Wes Craven once said he didn’t set out with the intention of becoming a horror director. Thankfully, for cinema and pop culture in general, Craven’s career took that path, and the director created some of the most groundbreaking shock set to celluloid throughout his forty-year career. Sunday, Wes Craven passed away at the age of 76 after a battle with brain cancer, and immediately his resonance spread throughout social media. While his career had slowed considerably in the last decade, there is no denying the crater of influence Craven left upon the horror landscape. He will be missed.
Wesley Earl Craven was born August 2, 1939, in Cleveland, Ohio. At 32, Craven wrote, produced, and directed an indie horror flick called The Last house on The Left. Last House was, and remains, a disturbing and boundary-shoving cinematic bloodletting. It drew controversy and vitriol from the buttoned-up masses, but in this new world of visionaries infiltrating the studio systems of Hollywood, Craven’s documentary-style revenge thriller was a breath of fresh-blooded air. From there, Craven would work to change the landscape of horror time and time again, creating iconic characters and films that were best watched with your head turned slightly away, through one open eye.
The Hills Have Eyes was Craven’s next groundbreaking feature in 1977. Then came smaller fare like Deadly Blessing, the comic-book adaptation Swamp Thing (which I posited deserves a remake), and Invitation to Hell. Then, in 1984, Craven birthed one of the most incendiary, iconic horror baddies in film history: Freddy Krueger. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, it was Freddy Krueger, clad in his razor-sharp claws and Christmas sweater, that changed the game for good. A Nightmare on Elm Street would go on to become the ultimate horror franchise, spawning endless sequels, a remake, and another remake on the way. Some Craven directed, others he did not; you always knew when Craven was behind the camera.
The 80s were rife with low-budget freak fests from Craven’s delightfully warped sensibilities. Films like Shocker and The Serpent and the Rainbow were not blockbusters, not by any measure, but horror fans admire these works on par with Craven’s legendary Krueger brainchild. The People Under the Stairs did its part to disturb young children who grabbed the VHS copy at their local video store. Then, in 1996, Wes Craven once again upended the status quo in the genre with Scream, a meta-fueled examination into those films he perfected throughout his career. Scream would kick off its own set of sequels, all directed by Craven, and now lives on an MTV series.
Craven’s penchant for taking meta angles were one of the many things which set him apart from other horror directors. Scream was, and still is, the definition of what self-aware horror can become; before that, however, Craven returned to the Krueger well to direct New Nightmare, a meta precursor to the structure of Scream 2, 3, and (shudder) 4. Craven was all for pushing boundaries, all the while remaining fully aware of the gleeful absurdities in horror. He had fun creating bumbling comedy relief and satire in the face of pure chaos and disturbing subject matter. It was a twisted way of looking at the genre, and a wonderfully entertaining perspective.
TOP FIVE WES CRAVEN FILMS:
Narrowing a list of Craven’s five most influential horror films is like choosing your favorite child. To point out these films is in no way a slight on the ones that don’t make the list, but with every subjective list, some make it and some don’t. The beauty of a list like this is how it will vary from person to person, place to place. This is simply a list of the films that stand out to me, films that stamped out a spot in my own cinematic journey, and films who’s cultural impact were, in my opinion, head-and-shoulder above the rest. Here we go…
5 – The Hills Have Eyes (1977): A vacationing family find themselves stranded in the desert, near an nuclear testing range, where a savage group of cannibalistic monsters stuck in time begin systematically stalking and terrorizing them. The Hills Have Eyes mixed notions of post-apocalyptic landscapes and true horror. It also showcased one of Craven’s true talents: ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The grit and grime oozes off each frame, creating a desperate world of violence and bleak fright.
4 – The Last House on the Left (1972): Craven’s first feature is still one of the more unsettling personal horror stories of all time. Two young women are kidnapped by a gang of roving psychopaths and systematically tortured. The Last House on The Left is part true crime, part horror, part revenge, as the parents of one of the girls seeks their pond of flesh. Craven pushed well beyond the boundaries of what was expected, or accepted, in his debut feature. The relentlessness and doc-style of the film make it still difficult to watch, but that is the idea.
3 – Scream (1996): While Scream may have dealt with a murderous serial killer in a mask slashing through unsuspecting teens in a small town, the film also managed to be the the most amusing of Craven’s career. The self-aware discussions of previous slasher films was the tapestry of the film itself, as the kids front and center in the story were unlike most kids in horror films: they have seen other horror films. They know the play, they know the rules, but that doesn’t help their plight.
2 – The People Under the Stairs (1991): This one touched a nerve on a personal level. The People Under the Stairs was a perfect blend of physical and mental horror, as it tells the story of a family with feral children who terrorize unsuspecting kids in a dilapidated home. The film is edgy and boundary pushing, and despite not having the commercial success of some of Craven’s bigger films, it remains one of his most complete horror stories.
1 – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): This goes without saying. Aside from the reshaping of horror in pop culture, Wes Craven’s creation of Freddy Krueger was a seminal moment in the genre. Without getting too far into details, I direct you to Matt Singer’s piece at The Dissolve about the cultural and genre impact of A Nightmare on Elm Street. He says it better than I could ever say.