by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
I like scary movies. As such, along with the majority of other like-minded individuals, I too would consider myself a fan of the legendary film director, writer, producer and actor, Wes Craven, who earlier today it was announced had sadly passed away. Back in June this year, when the news about Sir Christopher Lee‘s passing broke, we put together an article celebrating the great man’s work. Similarly, it would feel very remiss of me to not do the same for Wes, one of the most influential genre directors of our time.
With almost 30 directing credits to his name and a number of titles that his contemporaries often state that they wish they had made, a man who is adored by his legions of fans, today is truly a sad day for horror film watchers everywhere. His twisted sense of humour and ability to reinvigorate a whole sub-genre proved he was a visionary well ahead of his time. His skill and passion is what makes his films still scary to this day.
But before you go to sleep tonight and see him in your dreams, or try to work out which of your friends is responsible for his death and has hidden his body in the boot of their car, I’m going to run through five of his films in no particular that everybody should see, staring with…
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
You’re all quite rightly expecting it to be on the list, so let’s get this one down and then move on. I love A Nightmare on Elm Street. The whole ninety minutes are exactly what a film like this should be; imaginative (especially with its creative death scenes and tonally dark concept), perfect characters for its story, with a few surprisingly decent performances too. Freddy Krueger is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable horror characters invented. Even when he hasn’t got to do much but extend his arms and scrape his glove along a wall, thanks to the way Craven depicts and shoots him, the atmosphere is so tense you could cut it with a bladed-finger. The nightmarish dream-like aura that Craven captured is amazing to behold and helps establish Kreuger as this brilliantly menacing villain. Even though the sequels became increasingly goofy and lame as they went on, Craven’s original can still be taken in isolation as a solid, bold and visually exciting horror. It’s quite possibly the greatest supernatural slasher film ever made and my personal favourite of his.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Oppositely to A Nightmare on Elm Street, the first feature film that Craven directed back in 1972 is the one film of his I truly despise. Its characters are appalling, unpleasant and horrific individuals who rape a couple of girls and torture a family. I found it more than a little misogynistic, with some truly terrible performances from the cast. However, it did cost peanuts to make, was primarily set to appeal to the exploitation crowd and that’s exactly what it achieved, grossing nearly $3m from a very modest $87k budget. Whilst audiences mature and tastes change – what was once considered frightening is perhaps diluted these days by the torture porn and high levels of graphic detail found in similarly low budget horrors – the fact that The Last House on the Left can still make you sick to the pit of your stomach is perhaps an indicator of just how talented he was at his craft. Craven knew how to make something that would have a lasting effect; it’s an exploitative, disgusting revenge thriller that has no moral compass. So, whilst I hate this movie (slightly less than its remake) it is a good example of how his keenly aware intelligence as a film maker set him in good stead for the rest of his career. And after all, it’s only a movie…
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Believe me, I was tempted to include The Hills Have Eyes Part II in this list purely for the scene where a dog has a flashback (yep, that’s a real thing and another example of Craven’s sense of humour) but truth be told, it’s an utter shambles of a film that Wes tried to disown. I’m also ashamed to admit that when I initially sat down to watch – and subsequently enjoyed – the 2006 version of The Hills Have Eyes, I had no idea it was a remake, let alone of a stone cold classic. OK, maybe that’s exaggerating its reputation slightly! Cult classic, perhaps. But Craven’s hill-billy-horror, about a bunch of ugly, deformed, incestuous cannibals preying on some unwitting souls whose caravan happens to have broken down in their patch of the desert, is still an entertainingly gruesome exploitation horror with a touch more nuance than in Craven’s previous outings. Released five years after The Last House on the Left, it’s got all the markings of a more confident and experienced director having much more fun this time around. It’s an over-the-top, slightly camp, grim and gory movie that shows off Craven’s flair for the dramatic.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Two years before Scream, Craven had a stab (excuse the pun) at the meta-slasher when he returned to the New Line Cinema franchise and the monster that he created ten years prior, way back in 1984. Although New Nightmare is technically not considered canon (i.e. a part of the existing timeline), it revels in its freedom to mock and modernise a rapidly failing series that lost touch with Craven’s original vision. With a vicious metal-claw-gloved slap across the face of those who went before him, Craven re-invented the character of Freddy Krueger, the child-molesting nightmare-invading demonic-killer back from beyond the grave. No longer was Krueger a creation portrayed by Robert Englund, but he became real entity, terrorising the actors from A Nightmare on Elm Street including ol’ Wes, who starred in New Nightmare as himself! Most crucially of all, he brought the horror back into the series, something that the garbage that was Freddy’s Dead forgot to do entirely. It may have had a similar level of awareness to Scream, but it took Craven another couple of years to really perfect the technique so expertly.
I would wager that almost everybody has at some point in their life been affected by one of Wes Craven’s movies. I can remember being at school when Scream came out. I was 10 years old in 1996. Such was its notoriety that even though I didn’t see it personally until a couple of years later, I was still aware of Ghostface. The mask was iconic and (from what I remember) was what every kid around our way wore for Halloween the following year. I eventually watched it on VHS a couple of years later at a mate’s house and can still remember us both being a bit giddy with excitement. We used to watch all kinds of dodgy horror movies back then after school (or on …extended… lunch breaks); Witchboard, I Know What You Did Last Summer, It, The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead and of course A Nightmare on Elm Street. Although the call-backs and nods-to other slasher films flew right over my head back then, re-watching it for the first time as an adult back in 2012, it was like watching a whole new film. There are plenty of references dotted throughout to keep supplying that thrilling feeling whenever you spot a new one. The opening scene with Drew Barrymore alone in the house, being threatened by a stranger in a mask, is simply an outstanding opening to a movie and sets the tone early on. It’s just a fun, incredibly clever and always entertaining horror movie made by a horror movie fan for horror movie fans. We will miss Wes Craven like we’d miss any of our own.