More than four decades after making his first foray into the horror genre that would define his long and influential career, Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream helmer Wes Craven died Sunday in Los Angeles.
The 76-year-old filmmaker passed away at 1 p.m. Sunday after a battle with brain cancer. “Craven was surrounded by love, in the presence of his family at his Los Angeles home,” his family confirmed in a statement. “Our hearts are broken.”
Horror maestro Craven forever sealed his place in horror history in 1984, the year he unleashed razor-gloved killer Freddy Krueger, one of the most iconic movie monsters to slash his way through celluloid, upon the teenagers of Springwood, Ohio. But Freddy, portrayed by Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street, seven sequels, a TV show, an episode of The Simpsons, several more pop culture cameos, and generations of young fans’ nightmares, was far from Craven’s only indelible creation.
Cleveland-born Craven jump-started his career in 1972 with his first film as a multi-hyphenate, the parental revenge pic The Last House On The Left, which he wrote, directed, and edited. The film is known for its brutal castration sequence. Family matters also pervaded his next film, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, a cannibal classic that earned an X rating and, like several of his films, would go on to amass cult followings and big-screen remakes.
In total, the prolific Craven directed over 20 feature films. On rare occasions he deviated from his genre roots with projects like 1999’s Meryl Streep drama Music of the Heart, which earned two Oscar nominations, and the omnibus film Paris, je t’aime, for which he filmed a segment about a young couple visited by the ghost of Oscar Wilde.
The franchise that earned Craven his reputation as a lasting “master of horror” started with A Nightmare on Elm Street, the $1.1 million slasher flick that saw critical and commercial success when it opened in the fall of 1984. He opted out of the first sequel, returning to co-script A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, but wouldn’t fully return to the series until its seventh installment.
When he did return to Elm Street, he rewrote his own rules. Written and directed by Craven, 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare presaged the snappy self-awareness of Scream, which would arrive two years later to upend the horror landscape. Tapping Nightmare on Elm Street series star Heather Langenkamp to play herself, Craven also appeared onscreen as himself alongside New Line exec Robert Shaye, Robert Englund, and others in horrordom’s most directly self-referential meta-horror to date.
Scream introduced Craven to a new generation of horror fans and pumped new blood into the genre’s commercial appeal, notching $173 million upon release. It, too, spawned lucrative film sequels—all of which Craven directed—and a 2015 MTV spin-off series that he executive-produced, starring a cast of millennials who were barely out of diapers when Drew Barrymore got that phone call from Ghostface in 1996.
“I am heartbroken at the news of Wes Craven’s passing,” said The Weinstein Co.’s Bob Weinstein, whose Dimension Films scored a company-defining hit franchise with Craven’s Scream. “We enjoyed a 20 year professional relationship and more importantly a warm and close friendship. He was a consummate filmmaker and his body of work will live on forever. My brother and I are eternally grateful for all his collaborations with us. Our deepest sympathy to his family.”
Craven kept directing films through the ’90s and ’00s without letting more than five years pass between projects, including 2005’s Cursed and Red Eye, 2010’s My Soul To Take, and his last film as a director, 2011’s Scream 4. More recently, he’d written a segment for WGN’s Ten Commandments miniseries based on the screed Thou Shalt Not Kill, which he was also set to direct, and was developing several television projects, including a SyFy adaptation of his The People Under The Stairs.
He loved movies despite growing up without them in his life, he told The Daily Beast last year—a byproduct of being raised in a churchgoing family that believed, in his words, “they were the work of the devil.” Craven’s legacy includes the talent pool he helped discover: Johnny Depp in Nightmare on Elm Street, Sharon Stone in Deadly Blessing, Bruce Willis in his episode of The Twilight Zone, and Patricia Arquette in A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, among others. Nick Simon’s horror-thriller The Girl In The Photographs, which Craven executive-produced, premieres next month at the Toronto Film Festival.
Craven also loved birds, serving on the Audubon California Board of Directors, although his only creature features revolved around werewolves on the loose in Los Angeles and a Swamp Thing. “Red-tailed hawks like my movies too,” he wrote in a guest column for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, a publication dedicated to the community where he summered and lived, until recent years took him back to Los Angeles. “One even sent me a selfie. And an idea for a new bumper sticker. ‘I ♥ Birds—Freddy Krueger.’ Red-tails have a wicked sense of humor.”