It’s hard to believe that one of horror’s masters has been gone now for almost three years. A glance at Wes Craven’s filmography offers a staggering reminder of the contributions he made to the genre. In fact, Craven re-imagined horror in three different decades. The Last House on the Left was one of a handful of 1970’s horror movies that erased boundaries of what could be shown on screen. A decade later, Craven released A Nightmare on Elm Street, which launched one of the most successful horror franchises in. In the 1990’s, Scream re-wrote the horror 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 a huge fan of the movie, but that’s also why it’s included. Craven’s directional debut, essentially a loose re-interpretation of The Virgin Spring, is polarizing. Did Craven cross boundaries with his depiction of violence? Could he have made the same points with some of this violence excised from the final print? Critics and fans have debated these questions since the film’s release. But The Last House on the Left’s emotional impact hasn’t diminished in the 46 years since its release. Few movies can retain their power to shock like Craven’s debut.
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 story-telling and onscreen violence. But Craven also demonstrated he had interesting things to say with his movie. His contrast between the All-American Carter family and Hills’ mutant cannibals offered a side dish of social commentary to accompany the nihilistic violence. Liberal son-in-law Doug’s rapid descent into savagery 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, Wes Craven’s return marked a detour, taking the character and concept into what was then uncharted territory. The idea that the Elm Street films had become a ‘home’ for real evil, along with some of the meta-commentary on film violence, made New Nightmare 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 rut. Unless you’re a big fan of Doctor Giggles, the 1990’s felt far removed from horror’s glory days in the 1970’s. Then along came Wes Craven with Scream. It was another attempt at post-modern meta-commentary, but this time Craven found an audience. Scream was a fun, scary movie that felt genuinely fresh. 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 also 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, Wes 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 Wes 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 insipid remake come close to the original.