Wes Craven died August 30, 2015 of brain cancer. He was 76. He announced himself to the world in 1972 with The Last House on the Left, a film that has lost none of its power to unnerve and disturb an audience. He then solidified his place in the horror pantheon by creating two powerhouse franchises in Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. Like many horror filmmakers, Craven was an articulate, intelligent man whose films were often fueled by an underlying social commentary. He was also intrigued by the notion that there is no difference between the civilized and the uncivilized – and that’s what’s truly terrifying. Here’s a list of the 10 Must-See Wes Craven films and why each is worth seeing.
1. The Last House on the Left (1972)
Craven’s debut film was controversial for its violence and brutal sexuality. It divided critics into two camps: those who felt it was pure exploitative trash and those who saw it as breaking the rules in an artistically challenging manner. The film was a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Craven updated Bergman’s medieval tale of a young girl who is raped and murdered, and whose murderers end up seeking shelter at her parents’ home where mom and dad exact a chilling revenge.
Craven says his film was a reaction to the violence he saw on TV in news footage about the Vietnam War. He has said that he wanted to capture that same sense of reality in the violence he put on screen. In Craven’s film the parents’ revenge, while satisfying, raises some disturbing questions as it blurs the line between the criminals and the decent citizens. Craven makes us embrace their darkness as we feel satisfaction at their revenge.
When I spoke with Craven (at the time he was producing the remake of his The Hills Have Eyes), he discussed what he thought he needed to do with his horror film debut in order to make an impact: “It’s interesting, the first time I watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I concluded that it must have been made by a group of Mansonites because it had exactly that quality; it was kind of greenish, grainy and the whole thing looked home made. It was always ironic to meet Tobe Hooper later and he was the sweetest guy in world. So I devised a theory that is that the first monster that you must frighten an audience with is the director, because I think it’s important that the audience feel that this is outside the boundaries of anything that is controlled or acceptable or polite or civilized.”
The Last House on the Left is vital to see because as Craven’s first film it revealed how he turned his budgetary limitations into assets to make his film feel more immediate, visceral, and deeply unsettling. It also lays the groundwork thematically for much of what followed.
2. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
The Hills Have Eyes concerns a family traveling to California. Along the way they have the misfortune of having their car break down in a remote area that’s inhabited by violent savages. Once again Craven taps into the idea of there being no difference between decent citizens and savages.
When I interviewed Craven he said, “I think I’m attracted to stories where things kind of flip half way through in so far as civilized people become uncivilized, and the uncivilized are revealed to be a lot like us, much more than we’d like to admit.” He found his inspiration for the story in an old historical account of the Shawnee Bean family, a group of feral people who had cannibalized travelers. But Craven pointed out, “the part that really fascinated me beyond that, which is fascinating is they were all taken back to London and horribly tortured for a very long time by the most civilized people. So it’s just the irony that I like.”
The Hills Have Eyes is significant for continuing Craven’s themes about the civilized versus the uncivilized as well as for introducing audiences to the intimidating yet kind of endearing presence of Michael Berryman, who suffered from Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia, a rare genetic condition characterized by malformed sweat glands, missing teeth, and no hair.
3. Swamp Thing (1982)
Swamp Thing is an adaptation of a DC Comic. The film features Louis Jordan as a mad scientist, Adrienne Barbeau as the sexy romantic interest, and stuntman turned actor Dick Durock as the mutant plant creature.
Swamp Thing is worth seeing as Craven’s only real outing into science fiction and comics, and for seeing French actor Louis Jordan transform into a werewolf and for Adrienne Barbeau’s famously censored nude scene.
4. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
If Last House on the Left shocked audiences with its brutal realism, then Nightmare on Elm Street shocked them by going to the opposite extreme. Nightmare on Elm Street gave us the surreal horror of a serial killer murdering children in their dreams.
This film is an absolute must-see for introducing Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger and kicking off a franchise, as well as for being Johnny Depp’s first film, and for furthering Craven’s commentary about the ability of “decent” folks to be as cruel as the criminals they condemn.
5. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
The Serpent and the Rainbow follows an anthropologist to Haiti where he investigates rumors about a drug used by black magic practitioners to turn people into zombies. Craven implies a political subtext to the popularity of voodoo in Haiti, and takes some jabs at corporate America as it looks for the capital gains of a drug that can give people the appearance of death.
The Serpent and the Rainbow is perhaps Craven’s most polished and mature work. It’s noteworthy for being based on a non-fiction book and suggesting a realistic context for the horror trope of zombies.
6. Shocker (1989)
Notorious serial killer Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi) is sent to the electric chair and conjures up the ability to use electricity to come back from the dead to carry out revenge on the teen football star (Peter Berg) that turned him in.
Shocker deserves to be checked out for a young Peter Berg and for Mitch Pileggi as a baddie before being cast as Assistant Director Skinner in The X-Files TV show. It is also Craven’s first real attempt at doing comedy.
7. The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Craven has noted that after seeing Everett McGill and Wendy Robie in Twin Peaks he decided to cast them as “Mommy” and “Daddy” Robeson in The People Under the Stairs. Craven’s script was inspired by a news story about California parents who kept their children locked in the basement for years.
The People Under the Stairs came on the heels of the Reagan era and provides a satire on Reaganomics (you could say the ending offers a symbolic example of the trickle down theory) with McGill and Robie being the horror versions of Ronnie and Nancy. The film pairs nicely with John Carpenter’s They Live, which also served up an allegory on consumerism, capitalism, and Reaganomics.
8. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
New Nightmare was the seventh film in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and it serves up a Meta take on the saga of Freddy Krueger. In it, Heather Langenkamp (the actress who plays the main character of Nancy) plays herself and slowly comes to believe that Freddy has crossed over from film into the real world.
The film ends with Langenkamp reading the script for the proposed Nightmare sequel, “We open on an old wooden bench. There’s fire and tools, and a man’s grimy hands building what is soon revealed as a gleaming set of claws. And the claws are moving now as if awakening from a long and unwanted sleep. Then the man lays one trembling hand flat upon the table and with the other picks up a thick sharp blade. Behind the lights, faces watch from the darkness – ready to laugh or scream in terror.”
New Nightmare is important for marking the turning point in Craven’s career. The point at which he decided he no longer wanted to make people scream in terror, but rather laugh. It wasn’t the laughter of Shocker or People Under the Stairs but rather a self-reflexive jokiness. New Nightmare works better than Scream because Craven was still working within the horror genre and with respect for it.
9. Scream (1996)
In New Nightmare the tone was not yet jokey. Self-reflexive yes. But jokey no. Craven was still constructing a horror drama in which we cared about the characters but with Scream Craven would announce that he’d grown less serious about horror, in fact he felt comfortable mocking it. His Scream franchise may have made lots of money and won a devoted following, but it did major damage to the horror genre by delivering a film that allowed mainstream audiences to feel superior to horror. It was as if it resorted to laughter because it was afraid that jaded audiences could no longer be scared.
Scream is significant for bringing in a new generation of horror fans and setting off a phenomenally successful franchise.
10. Red Eye (2005)
Red Eye gets a spot here as the last good film Craven made. Mercifully, he abandoned the jokey tone of Scream to make Red Eye into a tight little thriller that pays off nicely. There’s humor but not at the expense of the story. Most of the film is set at an airport and on a plane. The confinement of these settings helps keep the focus narrow and builds claustrophobia. The film also benefits greatly from the murderous Cillian Murphy.
Also of note: Craven’s only drama, Music from the Heart, did garner an Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep as best actress.
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