The beloved Wes Craven, famed maestro of horror known for the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises, died Sunday after a battle with brain cancer. He was 76.
Craven, whose iconic Freddy Krueger character horrified viewers for years, died at his home in Los Angeles, his family announced. Survivors include his wife, producer and former Disney Studios vice president Iya Labunka.
Craven was a longtime summer resident of Martha’s Vineyard, where he moved permanently three years ago before returning to L.A. for work and health reasons.
Craven claimed to have gotten the idea for Elm Street from living next to a cemetery on a street of that name in the suburbs of Cleveland. The five Nightmare on Elm Street films were released from 1984-89 and drew big crowds.
Similarly, Craven’s Scream series was a box-office sensation. In those scare-’em-ups, he spoofed the teen horror genre and frequently referenced other horror movies.
Craven’s first feature film was The Last House of the Left, which he wrote, directed and edited in 1972. A rape-revenge movie, it appalled some viewers but generated big box office. Next came another film he wrote and helmed, The Hills Have Eyes (1977).
Craven re-invented the youth horror genre in 1984 with the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, which he wrote and directed.
He conceived and co-wrote Elm Street III as well, and then after not being involved with other sequels, deconstructed the genre a decade after the original, writing and directing Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which was nominated for best feature at the 1995 Spirit Awards.
His own Nightmare players, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon, played themselves in that film.
Between Scream 2 and Scream 3, Craven, offered the opportunity to direct a non-genre film for Miramax, helmed Music of the Heart (1999), a film that earned Meryl Streep an Academy Award nomination for best actress in the inspirational drama about a teacher in Spanish Harlem.
“We had a very difficult time getting an audience into a theater on my name,” he said in an interview with writer-director Mick Garris in October. “In fact, we moved toward downplaying my name a lot on Music of the Heart. The more famous you are for making kinds of outrageous scary films, the crossover audience will say, ‘I don’t think so.’”
Also in 1999, in the midst of directing, he completed his first novel, The Fountain Society, published by Simon & Shuster.
Craven again pushed the genre boundaries with the 2005 psychological thriller Red Eye, starring Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy and Brian Cox. And in 2006, he wrote and directed a romantic comedy homage to Oscar Wilde featuring Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell as a segment in the French ensemble production Paris Je T’aime.
His most recent written and directed film, My Soul to Take (2010), marked his first collaboration with Labunka, who also produced Scream 4.
Craven directed several other thrillers and horror movies during his career, including Swamp Thing (1982), Deadly Friend (1986) and The People Under the Stairs (1991).
Craven had recently signed an overall television deal with Universal Cable Productions and had a number of projects in development, including The People Under the Stairs with Syfy Networks, Disciples with UCP, We Are All Completely Fine with Syfy/UCP, and Sleepers with Federation Entertainment.
He also was executive producing the new Scream series for MTV.
Craven had recently written and was to direct the Thou Shalt Not Kill segment for The Weinstein Co.’s Ten Commandments miniseries for WGN America. And he is listed as an executive producer of The Girl in the Photographs, a horror thriller directed by his protege, Nick Simon, that will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next month.
Wesley Earl Craven was born Aug. 2, 1939, in Cleveland. His father died when he was 5. Raised in a strict Baptist household, he graduated from Wheaton College with degrees in English and psychology, then earned a masters in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins.
He briefly taught English at Westminster College and was a humanities professor at Clarkson College, where he served as a disc jockey for the campus radio station.
Craven had an eye for discovering talent also. While casting A Nightmare on Elm Street, he discovered Johnny Depp. He cast Sharon Stone in her first starring role, for Deadly Blessing, and he gave Bruce Willis his first featured role in an episode of the 1980s version of The Twilight Zone.
He wed Labunka in 2004, his third marriage. Survivors also include his sister Carol, son Jonathan, daughter Jessica, grandchildren Miles, Max and Myra-Jean and stepdaughter Nina.
Craven was a nature lover and committed bird conservationist, serving as a longtime member of the Audubon California Board of Directors. He penned a monthly column, “Wes Craven’s The Birds,” for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.
“I come from a blue-collar family, and I’m just glad for the work,” Craven said in his chat with Garris. “I think it is an extraordinary opportunity and gift to be able to make films in general, and to have done it for almost 40 years now is remarkable.
“If I have to do the rest of the films in the [horror] genre, no problem. If I’m going to be a caged bird, I’ll sing the best song I can.
“I can see that I give my audience something. I can see it in their eyes, and they say thank you a lot. You realize you are doing something that means something to people. So shut up and get back to work.”