Until his death in August 2015, Wes Craven worked consistently as one of the horror genre’s most beloved and respected auteurs. While most filmmakers are lucky to have one seminal film, Craven is credited with reinventing horror on three separate occasions, defining the genre for the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Each of these landmark films showcases a timely and unique depiction of women, which when viewed in succession reveal Craven’s transforming representations of women as his career progressed. Somewhere between the geysers of blood and masked killers, Craven’s films became feminist.
First, Craven burst onto the scene with his debut 1972 film The Last House on the Left, which ushered in an era of unflinching violence and realism rather than the campy monster movies that dominated horror in the fifties and sixties. The film is a rape-revenge fantasy, in which two young women are brutally raped and murdered for over an hour of the film’s running time. Craven seems to be implying that the girls (the main character just turned 16) are being punished for their wild ways after approaching one of the criminals to buy drugs. The extended scenes of sexual violence and brutality against women, as well as the film’s focus on the criminals rather the victims, are undeniably disturbing. The film could be considered deeply misogynistic, especially when juxtaposing the scenes of depravity with instances of attempted comic relief and an upbeat pop soundtrack.
By the 1980s the grim slasher subgenre that Craven created was commonplace and over played. In response to this oversaturation and lack of creative energy, Craven offered up A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. This film introduced an altogether more metaphorical approach to horror that blurred the line between reality and fantasy. Although more allegorical and nuanced, Nightmare is just as much an examination of sexual violence as Last House. Nancy is targeted by a man who violates her mind while she is unconscious, lying in bed, and unable to fight back. She also refuses to sleep to avoid experiencing this trauma again, a common symptom of post traumatic stress experienced by rape survivors. Nightmare culminates with Nancy realizing her fear is what gives Freddy power and resolving to turn her back on him, illustrated the phenomenon of rapists and abusers becoming monsters in the minds of their victims. This time rather than a simple victim, Nancy reclaims her power, and Craven showcases her as a capable and fierce Final Girl.
Finally, by the 1990s the horror genre had once again become stagnant, as countless films featured capable yet bland Final Girls. In 1996, Craven took advantage of horror fans’ expectations with Scream. Final Girl Sidney is a worthy successor to Nancy, the ultimate heroine for third wave feminism. Once again, Craven allows sexual politics to take center stage, dismantling the long held “rule” that in order to survive the Final Girl must be a virgin. Scream flips the script here–Sidney not only loses her virginity, but she does so with her boyfriend who is soon after revealed to be the killer. Rather than condemn Sidney for expressing her sexuality, the film shows her as powerful, pragmatic, and willing to kill to ensure her survival. While the Final Girl has been hailed as a feminist heroine, Scream was the first major film to abandon the antiquated sexual politics of the archetype in favor of a modern, liberated female protagonist.
Over the course of his career, Craven evolved, first depicting women as one-dimensional victims, and finally allowing his female characters to derive power from their ability to survive.