I was driving home yesterday evening when a friend reached me with the sad news that legendary horror film writer and director Wes Craven had died at the age of 76. I was shocked, unaware that Craven was as old as he was and had been battling brain cancer. I began to think of the many great films of his that I'd enjoyed over the years, and a great sadness welled over me — horror fans are a greedy lot, and many of us are always hoping that our favorite filmmakers will grant us one or two more films before their permanent retirement or passing.
Craven was one of the truly gifted filmmakers making fright films, a man whose name was synonymous with scary movies, and the driving force behind several of the most popular horror franchises ever created. Was his track record perfect? No. Craven had a few turkeys pop up along the way, but looking at his filmography, I was amazed at how many more great movies there were compared to the bad ones. As a tribute to the man who wrote or directed so many horror gems over a career spanning four decades, here are a few of his most memorial films.
6. The Last House on the Left (1972)
Craven's first feature film still packs a potent punch 43 years after its release, and can take unwary viewers by surprise. He wrote, directed and edited this grisly tale about two teenage girls who run afoul of some very dangerous people, and the subsequent vengeance doled out against their killers later in the story. American horror movies got mean during the 1970s, showing a willingness to step over the line into gritty realism, and The Last House on the Left is one of the era's most famous examples of shock cinema.
5. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
This infamous horror film has a few similarities to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, if that earlier classic had been about a vacation in Hell. The story begins with a Midwestern family driving across the desert from Ohio to Los Angeles, but soon their vehicle is disabled and a family of unhinged, primitive cannibals starts picking them off one by one. Craven's script and direction make the film unnerving in a way that few horror films of the time were, and it's still a frightening movie today.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A film inspired by newspaper articles Craven read about teens who were afraid to fall asleep because of a killer in their dreams, A Nightmare on Elm Street created one of cinema history's most enduring bad guys. Forget the mostly not great sequels. In this film, Freddy Krueger wasn't the wisecracking cartoon character that he would become; he was a very scary supernatural child murderer wearing a glove laden with knives. That's some scary stuff, and this film mines atmospheric nightmare sequences for all they're worth. Who knew a lamb walking in a school hallway could be creepy? Wes Craven knew. This film also had perfect timing, being released at a time when the initial slasher movie craze was really beginning to run out of steam. A Nightmare on Elm Street created a refreshingly new approach to terrorizing teens.
3. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
This strange thriller about a Haitian voodoo cult was based on a nonfiction book by an ethnobotanist named Wade Davis, and directed by Craven. The story, which concerns a researcher who is trying to discover the method for manufacturing a drug that can turn people into subservient living zombies, is pretty spooky, with some scary, nightmarish sequences and a compelling plot.
2. The People Under the Stairs (1991)
I saw this film when it first came out and didn't remember enjoying it much, but re-watched it on Netflix recently, and was surprised at how good it was. The story concerns a creepy, rich brother and sister team who exploit the people in an inner-city neighborhood, and the secrets they keep in their huge mansion of a house. The film has a great plot and strong performances, and is thoroughly entertaining. Well worth seeking out.
Scream did for American horror films what A Nightmare on Elm Street had done 12 years previously — it breathed new life into the genre after a lengthy period of mostly unoriginal and tired films had stripped it of vitality. Written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Craven, Scream revived the slasher film, creating a new type of self-referential horror movie — one that played with audience expectations and the clichés from decades of previous fright films. Scream managed to be funny and smart, but still managed to deliver genuine scares. It created a new template that is still being copied by modern filmmakers. It's hard to believe that Scream is nearly 20 years old, but it still holds up today.
It is always sad when a talented member of the horror community dies, and news of Wes Craven's death affected me more than I would've expected. He was a true legend, his legacy is secured, and I am thankful he left so many great scare films for fans of his work to go back and enjoy. Thanks for all the nightmares, Mr. Craven.
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