He has unleashed incredibly influential horror films over the last four decades, including The Last House on the Left, A Nightmare On Elm Street and Scream. His movies have resonated with audiences not only because they tap into our primal fears, but also because they often dip into the mainstream zeitgeist and hit upon social issues. His excursions into fright films have inspired many to label him “The Master of Horror.” In recent years Wes Craven has taken some time off from directing, but even though some are calling last fall’s My Soul to Take and the upcoming Scream 4 a “comeback,” in truth he never really went away. But times have certainly changed.

The return of Scream comes more than a decade after the Scary Movie franchise (ironically, they’re both produced by Dimension Films) transformed the lightning-fast, knife-wielding Ghostface from an icon of terror into a figure of mirth. It also follows a massive horror renaissance that has spawned endless remakes, reboots and sequels of classic films. The original, semi-satirical but still deadly Scream trilogy certainly became more self-aware as it went along, and by the third installment the eternally besieged heroine Sidney Prescott was being pursued by a new Ghostface on a movie set version of her home from the first film. It became a meta-meta-horror film that was akin to being caught in a room full of funhouse mirrors. As Craven sagely notes, “That doesn’t mean you can’t die in the funhouse.”

Yet, given the irony inherent in the series and the bloody imitators spawned in its wake, one wonders if Scream 4—which finds self-help author Prescott (Neve Campbell) returning to her Woodsboro home, where she reconnects with her cousin (Emma Roberts) and is stalked anew by Ghostface in the wake of a new “Stab” movie—will build further upon the irony or be more earnest.

Craven laughs good-naturedly at that philosophical query, responding: “It is and it isn’t. I think there is a very strong central family drama with the Emma Roberts character, because it’s a very deeply written role of this kid who is part of Sid’s family and doesn’t know her intimately, but gets to know her and lives in the house of Sid’s aunt. That story is very naturalistic and carefully drawn. On the other hand, there is a comment on the last 10 years and where we as a society are now that I think is more analytical than ironic.”

Wit has always been integral to many of Craven’s films through characters like Freddy Krueger and Shocker’s Horace Pinker. Horror and humor often go hand in hand, but the director has learned to be careful when injecting chuckles into his cinematic carnage.

“I found that out quite hideously with my first film, when I cracked jokes very close to a scene where somebody was dying,” recalls Craven. “The audience felt a lot, then you had two goofy sheriffs walking around, and that was resented. So I learned that you have to take what you’re doing seriously if it’s a serious moment, but at the same time it’s a very natural human tendency to joke between, before and after times that you’re scared. It’s like combat humor, it’s just a way of coping. You just have to be careful you’re not wink-winking too much. It’s a judgment call in every scene that you do. You have to be aware that you can’t be too funny or the audience will say, ‘Oh, come on now.’ Hopefully we walked that line in Scream 4. There are times when it’s just flat-out kick-ass and there is nothing funny about anything. But there’s lot of laughter, too, so hopefully we got everything right. It feels like we did.”

The Scream series took an 11-year slumber after Scary Movie emerged. Craven says that even Dimension’s Bob Weinstein thought that they should let it lie for a while, letting the parody series run its course before returning so that a new generation could discover the original.

Craven admits that watching the first Scary Movie was painful for him, not simply because it poked fun at a franchise that he had worked so hard to create, but also because they replicated exact shots from the original, and he did not even have a financial piece of it.

Scary Movie gave Craven the resolve to move on and do new things. He helmed the werewolf movie Cursed (its PG-13 theatrical release hurt the film in some people’s eyes; the bloodier, unrated cut is better) and the taut psychological thriller Red Eye, both of which were released in 2005. He also produced successful remakes of his early films The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes (parts one and two), executive produced Feast and The Breed, wrote the 2006 sci-fi thriller Pulse and directed a segment of the romantic anthology film Paris, Je T’Aime, which was certainly a nice detour.

People associate Craven with just one genre, and when My Soul to Take emerged last October, it had been five years since the world had seen a new directorial effort from the horror maestro. The reaction, both artistic and commercial, was not good.

Critics and fans alike trashed the film, which quickly dropped off the mainstream radar. Needless to say, Craven, who also wrote the screenplay, was devastated by the harsh criticisms. “As hunters say, I went to ground,” he reveals. “That’s when an animal gets shot and goes as deep as it can into its burrow and just sits there to see whether it’s going to die or live. It was shocking to me.”

He stresses that the film “had a terrible history of birthing.” My Soul to Take was made between Hollywood strikes, and the moviemakers were pressured into going ahead with production before they were ready. They lost their leads the weekend before they were to start shooting. “I think we went through three changes in administration at the key studios,” adds Craven. “Rogue was bought away from Andrew Rona, who was our patron, and suddenly we were in the hands of strangers. They didn’t even look at the film for three months. We sent in the finished film and never heard anything. We couldn’t even get them on the phone. It turned out they were in a big, long, drawn-out battle with Universal over who owned what because [Rogue’s parent company] Relativity had been a financial partner with Universal for several years and had backed about 50 percent of their movies. It was very complicated.”

