TTT – Top 10 Wes Craven Movies

Greetings, Glancers! It’s been a minute (do the kidz still say that?) since I’ve squeezed out one of these, but luckily I’ve had a lot of fibre recently and things are moving again, if you take my meaning. Wes Craven is one of my favourite directors of all time but I’ll be the first to admit he’s made a lot of rubbish over the years. He’s one of my favourites because when his films are good, they are second to none. There’s basically three tiers to Craven movies – Iconic, okay, and crap. Most people agree on what’s iconic, everyone disagrees on what’s crap/okay. No matter where you stand, there’s no doubting his place in horror, inventing or reinventing pieces of the genre at least three times, and providing us with some of the best scares, best villains, best heroes, and best movies in horror history.

10. The People Under The Stairs

It’s true to say that most people love this more than I do. I like it, but I don’t have the nostalgic connection to it which most fans have. My favourite thing about it is the Twin Peaks connection – Wendy Robie and Everett McGill star again as another unusual pairing. The story and the film, are fairly unique, but then again we’re talking late 80s, early 90s horror – a time when anything goes, so when we’re talking about a ghetto kid trying to save his family from being evicted by a pair of murderous landlords and their cannibal children, you know you’re on safe enough territory. It’s certainly funny, it’s borders on outright weird, you’d never see anything like it getting made today, and there’s plenty of gore.

9. Swamp Thing

This little seen action/comedy/horror hybrid is well worth a watch for anyone bored with today’s superhero stories and want something a little different. This is certainly a little different, Craven this time dealing with more established stars and a bigger budget than his earlier 70s work. While campy and not going for the jugular as he had been known for, this still has plenty of violence and sexy times and features genre favourites Adrienne Barbeau and Ray Wise.

8. Red Eye

A late in the game box office and critical success for Craven, this is a surprisingly straight, taut, and effective thriller which holds up well today. Featuring reliable performers Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy, and Brian Cox it is another entry in the ‘bad shit happens on a plane’ sub-genre. It has the twists of Scream without the meta stuff and plays out like a modern Hitchcock film, cranking up the tension until the climax. This gets straight to the point, plays its game with no chaff, and remains gripping throughout.

7. The Hills Have Eyes

Here’s an interesting one – I much prefer the remake of this. Craven’s ideas are solid and the story and characters all in place, but it lacks the budget and power to be executed fully. The remake has the money and conviction and it is wonderfully brutal in all the most delightful ways. Still, this is the original and therefore worth giving due attention and respect. Like his previous film, this works as a nightmare scenario of US family values, of how simply and quickly the perfect family can devolve into gruesome violence. The film follows the extended Carter family on a road trip who take a wrong turn and end up being picked off by another family – albeit deformed cannibals. The invention and wit and energy here tends to surpass most modern horror but is only defeated by the lack of money to fully pull off everything required to make it perfect.

6. Scream 3

Often seen as the weakest in the series, while that may be true it always holds a special place in my heart. It was the first in the series I saw in the Cinema and brought along my girlfriend at the time who was also a series fan. The ideas were wearing thin at this point, but there are enough trilogy smarts and in jokes to still make it a fun ride. With Neve, Courtney, David and co all returning, that affinity with the characters is still present and I enjoy the callbacks to the previous entries. The series remains one of the best written and fun in horror, and it’ll always be dear to me, even if it isn’t a patch on Part 1.

5. Music Of The Heart

I imagine I’ll get a lot of heat for this one, but for some reason I’ve always enjoyed the ‘tough kids get won over by teacher’ movies. I don’t know why, but they give me a kick. To see Wes Craven making one, to see Wes Craven directing a Meryl Streep movie, is still hilarious to me, and I think he pulls it off. Sure, there isn’t an original bone in its body, but it proves that Craven can work completely outside horror and make an effective light-hearted drama. Streep even got nominated for an Oscar, as did the title track, but it was a box office flop. It’s a little overlong and probably came out a few years too late, but it’s still one of my under the radar favourites.

4. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Craven’s first experiment with meta or post modern horror or whatever the hell you want to call it, sees him returning to his most famous franchise and ostensibly releasing his most feared creation upon the real world. New Nightmare’s set up is that Heather Langenkamp – Nancy from the original movie – is married and has a son, and that the boy’s nightmares about Freddy are somehow bringing the clawed killer into the real world. This means we have various actors, writers, and directors playing themselves while being stalked by Kruger. It’s clever, and it’s violent, with Robert Englund playing himself, playing traditional Freddy, and playing the all new, more vicious Freddy.

3. The Last House On The Left

Englund’s first impact on the horror scene was this low budget exploitation movie about a family resorting to revenge and torture upon the rapists and killers who did the same to their daughters. It’s a film of two halves, each half complementing the other while advancing the plot and showing how violence begets violence. The first half follows a couple of teenage girls heading to a concert but who are attacked by a group of killers, the second finds the killers accidentally stopping off at the parent’s house and seeing the tables turned. It’s not an easy watch and Craven doesn’t hold back in his depictions of torture, rape, and murder. The remake ups the budget and gore and makes for an interesting companion piece, but for me it lacks the gut punch and shock of the original.

