Wes Craven died Sunday at the age of 76 after a long battle with brain cancer. He will be missed by the film community at large, particularly the horror community. With a career spanning over four decades, Craven leaves behind an extensive body of work with a number of iconic horror films that will stand the test of time as long as the genre stands tall.
To celebrate Mr. Craven, I’ve decided to pay tribute by listing my personal top 10 Wes Craven films below, films that any fan of horror or film in general should give at least one viewing:
- Red Eye
The first of two non-horror films that Wes Craven made, Red Eye is a claustrophobic, intense, and completely gripping action thriller that stars Cillian Murphy as Jackson Rippner, a middle man involved in an assassination attempt who abducts Lisa, played by Rachel McAdams, and forces her to use her connections to move the target to a predetermined position at a luxury resort. Jackson tells her if she does not, her father will be killed. Efficient, effective, and despite some plot holes, Red Eye is a fun exercise in suspense that also works as a “ra ra” movie for female empowerment – and that’s never a bad thing.
- Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
After five sequels that could not hold a candlelight to the original, Wes Craven returned to the director’s chair to bring us New Nightmare, a brilliant marriage of fantasy and reality that also works as a deconstruction of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies themselves. The film uses mythology that by making more Nightmare movies, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) stays trapped in that world. But once they stop, Freddy is free to roam and haunt the dreams of the people who made the movies. Much of the original cast returns to play alternate versions of themselves, including Wes Craven. The result is the best Nightmare film since the original.
- Music of the Heart
Wes Craven kept his name off much of the promotion of this film because by this point, he had become synonymous with horror and this being a musical drama, the studio thought that audiences would stay away if they knew who directed it. And while the film felt rather generic, that didn’t stop the film from being a decent hit that garnered Meryl Streep another Oscar nomination. If he wanted to, Craven could have easily had a film career outside of horror.
- The Serpent and the Rainbow
This was one of the first horror films I ever saw and I attribute much of my fascination towards stories with zombies or witchcraft to this one. While the film differs from the novel, the depiction of Voodoo rituals with mad science is one that to this day remains a unique example of the zombie film. Also starring Bill Pullman in the main role, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a solid example of Craven’s ability to blend gory images with slow burn suspense.
- The People Under the Stairs
From Shocker to Vampire in Brooklyn to Cursed, Wes Craven made a lot of comedy films based around horror elements. While none of them particularly worked for me (as well as the majority of audiences), The People Under the Stairs melded horror and comedy quite effectively. As burglars become trapped in a house unable to escape, the film descends into a weird campy Home Alone with evil landlords tone. It also manages to make some interesting social commentary, which has offended today’s politically correct sensibilities. Regardless, this is a fun little B-movie that under Craven’s hand, becomes something truly intriguing and never dull.
- Scream 4
I know that critics weren’t too fond of this film, not to mention it couldn’t connect with a younger audience who hadn’t grown up with the original Scream trilogy (the original had scenes in a video store, what kid remembers those nowadays?), but I do believe that this film will be revisited over the next few years and will be seen in a new light. Scream 4 is about as clever, self-referential, and as fun as the original Scream. One thing that Wes Craven really knew how to do well was make things meta. He proved it with New Nightmare and Scream, and Scream 4 really does have some interesting things to say about the current state of remakes, reboots, and sequels coming out long after the original. It also has the audacity to include itself in that mix, deconstructing itself while simultaneously poking fun at the current state of horror movies today. I really enjoyed this movie, especially the first ten minutes, and I did not see that twist coming.
- The Hills Have Eyes
The Hills Have Eyes was remade in 2006 by Alexandre Aja, which was a very good remake. But the original Wes Craven film is one of the most unforgiving horror films ever made. By that I mean, no one is safe, not even babies or women. As a family of cannibals stalk and kill a vacationing family who decide to take a short cut down the wrong valley, The Hills Have Eyes doesn’t just provide gore and cringe worthy moments. Craven spends a lot of time with the cannibal family, and we quickly learn that their dynamic is not much different than the family they are hunting. Craven forces us to sympathize with the predators as well as the prey, which is a very bold move for a horror filmmaker.
- The Last House on the Left
This film has certainly had its share of controversy, but behind its sadistic and brutally graphic visuals, The Last House on the Left is an uncompromising and thoughtful movie about violence, revenge, and the mindset of a killer. It’s also an unofficial remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. This movie is certainly not for the faint of heart but it is an example of a horror film that will leave you shaken to your core.
Scream is a film that practically defined a generation. Pop culture obsessed teens who were raised with television and lived their lives as if they were in a movie. That was very much the environment I remember growing up in. And that’s film that Wes Craven made with writer Kevin Williamson. Scream is a brilliant film that doesn’t just deconstruct the horror film by poking fun at its characters and calling attention to the way horror films work. It has a lot to say about the generation that embraced horror films as a form of entertainment.
This is actually my favourite Wes Craven film but I can’t deny the importance of:
- A Nightmare on Elm Street
One of the most iconic horror films of all time, A Nightmare on Elm Street introduced the world to Freddy Krueger. It made Robert Englund one of the horror genre’s most respected figures and also introduced the world to actor Johnny Depp. And unlike its sequels, this film is actually terrifying. There is a lot to be said about the film’s exploration of dreams, death, and sexual promiscuity. But even as a simple thriller, very few things in horror cinema are more unsettling than hearing the song, “One, two, Freddy’s come for you….” For this movie alone, Wes Craven deserves to go down in cinematic history as a master of horror.