Writing about Wes Craven in the past-tense just doesn’t seem right. His legacy, his influence and desire are so instilled in the current state of horror cinema it’s as though he only started his career this decade, not 40 years ago. I send my condolences to his family and all those whose careers he helped shape, either directly or indirectly. He was an intellectual who held a mirror up to society and showed us our deepest fears, weaving stories out of them with the help of charismatic and enigmatic villains and empowering strong heroines to destroy them.
Two of his quotes, both utilised in 2000’s The American Nightmare, perfectly encapsulate his observations on Western society’s paranoia and shortcomings. The first regarding horror movies:
“It’s like boot camp for the psyche. In real life, human beings are packaged in the flimsiest of packages, threatened by real and sometimes horrifying dangers, events like Columbine. But the narrative form puts these fears into a manageable series of events. It gives us a way of thinking rationally a bout our fears.”
And the second touches on films again, but more importantly the source of rage that feeds them, stemming from the overreaching expectations of each following generation:
“I Think there is something about the American dream, the sort of Disneyesque dream, if you will, of the beautifully trimmed front lawn, the white picket fence, mom and dad and their happy children, God-fearing and doing good whenever they can, and the flip side of it, the kind of anger and the sense of outrage that comes from discovering that that’s not the truth of the matter, that gives American horror films in some ways, kind of an additional rage.”
In total, Mr Craven directed 21 feature films plus others made for television and the occasional short. Below, I have listed some of his most renowned titles in order of release. There aren’t too many film makers whose extensive catalogues command specific attention, but from the moment this softly spoken, thoughtful and enthusiastic auteur exploded onto the scene in 1972 with unprecedented impact the industry took notice, and has since benefited enormously from his contribution.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Coming out when America was reeling in internal angst over the treatment of peaceful protesters of the Vietnam War, Craven’s debut film is a tale of vengeance on savage murderers that ranks among the most controversial of all time. It’s a hard one to recommend to anyone, but unexpected details such as the acoustic soundtrack by the appointed villain David Hess and that iconic tagline have yielded it a long life in the cult circuit.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
The second film blues were avoided as the up-and-coming genre master unleashed a relentless barrage of shock and fear once an unsuspecting family venture off track and into the hands of crazies. The Hills Have Eyes is not only a memorable horror classic in its own right, but showcased Craven’s witty side in placing a torn Jaws poster in the caravan of his American family, saying that if you thought that was scary, it’s just pop culture in comparison to this. Of course, that didn’t end there, though, as Sam Raimi chimed in by including a poster of The Hills Have Eyes in the cellar of the cabin in the woods in The Evil Dead (1981), before Craven responded by playing Raimi’s movie on Nancy’s TV in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Inspired itself by a terrifying nightmare, A Nightmare on Elm Street contains dazzling, chilling imagery and special effects masterfully partnered with cinema’s most recognizable and dastardly villain and a female hero beloved by fans. This is Wes Craven’s best film, and secured his legacy immediately upon release, before the plethora of Freddy-centric sequels and spin offs.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Bill Pullman stars in a risky combination of supernatural thriller, adventure and zombie folklore that ratchets up the tension and tragedy as it progresses towards a shocking finale. “Don’t bury me… I’m not dead!” will stay with you for long after the credits.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
The creative mind returned to his franchise in an early example of meta-horror, scripting a real world in which Krueger is again terrorizing Heather Langemkamp after work is started on a new Nightmare film. Craven and Robert Englund both appearing as themselves is an exciting element of an underrated gem, which would act as a precursor to what would later be achieved 2 years later.
“What’s your favorite scary movie?” If you say the answer is Scream, well then that’s fair enough too. Scream redefined the rules, being knowing, self referential and blackly funny; its one of the most downright entertaining genre films ever made. Setting up the cliche only to destroy it in the opening Drew Barrymore starring scene, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s collaboration paved the way for a whole swag of teen slashers to follow.
Red Eye (2005)
Red Eye is silly, ludicrous and in the occasional scene, slightly awkward. It’s also tremendous fun; a thrill ride aboard a plane with menace and conspiricies and a number of ways to maim a would-be kidnapper. The lead performances ultimately go a long way too in making it a critical success, with Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy in the early days of their quality careers.
Scream 4 (2011)
Just when you thought that the hair-raising, spine-tingling and eventually brutal opening of Scream would never be topped, along came Scream 4. Seeing this twice in its opening 2 days still didn’t seem enough, so I’ve since watched it numerous times at home, basking in a serious return to form for the creative minds that re-invented the suburban slasher, deconstructed their sequels and here examine the endless glut of remakes and re-imaginings with verve and exuberance.
With Sidney, Dewey, Gale Weathers and Ghostface all reuniting 15 years after first meeting, this is the best directorial swansong we could’ve possibly asked for.
Thanks for the memories.