Sins of the Fathers: Religion in the Work of Wes Craven | Master
By Brian Keiper
Just as the second act of Wes Craven’s career began with an original and ended with a sequel (with a brief interlude starring Eddie Murphy), the third began with a seismic shift in horror and ended with a different sequel. It is difficult to overstate what a revolution Scream was in 1996. It fundamentally changed the trajectory of horror for years and its ghost(face) is still felt today. But for Craven, it was in many ways a return to his roots. As with his earliest films, Scream is a gory, real-world horror film filled with human depravity. There is no blurring of realities or supernatural elements in any of the Scream films, or indeed many of the films in this final act of Craven’s career. He would also explore religious themes far less during this period, partially because Craven only wrote a few of these works himself. Still, there is plenty to examine from this period when Craven finally ascended to his place as a true icon of the genre.
Don’t You Know the Rules?
Craven turned down Scream (then titled Scary Movie) multiple times before finally being convinced to take the job not by a studio head, industry insider, or colleague, but by a very unexpected source. As Craven recounted,
“…a little kid, I think twelve years old, somewhere around there, coming up to me and saying, ‘you should do a real kick-ass movie again because your movies are getting softer.’ And that just stuck with me. I said, ‘look, you’ve been fighting this your whole career, but the movies you’ve made that have really been important have crossed the boundaries of decency and are scary because they are ruthless.’”
This is where Craven finally embraced his legacy as one of the most important filmmakers in modern horror. He had been labeled a “master” before, but now he was willing to wear the badge with pride.
There is no overt religious symbolism in Scream, but it does still contain an element that links to Craven’s past: the rules. In fundamentalist circles, the proof of salvation is the ability to “follow the rules” of morality prescribed by the church or be eternally condemned. Two characters in Scream embody this idea. The first is Principal Himbry played by the Fonz himself, Henry Winkler. He sounds an awful lot like the very vocal Christian right that continually crusades against media and horror films. While disciplining two teenage boys who have been caught running down the halls in Ghostface costumes, Himbry says, “you make me sick. Your entire havoc-inducing, thieving, whoring generation disgusts me” while brandishing a huge pair of scissors.
The other is film geek Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy). He is a very covert version of a hellfire preacher as he stands before a group of fellow teens and lays out “the rules” of how to successfully survive a horror movie. “First, you can never have sex,” which is greeted by scoffs and boos from his audience. Next “you can never drink or do drugs,” declaring it an extension of the first rule and “the sin factor.” Randy could also be seen as a commentary on the hypocrite preacher as he delivers this monologue with beer in hand. The fact is that Randy is right about a few things but wrong about several others. His biggest mistake is preaching that following the rules means salvation and breaking them means sure condemnation. In the film, neither turns out to be true as much as the killers’ plan designs them to be.
As with New Nightmare, Craven seems to be exploring the questions often brought up by the religious right, and his fundamentalist upbringing, about how violence in movies and other media affect people. Publicly, he always offered responses along the lines of “horror movies don’t create fear [and by extension violence] they release it.” In his work, however, he seems to have struggled much more with these questions. It is also, at least in part, why he turned down Scream several times.
“I have this…career-long ambivalence towards doing genre films and, I don’t want to sound prissy but there is an element to the genre that can be misogynistic for instance and always carving up girls. And there’s a part of me that feels like, ‘how much longer do you want to do this? I think it was actually the opening section [of Scream] in the writing. Just the tormenting of a girl for fifteen minutes and then having her killed and disemboweled. And I just said, ‘do I want to do this again and what’s this going to do to my karma?’”
Scream itself offers a more complex argument on this subject than may at first meet the eye. As he is stabbing Stu (Matthew Lillard), Billy (Skeet Ulrich) responds to Sidney’s (Neve Campbell) comment, “you’ve seen one too many movies,” by saying “don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative.” This single line simultaneously exonerates and condemns violence in movies in a very clever way that requires unpacking by any horror fan. Or, if you’re not a horror fan, consider the recent boom in true crime. The Scream sequels in particular struggle with questions of treating true murder stories involving real victims with real trauma as entertainment. At the same time, in the first film, drawings of medieval torture can be seen hung on the walls of Stu’s parents’ bedroom. A subtle reminder that horror as entertainment is nothing new.
Scream was a smash hit. Its success started small and grew from week to week after its oddly placed Christmas weekend opening in late 1996. It went on to become the highest-grossing film of Craven’s career by far. He followed it up the next year with Scream 2, which was also a huge success. Soon, opportunities, as he’d never had before, came knocking.
