The late Wes Craven reinvented horror at least three times; he was the genre filmmaker others followed. Dan Grant remembers his best work including Scream, The Last House On The Left & A Nightmare On Elm Street.
In the pantheon of great horror directors, Wes Craven is arguably the best there was. You can make an argument for names such as John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and Sam Raimi but I’ll take Craven’s ten best and put them up against anyone’s. The man was brilliant and he knew what scared us. Here are, arguably, his ten best films.
10. The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Craven wrote this film after he read an article about a similar situation where two burglars broke into a house and when the police arrived, the burglars were gone but they found children trapped in rooms and in the basement. This is one of Craven’s funnier films but make no mistake about it, it has its terrifying moments. It’s also kind of deep in fairy tale lore. While not a truly horrific film, it still has enough here to jolt you from time to time.
9. Shocker (1989)
Before Peter Berg directed films like Battleship, he did a bit of acting. Here, he is the main protagonist in Craven’s tip of the cap to films like The Hidden. The premise is that a particularly brutal serial killer is put to death in the electric chair, only to now be able to inhabit bodies and use them to kill for him. Horace Pinker is the killer and he is straight up mean and nasty, the modern day Boogeyman. Craven uses a lot of the same techniques that made A Nightmare on Elm Street so good. There’s dreams where it shows the killer’s next moves, a few one liners and a killer that is certainly a distant cousin of Krueger. This isn’t one of his best, but it is a good effort from Craven.
8. Deadly Friend (1986)
For some reason, the studio that produced this film decided they knew more about horror than Wes Craven. They imposed their will on the production and made this a much more light film tonally. Craven and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder) were much more interested in a darker film and one much higher on the horror quotient. This is still a good film but it could have been so much better. Craven clearly seemed to like the modern take on Frankenstein as he not only has a lot of homages to the classic Mary Shelley story, but it has a person brought back life, although in this one she is more undead than reincarnated. Yet in spite of the troubled production, Craven still managed to direct a very good film with hints of horror. It’s just too bad that the original cut wasn’t allowed to be seen.
7. Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Wes Craven downplayed this film, not that he didn’t like the finished product, but he said it felt to him more like a TV production than a feature horror film. I strongly disagree. “Don’t bury me, I’m not dead” is one of the more effective tag lines for a film. It sucks you in right away. Although this film is purely fiction, it is actually based in reality. Voodoo is very real. It’s a religion practiced in places like Haiti and New Orleans. And you can Google real life cases where people have been buried alive only to wake up later to find themselves trapped hopelessly in a coffin. There have been times where the bodies were exhumed and there were claw marks on the coffin, clearly those people woke up AFTER THEY HAD BEEN BURIED. That premise is enough to scare most people. Craven takes you on a journey here. He paints with a very heavy and detailed palette. Craven shows that he respects the subject as he gets incredibly detailed and takes the audience deep into the world of voodoo. This, in my opinion, is one of his more unnerving films.
6. Scream 4 (2011)
With the exception of part 3, which I thought jumped the shark a little, all the Scream films are brilliant. Scream 4 is the reboot so to speak and as reboots go, it’s one of the best. Kevin Williamson, the writer of the first, returns to pen this one and the results are magical. Part of the allure of the Scream films is that they are completely self aware. One of the coolest lines in the film is where they say, the first rule of remakes is don’t F*** with the original. Craven is aware of this and although he treads very carefully around this very notion, he also knows that at this point, we need something more than just a remake of the original. Craven basically works a miracle here as he not only stays true to the series but in some ways he usurps the quality of the original. This is Craven at the top of his game. The strength of Craven as a filmmaker is evident as we will see that even though this is an incredibly well made film, the films in the top 5 all deserve to be there.
5. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
There is no two ways about it, Craven cares about Freddy. He cares about how he was supposed to be, not what he has turned into by Bob Shaye. Freddy was not even remotely funny in the first one. He was a brutal, maniacal, sadistic, bent-on-revenge murderer. He wanted to slice Nancy in two and he did that to Tina (actually sliced her into many pieces). But in the mindless sequels to come, he became Eddie Murphy. And there was nothing frightening about the sequels. They made money but they weren’t true horror films. But this one goes back to its roots and is almost as scary as the first one.
