Written by: D.S.Ullery
Allow me to preface this article with a disclaimer: I am aware that, at the end of the day, this list is essentially nothing more than my own opinion. I am not presumptuous enough to assume that my point of view will represent that of every single member of the ever growing HNR audience. I welcome any feedback – opposing or otherwise – in the comment section beneath this article.
Now then, to business. Throughout my life, there have been two specific directors whose body of work has without question had the most dramatic impact on my evolution as a horror fan and my personal take on what constitutes a quality horror film in the first place. One of those gentlemen – John Carpenter – will be the subject of an article written by fellow scribe and HNR repeat offender Wayne C. Rogers. The other gentleman is Wes Craven, and I’m thrilled to offer up this list of what I consider to be his ten finest cinematic ventures.
And so we begin!
10. The Last House on the Left- Truth be told, Craven’s debut horror effort (after spending some time shooting soft core porno) isn’t technically a “good” film. It’s extremely low budget and the performances range from effective (the late, great David Hess as the main thug, Krug) to downright awful (Sandra Cassel as Mari,the girl whose parents will avenge her death later on). In fact, I thought the 2009 remake starring Tony Goldwyn as the father was a better film overall. But there’s no getting away from the raw talent Craven displays behind the camera in this picture as he reworks Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, telling the story of grieving parents who turn their home into a slaughterhouse when they confront the psychopaths who murdered their child. The first half of LHOTL is a mixed bag, with the viewer having to suffer through Cassel’s wooden acting as well as there being too much time spent on a pair of incompetent cops. But once the murders take place and things start moving, it’s impossible to deny that Craven sets the audience on edge. The final showdown between the vengeful parents and the criminals is still as hardcore and intense today as it was in 1972, a perfect, blood drenched calling card to announce the arrival of the next big name in modern horror.
9. Scream 2 – It’s rare for lightning to strike twice in an ongoing horror franchise, but for a sequel to not only equal but surpass its predecessor is unheard of. There are only a handful of occasions when this has happened in the slasher genre and Scream 2 is one of the best examples. This sequel is as smart and self-knowing as the original film, with a wonderful mystery that can only be figured out by working out the rules of horror sequels in play the entire time. Even better, it’s more suspenseful than its predecessor, with Ghostface in particularly brutal form this time around. Round this out with a cast of increasingly likable returning characters (who are savvier for having survived the first series of murders) and this is Craven at the top of his game.
8. The Serpent and the Rainbow – This electrifying, often unbearably creepy 1988 picture was inspired by the nonfiction book of the same name, an account of Dr. Wade Davis’ research into the so called Haitian “zombie powder” that seemed to turn the recently deceased into mindless zombie slaves. The movie features a young Bill Pullman as a scientist who runs afoul of Haiti’s vicious Tonton Macoute (a political militia created by dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who were named for a Haitian bogeyman who was known to snatch children away due to their using the occult to terrify people into submission), while also experiencing a terrifying journey through the voodoo culture in an effort to determine how seemingly dead people are being resurrected. This was Craven’s period between the success of a certain film about a razor gloved dream killer and the original Scream and it’s often overlooked. But it’s also one of his scariest, most thematically consistent and well-paced pictures, with a strong cast, excellent on location cinematography and plenty of well-earned jolts throughout.
7. Swamp Thing –In light of the current craze of big budgeted, star-power-driven comic book adaptations dominating cinemas worldwide, it’s really easy to forget that -after Superman the Movie but before Tim Burton’s Batman – Wes Craven entered the arena of comic to film adaptations with this low budget but undeniably heartfelt little 1982 flick about Alec Holland (here played by Ray Wise, who horror and Sci-Fi fans will recognize from Robocop and Jeepers Creepers 2), a brilliant scientist transformed into the mossy , talking plant-man Swamp Thing after an explosion in his lab. The noticeable budgetary limitations are in fact cheesy as hell at times (at one point Swamp Thing tears the top off of a vehicle and throws it to the side, where it promptly flies off to parts unknown, clearly carried off camera by a wire), but the visual shortcomings are more than compensated for by a terrific cast, snappy writing and a brisk, exciting pace. Dick Durock brings surprising gravitas behind the suit and makeup of the title role and Adrienne Barbeau is perfect as his potential love interest, Agent Cable. The villains are exceptionally cast as well. Last House on the Left number one psycho David Hess is on hand as the wonderfully named henchman Ferret and Louis Jourdan offers up both etiquette and evil as Arcane, the source of Swamp Thing’s misery and the definition of evil incarnate. Despite some of the cheaper effects work (Notice I wrote “some”. There are creature transformations and subsequent make up effects on display later in the film which are executed quite well), Swamp Thing remains one of Craven’s most relentlessly watchable and entertaining films after multiple repeat viewings. It’s a terrific example of his skill as a director elevating the material he’s working with.
6. The People Under the Stairs : This practically had to make this list. Only Wes Craven could mix cannibalism, incest, a comment on race relations, child abduction and child abuse into one movie and not only make it work, but actually make it something of a dark comedy as well. It took balls to hit mainstream American audiences accustomed to slasher sequels with this story of a psychotic couple who have for years kidnapped and tortured children in an effort to have the “perfect family”, chronicling their difficulties dealing with a young ghetto boy who has entered their labyrinthian home in search of a stash of gold rumored to be contained within. Craven moves things along with a sure hand, eliciting excellent performances from Brandon Adams as Fool, the heroic boy who faces the monstrous couple, as well as genre vet Everett McGill and Wendy Robie as the psychotic “Father” and “Mother” of the unholy household. There’s even an appearance by future genre favorite Ving Rhames as the neighborhood con man who convinces Fool to help him break into the house. This has evolved into something of a cult item over the years and I have come to learn that there are horror fans who have not seen this film yet. If you’re one of them, I recommend you check it out.
