Craven shifts gears

Wes Craven, the guy who invented the teen slasher flick, changes direction in thriller Red Eye

RED EYE directed by Wes Craven, written by Carl Ellsworth, with Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy and Brian Cox. A DreamWorks release. 85 minutes. Opens Friday (August 19). For venues and times, see Movies, page 86. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN

After taking in his considerable height, his slight accent and the fact that he looks pretty spry for a guy in his mid-60s, the first thing you notice about horror-meister Wes Craven is that he’s so damned soft-spoken.

The director of the Scream movies barely speaks above a whisper.

“I lead a pretty tranquil life,” says the Spielberg of the horror genre.

So those violent, dangerous, bloody impulses behind films like A Nightmare On Elm Street and Shocker only come out in his work?

“Yes, and also in racquetball and video games,” he jokes. “But, hey, everybody’s got that stuff in them. I just have easier access to it.”

His latest film, Red Eye, marks a departure to straight suspense, although Craven claims he’s been unfairly labelled as a director of slasher movies. He even directed Meryl Streep to her umpteenth Oscar nomination in 1999’s Music Of The Heart.

“There’s a lot of ignorance about horror films,” he says. “People who don’t like horror films don’t go to see them, so they don’t know who’s doing what. A trailer might make a film look like there’s a guy with a knife and nothing else. But look at Sidney Prescott from Scream. Her story is about family, deception and hurt. I think the success of those films had as much to do with that as with the horror. But that story is pretty difficult to put in a trailer.”

Speaking of trailers, those for Red Eye have been among the savviest of the year. They start off with new it-girl Rachel McAdams bumping into 28 Days Later’s Cillian Murphy in an airport. They flirt, she flashes her incredible smile. Aha – a romantic comedy.

Not so fast. Cut to the interior of the airplane, where they’re sitting next to each other. Murphy says something threatening, McAdams registers panic, and then Craven’s name – in red – flashes across the screen. There’s gonna be turbulence, folks.

“I think there’s danger in romance and flirtation,” he says when I ask him about the juxtaposition of sex and fear.

“You’re committing yourself much faster than your higher brain will allow. It can turn out pretty badly. And certainly after 9/11, each time you fly you have to wonder, “Who’s on the plane with me?” You don’t know who you can trust. I liked that it was dealing with those fears.”

Also on the menu are spine-chilling airplane noises (don’t expect this to show up as an in-flight movie) and a genuine feeling of claustrophobia, enhanced by the fact that a big chunk of the film was shot inside a 747.

“We were all in the same encased set,” he says. “There was only one scene where we opened a hatch near Rachel’s seat to get a reaction shot from her. It was incredibly cramped.”

Why the move, relatively late in his career, away from horror?

“I’ve done what I feel I had to do in that field,” he says. “There’s a horror film opening every weekend. Everyone’s doing these remakes or stealing from Japanese ghost stories.

“I don’t want to be in the middle of a herd.”

That’s not to say Craven won’t deal with violence and danger, which are part of everyday life.

“Look at what’s going on in the world right now,” he says. “Life is a Bill Moyers program. It’s always been a struggle to survive. Did the Japanese win? Or did we win? Did the Vietcong win? Do they get their own country? All these things are determined by a bunch of guys going out and trying to kill each other.”

RED EYE (Wes Craven) Rating: NNN

Red Eye marks Wes Craven’s pretty smooth attempt to change gears from horror to suspense. Rachel McAdams plays a workaholic hotel manager forced by Cillian Murphy’s freaky blue-eyed seatmate to assist him in a murder or her daddy (Brian Cox) will die. The plot’s logic leaves you light-headed, but Craven jacks up the tension carefully, initially giving us sexual flirtation with a whiff of danger and then making us cringe with turbulence and claustrophobia.

Murphy delivers his second bizarro meanie of 2005 – his first was Batman Returns’ Scarecrow – and McAdams (The Notebook, Wedding Crashers) continues her love affair with the camera. Her final-act transformation to in-charge heroine is thrilling to watch.

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