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Wes Craven, director of 'Nightmare on Elm Street,' 'Scream' films, dies at 76

Wes Craven appears in New York City on

Wes Craven appears in New York City on Nov. 11, 2012. Credit: Amber De Vos/ / Amber De Vos

Wes Craven, the filmmaker who launched two of the horror genre's most enduring franchises, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream," died Sunday after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 76.

Craven's survivors include his wife, Iya Labunka, a film producer and former vice president with Disney Studios.

Craven's best known creation was arguably Freddy Krueger, the facially disfigured and blade-fingered ghost who haunted the dreams of teenagers in "A Nightmare on Elm Street."

Released in 1984, the film used creative special effects and tricky camerawork to compensate for its low budget, and wound up a runaway hit. It spawned seven follow-ups over the coming decades, although Craven did not direct most of them. The character of Krueger was consistently played by Robert Englund until he was replaced by Jackie Earle Haley in a 2010 remake of the original film.

Craven directed all four films in the "Scream" franchise, which gave horror fans another iconic character, Ghostface, a killer who wore a black shroud and a plastic mask that resembled the open-mouthed face in Edvard Munch's 1893 painting "The Scream." The first film, in 1996, was a new twist on the horror genre: Though genuinely scary and gruesome, it also served as a self-reflexive spoof. In the script, by Kevin Williamson, characters frequently point out the various "rules" of horror movies (teenagers who are sexually active, for instance, usually end up killed).

"Scream" was also unusual for drawing big-name talent to the horror genre. Drew Barrymore, Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox appeared in the first film; the sequels featured Liev Schreiber, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere.

Craven was in some ways the thinking man's horror director. His other notable films included "The Last House on the Left" (1972), an astonishingly brutal rape-revenge film modeled on Ingmar Bergman's 1960 folk tale "The Virgin Spring."

Roger Ebert championed Craven's film at the time as "a powerful narrative, told so directly and strongly that the audience . . . was rocked back on its psychic heels."

In 1977, Craven released "The Hills Have Eyes," a gritty shocker about a vacationing family attacked by mutants; the film shared some thematic similarities to Sam Peckinpah's 1971 classic "Straw Dogs."

Craven, who was born in Cleveland, was an academic before he was a filmmaker, having taught English at what is now Clarkson University in New York.

His first movie ventures were pseudonymously made porn films, but "The Last House on the Left" marked him as a talent to watch. He also directed "Swamp Thing" (1982), an adaptation of the DC comic books and, in a departure, "Music of the Heart," a 1999 drama that earned Meryl Streep an Oscar nod.

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