5. Scream – So you may be thinking “What the hell? What gives? Did this writer not claim way back in entry number nine that he thinks the sequel to this film is the better of the two?” Yes I did and, were I strictly grading these based on sheer entertainment value, Scream 2 would be higher on the food chain (and Scream 4, which I loved, would also have made this list). I looked at not only quality, but staying power, genre impact and what each film meant in terms of Craven’s development as a filmmaker. Incorporating those assessments, Scream takes the higher spot. It not only demonstrated a new sophistication in Craven’s directorial style, it added something new to the mix. Though ironic self-awareness had been attempted in previous films to middling success, this was the movie where the movie spoke directly to us, the horror fans. It was our slasher movie and it never condescended to us or the material. This is the film made specifically for those of us who know the rules, who understand what a scream queen is, who get the point behind motives. That had never been done the way it was here and certainly not with this degree of ingenuity. Scream was a legitimate game changer and an evolutionary leap for Craven as an artist.
4. Red Eye –I’m placing this 2005 suspense flick so high up not only because it’s a damned fine thriller, but because it was another natural progression for Craven, who wanted to do a film that wasn’t horror. Since suspense thrillers share many of the same characteristics as Craven’s outright horror offerings, this taut little number was a logical leap. He acquitted himself nicely with this tense, captivating story starring Rachel McAdams as a hotel manager who finds herself in a battle of wits with a terrorist (Cillian Murphy) sitting next to her on the titular flight who wants to use her to access the US Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security (who is staying at her hotel), whom he plans to have assassinated. This is a nail biter that proves Craven can deliver on all levels without the Ghostface killer or the supernatural of any sort in evidence. Cillian Murphy is the embodiment of smooth malice and Rachel McAdams is earnest and sympathetic as the frightened heroine. This picture was released in close proximity to Flight Plan, a film starring Jodie Foster which also had a plot centered around a woman dealing with a villain on a plane. Despite that film having a higher budget and more obvious star power, I think Red Eye was a far better film.
3. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare- a decade after releasing his most recognizable creation on horror fans, Craven returned to the world of deadly nightmares for this sharp, savage, scary as hell and insightful bit of meta-fiction which posits what might happen if Fred Krueger escaped the confines of the silver screen and began to haunt the dreams of the cast of A Nightmare on Elm Street, specifically actress Heather Langenkamp and her young son. Krueger is portrayed as pure evil here, without the trademark gallows humor he so readily dispensed in the later films. This is a movie about dark ideas achieving even darker consciousness and the impact that sort of evil can have on the lives of the people exposed to it. Watching this film, you get a sense of how truly terrifying it would be to actually have Fred Krueger coming after you. It not only delivers the scares full throttle on the level of the best horror pictures, it also dares to make the audience uncomfortable. After all, doesn’t the fact that we ran out to see this movie because we’re fans of the director and the villain make us just like the people who gave Freddy the impetus to enter the real world in New Nightmare? A modern masterpiece that isn’t really a standard sequel, but nevertheless delivers across the board, along the way raising questions about why we enjoy these films with answers that have the potential to be as terrifying as Krueger himself. This would be the last film Craven would write as well as direct until 2010’s unsuccessful My Soul to Take.
2. A Nightmare on Elm Street – I won’t go into the plot because, if you’re reading this article and made it this far, then you already know it by heart. There’s really nothing I can add about A Nightmare on Elm Street that most of you haven’t already read in various forms in dozens of publications or on dozens of websites over the decades since its release. The film was a landmark moment in horror cinema. I was a teenager in the Eighties and this was our equivalent to The Exorcist, our Jaws. It changed everything about what we could expect from a horror film. Suddenly, we had the right to want the story to be clever, the acting solid, the scares legitimate and well earned. Craven had given us something fresh and original, something with characters who skewed far more closely to real teenagers like us than those hormonally driven idiots populating the Friday the 13th sequels, and he managed to terrify us down to our bones while doing it. By delivering what is arguably his most renowned film to date, Craven also demonstrated to the new generation of horror fans that their horror could be smart as well as scary. And yet, I don’t think that A Nightmare on Elm Street is Wes Craven’s best film. By my reckoning, that honor has to go to….
1. The Hills Have Eyes – This legendary 1977 shocker (which was was also remade successfully by Alexandre Aja in 2006) earns the top spot because this was when we saw the arrival of the Wes Craven. The guy we know and love today. The one who went on to create Freddy Krueger. The master of the macabre who inspired this list. This is the film where we really see Craven unleash his gift for character driven, bone chilling storytelling on a whole new, gritty level by putting an average American family through hell and back as they encounter a clan of mutant cannibals living near an old military bombing range in the Nevada hills. Never has the desert seemed so ominous (nor night time been so capable of making one jump at shadows) as when the bloodthirsty hill dwellers attack and this film switches into overdrive. From fan favorite Michael Berryman as Pluto, to the sheer awesomeness that is the vengeful, rampaging canine known as Beast, Craven unleashes a cavalcade of horrors (including plans to eat a baby and a ghastly crucifixion/ burning that is as horrifying to watch today as it was in 1977) that comes to an end that’s as shockingly abrupt as when it began. The Hills Have Eyes, in all of its brutal glory, signaled a directorial career trajectory heading in the right direction, heralding Wes Craven as a horror artisan who was here to stay.