The year 2022 has marked a renaissance for the horror genre, with beloved franchises like Scream and Halloween returning for sequels, alongside fresh hits like Barbarian, Smile, and Terrifier 2. Horror enthusiasts have been treated to a feast of terrifying delights. However, a few decades ago, the genre was teetering on the brink of extinction. After the excesses of the 1980s, dominated by the slasher craze, audiences were growing weary of the same old formula. How many times could they watch masked killers like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers terrorize hapless teenagers before it became tiresome?
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The 1990s were a monumental decade for cinema, with blockbusters like Titanic, The Lion King, and Jurassic Park shattering records. But for the horror genre, there were few standout classics. Candyman emerged in 1992 as a fresh icon, breaking away from slasher stereotypes, but it only achieved modest success at the time, later gaining recognition over the years. Films like Silence of the Lambs and Seven, while chilling, leaned more towards the thriller category than pure horror.
The 90s lacked big box office horror hits or the creation of new iconic franchises. Even the appearances of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers in the 90s failed to generate the same excitement as before, except for Halloween H20 in 1998. The horror genre seemed stagnant, awaiting a renaissance. It was a legendary director, Wes Craven, known for his horror hits since the 1970s, who would breathe new life into the genre a decade later. Through three groundbreaking films, Wes Craven single-handedly rescued horror.
As the 1990s approached, Wes Craven was already an esteemed figure in the world of horror. His groundbreaking works such as 1972’s The Last House on the Left, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, and the iconic 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street had solidified his status alongside legends like John Carpenter and George Romero. However, his final film of the 1980s, 1989’s Shocker, fell short of expectations and left moviegoers underwhelmed.
Craven made a comeback with his next venture, 1991’s The People Under the Stairs. At first glance, it stood out by placing a 12-year-old newcomer, Brandon Adams, in the lead role. However, this was no children’s film. The People Under the Stairs was one of Craven’s darkest and most unsettling works. It revolved around a boy named Fool, who breaks into the home of his heartless landlords, known only as Man and Woman, who are evicting his family. Fool’s intention is to steal from them, but he stumbles upon several captive children in the basement. With the help of the landlords’ imprisoned teenage daughter, Alice (A.J. Langer), Fool embarks on a harrowing journey to escape the clutches of the deranged couple and liberate the people under the stairs.
The film is laden with suspense, and the performances of Everett McGill and Wendie Robie as Man and Woman are equally chilling. Yet, The People Under the Stairs offered more than just a terrifying narrative. It delved into themes of classism, capitalism, and the influence of 80s Reaganism (with McGill eerily resembling the 40th President). Fool, who is Black, joins forces with his oppressed neighbors, also facing the same racial discrimination, to confront the wealthy white oppressors who keep them underfoot, both figuratively and literally.
The People Under the Stairs served as a reminder that horror films could transcend mere gore and violence, harkening back to an era when horror narratives often carried political undertones. Craven’s audacious approach paid off as the film debuted at number one at the box office and enjoyed enduring popularity through its frequent broadcasts on cable TV.
Three years later, Craven embarked on his most audacious undertaking yet, resurrecting the infamous Freddy Krueger for the silver screen. In 1994, it might have appeared as a desperate attempt to revive his career by revisiting past glory. However, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare took a drastically different path.
By the mid-90s, Freddy Krueger had devolved into a caricature of his former self. Craven had distanced himself from the sequels that had turned Freddy into a pop culture figure, known more for humorous one-liners than genuine fear. In 1994, Craven set out to reclaim what had become a parody, reimagining it with a brilliant premise.
In Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the world is as real as our own. Here, Freddy Krueger is not a child-killing nightmare entity but a character from a movie. We even see Robert Englund as himself. Heather Langenkamp returns, not as Nancy Thompson, but as a version of her real self, bearing her actual name. When Freddy reemerges, he takes on the form of a demonic entity wearing Krueger’s visage. The film taps into the nostalgia of the 80s while delivering something entirely fresh. Craven offered the fear audiences craved while charting new narrative courses.
At the time, the film didn’t achieve immediate success. While it received critical acclaim, it was the least financially successful entry in the franchise. However, over the years, it found a dedicated following. Even in retrospect, it remains a testament to blending past triumphs with innovative ideas and embracing a meta-narrative approach.
In 1996, Craven unleashed Scream, a game-changing force in the world of horror. The film’s immense popularity, grossing over $100 million in the U.S. alone, sparked a wave of successful imitations that revitalized a genre teetering on the brink. While films like 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer tried to replicate Scream’s formula by casting young stars in peril, they couldn’t capture the essence that made Scream endure for over a quarter of a century.
Scream’s plot may seem familiar: a masked killer with an undisclosed motive hunts down teenagers, while a virginal final girl fights back to save her friends and unveil the killer’s identity. Yet, Scream succeeds precisely because it acknowledges and subverts these tropes. The characters are aware they’re part of a horror movie plot and discuss the rules they must follow. The film playfully references the genre without overindulging in self-awareness. These clever nods add humor and levity amid the scares. Craven struck a perfect balance; Scream was witty and amusing without diminishing the fear factor.
Scream’s triumphant takeover of both the horror genre and 90s pop culture elevated Wes Craven to new heights. He went on to create three sequels to the film, each with varying degrees of success. However, even if none of the sequels matched the original’s impact, it hardly mattered. Wes Craven had not only saved horror but also altered its trajectory permanently. His influence continues to reverberate in the world of horror, not only in the types of films produced but also in how they are crafted, even years after his passing. Wes Craven’s legacy endures as a beacon of innovation and reinvention within the horror genre.