Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Wooley’s Wes Craven bio finds new depth in Nightmare Master

In my home-base town of Fort Worth, Texas, One of the more peculiar pastimes of the past generation has been the phenomenon of the Random Wes Craven Sighting. The spontaneous game seems to have originated with an impostor on the local scene — pretending to be the filmmaker responsible for such lucrative box-office franchises as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream.

Never met the guy, myself — although I have been cordially acquainted with the genuine Wes Craven and affiliated actors since the first Nightmare on Elm Street appeared during the 1980s. I halfway expected a bogus Craven to show up late in the 1990s when the Fort Worth Film Festival included Elm Street as part of a showcase for star player John Saxon. But no doubt the poseur steered clear of events whose producers would have known the real Craven.

And why Wes Craven? And why Fort Worth, Texas? Go figure, as the wise old Klopstokian proverb would have it. The act of imposture, in any event, seems to have been good for Craven’s box-office returns within the region. And any city outside of Hollywood always enjoys imagining a connection with a for-real moviemaker. The recent opening of a new Scream feature might even have generated a Craven Sighting or two.

The interest is compounded with the arrival of a perceptive biography called Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmare (Wiley; $16.95), by John Wooley. The book deals in primary sources and interpretive insights to such an extent as to become an essential document of the perils and pleasures of the filmmaking process. (Full disclosure: Wooley, an Oklahoma-based novelist and cultural historian, has deep connections to Fort Worth, largely through the Stockyards’ Western swing music-making scene. He and I have collaborated extensively, and the new book contains portions of interviews, some hitherto unpublished and some long out of print, that I have conducted with Craven.)

Typecast since the 1970s as a horror-movie director, Craven comes across in Wooley’s view as a versatile and ambitious artist, philosophically accepting his genre-fied niche while retaining a sense of humor and a willingness to plant big social-political ideas and literary sense in films that most customers associate with rudimentary scares and sensationalized shock value. As Craven has described his situation elsewhere: “I was teaching mythology, as a professor, and when it dawned on me that [horror films are] the American mythology of the present day, I told myself, ‘Okay, let’s make the best films that you can in the genre.’”

Craven’s conversations with Wooley are particularly revealing, covering a scholarly background and a strict upbringing that seem naturally to have led to the rebelliousness implicit in the films. Craven’s generosity as a storyteller proves to extend to a trusting nature that has placed much of his moneymaking work under unsympathetic corporate control. Along the way, the book digresses rewardingly to cover such points as the real-world events that inspired Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, the practical background of the Scream franchise and the childhood anxieties that have figured in Craven’s life as a productive businessman-artist.

Craven has told on occasion of the factual inspiration for his celebrated bogeyman, the Elm Street pictures’ Freddy Krueger, as originally played by Robert Englund. Wooley’s biographical survey elaborates so rewardingly upon that story that it should not be repeated here — better to let the book treat that matter as a fresh revelation.

And here, all along, you’d believed that A Nightmare on Elm Street had been inspired by a rush-hour traffic jam in downtown Dallas.

Michael H. Price’s new book-in-progress, The Movie Beat, is a collection of his newspaper movie reviews spanning 2002–2007.

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