There’s a ghost hiding in 1993’s anthology horror film Body Bags. He appears first in the background, out of focus and steeped in shadow, his presence announced by a shrieking musical sting. He’s haunting an innocent young woman working behind the counter at a gas station, and initially he’s nothing more than a vague presence, a suggestion of impending violence. But it’s not long before he reveals himself, rapping on the Perspex and providing the film with both its first proper jump scare and a good look at his face.
However, despite all of the sinister build up, those expecting a gore drenched ghoul will be disappointed. With his wispy hair and his unassuming grin, this spectre is perhaps the least threatening ghost imaginable.
“Pack of Coranados,” he says, his voice gentle, his grin unassuming. The girl acts frightened, though it’s not clear why: who could be spooked by this pleasant-looking figure?
“Watcha readin’?” he asks the girl, quietly insistent. He’s meant to be leery and grotesque, but he’s not, at all. Dressed in a suit that’s far too big for him, he looks like a retired university professor, or somebody’s pleasant uncle.
“I’ve got some bourbon out in the car,” he says, warmly. “Maybe I could get you to come out of that booth?”
The girl looks annoyed. He looks unfazed.
Later, he will be listed in the credits as “Pasty Faced Man”, but most horror film fans will have already worked out who he is.
He wasn’t an actor. He was a writer and director, one of the very finest of his generation. He was the man responsible for one of the most enduring characters in horror film history, but more than that, he was a relentless experimenter, an arthouse filmmaker wearing the guise of a box-office busting Old Hollywood type, a genius with a striking visual eye and a genuine intelligence.
And his name was Wes Craven.
Wes Craven’s films are dominated by ideological conflict. A Nightmare On Elm Street - arguably his masterpiece - saw the world of the real crash headlong into the world of dreams, but more than that, it saw Buddhist philosophies clash with Freudian theorising. That film lives in the battlefield where art, science and psychology all clash, and is splattered throughout with the blood of concepts split in twain.
It’s a shame in some ways that Freddy Krueger is the thing most people remember about that film. When you re-watch it these days, it’s impossible not to be struck by how deliberately underdeveloped Krueger is. He’s not the wisecracking, fully fleshed out demon jester he would later become. He’s a primal threat, a living manifestation of the subconscious.
He’s as vague as both Jason and Michael Myers, but whereas those characters are stand ins for the nature of mortality and the slow passage of all flesh, Freddy is an embodiment of something deeper-seated. He is the part of us that cranes our neck when we drive past a car accident; the impulse to take joy in destruction and violence. He is the Boogeyman we have been dreading since the dawn of time. He is in us, and of us, and he always has been.
That said, though A Nightmare On Elm Street was always going to be the film for which Craven was best remembered, every one of his films burst with subtext. The Hills Have Eyes saw pacifism and violence intertwine till each became a horrendous mirror image of the other, and Scream was a film that was in conflict with itself, a horror movie at once utterly filled with self-loathing, and yet totally smitten with its own form.
Critics frequently undervalued Craven in just about every conceivable way. They undervalued his skill with actors: even when making something like Red Eye, a film that represented his work at its most commercial, Craven could bring out the best from his cast. Rachel McAdams’ work in that film is some of the best screen work she’s ever done, and the way her performance cartwheels between subtlety and stylised melodrama is undoubtedly indebted to Craven’s indomitable directorial style.
A student of literature as a young man, Craven brought a great deal of intelligence to his films, but
he never allowed them to get heavy or cold. His shocking first film, The Last House On The Left was based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which was in turn based on a 13th century ballad. Though the film was inspired by such high-brow material, Craven made it a primal, blood-drenched affair. He could be a deeply cerebral filmmaker when he wanted to be, but he also knew to remain true to his stomach-churning roots. Essentially, he never, ever made a boring film.
Though critics love to label up and coming directors as ‘the next [insert big name here]’ no emerging talent has ever been called ‘the next Wes Craven.’ And that’s because we will never get another filmmaker like Craven. We will never again see a director who could so brilliantly intertwine the arthouse with the mainstream, the cerebral with the primal, the horrendous with the beautiful.
In so many ways, Craven was that rarest of things: a true original.
Craven’s cameo in Body Bags is very brief. After being snubbed by the girl, he holds up his pack of cigarettes as a kind of lazy salute, and then stumbles off, into the night, his performance over. It turns out he’s been nothing but a dead end, a random encounter designed to unsettle the audience.
Though his death is unspeakably tragic, it's hard to feel sad when watching Craven in Body Bags. He is horrifically miscast in the film, but only in a way that reminds one of what an unrelentingly pleasant human being he was. He couldn’t appear threatening even when he was trying his damnedest to. He never improved at seeming unpleasant, either: even when he’s calling someone a prick in Scream, he still exudes charm and warmth.
Wes Craven may have died, but he lives on, through his own films, as a relentlessly talented, relentlessly inventive genius. And he lives on through Body Bags as the most charming red herring in all of cinematic history.