The death of filmmaker Wes Craven marks the passing of a fascinating era in cinema history. A former academic who broke into the business in sound editing, his major contribution was in the horror genre. His first film as director, The Last House on the Left (1972) was, truly, horrible, making a controversial episode in the slasher cycle. A decade later the Nightmare on Elm Street series (1984-) would capitalise on the fashion for urban legends amongst American teens. In the 90s he made the ultimate postmodern horror from a Kevin Williamson screenplay, Scream (1996). It was funny, self-referential and gave the audience a respect hitherto unusual in the genre. It would mark the beginning of another successful franchise. His films dealt with the blurring of reality and imagination and nightmare – fertile ground for someone educated in philosophy and psychology. He never stopped working and had just signed up for new television productions. He will be missed.
Halfway through the twentieth century came another excoriating portrait of life behind the gates in the mansions of Hollywood stars and a glimpse into the dog days of the jobbing screenwriter. When Joe Gillis (William Holden) finds himself in the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) little does he imagine that he will become a pawn in her deluded plans for a comeback and wind up face down in her swimming pool (the film is narrated by his corpse.) A stunning conceit, brilliantly executed, and made by Billy Wilder with regular co-writer and producer Charles Brackett, this is cinematic navel-gazing at its finest by one of its best teams, including Holden, who appeared regularly for Wilder, and Swanson, who was barely 50 yet her glory days were decades behind her. Erich Von Stroheim, one of her former directors, appears here as her butler, and former director, shielding her from the reality she can no longer face. The film is 65 years old today. Happy Birthday!