Written by Allan Mott
Since it was announced Sunday night, movie fans–both hardcore and casual–from across the world have expressed their sadness at the loss of a film director who changed the way horror films were made at least three different times in three different decades. The impact he had on what I would argue has been the most consistently popular genre in the history of cinema cannot be overestimated. There’s a reason why even people who don’t normally care about directors know his name and are mourning his passing and a lot of articles have been and will be written about this.
This isn’t one of those articles. I love and have been affected by his iconic classics as much as any horror fan, but I’m personally more interested in the films that only the trolls are currently mentioning–the outright disasters that also carry Craven’s name.
My interest doesn’t come out of any desire to mock his legacy or engage in easy snarkery, but rather from the fact that–for all of his celebrity–Craven spent the majority of his career as a “working” director who often worked on projects not out of inspiration, but because the unfortunate circumstances of life had left him broke and desperately in need of a paycheque–no matter from whence it came.
In other words, Craven lived the life MOST artists lead. Which is why I always bristle slightly when these films are brought up by his detractors as proof of his being overrated. Working for hire is a reality most creative people face and there is no shame in it, even if the results are often themselves shameful.
And Craven DID make some truly shameful films, but in their failures there is still some worth to be found. If Craven’s chief crime in the creation of these films was a clear indifference to the final product, he still managed to create works that left a lingering impression, which confirms my belief that if you’re going to fail, you might as well fail big.
The only thing worse than having to write and direct a sequel you have no desire to make has to be doing so with a budget so meagre that you can’t even afford to film a full-length feature. The original Hills came a full five years after the success of The Last House on the Left, a film so disturbing and controversial Craven found himself in the shocking position of being a director with a massive hit who nobody wanted to work with. Fortunately for him, Hills‘ success finally gave him the entryway into the business Last House should have, leading to TV films (one good, Stranger In Our House another silly-but-fun, Invitation to Hell) and features like Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing (a production marred by poor planning and a seriously inadequate budget). 1984 proved to be a busy year for him, as it saw the release of not only Hell, but also his most famous film—A Nightmare on Elm Street—and arguably his worst. Hills II happened because despite his prodigious output, Craven’s finances were perilous.
To solve the problem of not having enough money to shoot an entire sequel, he did what anyone else in his situation would–he cheated and filled out the rest of the film with flashbacks to the original (to the point that he infamously gave one flashback sequence to a dog). It wasn’t the first time filmmakers tricked an audience into paying to see a movie they had already mostly seen before, but Craven is likely the most famous and successful director to have ever done it (enter your own Michael Bay Transformers joke here).
It’s hard not to be a little offended by such a dastardly trick, but I honestly can’t think of anything else he could have done in this situation, beyond refusing to make the film, which was clearly not an option for him at the time. At least now we can all approach the film knowing what we’re getting and why we’re getting it.
In fact, now when I watch the film I find myself sympathizing with Craven more than I condemn him, because I can now relate to being in his position and working on a project that I know has no hope for success. The only way to get through it is to grit your teeth and hope that the next one isn’t as bad. Which leads us to:
Technically, Deadly Friend wasn’t his next film after Hills II. That honour went to Chiller, the least of his four TV movies. But Deadly Friend was his next film to hit theatres and it did so with his name above the title–an honour made possible because Elm Street had been so successful it obliterated all memory of Hills II. Sadly, Elm Street‘s success wasn’t funnelled in Craven’s direction. Not only did New Line bar him from working on the film’s inevitable sequel (which some might count as a blessing, since it’s doubtful his version would have featured the clear gay subtext that has earned Freddy’s Revenge its own minor cult status), but left him to dangle alone when he was sued for plagiarizing Elm Street‘s screenplay (a common occurrence that follows many successful films).