Interlude: On a Different Stage
Between the second and third films in the Scream franchise, Craven released two projects very different from anything he had created before. The first was Music of the Heart (1999), a beautiful and highly underrated film starring Meryl Streep as an inner-city violin teacher. Craven’s passion for the project is palpable in every frame of the movie. His love for classical music and music education is clear as well as the often-explored theme in his work of family, and in this case, one very much like his own with a single mother raising young children in the midst of financial hardship. No film captures the realities of being a music teacher quite like Music of the Heart, and I personally truly love the film for that reason and many more. Because of Craven’s reputation as a horror filmmaker, his name was faded into the background as much as possible and Streep’s brought to the forefront. The tactic didn’t really work as the film was not much of a success in theaters. It did, however, earn Streep, Cloris Leachman, and Craven critical acclaim including an Oscar nomination for Streep.
The other project was a novel titled Fountain Society, also released in 1999. The globe-spanning thriller is a clever twist on the Frankenstein myth, in which a scientist uses cloning techniques as a kind of scientific fountain of youth. The novel explores several aspects of the metaphysical and the religious including the nature of the soul, eternal life, and the afterlife. Though not exactly horror, it is certainly very much a work of Wes Craven. The interests in family, the metaphysical implications of scientific research and technology, and the blurring of realities are all present. Though he did not achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a novelist with Fountain Society as it did not have enough success to merit a follow-up, it did give him the opportunity to work in a different medium.
Both Music of the Heart and Fountain Society were opportunities for Craven to dip his toe into worlds beyond the genre he had become so associated with. Craven had never been entirely comfortable with being typecast and often struggled with the moniker of “Master of Horror” that he had been assigned. Still, he understood that he could discuss any number of social and political interests within the genre as long as he threw in enough scares to keep audiences happy. Exploring such interests was often less palatable outside of horror.
Rock Bottom to Flying High
In 2000, writer Kevin Williamson delivered a new script that promised to do for classic monsters, in this case, werewolves, what his Scream had done for slashers. Two years later, Craven signed on to direct. Ultimately, it took five years for the appropriately titled Cursed (2005) to finally hit screens. The delay was not due to a lack of effort on Craven’s part, but instead, it was the tumultuous “development hell” and production of the film. With constant interference from studio heads (the now disgraced) Weinstein brothers which lead to endless rewrites, reshoots, and re-edits, it’s something of a miracle that Cursed ever saw the light of projector bulbs.
For all its flaws, and there are many, Cursed is not the complete train wreck it was originally perceived as. For our purposes, it explores what it really means to be “cursed” or marked by the (in this case literal) beast. In a way, it touches on the generational curses more seriously scrutinized in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Shocker, and The People Under the Stairs. In the film, the werewolves either reject the curse or embrace it. In the end, Jake (Joshua Jackson) tries to convince Ellie (Christina Ricci) to give in to the curse. “I can teach you how to live with this,” he tells her. He is a devil trying every trick to tempt her to stop fighting against the beast within, but Ellie does fight back, taking control of her own life. “I don’t want this…tell me how to get rid of it,” she pleads. So, once again, Craven rejects the “sins of the fathers” teachings of his youth for themes of personal accountability, autonomy, and free will.
Unfortunately, the campy and uneven tone of Cursed largely undermines its more serious themes. The final film is clearly counter to the original intention of Williamson and the vision of Craven. Some consider the film to be the absolute rock bottom of Craven’s career, but I disagree. Though it is something of a shaggy dog compared to the lean and mean game-changer it was intended to be, Craven still manages to make some magic happen with the hand he was dealt.
Despite the disappointment of Cursed, in August of that same year, Craven released a taught, tense thriller that stands among his best work — Red Eye. The production experiences between the two films could not have been more different. He was working with a studio that was not Miramax/Dimension for the first time since Vampire in Brooklyn (1995). Speaking of the Dreamworks project, he told Marc Shapiro of Fangoria, “it’s nice to be at a fresh studio with a completed script that’s ready to shoot,” and went on to spit a little measured venom toward Dimension boss Bob Weinstein. “Nobody is telling me, ‘This is how we have to cast, and this has to be rewritten.’ I’m just being treated with more respect.”
