The Seven Scariest Films of Wes Craven (1939-2015)

Cinema lost one of its great masters today. He just happened to be a master of horror. Wes Craven has died at the age of 76, leaving behind him an incredible legacy of nightmares that went above and beyond what audiences expected of the genre, imbuing tales of violence with uncanny intelligence. Sometimes his cinematic experiments paid off, and sometimes they did not, but any filmmaker whose oeuvre includes many of the best horror movies ever made was a force to be reckoned with, and a legend in their own time.

As we all mourn the passing of the great Wes Craven, Crave would like to take this opportunity to reflect on these seven films which – in our estimation – will live on as his finest accomplishments. These are the nightmares that will linger in our memories, and which will inspire future filmmakers and horrify audiences for years and years to come. 

The Last House on the Left (1972)

The Last House on the Left

MGM

The poster for Wes Craven’s debut feature gave audiences a very helpful piece of advice: “To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie…”

But The Last House on the Left is more than a movie. The shocking depravity of its villains, matched only by the righteous violence of their victim’s family, was hardly brutality for brutality’s sake. Filmed in a handheld docudrama style that evoked the violence of the Vietnam War then prevalent on the nightly news, Wes Craven’s film was confrontational about its violence. Horror, Craven seemed to be arguing, wasn’t fun, nor should it be. Just take a look at the uncomfortably unfunny “comic relief” scenes in The Last House on the Left, in which dopey sheriffs fail to save anyone’s life; it’s impossible to avoid being offended by the juxtaposition of the film’s lighthearted and the malicious content, and that’s the point.

Craven lifted the plot of The Last House on the Left from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which may make this the only film to establish art house credibility based on the fact that it’s a remake (as opposed to establishing the exact opposite). It’s an uncomfortable sit, even to this day, and it established Wes Craven as a force to be reckoned with in a genre that audiences weren’t accustomed to taking seriously.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

The Hills Have Eyes 1977 Wes Craven

Anchor Bay

Five years after directing a film about so-called “civilized” citizens taking bloody revenge against the violent social outcasts who attacked their family, he did it all over again, and arguably to even greater dramatic effect. The Hills Have Eyes starts out like many horror films, with city dwellers venturing outside their comfort zone, into a world where they were not meant to survive. This particular family wanders into the desert, near a nuclear testing site, which mutated a family of maniacs who assault our protagonists in a terrible and perverse onslaught.

But unlike many of the other films with a similar set up, The Hills Have Eyes then watches in disdain as the victims become just as violent as their assailants. You could argue that it’s heroic, the way they rise up against the bestial folk who set upon them in the night, but in his final shot Craven seems to find no victory in that role reversal. There is no happy ending, only violence that overcomes more violence. The Hills Have Eyes, like The Last House on the Left before it, is both challenging and sad, and the work of an auteur making potent social statements within the horror genre.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street

New Line Cinema

After a string of disappointing misfires (including Deadly BlessingSwamp Thing and The Hills Have Eyes Part II), Wes Craven reemerged as a prominent figure in the horror landscape with A Nightmare on Elm Street. The hallucinogenic film combined the then-coalescing motifs of the new slasher genre with Craven’s many psychological predilections, to tell the story of a serial killer who returns from beyond the grave to torment the children of his own killers in their dreams.

The sequels took that dream concept and ran with it – often over a cliff – but beyond the astounding and creepy visuals, the original A Nightmare on Elm Street achieves horrifying heights via its characters, and the traumas they endure. The families who are destroyed by their secrets, the parents who their children with panicked attempts to protect them, and the primal terror of our own minds. Who hasn’t awoken from a nightmare and been afraid to go back to sleep? And who wouldn’t be tortured by the thought that every time they close their eyes, they might have to confront their greatest fears? And what if those fears, however amorphous and strange, were justified?

A brilliant concept, innovative visual effects, a meaningful story and a fantastic cast (particularly Robert Englund, whose performance as the bogeyman Freddy Krueger turned him into an icon) keep A Nightmare on Elm Street terrifying, even more than 30 years after its release.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

The Serpent and the Rainbow

Universal Pictures

Wes Craven’s sole foray into the zombie genre may not be one of his best films, but it’s one of his most interesting “mixed bag” movies. While the rest of the horror community was busy spinning George A. Romero’s visions of the living dead into apocalyptic analogues for our many sociopolitical anxieties (capitalism, militarism, overpopulation, etc.) or into splatterhouse comedies (Dead AliveReturn of the Living Dead, etc.), Wes Craven brought the zombie myth back to its roots: specifically Haiti, where the practice of zombification had recently been explored by ethnobotanist Wade Davis in his non-fiction book.

