Few horror filmmakers have taken the road of greater resistance to their calling than 71-year-old Wes Craven, who grew up a fundamentalist Baptist in the American Midwest. Craven has created two of film's most popular horror franchises, Scream and Nightmare on Elm Street.
With Scream 4 opening April 15, the movies will soon pass $1-billion (U.S.) in global box office - shocking news for a Johns Hopkins grad who didn't see a horror film until he was halfway through making his first.
The Globe spoke to Craven by phone from Los Angeles.
You didn't watch movies growing up; what was your first film experience?
Senior year at Wheaton College: To Kill a Mockingbird. I walked out absolutely elated, thinking any religion that is against this is full of bananas.
Did you get the bug then?
No, I went to Johns Hopkins [University]and began working on my masters [in philosophy and writing] I didn't see a single film that year, probably. Then I taught for a while. There were campus film clubs - Fellini, Bunuel, Cocteau. I was soon hooked. Went to New York, got a job as a messenger and never looked back.
Are horror movies a way of exploring your own.…
I know where you're going. But really, how many horror filmmakers come out of a fundamentalist background? It's not a sensible career path. There is rage in my films, but it's a complex matrix. Some could be directed at my father, a scary figure. My first horror movie, The Last House on the Left was a response to Vietnam.
How did that film, a remake of Bergman's The Virgin Spring, come about?
A producer said, "Make a horror movie." I said, "I've never even seen one." He said, "You're a fundamentalist, you must have demons rattling around."
You'd never seen a horror movie?
Halfway through [making] Last House I saw Night of the Living Dead.
Is it true you had a Nightmare on Elm Street as a child?
Yes. We lived in a second-floor apartment in Cleveland. It was the middle of the night. I heard a moaning, went to the window and saw a man looking back at me. I was terrified and hid. Time passed. I went back to the window. He was still there, leering.… That man became Freddie Krueger.
You once said horror movies are useful exercise for our mental health.
We're all afraid of the volcanic forces from within that threaten our sanity. Art gives those fears shape and meaning. Look at Macbeth, Oedipus. And we're all afraid of death. What's healthier, fretting about it in you room by yourself? Or gathering together with 200 people, laughing and screaming in a crowded theatre?
How did you and screenwriter Kevin Williamson come to make Scream?
It was a hot property in Hollywood [in 1996] Bob Weinstein bought it and brought us together. As it happened, I'd just made a self-referential horror movie, Wes Craven's [New]Nightmare, and Kevin was doing the same kind of thing, except he flipped it, writing a horror film about how audiences respond to horror movies. I loved that idea.
Scream 3 came out in 2000. It's been a full 10 years between Screams; any fear that Scream 4, with Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette returning a decade later, might feel like a high-school reunion? The kind of horror show nobody likes?
Well, by now we're experienced sailors who know where the rocks are. We knew Scream 4 had to be scary. It couldn't just be funny. There could be no Scary Movie pratfalls. And there was room for this movie. We watched the first three movies and one of the beautiful things about the series is watching Neve Campbell grow from a frightened teenager to a young woman who refuses to be made into a victim. Here she's fully empowered.
Hitchcock never won an Oscar for directing. And one gets the sense that horror filmmakers figure they're never quite made guys in Hollywood. How do you feel about your place in movie history?
I think sometimes you might expect or want greater recognition. But to me, it's a little like how French Impressionists felt about formal recognition. You know: once you're a member of the academy, you never pose any danger or threat. I don't know if I'd like that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Special to The Globe and Mail