Thank You, Wes: A Tribute to One of Horror History’s Most Authentic Auteurs

By most definitions, an auteur is a filmmaker whose style is infallibly their own; they inject each of their films with such a distinct style and vision– chief among these traits, unique sincerity– that there is no mistaking whose work it is. Ever so often in one’s lifetime do we get to wholly acknowledge when we see one, when their work inspires us, captivates us, keeps us coming back no matter how different their work has become, or how much time has passed since their last project. There lies an unspoken, mutual understanding and a calling between filmmaker and fan.

In this macabre genre that we, horror fans, so earnestly endure, love, and celebrate we often get so caught up with triviality that we, unbeknownst to us, take something so crucial to the art of storytelling for granted. It’s something that feels as though it’s becoming dangerously scarce in contemporary cinema. When you see it on-screen and, more importantly, feel it – you know that it’s there. It’s the thing all of our favorite films have- and all our favorite filmmakers possess– heart and authenticity.

When it comes down to it, our beloved genre has seen its fair share of filmmakers and storytellers who, undoubtedly, brought such qualities to their work and have since helped shape this genre into what it is today. But, there’s this unshakable feeling that I get- one, I believe, horror fans know to be true- that the filmmaker who most notably embodies this spirit and has always served as a beacon to this genre and the incredible people in it… is Wes Craven.

Full disclosure– the foundation of this article is (somewhat) inspired by the most recent entry in the beloved Scream franchise, simply-titled Scream (2022). As countless other horror fans have profoundly expressed over the years, the first Scream – and, subsequently, the franchise – is one they praise with sincere adoration and high regards, considering that, for many (myself included), this film was their first flirtatious introduction to the genre. The exposure to this sharp-yet-brutal teen slasher led many to spiral down the ghastly rabbit hole they revel in today- with some even proclaiming the classic as their aptly phrased favorite scary movie (again, myself included).

I knew that I wanted to put something together, both for the original Scream 25th Anniversary and the release of the new sequel– but I couldn’t quite piece it together. I figured some elaborate, obvious, film scholar-like analysis couldn’t cut it for this titan of a horror film. It had to be something purely honest. Then I came across something the marketing team for Scream ‘22 put together. It was a short video dedicated to Wes featuring the filmmakers, Radio Silence– comprised of Matt Bettineli-Olpin, Tyler Gillet, and Chad Villella; the franchise’s integral trio, Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courtney Cox; and the new group of cast members, each of them discussing their innate connection to Craven’s original film and their desire to honor and celebrate the master of horror with this latest installment. The video was endearing and sincere; it spoke volumes about how much this series, and, ostensibly, Wes, meant to everyone who played their part in bringing the world of Scream back into consciousness.

And then I got to thinking: how is it that Wes and all of his subsequent work maintained a sense of integrity and remained influential decades after the fact? What was it about Scream and his other films that spoke to us, horror fans, and stood out; wrapped us in a warm feeling of familiarity- yet, never ceased to terrify every fiber of our being. Then, it struck me. The films of Wes Craven that resonate most with audiences, much like any artist, come across as an extension of himself; they are imbued with a genuine authenticity that, along with a knack for horrifying images and well-crafted scares, reflect his altruistic sensibilities. Moreover, these stories that he’s brought to life help solidify his status as a true auteur of the horror genre.

As a writer and filmmaker, his talents in consistently delivering on the frights and insightful commentary speak volumes about his eerie ability to retain relevance in a rapid and ever-evolving genre. His capability to stay in touch with the fears of the cultural unconscious and tap into that– conjuring up those emotions and bringing them to the fore; giving our terrors a new face and a name, and keeping them tangibly potent expresses his foresight and aptitude for instilling horror into his devoted audience. To accomplish these feats of terror while preserving the integrity of the story’s emotional core– which helps establish the connection between the audience and the film– is something that many storytellers in the genre struggle to maintain, but is something that seemed seamless in the work of Wes Craven.

