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One More 'Scream,' Then a Dream

Horror film meister Wes Craven, left, plans to switch genres and tell an inspiring tale for a change.

June 11, 1997|GLENN LOVELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wes Craven is through making excuses for his macabre handiwork. After 25 years of raising grade-A gooseflesh, most recently with "Scream," he has decided to go upbeat and up-market with a "low-budget art film."

"What's the point of doing more [horror films]?" he grumbles morosely. "Films about the violence of the human soul are looked down on as exploitative; they cause some great societal ill. So I've decided to try something different."

But not just at the moment. . . .

Craven will make the crossover to what he facetiously calls "legit cinema" after "Scream 2," the college-set continuation of last year's witty, phenomenally popular stalker parody, starring Neve Campbell and Drew Barrymore. The sequel, also with Campbell, is now on location in Atlanta. Miramax's Dimension Films, hoping lightning will strike twice, is again pushing for a December release.

So impressed were they when they saw the first "Scream," Miramax bosses Bob and Harvey Weinstein offered the horror vet a three-picture deal. What made the offer especially attractive was Project No. 2, a non-genre story based on the Oscar-nominated documentary "Fiddlefest" (a.k.a. "Small Wonders"), about an inner-city music teacher who battles city hall to impart important life lessons.

The budget, at this point, is a rock-bottom $7 million, but the good news is Madonna has "expressed great interest" in playing the teacher, Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras. Harvey Weinstein reported back to Craven: "Madonna wants to do it right after 'Chicago.' She's ready to start learning the violin."

"It's an art film--completely out of the [horror] genre," says Craven, whose horror perennials include "Last House on the Left," "The Hills Have Eyes" and the original "A Nightmare on Elm Street." "It's about a woman who teaches classical violin to very young kids in East Harlem. It's really about discipline and self-respect: You had better apply yourself or you're out! She's quite the drill sergeant. Her kids have played with the New York Symphony, and are now touring Europe. It's a very inspiring story, not a genre film at all."

A former high school and college teacher himself, Craven was immediately drawn to the material. He became aware of Guaspari-Tzavaras' story while serving on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' documentary-screening committee.

"I was raised in a working-class family [in Cleveland], I taught high school for a year, and I love classical music," Craven says. "Roberta's story stuck with me. It was positive and happy, and showed what happens when people do things right."

Flash forward to the Secaucus, N.J., preview of "Scream" and the celebratory dinner afterward. The Weinsteins wanted to strike a deal. "They said, 'We know you want to make something out of the horror genre. If you do two genre films for us at the level of 'Scream,' we'll let you make a drama or a romance. They reeled off the projects they had, and I recognized the title 'Fiddlefest.' "

Craven, 57, has no illusions as to why, after all this time, he's been given his shot. "It means a great deal to me, but--hey, let's be honest--it's an artistic benefit of bringing [Miramax] a lot of money." (The $13-million "Scream" recently passed $100 million in domestic grosses, putting it up there with "Psycho" and "The Exorcist" as the most lucrative fright films of all time.)

Truth be known, Craven--who holds a master's degree in literature and philosophy from Johns Hopkins University--always intended to jettison the horror-meister mantle. And he almost did, with such quasi-genre offerings as "The Serpent and the Rainbow" (a florid adaptation a la Val Lewton's "I Walked With a Zombie"), "Swamp Thing" (a campy superhero number) and "Vampire in Brooklyn" (a horror comedy with Eddie Murphy).

The problem was, his "transition films" didn't perform as well as his hard-core entries ("People Under the Stairs," "Shockers," "Wes Craven's New Nightmare"). Which meant he was doomed to repeat his successes.

Craven felt like the prototypical underworld character, usually played by Al Pacino, who's trying to go straight but the mob won't let him. "Just when I thought I got away from them, they dragged me back," he mugs.

But it was a lucrative limbo, no?

"Yes, it was a two-edged sword," Craven allows from his "Scream 2" production office. "I've worked steadily making movies that made truckloads of money and were, for the most part, critically well-received."

But they were still horror movies and, as Brian De Palma and John Carpenter can vouch, horror remains synonymous with "exploitative" and "sleazy." Studio chiefs don't mind cashing in on the Old Dark House as long as they don't have to build next to it.

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