Terror titan Wes Craven on the horrors of family and being cast in the role of the scary guy


By Steve Newton

“Where do you get your ideas from?” Horror director Wes Craven must have heard that question a thousand times. It seems that everybody wants to know how he came up with the character of Freddy Kreuger, or how he was able to withstand the disturbing thoughts that went into his first film, the controversial cult fave Last House on the Left.

Dreams have a lot to do with it, but for his latest shockfest, The People Under the Stairs, it was a frightening story printed in a Santa Monica newspaper 10 years ago that got him thinking.

“It was the story of neighbours seeing a house being burglarized,” explains Craven. “They were in a very good neighbourhood, and they knew both of the people who owned the house were away at work, so they called the police. The police broke in and found a section of the house that was barricaded and thought they had the burglars trapped, so they all went in with their guns drawn. They found three children who were half-naked and totally frightened, who had never been declared by the family. They’d never been outside in their lives.

“I was so fascinated by that story that I wrote the first act of People Under the Stairs back then, and then it sat in a drawer while I was doing other projects. Finally I said to myself: ‘I just really want to do this picture.’ ”

The People Under the Stairs concerns a 13-year-old black ghetto kid who discovers, during a fouled-up burglary, that a creepy couple have imprisoned several of their “children” in the depths of their dilapidated mansion. Although a large part of the movie is played for laughs—mostly at the expense of the gruesome twosome that owns the house—Craven also gets his licks in at topics like social injustice, poverty, and, especially, child abuse.

“I try to find the basis for fear and horror in the world around me,” says the former high-school teacher. “Ideas that come out of families which are fractured or disturbed in some way are the most profoundly terrifying things to me. And I’ve always felt that I was on solid ground when I was making movies about families. A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes—they were all tied into the interworkings of families, and they all scared the hell out of people.

“The first real terrors happen to us in the first five years of our lives,” continues Craven, “and that’s where we are—in the middle of our family. Quite often, for children, the most terrifying things are adults, and unfortunately often it’s the parents themselves that are the most frightening. People Under the Stairs is very much about the violence of parents and parental figures towards children, and trying to take the freedom of children away from them and make them into what the adults want.”

Immediately after finishing work on his latest movie, Craven set up shop in Vancouver as executive producer of the TV series Nightmare Cafe. It’s Craven’s second shot at episodic TV: a series he created, The People Next Door, died a quick death a couple of seasons back. But Craven is more than happy with how things are working out this time around.

“We’re in the middle of our fourth show, and it’s going beautifully. I directed the third one, which was a comedy, and we’re doing sort of a murder-mystery right now. The second one was a thriller, and the first one—with Brandon Adams, the kid who starred in The People Under the Stairs—was very warm-hearted, almost a tear-jerker. So we’re doing a wide variety of shows, all using the same central characters of the three people that run the café.”

Craven describes Nightmare Cafe—which is budgeted at just more than $1 million per show—as “Twilight Zone meets Cheers”.

“The Nightmare Cafe is a mysterious café somewhere between life and death, where our three regulars are. There’s the waitress Faye [Lindsay Frost], the cook Ivy [Jack Coleman], and this character Blackie, played by Robert Englund, who is sort of the proprietor of the place—he’s been there for hundreds of years. Each week they have somebody else come into the café who is about to experience the turning-point of his or her life, and the story can be scary, or funny, or whatever we find fascinating.

“And the café is a place of extreme rubber-reality”, adds Craven, “so any time you open any door in the café you can plunge into the ocean or into outer space, or your past/future—anything can happen. All the stories kind of weave in and out of the café and through its various doors and windows.”

NBC-TV has ordered five episodes of Nightmare Cafe, plus the pilot, but could easily slot in several more and keep Craven and Co. in town for some time. But whenever the Nightmare Cafe closes down, you can bet Craven will spend little time setting up a wee shop of horrors somewhere else. Strangely enough, the director of no less than 10 frightful features claims that his fruitful ascension to the title of terror titan has not been a calculated one.

“A lot of it was coincidence,” says the Cleveland-born film-maker. “I was just looking for the opportunity to make a film, and the first offer that I had was from a company that was looking for a scary film. So we did Last House on the Left with them. After that, I was sort of cast in the role of the scary guy.”

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