This story is about the film character of Freddy becoming real somehow. He has been a part of Lagenkamp, Saxon, Craven and Englund’s life for so long that he has somehow become real. And now what was once a simple film character actually haunts the cast of the original. We even get to see Rod (Tina’s boyfriend from the original) at one of the funerals. And what makes the story scary is that now Freddy has decided to come after Heather’s kid.
This film goes back to all the techniques that made the first a classic. There is excellent direction to make us fear what is under the bed. The lighting is classic horror film lighting and the music is perfect. Craven cares about Freddy and in here he shows us how much. This is a film way ahead of it’s time.
4. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
There are many who will say this is Wes Craven’s best film. I can understand why. In the 70’s, Craven had the pulse of America. There was a lot of change happening and not a lot of it was good. Like Tobe Hooper from three years earlier, this film is the classic it is because of the low budget and the implied gore. Also similar to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the horrible conditions the cast had to endure to make the film. Guerilla film-making was much easier 40 years ago. Today, you could never get away with the stuff they did then. But it also added to the aesthetic of the film. The Hills Have Eyes is a cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear everything. This film is brutal, it’s violent and it doesn’t apologize for being that way. Craven told the story he wanted to tell and because there was no one telling him what to do, it left him alone to make a classic.
3. Scream (1996)
At this point, horror was dead. The only good horror film of the 90’s was Craven’s New Nightmare. Then this film came along and a genre was born. It’s a film that obviously benefits from Craven’s iconic status in the horror genre. He directed this with a very subtle eye and at other times, he pours it on thick. “I want you to go down to the Mackenzie’s and call the police.” This line was uttered in Halloween and it was also said by Casey’s dad. There are lines and homages to films like Psycho, Friday the 13th, Halloween and a plethora of others. This film is almost 20 years old and it single-handedly ushered in a new breed of horror film. Craven made three masterpieces, all twelve years apart. This was his third and final brilliant film.
2. The Last House on the Left (1972)
In some ways, this film deserves to be in the number one slot as Craven’s best, it really is that good and that iconic. This is without a question, the most disturbing film I have ever seen. It is brutal, unflinching and completely raw in how it is filmed. This is the very definition of low budget, guerilla film-making. It’s also blessed with three giant names from the horror industry. Beside Wes Craven, you have Friday the 13th director Sean Cunningham producing and Friday the 13th Part 2 and Part 3, and Halloween H20 director Steve Miner serving as a PA. Craven has gone on record as saying that this is an incredibly horrific film to watch and that he wasn’t necessarily comfortable with how he made it. But whatever measures he took to make the film, they worked. If you like your horror to be disturbing, macabre, hard to watch and very, very unsettling, you won’t find a better film. Last House is one of the all time greats.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
New Line is the house that Freddy built. This is a true statement. If there was no Freddy, chances are The Lord of the Rings would have been produced by another production company. Freddy was Craven’s baby. He wrote him, he created him and he based him on a school bully who used to torment Wes as a kid. In fact the name Krueger also appears in Last House. At this point in horror, most of the movies were about killing kids because they were lost in the woods or because they were having sex or any number of reasons. Craven blew the lid off this with a killer who could enter your dreams. 30+ years later, we all know Freddy and his story, but in 1984, this film kind of rocked the industry. Krueger has gone on to become one of the most recognizable characters in film history.
Written & Compiled by Dan Grant
Over to you: what are your top 10 films of Wes Craven?
On a personal note, I’m saddened by Craven’s death. Like many of you reading this, I am a giant horror fan and Craven has given me so many thrills and indelible memories over the years. Along with guys like John Carpenter, Sam Raimi and Tobe Hooper, just to name a few, these men terrified me and thrilled me at the same time. Although Craven is not here to read this, I have to say, thank you Wes, for entertaining me and making me think and for helping me fall in love with horror. You were a true inspiration and a giant of unequivocal status. I hope you are scaring everyone in your afterlife. – Dan Grant, Sep 2015.