Regular changes in executives and a lack of awareness about the film—Craven says no poster was released until two weeks before My Soul to Take hit theaters—led to problems with both completion and promotion. Even worse, a last-minute edict to retroactively make the film 3-D hampered not only My Soul to Take but Scream 4, as well. The whole situation was turning into a real-life horror show for this cinematic purveyor of fear.

“We were shooting Scream 4 at the time, so on weekends in the middle of this quite exhausting shoot, we had to go 40 miles away to a town that had a screen big enough to do 3-D passes on My Soul to Take,” explains Craven. “Every single shot had to be looked at. People would fly in from California to take notes, then go away and come back the next weekend with revisions. That went on for months.

My Soul to Take is one of the toughest films I’ve done,” Craven admits, “but I’m proud of it, and I think it’s going to be looked at again and reappraised. I tried to do a whole different kind of horror film, not necessarily a slasher film, but one about a kid whose father was a murderous schizophrenic and who really has schizophrenic elements to his own life.”

War in various forms has always had an impact on Craven’s films, from the influences of the atrocities of the Vietnam War on The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes to that of the Reagan-era social and economic policies on The People Under the Stairs and the “War on Terror” on Red Eye. It sounds like Craven might have a war movie to make.

“I guess I would consider it,” he muses, “but in a sense I feel like I’m doing war movies. The war on civility and the war on normal living is carried out by people with violent tendencies. In a sense, both horror and war movies are about that polarity of life—the way either lunatics or nations act. I think that struggle is going on within the human race all the time. It happens at the family level, it happens at the schoolyard level, it happens at the national level and none of it necessarily has to be typical combat, if there is such a thing anymore.”

In spite of his recent creative battles, Craven is quite pleased with Scream 4. “It’s been a lot of fun,” he declares. “It’s been great working with Courteney [Cox], David [Arquette], Neve… and the new cast is fantastic.”

Assuming that Scream 4 is a hit (and Craven feels confident that it will be), and assuming that the studio would then greenlight a project of his choice, where does the 71-year-old director think he might venture? “I could say something totally different, like a romantic comedy or whatever, but even My Soul to Take taught me a very hard lesson that if you go too far from your audience’s expectations they’ll stab you in the back faster than you can say Jack,” he admits with a laugh. “I did Music Of The Heart and Meryl Streep got a nomination for an Academy Award. In test audiences it got one of the highest ratings for a Miramax film ever… But they had a very hard time getting people into the theaters because of my name. I guess I would love to do a thriller or something that is a little bit more grown-up.

“Until My Soul to Take I thought I kind of knew my audience,” Craven continues, “but there were some very vitriolic and nasty reviews and a general response that said, ‘Fuck you, Wes Craven.’ I actually ran across things like ‘R.I.P. Wes Craven.’ I opened up a book on filmmakers and saw my name, and it said, ‘Won’t somebody please tell this guy to retire?’ There was a vein of viciousness that I had really never [experienced] before. At this point I don’t have any illusions about it. I think Scream 4 is going to do very well and maybe some of those people will say ‘Wes Craven’s back,’ but I know I can’t trust them anymore. And in the horror community it doesn’t feel like there’s a big search for something more complex than just more scares and blood, and that’s kind of disappointing.”

Craven’s oeuvre is held in such high regard because there are still horror fans who crave something deeper than a series of mutilations, eerie ghosts or outright bloodbaths. Mainstream perception of the horror genre is another matter. Many people see the basic building blocks but not what the structure ultimately represents. Hollywood routinely passes over fear films at the Academy Awards, although last year they paid the genre lip service with a half-assed movie montage that included clips from the Twilight franchise.

Why is Oscar so disdainful of horror? “I think because in some ways the material isn’t that deep,” Craven replies bluntly. “If you look at The Silence Of The Lambs, they are willing to [go there], but it has to have adult intelligence to it in order to be nominated for something by adults. If it’s just there pushing all the bells and whistles of sensationalism, then it probably won’t make it up to that next level. In some ways that’s its charm, and in some ways that’s its limitation.”

Those are sobering words from the man known to many as the Master of Horror. Then again, that’s not a title that Craven feels comfortable with. “I’m sure every other horror director curls their lip at that,” he confesses of his unadopted appellation. “I think in a way it’s that I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve made a number of influential films. But I just like to think of myself as a working stiff, as a director who has a pretty consistent output and has been doing it a long time and tries to keep the standards as high as he can.” MM

Dimension Films will release Scream 4 on April 15, 2011.