2. Scream

My top two picks aren’t going to surprise anyone. Scream is a perfect film in my eyes. I understand why others will disagree with me and I’m not so blind to agreeing with its criticism, but that doesn’t change how I feel about it. It’s my generation’s horror movie and even though I was 13 or 14 when it released it still felt like it was made for me. I understood most of the references, I loved the twists, I recognised most of the characters in myself and people I knew, the dialogue was sharp, and the cast was peppered with people I either already loved or would come to. It gave us two new horror icons in killer Ghostface and heroine Sydney, played by my other world wife Neve Campbell. It’s funny, stylish, and has some great scares and kills, and it’s a movie I’ll never tire of.

  1. A Nightmare on Elm Street

The only film which could beat Scream is my favourite horror movie of all time. This is the one which got me into horror, even before I’d watched it. I knew Kruger, I knew the plot, and I’d seen bits of it when I was a child, and the artwork in the video stores always intrigued me. It’s one of Craven’s most successful movies, it’s his best work, his most inventive, and it is even critically acclaimed to a certain degree – not always unusual for horror, but definitely rate for one so visceral. The film and its villain gained iconic status leading to a long series of spin-offs and sequels, none of which have matched the skill and precision of the original. Langenkamp and Englund are terrific, the effects are nightmarish, and the idea of someone stalking your dreams (for the sins of your parents no less) remains potent. Horror often bleeds into fantasy, but I don’t think it was ever worked so successfully than with this undoubted masterpiece.

Let us know in the comments which movies you would include in your Top Ten Wes Craven list!

The Last House On The Left (1972)

Over 10 years before the Elm Street series began, Craven was already creating fear, disgust, invention and controversy, particularly with The Last House on the Left, a notoriously banned film which, like most banned films, is graphic more in theme than content. For its time though, it was heavy stuff; rape, murder, mutilation, torture, sadism, revenge, chainsaws…

The film begins calmly enough, with two teenage girls going out together to a rock concert, we watch them getting ready at one of their houses with one set of parents telling them to be careful, have a good time etc. After looking for pot before the concert, the girls are kidnapped by a group of sadistic escaped criminals including Krug (the leader), and his apparent girlfriend Sadie. The girls are raped, tortured, and eventually killed in a number of drawn out, brutal scenes. Craven directs these scenes in a plain, cold manner, so that they are almost unbearable to watch – this is particularly effective due to the lack of gore, close-ups, and other typical techniques overused in totrute porn today – it doesn’t feel exploitative even though we know it is. It helps that the performances of the unknown cast are excellent – to the point that uit doesn’t feel like acting. After the deaths, the killers seem to realise what they have done and there seems to be some sort of confusion in their eyes, if not remorse. In a Bergman-esque twist, the killers’ car breaks down and they look for help at a nearby house which just happens to be the Collingwood home, where the parents of one of their victims live. The Collingwoods have meanwhile called the police as their daughter did not return home, and they unwittingly invite the maniacs in. It isn’t long before each group recognises the other, and the tables are turned with the parents wreaking bloody revenge using a variety of dentistry and DIY tools to full, gripping effect.

Like The Hills Have Eyes, it is fascinating to watch how a middle class family with strong morale values etc can quickly become executers when provoked – to see how any person can become a monster in the ‘right’ circumstances. There are no happy endings here, no moral justification, just revenge pure and simple. The film is set up in every way to disturb – from the infamous trailer, the Texas Chainsaw style ‘based on a true story’ effect, and the scenes of torture and murder themselves. Krug and co. are thoroughly evil and take great joy in the pain of others, but they quickly change face when faced with a gun or chainsaw. The film is almost entirely grim and grainy although there are some funny moments involving the cops and a chicken farmer – these scenes have become infamous amongst fans and critics of the movie. My personal feeling is that it makes the carnage all the more awful, knowing that the usual source of Salvation is a bumbling non-entity – it exemplifies that great Craven message – YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN.  There is some average acting of course, aside from the main players, and it is understandable that many will find this, and the scenes involving the cops particularly jarring. Many today will still find it unbearable. This should definitely be seen, but do not expect a bright affair, or even for your blood-lust to be satisfied – you will be uncomfortable throughout.

This double disc edition has since been improved upon by a 3 disc set, but this edition has plenty of extras including intersting docuementaries featuring Craven and cast and some shorts. For fans of the genre, and for fans of Craven this is an important piece documenting the extreme lengths film-makers were willing to go to provoke a reaction, to stir things up, and to horrify. If you want to check out the remake, which ups the gore, budget, and overall quality it is certainly one of the better remakes of recent years, but still pales in my opinion, to the stinking realism of the original.

Let us know what you thought of the movie – does it still retain the power to shock, or is it more tame that a flaccid sock?

*Review originally written in 2004