We lost a legend of horror cinema this weekend. Wes Craven sadly passed away. Horror fans like me are heart-broken. This mythical genre director changed the game a few times. Craven gave me Nightmares. And I thank him for it.
While he is known as a master of horror, Craven also proved his versatility dabbling in drama with MUSIC OF THE HEART (starring Meryl Streep) and comedy with VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN (starring Eddie Murphy).
However, for die hard fans, it was his work in the horror genre that made him one of our favourite directors, mentioned in the same breath as scary movie icons Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Sam Raimi.
Craven made horror movies that were not only scary, but also intricately woven with thematic subtext should the viewer chose to participate. Whether it was the subliminal psychology of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, or his meta deconstruction of the genre in NEW NIGHTMARE and SCREAM, he always added something to think about.
His movies weren’t just roller-coaster rides that you could brag about surviving, and they weren’t just enjoyable, they were also carefully tended to and purposefully framed.
Thematic elements help a horror movie infest within you. Without the subtle deeper meaning, his movies would be considered mere slashers. There’s a reason Wes Craven is a movie legend.
Since his first film in 1972, the man has 36 writing credits, 27 producer credits, and 29 directing credits. While there are some stinkers in there, the legend has influenced countless filmmakers, and entertained an infinite audience. Remember the myth today.
Here are 10 of his best.
10. THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)
This black magic voodoo movie creeped me out at the time. Craven stepped away from the slasher genre to pursue a cultural view of horror. Interested in philosophy and psychology, our legendary director was always open to exploring new territory. This one was more terrifying on an internal level.
9. SHOCKER (1989)
B-movie fun. Craven didn’t always take everything so seriously. This one followed a death row inmate who’s soul is freed upon execution, hopping in and out of host bodies. A shlocky concept fuels the violence and scares, but there’s also a playful sense of dark humour.
8. SCREAM 4 (2011)
An underrated sequel that reintroduced the franchise to a new audience. Over a decade after the original, Craven revisits these memorable characters, once again vivisecting the genre, and providing laughs while scaring the crap out of us.
7. THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977)
Ahead of its time, Craven’s second picture follows a stranded family in cannibal country. The hidden message here is the effects of our weapons on the environment. But really, most will remember this for the unrelenting terror of mutated inbreds. * Has a remake *
6. PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991)
This contained thriller dodged any supernatural elements. As a young teen, this scared the crap out of me. Our hero is a young teen who rings on the wrong doorbell. Very strange inhabitants live inside and won’t let the boy go. He isn’t the first Hansel to be lured into this twisted fairytale house. Like the title says, there are people living under the stairs. Captives.
This one has some dark humour too, helping us wash down the sheer terror of this startlingly realistic premise. Nerd Alert: Watch out for an early Ving Rhames role as the sidekick hero. * Remake as a series, coming soon *
5. WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994)
Wes Craven returned to the hit franchise he created for the first time since the original. This was the first Craven flick to break the fourth wall with self-aware commentary. In this one, the actors of the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET find themselves haunted by the very real demon Freddy Krueger. It pokes fun of the genre, while being a part of it a couple of years before SCREAM did it so well. The bigger fan you are, the more enjoyment you’ll get from this one.
4. SCREAM 2 (1997)
The sequel to the phenomenal original was just as bold and brave. It killed off lovable characters way before GAME OF THRONES or WALKING DEAD hit the air. Once again, the film comments on Hollywood and genre cliches, this time aiming its wit at sequels.
One of the highlights is the opening scene in a movie theatre as the audience enjoys the premiere of the movie STAB (based on the true story events of SCREAM). Watching this in a theatre with people in costume added a whole new layer of horror — one I’m very sure Craven was aware of. He was a true master at manipulating our emotions to our own enjoyment.
3. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)
Craven’s first film doesn’t get as much credit as I think it deserves. This was the first time he switched up the horror genre. A twisted and disturbing tale of rape, LAST HOUSE pushed the boundaries of filmmaking. The events on-screen felt so plausible and so real it was absolutely terrifying. This was years before the shocking TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Going out into the country would never be the same.
Be warned this film has been banned before (while the recent remake had no issues upon release). This rape revenge film is graphic in nature. Its gritty realism really gets under your skin. That said, with the success of this controversial Midnight Screening cult classic, Wes Craven would get the chance to breakthrough into the mainstream over a decade later. * Has a remake *
2. SCREAM (1996)
Craven changed the game with this self-aware horror, encouraging a revival of the genre. Audiences laughed and screamed in equal portions. There was great gore, creative kills, crazy intense anticipation, incredible tension, and the hilarious deconstruction of an entire genre.
It was quite remarkable to make fun of horror movies, while being one, and not tread into spoof territory. The film took itself seriously, the characters just didn’t. These were teenagers who have seen horror movies, so they know The Rules.
Then there was the absolutely shocking twist opening. That’s right, this film sure had a twist ending, but it also had a twist opening. If you’re reading this it shouldn’t be a SPOILER….. but Drew Barrymore was marketed as the film’s star. The trailers had her up front and center. We were all shocked when Craven pulled an Alfred Hitchcock and killed his main character early in the film.
It was an incredible quality that forced the audience into uncertainty. We thought she would get terrorized by the killer, but we also all assumed she would survive Ghostface throughout the movie. This jaw dropping twist. effectively said this film is relentless, and anything can happen at any time – you are not safe.
That first viewing was a truly amazing experience perfectly crafted by a master wizard.
#1. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
This was my first Wes Craven experience. I probably saw it way too young, and had nightmares for weeks. Freddy Kreuger is an incredible villain. He lives in your nightmares. If he hurts you there, you get hurt in real life. If he kills you in your dreams, you don’t wake up. How can you not fall asleep and stay away from his clawed grasp?
This horror movie changed the game. There are several layers to its themes. Its imagery is purposefully disturbing on a psychological level, be it in symbolism, or costume (red and green being a colour that confuses our brains when paired together).
Inspired by true events (worth Googling), the success of the first NIGHTMARE not only gave us Johnny Depp, but also built NEW LINE CINEMA. It’s like how Miramax was the house that Quentin Tarantino built, and New Line was the house that Craven built.
Freddy was a mainstream household name in the 80s and 90s. Toys were even sold to kids. As the sequels mounted, the burn victim with knives for fingers was a comedic hero. Fans worshiped him, eagerly awaiting his next creative kill, and black humour one-liners.
The main reason this lands at the #1 spot is how absolutely terrifying this film is. It’s not just the blood and gore. It’s not just the totally rad practical effects. It’s how the film haunts you forever. Example? That childish nursery rhyme: “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you. 3, 4, better lock your door…”
Freddy will always be a part of us because of Wes Craven. It’s already been remade once, and has a rumoured reboot in the works. I still rewatch the original and still get scared. The concept and direction are top notch for the genre.
This is one of the best horror movies ever made!
While SCREAM 4 is Wes Craven’s last outing as a director, there are more projects on the way. He remained an active producer in the last couple of years. His latest series based on SCREAM has been renewed for season 2. He also has a sci-fi series and a PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS series on the horizon. The legacy continues.
Stay tuned for more on SLIP/THROUGH including reviews of the SCREAM series, which have been surprisingly good thus far.
What do you think?
What’s your favourite Wes Craven flick? Do you like his old school horror too?
Leave a comment below.