Wes Craven, a towering figure in horror cinema who passed away yesterday, changed the shape of American pop culture at least once in every decade of his working life.
His early horror films reopened the wounds inflicted during the Vietnam war. His work in the '80s fought a long, symbolic battle against the Reagan administration’s climate of fear. In the '90s he brought a playfully grim sense of meta-humor to slasher films, the conventions of which were starting to ossify. In the final years of his career, he left his stamp on many films that bore his stylistic and thematic influence, not to mention three remakes of his earlier work. But he also stayed active as a filmmaker in his own right, even directing the invigorating Red Eye at the age of 66.
It’s the rare artist who gets to influence modern American life just once in a career, but Wes Craven managed to do it over and over again, over five decades, mostly from within the confines of the disreputable horror genre. The world will be a poorer place without him. Here are 5 Must See Wes Craven Movies.
5 The Last House On The Left (1972)
A raw, visceral experience, The Last House on the Left is one of the most formally ambitious debuts of the 1970s. Two young women (Sandra Cassell and Lucy Grantham) go looking for drugs before a concert and wind up in the clutches of escaped criminal (David Hess) and his gang. The day's adventure quickly turns to violation and murder. The incompetent police don’t catch them and so it looks like the gang will get away…until that is, they run into the parents of one of their young victims.
The story is nothing remarkable (in fact it’s more or less a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) but the way Craven plays with editing is revolutionary. Interspersing the efforts of the police - played for exaggerated comic relief as they continually botch their attempts to save the young girls from harm - with the crimes - which are portrayed in a realistic, incredibly brutal manner - creates an unprecedented sense of tonal whiplash. This is very much Craven’s design.
He was attempting to mock the sensation of watching American news coverage of the Vietnam war, complete with commercial breaks and sitcoms after the hour. Last House on the Left set the stage for an age of unrelenting American horror films.
4 The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Craven followed up his statement on the Vietnam War and the media’s coverage of violence with the ultimate statement on the nuclear family. In The Hills Have Eyes, the Carters are headed to Los Angeles in a big RV, but make the mistake of stopping for gas at the edge of the desert. The attendant (John Steadman) warns them to stay on the main road, but Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve) isn’t about to let some yokel ruin his family vacation.
A few minutes after taking a back road, the tires on the RV blow and Bob has to walk back to the gas station for help, leaving his family behind in the middle of the desert night. What he doesn’t know is the what happened to his camper was no accident. A family of radioactive cannibals has been watching them the minute they drove to the gas station, and they have no intention of letting the Carters leave.
Pitting a Norman Rockwell-esque American family against the casualties of nuclear testing may not be terribly subtle, but The Hills Have Eyes doesn’t traffic in half-measures. When the cannibals take on the Carters, no prisoners are taken by either side.
3 A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
As the American people headed back to an era of superficial family values (this was the era of Reagan's "moral majority"), Wes Craven sharpened his knives and prepared to gut this nation's hypocrisy. With A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven’s aesthetics took a great leap forward to match his incisive screenwriting.
High-schooler Tina Grey (Amanda Wyss) keeps having dreams where a badly scarred mad man tries to kill her. When her friends confess to the same visions and then start turning up dead under suspicious circumstances, Tina wonders if the man with the burns and the sharpened shearing glove is behind the murders. A beautiful piece of nightmare fuel about the sins of the father, Elm Street became a phenomenon and its villain, Freddy Krueger, has since become an icon, standing in for all things that gnaw at our unconscious and go bump in the night.
2 The People Under The Stairs (1991)
After learning that his family is being evicted, a young boy (Brandon Adams) living in South Central Los Angeles breaks into his landlord’s house with some friends. They hope to steal back some of the hard-earned cash they’ve given to the sleazy property-owners over the years and prevent his family from winding up on the street, but their plans changed almost as soon as they get in the house. Mr. and Mrs. Robeson (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie), the Reagan-inspired landlords, are the last descendants of a long line of inbred lunatics, and they don’t take kindly to intruders. In fact, they’ve been keeping neighborhood children under their floorboards, in the bowels of their home, for years now.
The People Under The Stairs boldly re-imagines the former president and his wife as a pair of racist, violent sibling S&M enthusiasts who are openly keeping slaves in their basement. In short, it’s Craven all over. Fearlessly radical, The People Under The Stairs is the last bloody word on trickle down economics.
1 Scream (1996)
Just as the slasher film (a subgenre that Craven helped popularize with the A Nightmare on Elm Street) started to get stale in the '90s, Craven decided to shake things up. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson and Craven created a decidedly postmodern statement on genre, a horror film that knows it’s a horror film.
Teenagers are getting murdered all over Woodsboro, CA, preceded by phone calls by a man with a sinister voice who wants to know all about scary movies. The survivors thus have to use all they’ve learned from their years watching horror films on VHS to outwit the killer. Sly, sturdy and terrifying, Scream was Craven once more upping the ante and ensuring that the bare minimum would no longer be tolerated.
Horror fans were smarter than many directors gave them credit for, and Craven wanted better for them. Horror films badly needed a transfusion and who better than the man who’d produced some of its most unforgettable images and ideas. He loved horror and with Scream, he gave it a new lease on life.
Craven will be sorely missed for many reasons. If you’re a horror fan, chances are he was a huge presence in your life, and part of your awakening to the wonders of scaring yourself. Many of his less celebrated films (Red Eye, New Nightmare and his wonderful segment in Paris Je T’aime to name a few) are more than worth your time.
What are your favorites? What will you remember about Wes Craven?