Consider his underrated 1991 cult classic, The People Under the Stairs. The film dissects the inherent harmfulness of gentrification and the disproportionate wealth distribution that exists and plagues this country. Not to mention, the motivations behind these acts almost always are based on prejudices and empirically harmful misconceptions about race or class. More often than not, those at the top of the social hierarchy will build their mountains of riches and success off of the literal bodies, struggles, and misfortunes of those who don’t belong to their class or benefit from the systemic advantages that exist to propel the upper class even further.

What’s so striking and impressive about all of this, most famously, is that Wes expressed these ideas and created a compelling film centered around a strong, young Black character and setting– while being an older, white man. Under any other circumstance, someone from that background and position could easily miss the mark on the inherent harmfulness of this type of story and relegate these characters to one-note stereotypes- which this genre has done plenty of times.

However, like many other poignant protagonists at the center of Craven classics, Fool (Brandon Adams) has a certain quality about him that encourages us to root for him and empathize with the situation he finds himself in.

Even the story itself could just as easily come across as very campy- which, at times, it does. Nonetheless, it remains a part of the charm of this film. But, like his Nightmare on Elm Street films or Scream, even – Wes builds tension and this uncanny eeriness from Man (Evertt McGill) and Woman (Wendy Robie) as they chase Fool, Alice, and Roach around their house of traps. Surprisingly, there’s this wholesome quality in seeing Fool and his community rise against these slumlords and overcome the psychological and economic restraints that bind them. Wes created a memorable and delightful Black character in horror with Fool, without subjecting him to the requisite trauma so many others, seemingly, have to endure to make an impression on us.

But it isn’t just horrifying, memorable villains that Wes gave us. Just as effortlessly as he gave the genre Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, or the cannibal tribe from The Hills Have Eyes– Wes gave us Nancy, Sidney, Dewey, and all these other characters whom we’ve grown to love dearly like old friends. They are all the beating heart that keeps the emotion and terror flowing throughout these pictures and urge us to revisit them and see where their lives have gone since we last saw them.

Aspects like these are what I believe have attracted us to the genre and kept us going for so long. In a tale as old as time, we seek out and watch these movies because, whenever these films frighten us, they touch upon something in us and often help us work through our fears and unresolved emotions– leaving us feeling just as moved as our heroines as the credits roll. Our emotional, visceral response and link to his films is mainly an effect of the authenticity imbued in these stories. It’s the difference between New Nightmare and any other non-Wes Nightmare sequel. The surviving members of the Carter family’s resourcefulness and tension during the last half of Hills Have Eyes. The overwhelming emotion we feel whenever Dewey and Gale’s eyes meet in the original trilogy, or the satisfying relief on the face of Sidney at the end of Scream 3– these films of Wes have a beating heart and an understated love that resonates with all who come in contact with it. It’s one that fans try so often to reciprocate when talking about the impact that they’ve had on us.

That is, ultimately, what Scream 2022 is so reflective and indicative of being. Of course, the film is a celebration of this fantastic franchise that has sliced its way into our hearts for nearly three-plus decades— a memorial to one of the most intelligent and thoughtful filmmakers of our time. But, it’s also a way of catching up with three characters who we’ve grown alongside over these last couple of years– and a way of introducing new characters for us to equally adopt an appreciation for (here’s looking at Mindy Meeks, who stole the show). The talented and creative minds behind Radio Silence and the rest of the crew saw what we always knew was there and brought it in spades- not only behind the scenes but in the writing and world of this new entry. The love and heart that Kevin Williamson and Wes put into the franchise is what has kept it so appurtenant to the genre decades later and is what drives our desire to see this world again and again. That is what separates the series from any other horror franchise.

Ultimately, what this film is, and what everyone has been trying to put together but never quite finding how to express it, is: Thank you, Wes. Thank you for giving so much to a genre that has always felt like the black sheep of cinema. For the countless memorable scenes, scares, films, heroes, and villains; for teaching and inspiring generations of writers, filmmakers, and storytellers how to properly craft and love something. For reinventing the wheel countless times and reminding us fans why we so earnestly endure, love, celebrate and appreciate this genre.

Thank you, Wes, for being an authentic auteur of the horror genre.