In many ways, Red Eye is quite a departure for Craven in that it is not really a horror movie, but a suspense thriller in the Hitchcockian mold. In it, Rachel McAdams plays Lisa Reisert, an ordinary person with a customer service job thrust into extraordinary circumstances when she meets Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy) while waiting for a red-eye flight. What appears to be a chance meeting, however, is revealed to be far from it. She has been specifically chosen and trailed by Rippner because of her job as a hotel manager.
As with most of Craven’s films of this period, there is only a tenuous link to any kind of religious theme, but it is once again the one he returned to the most often — personal empowerment over the past. As the plane is taxiing toward the gate just before the start of the third act, Lisa reveals to Rippner a piece of her history that has piqued his curiosity. “It happened in a parking lot, the scar,” she says, referring to a wound on her chest. “Two years ago, in the middle of the day. He held a knife to my throat the whole time. Ever since I’ve been trying to convince myself of one thing.” Sure that he is in total command of the situation, Rippner says, “that it was beyond your control.” Uncapping a pen in her hand just out of his view, she answers, “no. That it would never happen again,” and stabs the pen into his throat before rushing past Rippner, the other passengers, and off the plane.
In many ways, the finale of Red Eye parallels the “baseball bats and boogeymen” final confrontation of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Rippner pursues Lisa onto her own turf, her father’s home, and in the process is thrown down a flight of stairs, hit with a chair and a vase, and stabbed in the knee with a high heel. Lisa calls him “pathetic” before shooting him herself. Soon her father joins in and fires a second shot. As Rippner lays mortally wounded, Lisa even turns away from him and he, in essence, “disappears” from the movie and her life as approaching sirens are heard on the soundtrack.
Lisa is a reiteration of a major theme throughout Craven’s work. “Actually, if you look at my films, it’d be hard to find one that wasn’t a female empowerment film of some sort or another,” Craven said in a 2005 interview about Red Eye. Like Nancy and Sidney before her, Lisa refuses to be a victim but taps into her past to control her present and rewrite her future. These and other Craven heroes refuse to allow the sins of others, be they parents, dream demons, serial killers, demented boyfriends, Lisa’s attacker, or Rippner, to be visited upon them. When situations fly beyond their control, they take control. It is a fierce rejection of predestination to condemnation based on the actions of others.
Interlude: Do Unto Others
Starting in the late ’90s, Craven began to help boost new voices with a number of films released under the “Wes Craven Presents” banner. Interestingly, these films include more overt religious themes than most of the films he directed himself during this period. The first was the directorial debut of Robert Kurtzman, co-founder along with Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger of the esteemed KNB Effects Group that Craven often worked with. Wishmaster (1997) concerns an ancient demon, the Djinn, which was created “after the angels but before humans” as the opening text describes. Put in modern terms, the Djinn is a very dark version of the genie — also an image Craven had used before.
Dracula 2000 is as hip, slick, and self-aware when it comes to vampire movies and mythologies as Scream is about slashers. Co-written and directed by Craven’s long-time editor Patrick Lussier, the film deepens the reasons why Dracula is repulsed by all things Christian by making him not only Vlad the Impaler as other films had, but in fact Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus. According to the gospels, Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver before hanging himself. In the film, Judas is then resurrected to his doomed eternal existence: his guilt over the betrayal causing him to run from crosses and be burned by silver. The film also pokes a thumb in the eye of modern evangelical fundamentalism by including sign-toting, hellfire-preaching protesters at a Mardi Gras celebration.
It is easy to see why Craven would be willing to lend his name to They (2002). It is a film dealing with creatures that lurk in the dark and attach themselves to children through night terrors. There is a great deal of blurring between the dream and waking worlds as he often had throughout his career. The final film released under the “Wes Craven Presents” banner was Nick Simon’s The Girl in the Photographs in 2015, which also dabbles in the blurring of realities. Though the films produced under this banner are of varying quality, his name alone attached to them elevated the films and opened opportunities. Lussier, in particular, has become a respected filmmaker in the horror world and went on to direct the My Bloody Valentine remake in 2009 and Trick in 2019 among others.
If I Die Before I Wake, I Pray the Lord…
Once again, it would be another five years before Craven directed a film himself. Though involved in some uncredited script-doctoring on other movies, the only film that Craven wrote during this late period turned out to be one of his last, 2010’s My Soul to Take. In it, Craven returns to many of the themes that inhabit his best work while exploring the nature of the soul and death itself in unique and creative ways. There is a certain amount of reckoning with Craven’s past and how it was affecting his present in the film.