As a result he accepted his first major studio assignment–a film based on a Diane Henstell’s sci-fi horror novel, Friend. Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay changed the title to make it clearer what kind of friend it was really about, but it never solved the problem that ensured the finished film would never work–a complete failure to establish a consistent tone aimed at a specific audience. History suggests that such inconsistency was the result of studio meddling that demanded the script be all things to all people. Several years back, when I wrote a very long snarky post about Deadly Friend, I imagined the meeting in which the decision to make it went like this*:
Studio Executive #1: So, Douchebag, I hear you picked up the rights to an interesting new novel. Tell us about it.
Studio Executive #2: Thanks, Asshole! It’s a great idea with plenty of potential. It’s about this kid who’s a super-genius.
Studio Executive #3: I love it!
Studio Executive #2: Hold on, Shit-for-brains! I haven’t even gotten to the good part yet. So the kid is such a super-genius, his best friend is an adorable artificially intelligent robot he built himself.
Studio Executive #1: Wow. I think I just came in my pants! That sounds just like that Steve Guttenberg movie TriStar is making. They say it’s going to be a big hit!
Studio Executive #4: This sounds great! We need a good family comedy on our slate.
Studio Executive #2: You didn’t let me finish Dickface! This isn’t a family comedy! It’s a horror movie!
Studio Executive #1, 3 & 4: SAY WHAT?!?!?
Studio Executive #2: Y’see the super-genius kid is new in town because he’s such a super-genius he’s already enrolled at the local college and he falls in love with the cute blond girl who lives next door.
Studio Executive #4: I like cute blond girls. Cute blond girls are good.
Studio Executive #2: So they become really good friends and everything seems like it’s all going to be happy and stuff, but then the robot gets destroyed by the crazy woman who lives across the street and the girl gets killed by her abusive alcoholic father.
Studio Executive #3: That’s sad.
Studio Executive #2: But the kid is such a super-genius he figures out that he can bring his friend back to life by implanting the same microchip that powered his robot into her brain.
Studio Executive #1: That TOTALLY makes sense!
Studio Executive #2: The problem is that when the girl comes back to life, she’s like a robot and doesn’t have a…whatayacallit…y’know that thing that makes people feel bad about the stuff they do….
Studio Executive #1, 3 & 4: (Long silence)
Lowly Assistant: A conscience?
Studio Executive #2: That’s it, Lowly Assistant! You’re fired! Now, she doesn’t have a conscience, so she goes around killing the people who did her and the robot wrong.
Studio Executive #3: That’s so scary!
Studio Executive #1: I just came and shit in my pants at the same time! Really! I’ll show you if you’d like!
Studio Executive #4: It’s got everything! The kids will like the cute robot, the teenagers will like the gore and the adults will like the emphasis on higher education.
Studio Executive #2: So I take it you guys want to make it into a movie?
Studio Executive #1, 3 & 4: FUCK YEAH!
Studio Executive #2: Great. I think we can get the guy who made Deadly Blessing to direct it.
Regardless of how it happened, the resulting film is a perfect example of what is called a “feathered fish”–an animal that has been so over-engineered it can neither swim nor fly and merely flops around in a way no one likes.
And I kinda love it. Deadly Friend is an incredibly stupid movie, but it’s exuberantly, almost transcendently, stupid. One of the classic so-bad-it’s-good films. Truthfully, I’d watch it over Shocker or Cursed (films I would personally curse with the word “mediocre” rather than “terrible”) any day of the week.
So, yeah, a great director made some shitty films. If any director works long enough, it’s bound to happen eventually. If they’re in a situation where money is driving their decisions more than passion, it’s a near certainty. The lesson then is to always remember to judge artists by the best of what they’ve done and not the worst or the latest. Most of us never get a chance to make a difference once. Wes Craven did it three fucking times (every 12 years on the clock from 1972 to 1996). If EVERY film he made besides The Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream sucked 10x worse than Hills II and Deadly Friend, he’d still deserve to be remembered.
He earned it.
*Extra points for anyone who noticed the homage to Hills II I’m making by quoting an old post at length.