The Serpent and the Rainbow can’t quite pretend to be non-fiction. The film’s most intriguing elements are the realistic (or at least quasi-realistic) portrayals of voodoo rituals and the dangers of poking one’s head where it doesn’t belong in a dangerous political climate. Bill Pullman is a fine leading man, and one can’t help but squirm as he trudges obsessively towards the inevitable horrors that befall him. But then there’s a jaguar spirit and the plot goes totally hinky and it becomes very hard to take The Serpent and the Rainbow seriously.

But for a good chunk of Wes Craven’s otherwise underrated film, it’s an intriguing drama that just happens to be set against the backdrop of real-life terror, and it definitely deserves another look from fans who – by and large – have written off The Serpent and the Rainbow as one of Craven’s minor films.

The People Under the Stairs (1991)

The People Under the Stairs

Universal Pictures

One of Wes Craven’s most unusual, yet absolutely terrifying films, The People Under the Stairs starts with a heightened sense of righteous disgust with the bourgeoisie, and works backward to pervert their values. The film stars Brandon Adams as a young boy whose family has been evicted by the rich Robeson family, “Daddy” (Everett McGill) and “Mommy” (Wendy Robie), who breaks into their house with his uncle. Instead of finding easy pickings or even straight up revenge, they find themselves at the mercy of psychotic incestuous hypocrites whose many attempts to find a wholesome child has led them to mutilate scores of kids, and tuck them away within the walls of their giant home, where they have resorted to cannibalism.

Now, our hero is stuck in the house with rich maniacs and their hellspawn, and yes, it sounds almost too absurd to be a proper film. Fortunately, Craven’s direction is both grotesque and furious, imbuing The People Under the Stairs with meaningful subtext even when the film operates as a stomach-churning freak show. McGill and Robie, who at the time were playing a very different husband and wife on the hit TV series Twin Peaks, are two of Craven’s most memorable monsters, in one of his strangest yet most unforgettable nightmares.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

Wes Craven's New Nightmare

New Line Cinema

Then, there was Wes Craven’s new nightmare. As the Nightmare on Elm Street series grew uncontrollably into a corny campfest, Craven himself sat most of the many sequels out. (He produced and co-wrote the third installment, Dream Warriors, which was a fun film, but he had little to no involvement in any of the others.)  When the time came for Craven to return to the series, he decided that the fact that Freddy Krueger wasn’t scary anymore was enough of a plot in itself, and he was right. 

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare posited horror movies need to be scary, or else they fail to serve their most important function: as an outlet for audiences to vent their real-life terrors, before they become uncontainable. So with Freddy neutered by sequels, he begins to materialize in the real world and menace the makers of his films, including Craven himself and the original film’s stars, Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund. It could have been too clever for its own good, but instead New Nightmare achieves an iconic primacy, and reestablishes Krueger as a fairy tale monster who has earned a rightful place in our nastiest dreams.

Scream (1996)

Scream Courtney Cox Jamie Kennedy Neve Campbell

Dimension Films

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare may be one of the filmmaker’s most significant films, but it was largely misunderstood in its time and Craven’s follow-up, the Eddie Murphy vehicle Vampire in Brooklyn, hardly kept that streak going. So when Craven returned with a slasher movie, long after the genre had been declared dead, nobody thought much would come of it. Oh, how wrong they were.

Scream, written by a particularly clever Kevin Williamson, took the idea of a slasher and turned it on its head, adding soap opera elements, a giallo mystery, and a self-referential tone that mirrored the way young audiences were actually speaking about their lives. The preponderance of cable and home video had made movies into a vital part of the social fabric, and the characters of Scream were just as fluent in popular culture as audiences were. What’s more, Scream went beyond the template set by Pulp Fiction and used its cultural influences to push the story forward, and motivate its character to behave like real people, or like old school clichés, based on what they’ve seen, not necessarily based on their personal experience.

To those who weren’t around when Scream came out, and particularly those who weren’t in high school, it may be difficult to describe just how refreshing Craven’s film was. It’s a smart thriller, a scary film to be sure, but it more accurately represented the cultural climate of the time than any movie had in years. There are some who, myself included, argue that Scream was the defining film of its generation. It was to the 1990s what The Breakfast Club was the 1980s, and Saturday Night Fever was the 1970s. It spoke to a generation because it spoke like generation, and the fact that the generation it represented was too busy watching TV to save themselves from the real world is cynical, but certainly apt.

Scream was the start of yet another franchise, this one more consistent than the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Craven remained in control this time, and so whatever flaws the sequels may have (and they have their fair share), at least they were his. Betwixt his Scream films, Craven made multiple attempts to expand his horizons. His Meryl Streep drama Music of the Heart was nominated for two Oscars (for Best Actress, naturally, and Best Original Song), and his kidnapping thriller Red Eye may be his best non-horror movie. 

But the horror is what defined Craven’s career, and no matter how many times he fell into failed experiments, he always found his way back into cultural significance, finding new fears and new idea that expanded what audiences and filmmakers came to expect from the genre. He made his mark, many times over, and he will never be forgotten.

Top Image via Dimension Films

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.