As with many Craven scripted projects, the bedtime prayer is spoken aloud, this time right at the very beginning, setting the tone for the whole film. It begins sixteen years before the bulk of the film on the night that Abel Plankov, “the Ripper,” takes his last victim, is then caught, and dies in a fiery ambulance crash. It appears that Plankov has multiple personalities at war with each other, but a paramedic transporting him posits a different explanation from her upbringing. “My family’s from Haiti,” she says to another paramedic, “down there they don’t say that someone like him has multiple personalities.” When asked what they do say, she answers, “multiple souls…personalities die when the patient dies. Souls live on.”
Sixteen years later, seven teenagers all born on that first “Ripper Day” gathering by the burned-out skeleton of the ambulance has become an odd shrine and memorial to that night. “Legend has it that we, the Riverton seven, are the mirrors of Abel Plankov’s personalities. The ones that turned the Ripper in. And that the Ripper still wants revenge. So, Abel Plankov is dead, but his ghost isn’t,” announces Brandon (Nick Lashaway) one of those Riverton Seven. Starting with these discussions early on, the film dives deep into various forms of belief and ritual. There is discussion of Haitian beliefs, Native American folk medicine, urban legend, and various expressions of Christianity.
The character of Penelope Bryte (Zena Grey) perhaps comes most from Craven’s own experience growing up in the fundamentalist Baptist church of his youth. She is more nuanced than would often be expected in Hollywood productions, though. Yes, she is fervent and more than a little judgmental, but she is also extremely compassionate and loyal. She is often seen praying aloud, reciting scripture, and speaking a peculiar form of “Christianese” that makes her less zealous classmates wonder what she is talking about. She appears to be, at least in some ways, a teenage form of Ethel Carter from The Hills Have Eyes, whom Craven has stated was based on his mother. Still, Penelope is fiercely defensive to those in need, particularly in the scene in which Brandon bullies Bug (Max Thieriot). In one of the alternate endings to the film in which Bug walks down a tree-lined road with the spirits of his departed friends, Penelope is the last to greet him before disappearing into an apparent afterlife. Though this version is not in the final film, it shows that Craven seems to have made some level of peace with the ghosts of his fundamentalist past, or at least the kinds of people that inhabited it.
Bug himself is in many ways a combination of the Jonathan Parker and Alison characters in Shocker. He is the son of Abel Plankov, but also the angelic savior of the film. At one point, the Ripper even says to him, “what happened to your wings, angel?” Bug is compared to the endangered California Condor, an animal, that according to some Native American beliefs, becomes the keeper of souls of all the fallen creatures it consumes. According to an expert heard on a radio broadcast, “with each soul it takes in and shelters, it grows larger and wiser. Too large and wise to ever succumb to death itself.” In this way, he’s something akin to a human version of the dolls Alice makes in The People Under the Stairs to hold the souls of those who die in the house. As the other Riverton Seven fall one by one to the Ripper’s blade, Bug takes on their souls and learns from them.
Though it is not stated explicitly in the film, the soul of the Ripper seems to be a very old soul. A murderer that has gone on for centuries, inhabiting various bodies along the way. The fact that this soul possesses the body of a good man named Abel at the beginning of the film implies that perhaps this is the soul of the first murderer, Cain himself. According to the book of Genesis, Cain killed his brother Abel out of jealousy and was banished by God to the land east of Eden. It is uncertain whether or not this was Craven’s intention, but it seems plausible given the very deliberate choice of the Biblical name Abel, a name inextricably linked to his murderous brother.
My Soul to Take was not well-received upon its release and Craven was devastated by the deeply nasty nature of the reviews. “Until My Soul to Take I thought I kind of knew my audience…There was a vein of viciousness [to the reviews] that I had really never [experienced] before.” The sting seems to have been particularly painful because of the personal nature of the project. “I poured two-and-a-half years of my life into that. It’s a film that was very, very different and I think a lot of people just didn’t get it. I felt like I’d done something very original, very personal with that.”
In the years since, My Soul to Take has undergone some reconsideration but is still widely viewed as a disappointment. Despite this, it does come across as the most purely “Wes Craven” film of this late period. It was based on an idea he had for a novel many years before and deals with several areas he had been interested in throughout his career. The themes he explored differently in A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Shocker, and The People Under the Stairs are all here and examined in often more complex ways than ever before. It may yet gain something of a cult status, though that will likely take quite some time if it does happen. It certainly swings for the fences and, even if elements of it do not land, I personally admire the attempt.
