Wes Craven, who had a strict religious upbringing that forbade the watching of movies, only to gain renown as a master of the horror genre with the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream” franchises, died Aug. 30 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 76.
The cause was brain cancer, his family announced in a statement.
“A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), “Scream” (1996) and their many sequels helped Mr. Craven win recognition as one of the major figures behind the slasher film.
With the razor-fingered Freddy Krueger of “Elm Street” becoming an internationally known symbol of menace, Mr. Craven achieved popular if not always critical success. By 2011, his movies were said to have grossed more than $1 billion at box offices around the world.
In many of his films, Mr. Craven explored, to terrifying effect, the edge — even the razor’s edge — between dreams and daily life. The outlandishness of the nightmare world, embodied in particular by Krueger, intrudes on what is depicted as real life.
In one of the “Scream” movies, characters engaged in making a horror movie find themselves to be imperiled in their presumably real lives by the fiendish Ghostface, who symbolizes just the sort of frightfulness that they are trying to depict.
Abounding in ironies, in self-awareness and the self-referential, the “Scream” films, displaying Mr. Craven’s penchant for tweaking the conventions of his genre, managed the feat of leaving audiences amused as well as afraid.
Mr. Craven asserted that the horror or slasher film was about more than splashing blood for gore’s sake. Instead, he told the Los Angeles Times, “I think the genre goes outside the boundaries of reality in many ways in order to get at some central truths and feelings that aren’t served well by very factual states.”
Wesley Earl Craven was born in Cleveland on Aug. 2, 1939, and he was brought up in a firmly observant Baptist home. He was in college when he saw his first movie — “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), based on the Harper Lee novel — and realized that the silver screen was essentially harmless.
He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois — where he developed an interest in writing for a college publication — and received a master’s degree in writing and philosophy from Johns Hopkins University in 1964. He was teaching at what is now Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., when he was exposed to world cinema at a nearby art house theater.
He called it a revelation to see works by Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut and Luis Buñuel. After a period of reflection, he bought a 16mm camera he saw in a pawnshop, made a break with academia and tried to break into moviemaking.
“I was 27, and I hadn’t become a world-famous novelist,” he told the New York Times. “I wasn’t sure if I was doing something that made sense or I was just a total lunatic.”
To learn the trade, he took low-level production jobs and helped make pornographic movies.
In 1972, his luck changed when he hooked up with an independent distribution company that was seeking to make a horror film. Mr. Craven wrote and directed what became “The Last House on the Left,” the violence-filled story of two teenage girls who are raped and how their parents exact revenge. He called it his low-budget variation of Bergman’s Oscar-winning “The Virgin Spring” (1960).
Some critics were downright repulsed — by the quality of the acting as much as the agony depicted — and walked out. The film was banned or censored in many countries. Reviewer Roger Ebert was a rare champion, calling it “a tough, bitter little sleeper of a movie that’s about four times as good as you’d expect.”
Mr. Craven’s next notable work was “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977), about a family terrorized in the American desert by savages. A few years later, he was living in Venice, Calif., when he started work on another script. Its inspiration was a blend of his experiences.
He told of living as a boy in a second-floor apartment where he once went to the window after hearing moans outside. A man was looking back at him. Mr. Craven moved away, then went back. The man was still there, leering.
“That man became Freddy Krueger,” he once said. He also said that he had lived as a boy on an Elm Street, one that was near a cemetery.
In addition, he also told of reading a news account of a child who refused to sleep, claiming that he had nightmares about being chased. Finally he fell asleep, but his parents heard screams from his room and found him dead.
“Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying,” he told an interviewer. That, he said, was an important source of inspiration for “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” With Krueger haunting the dreams of sleeping children, the movie remained Mr. Craven’s most famous film. It gave Johnny Depp his first major role.
Mr. Craven wrote it and directed it. Produced for a relatively puny $1.8 million, it earned back the outlay by the first week after release.
Between “Scream 2” and “Scream 3,” Mr. Craven was offered the opportunity to escape the clutches of a career in slashers.
He directed Meryl Streep as a dedicated music teacher in “Music of the Heart,” a 1999 movie that earned her an Academy Award nomination. It brought Mr. Craven the attention of wags who joked that he had temporarily swapped violins for violence.
The film did not fundamentally alter Mr. Craven’s career or legacy. He directed the airborne thriller “Red Eye” (2005), starring Rachel McAdams. Meanwhile, he saw some of his best-known early titles — “The Last House on the Left,” “The Hills Have Eyes” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” — remade for a new generation by different directors.
His marriages to Bonnie Broecker and Millicent Meyer ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, producer Iya Labunka; two children from his first marriage; a stepdaughter; a sister; and three grandchildren.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Mr. Craven was involved in the “Ten Commandments,” a miniseries that was to air on WGN America. Perhaps ironically for an impresario of violent on screen death, he was responsible for the commandment enjoining: “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”