It’s hard to believe that one of horror’s masters has been gone now for almost three years. A quick glance at his filmography offers a staggering reminder of just how much he contributed to the genre. Arguably, Wes Craven re-imagined horror in three different decades. The Last House on the Left was one of handful of 1970’s horror films that completely erased the boundaries of what could be shown on screen. Just over a decade later, Craven released another game-changer, A Nightmare on Elm Street, that launched one of the more successful franchises in horror history. In the 1990’s, Scream re-wrote the rules spawning a series of imitators.
Today would have marked Craven’s 79th birthday. In honour of one horror’s most enduring filmmakers, I’m taking a look at some of Craven’s best, and most influential, films. This is not necessarily a ranking, but rather a look at some of what I consider to be Craven’s most influential work. There are several films – The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People Under the Stairs – that are not discussed below that remain exceptional examples of Craven’s work.
The Last House on the Left
This was a difficult choice to include The Last House on the Left. Personally, I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the film but that’s also why it had to be included here. Craven’s directional debut, essentially a loose re-interpretation of The Virgin Spring, remains one of the violent films I have ever seen. Does Craven cross boundaries with his depiction of violence? Could he have made the same points with some of the violence removed from the final print? Critics and fans have debated these questions since the film was released. But the emotional impact of the film has not diminished in the 46 years since its release, hence why I have included it here.
The Hills Have Eyes
The Hills Have Eyes was another 1970’s low-budget effort from Craven. Like The Last House on the Left, Craven continued to push boundaries with his story-telling and onscreen depictions of violence. But Craven also continued to demonstrate that he some interesting things to say with his films. His contrast between the All-American family, the Carters, and the mutant cannibal family offers a bit of commentary to go along with the nihilistic violence. Liberal son-in-law Doug’s rapid descent into savagery by the film’s conclusion is the kind of subtext that made Craven’s work so enduring.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was ahead of its time and marked a huge risk for such a late franchise entry. Plenty of money (and probably more sequels) could have been made of another generic outing with Freddy Krueger. Instead, Craven’s return to the franchises was a big detour, taking the character and concept into pretty uncharted territory. The idea that the Elm Street films had become a ‘home’ of sorts for a real supernatural evil, along with some of the meta-commentary on film violence, made the New Nightmare such an innovative sequel. Even if you didn’t fully appreciate Craven’s distinct approach to the material, at the very least, this sequel made Freddy Krueger scary again.
When Scream was released in 1996, the horror genre was in a pretty big rut. Unless you’re a big fan of Doctor Giggles, the 1990’s was a long way from horror’s glory days in the 1970’s. Then along came Wes Craven with Scream, another attempt at some post-modern meta-commentary, that found an audience in a big way. Scream was a fun, scary film that felt genuinely fresh when it was first released. Its extended opening scene with Drew Barrymore was absolutely shocking; it’s still one of the best opens in horror film history. The commentary and dialogue was whip-smart and Craven’s scares never looked better. Scream was the rare horror film to cross-over and find a larger audience with even non-horror fans.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
To date, A Nightmare on Elm Street remains one of the best horror films ever made. Freddy Krueger is an iconic horror villain. Even non-horror fans know his name. At this point in his career, Craven had clearly mastered the art of getting the most of out smaller budgets. We’re so used to these movies now that it’s almost hard to remember how innovative the concept was when it was first released. Few movies have ever captured the look and feel of nightmares like Craven did in Elm Street. Whether it’s Tina’s dream of Freddy with his arms stretching out or Nancy’s feet sinking into the steps as she tries to escape, Craven knows how to get under his audience’s skin. None of the sequels or the poor remake come close to the original.