The Final Bow
It had been eleven years since the previous installment in the Scream franchise. Word had come out that studio interference led to the departure of Kevin Williamson from the project as well as re-writing and re-editing of the new film. This was hardly anything new in Hollywood and certainly not for Craven who had dealt with a great deal of interference since his first studio film Deadly Blessing. Many horror fans looked at the release of a fourth Scream with a great deal of puzzlement. To many, it seemed unnecessary to extend the story beyond a neat and tidy trilogy. The fact is, however, that horror had changed quite a bit in those eleven years since Scream 3 (2000), and new trends were ripe for receiving the Scream treatment. The remake boom and gritty “torture porn” movements of the 2000s had overtaken the slick, CW cast, self-aware films of the post-Scream era. It was time for horror’s greatest meta-franchise to put in its two cents. It was a new decade and the tagline promised “new rules.” Those rules turned out to be “there are no rules.”
Scream 4 has grown to be seen as remarkably prescient especially in its depiction of social media-based “fake fame.” There had been “famous for being famous” celebrities before, but the motives of the killer in this new installment were unheard of at the time. In the ensuing years, they have revealed themselves to be all-too-real. Jill’s (Emma Roberts) depraved motivation isn’t twisted revenge like Billy’s, or even “peer pressure” like Stu’s, she just wants fame. “I don’t need friends, I need fans” is the line that has become so frighteningly relevant in the ten years since the film’s original release. It is as if Craven was leaving a message for the future to beware of this social media rabbit hole we were just starting down in 2011.
As with the other Scream films, there are few theological takeaways from this final installment with Craven in the director’s chair. It is, however, a reminder that the value of a person should be found in something greater than fame. In a world in which self-worth is measured in likes, retweets, and follower counts, Scream 4 decisively rails against this. The value of a human is found in the fact that they are a living being. In theological terms, created by God for a purpose. Whether they choose to live out that purpose positively as Sidney does or negatively as Jill does, is left up to the individual.
Following Scream 4, Craven decided to take a break to spend time with his wife. He planned to make a film again only when the right idea or right project came along. Of course, in 2011, no one expected Scream 4 to be his last film. The final project that he worked on, a series of three comic books titled Coming of Rage, co-written by 30 Days of Night scribe Steve Niles, was released in 2015. Soon after their release, fans and admirers were shocked to learn of Wes Craven’s death on August 30, 2015, from brain cancer. Few were even aware of his illness, which he kept as private as possible. His absence is profoundly felt in the world of horror films. His intelligence, political awareness, and great skills as a storyteller and film craftsman are sorely missed. Perhaps above all, he is remembered by his peers and collaborators as a gentle, intelligent, funny, and profoundly kind man.
In several interviews during his final years, Craven seemed to have finally fully embraced the fact that his greatest legacy would always be in horror films. In his very last published interview given just months before his passing, Craven took it all, particularly the phenomenon of Freddy Krueger, in stride. “It’s not too bad. At a certain point, you realize that on your tombstone it will say, ‘I gave birth to Freddy Krueger.’”
As a boy, Craven was afraid of many things. He was fearful of his father, terrified of the hellfire preached in his church, and because he was plagued by nightmares, “I was terrified to go back to sleep.” But he grew up to be a man capable of creating nightmares that terrified millions. “The things that came out of me that never would have come out of me if someone didn’t tell me to make them a scary movie….I told my friends that I never even saw a scary movie. Sean [Cunningham] said that growing up as a fundamentalist Baptist was enough, just go pull the skeletons out of my closet.”
And horror fans can be grateful that he did. Along the way, he produced some of the most innovative, intellectually challenging, politically savvy, and, perhaps most important of all, frightening films ever made. Though I doubt that Craven can see these words from beyond the veil, I’d like to express a personal note of thanks. Thank you for sharing your stories, your passions and struggles, your intellect and humor, your dreams, and, yes, your nightmares. 🩸
Larson, Ryan. “Release the Craven Cut: A History of Wes Craven’s ‘Cursed’ Werewolf Film”. Bloody-disgusting.com. July 9, 2020
Scream: The Inside Story. Dir. Daniel Farrands. Bio The Biography Channel. 2011
Still Screaming: The Ultimate Scary Movie Retrospective. Dir. Ryan Turek. Miramax. Masimedia LLC. 2011
Wes Craven Interviews. Skelton, Shannon Blake, editor. The University Press of Mississippi. 2019
Wooley, John. Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ. 2011
Brian Keiper is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Brian’s also written for Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, F This Movie!, Ghastly Grinning, and others. Follow him on Twitter @Brianwaves42.
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