's films such as The Last House on the Left, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream and Red Eye. Craven's films would also often focus on young people, The Last House on the Left focused heavily on two, young teenage girls and films like My Soul to Take, Scream, Nightmare on Elm street stories were followed high school students. 

By the time Scream was released in 1996 Wes Craven was a household name and very much in the mainstream, hence why his later films didn't really have the low budget aesthetic quality had made his earlier films such a hit among fans the exploitation genre. The quality of the production of his later works lacks the grainy, gritty style of his films from the 70s, this perhaps is not only owed to advances in technology but higher budgets because of Craven's increased reputation in the industry. Despite the move away from out and out exploitation Craven's films were decidedly violent, films like Scream and My Soul to Take didn't hold back in regards to gore as Craven's films still heavily focused in violence in civilised, middle class America.

Craven's first films had a distinct low budget quality to them, the first two in particular were very much at home in the exploitation genre. Craven would often focus on the violence within suburban America and many of his films from The Last House on the Left to My Soul to Take would set itself in this setting. Craven felt that within the middle classes was a capacity for violence and many of his film exhibited exactly that.

9 comments:

  1. WOW. This is a really stunning and indepth look at Craven's early career and the films that shaped who he is as a director. I love how you cover all the basis, showing the progression of his work and the way that he started from humble means, building on his talent by moving up from rather 'bad' beginnings to much better and more fulfilled work.

    Great contribution to Hitchcock's blogathon!

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    1. Thanks. Yeah. He certainly progressed. I think he was immature when making his first film.

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  2. This is an excellent post! I love how detailed you got with this. He's a director whose films I enjoy for the most part (though I hate LHOTL and Hills Have Eyes) Even when I don't like them, he's still a genius when it comes to horror.

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    1. It's quite easy to understand why some would hate LHOTL.

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  3. Really enjoyed reading this. I'm especially happy that we are in complete agreement in feeling that Last House on the Left wasn't really very good and on the reason why. The constant switching back and forth in tone from horror to screwball comedy wrecked that film. Being a first time director is at least partly to blame. It's like he wasn't sure hus audience could handle the sleazier elements of the story so he sought to balance it out with humor and way over did it. It might have worked better had it been even the least bit funny. Instead, it just serves to repeatedly pull the viewer out of the film. He struck the perfect balance with his Scream flicks. Strangely, My Soul to Take suffered from very similar problems as LHotL. Scream 4 followed that and proved he could still do it. Great post.

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    1. Agreed. I also think, like with Sam Raimi that it was a product of immature mind.

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    1. Excellent analysis! I haven't seen the original LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT but I did see the remake. I've also seen all 4 HILLS HAVE EYES movies*, all 4 SCREAM movies and RED EYE. I have the ELM STREET movies in my "to re-watch" list. By the way, why did you choose Craven?

      *The 1995 movie isn't an official sequel.

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    2. Why did I choose Craven? I think I noticed an early theme running throughout his work so I went 'yeah, he'll do'.

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