Wes Craven, horror maestro behind ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Scream’ films, dies at 76

Director Wes Craven at his home in 2009.

Director Wes Craven at his home in 2009.

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Wes Craven, the prolific horror filmmaker behind “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and the “Scream” movies, died Sunday at his Los Angeles home after a battle with brain cancer, according to his representative. He was 76.

Over a career that spanned more than four decades, Craven pushed the limits of the horror genre, starting with 1972’s “The Last House on the Left.” The film was so violent and gory that censors in Britain banned it from theaters.

Born Aug. 2, 1939, in Cleveland, Craven was not a moviegoer as a child. His parents were strict Baptists who forbade him to see films, and his years at Wheaton College, where he studied English and psychology, didn’t offer a reprieve.


“I went to a Christian college,” he told The Times in 2010. “You would be expelled if you were caught in a movie theater. It was ridiculous.”

Craven went on to earn a master’s degree in philosophy and writing at Johns Hopkins University, then took a teaching job at Clarkson College in Potsdam, N.Y. -- a town with an art house theater.

That’s where his love of film began.

The success of “The Last House on the Left” -- which he made with Sean Cunningham, the future creator of the “Friday the 13th” franchise -- gave him a foothold in Hollywood.

Craven went on to direct nearly two dozen other films, most of them similarly blood-curdling. His titles included “Vampire in Brooklyn” and “The Hills Have Eyes.”

Film critic Richard Roeper memorialized Craven on Sunday with a nod to his mastery of the horror genre. “Nobody goes to sleep wishing for a nightmare,” he said on Twitter, “but if you have one tonight, may it be worthy of a Wes Craven film.”

“Scream” star Rose McGowan took a more personal tack, calling him “the kindest man, the gentlest man, and one of the smartest men I’ve known.”


Craven did have a gentle side, and he long harbored a desire to break free from the shackles of the slash-and-scare genre that he perfected.

So when producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein approached him with a three-picture deal, they sweetened the offer by letting him direct 1999’s “Music of the Heart,” the uplifting story of an East Harlem violin teacher who brings music to scores of underprivileged students. It starred Meryl Streep, earning her an Oscar nomination.

But toward the end of his more than four-decade career, which included forays as a television producer and novelist, he made peace with his fearsome reputation.

“Sometimes you fight what you are, what you’re doing,” he told ABC News in 2010. “At a certain point you say, you know I’m really good at this and people really seem to enjoy what I do and I’ve definitely left a mark on American cinema of some sort or another.”

Craven is survived by his wife, Iya Labunka; sister Carol Buhrow; son, Jonathan Craven; daughter, Jessica Craven; stepdaughter, Nina Tarnawksy; and three grandchildren.

A full obituary will be posted at

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Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this report.