It’s hard to find a genre director who has made a game-changing classic horror film at all but Wes Craven has done it in almost every decade of his career. He directed Meryl Streep to an Oscar nomination in Music of the Heart (which is actually a pretty good movie, y’all!) and created Freddy Krueger, one of the most iconic horror monsters in film history.
Scream, a TV series based on Craven and Kevin Williamson’s seminal 1996 reinvention of the slasher sub-genre, premiered on MTV this week and while Craven is involved in the series in name only, we wanted to celebrate the work of the filmmaker by listing our six favorite Craven movies. It wasn’t easy — he’s has been behind some of the most beloved horror flicks since he came on the horror scene over 40 years ago, but we took a stab at it (jokes!) and here’s what we came up with.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Craven’s debut feature film teamed him and Sean Cunningham, who would later go on to create the Friday the 13th franchise, for an ultra-low budget exploitation flick that horrified audiences. Shocking and super violent, I would argue that Last House still holds up to this day. It’s also interesting to notice that right out of the gate, Craven was bringing politics into his work, something he continued to do throughout his career. And, for a rape revenge story, I strongly believe that Last House never strays into sexually tasteless or offensive territory because Craven was very careful to never eroticize or fetishize the horrific acts that take place. It’s a fine line to walk, especially for a first time filmmaker, but he manages to do it.
You’ll notice that The Hills Have Eyes isn’t on our list, and yes, there is a reason. While THHE was ambitious and had some good ideas, I would argue that the 2006 remake (on which Craven served as a producer) was able to — with a significantly bigger budget and a hot political climate — vastly improve on the 1977 original. The reason I bring this up is because, while the Last House remake also has some fans out there, for me it actually suffers from the increased budget and skilled filmmakers where Hills was elevated by it. So, that’s why. Feel free to debate this choice in the comments section!
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
In a post-Halloween and Friday the 13th horror landscape, A Nightmare on Elm Street launched Craven into the mainstream and put New Line Cinema on the map. If Halloween was a meat-and-potatoes stalker flick and Friday was all about the artistry of the kills, Nightmare elevated the ’80s slasher movie with solid mythology and a brutal monster in the now iconic Freddy Kruger. And, for Craven fans, Nightmare was the beginnings of many themes that would be present throughout his body of work including self-sufficient teenagers and absent or oblivious parents. It’s also fun to look back at it and see where Freddy began and where he ended up (we’ll get to that in a minute).
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
The Serpent and the Rainbow is a weird movie that deserves some appreciation for all of the things it has to say. For Craven, I would imagine that there were a lot of things he could have been doing. He could have stayed and directed Nightmare movies probably for the rest of his life. But instead, he made choices like this one that I find endlessly interesting. Based on the book by Wade Davis, Serpent is a mature and ambitions movie. It’s a throwback to zombism pre-Romero and once again has major political themes coursing through its veins.
Another side note, here — I personally love The People Under the Stairs. It’s campy and silly and yet it still has some very important points to make, despite them being told in an incredibly over the top way. As a fan, I’m thrilled that it will be turned into a television show on Syfy with Craven slated to direct the pilot and oversee the series.
New Nightmare (1994)
Oh, yes. I went there. New Nightmare was Craven’s directorial return to the juggernaut franchise that he had created ten years earlier. New Nightmare did a lot of things that I would call risky but they ended up absolutely paying off. The elephant in the room with this one is most likely the redesign of Freddy Kruger but, even though Craven himself was quoted earlier this year as saying that it would have been “safer” to not change the look, I respectfully disagree. The update of the Freddy makeup for New Nightmare was out of necessity because at that point, and let’s be real, Freddy had become a clown. While quippy one-liners had always been a part of the character’s repertoire, did anyone find him scary anymore? By keeping actor Robert Englund but making his look and iconic glove a bit more sinister, the team allowed Freddy to be truly terrifying again.
Plus, New Nightmare showed Craven wading in the waters of the meta style that would lend itself so perfectly to Scream. Craven has always been a very self-aware filmmaker and simultaneously was able to comment on the nature of horror movies and talk back to the critics who decided, without paying any sort of attention, that the movies were to blame for bad decisions people make. Sound familiar?
Finally, I think New Nightmare deserves some praise for not only the great performance of Heather Langenkamp but for the story arc of her character. This is a movie about horror, but real life horror, told through the genre lense. This is a story about a woman who is also a mother. There is mention that psychosis runs in her family. Her husband is killed in a horrific accident. Her son’s behavior is becoming violent and erratic and everyone is looking at her, blaming her, as though she has done something wrong. Even without Freddy, what could possibly be more terrifying?
Scream (1996)/ Scream 2 (1997)
Well, yes, of course Scream is on this list. How could it not be? Aside from becoming a pop culture phenomenon and reinventing and reinvigorating the slasher sub-genre, Scream is not only scary but incredibly smart. It’s smart in all the fun ways — once again, very self aware, savvy and clever — but it’s also smart in the way that finally someone, somewhere, somehow gave teenagers complete agency to be the leaders of their own stories, for better or worse. This means that teenagers can choose to be the heroes but that they can also choose to be the villains. I loved Scream, both as a young person and a horror fan, because it boldly and defiantly looked into the face of a culture of people and declared, “Don’t you blame the movies.”
Scream 2 came out the following year and was everything that a good horror sequel should be: different. Sydney has gone from high school to college and made new friends and the tone has shifted from taut and tense to slightly quirky and much more fun, but still incredibly scary. Stab: The Movie has hit screens, lovable frat bro Jerry O’Connell serenades Sydney in the cafeteria, and it even pokes a little fun at pretentious college theatre! Seriously, what more could you want from a sequel?
Red Eye (2005)
Finally, Red Eye. Are you guys so mad at this choice? Well, I don’t care. Let’s give credit where credit is due, please, because Red Eye is a very good movie, but it is also a different kind of movie and, in the end, that’s what I admire so much about Wes Craven as a director. In his mid-60s at the time, Craven had lost none of his ambition to innovate within genre filmmaking.
Starring Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams, Red Eye is a straight-up thriller and, fair warning, viewers: a mostly bloodless film. There is also a lot of talking in this movie. It’s kind of like — dare I say it? — watching a play! I hate to be so snarky but Red Eye caught a lot of flack that I don’t think was fair at all. So, if you haven’t seen it yet, be warned: this movie is not an installment in the Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream franchises, but it is a very solid installment in Wes Craven’s career.
What are some of your favorites, horror fans? Do you have an unnatural love for Shocker or the insanity of Deadly Friend? Will Swamp Thing always hold a special place in your schlock loving hearts? Tell us in the comments section!