Raised in an ultra-strict variant of the Baptist faith, Wes Craven’s exposure to the horror genre didn’t occur until he was pushing 30. The former academic and schoolteacher made a move into the film industry later than most, working his way up the ladder, starting as a messenger boy before learning to sync dailies. Eventually, he found success in New York’s thriving sexploitation and porn scene (as an editor and associate producer), directing at least one hardcore film after The Last House on the Left (1972). The Fireworks Woman (1975), given its pseudonymous credit to a certain Abe Snake, is rarely listed on his CV but serves as Craven’s second feature proper, ahead of The Hills Have Eyes (1977).
Few directors ever become a household name, but Craven’s dark imaginings connected repeatedly with a mass viewership. His knack for transforming intellectual ideas reflecting our primal fears and social anxieties into movies that appeared to be ahead of the industry curve served to mark him out from the pack. Despite being routinely plagued by studio interference, hugely so in the case of Deadly Friend (1986) and Cursed (2005), Craven’s contributions to genre cinema are gigantic enough to be era-defining several times over.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
For his debut, Craven set out to challenge the notion that we go to the movies to be entertained. Loosely inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), The Last House on the Left is a purposefully contradictory film, one whose serious-minded social subtext and exploitation tactics collide like tectonic plates. With its soft, autumnal 16mm cinematography, disorienting lurches in tone, extended scenes of sexual assault, outré acts of vengeance and bizarrely inappropriate music (a banjo medley?), Craven would become a key contributor to a new trend in 1970s American horror.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Much like his debut, The Hills Have Eyes is a saga of class antagonism. This one plays out between a family of cannibal bandits preying on a midwestern brood headed to California on holiday. Notably more polished than The Last House on the Left, Craven revised his aesthetic into less abrasive, more exciting mainstream form. Again, it featured respectable middle-class figures forced into acts of transgression and savagery.
A siege-style narrative made in response to the popularity of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), it also features folkloric and literary allusions: the 16th century Sawney Bean legend and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Craven’s second horror film is tautly edited, perverse and brutal as hell.
Deadly Blessing (1981)
A foray into slasher-type territory, set among a fundamentalist, bible-thumping community, Deadly Blessing is an accomplished female-led horror yarn, complete with a gender twist in the spirit of Psycho (1960) and Dressed to Kill (1980). The producers insisted on the inclusion of a special-effects-laden final shot, which subsequently undermined the director’s points about neurotic desire, religious bigotry and misogyny. Though Craven did not wish to put too much emphasis on the connection between his upbringing and his movies, Deadly Blessing, like The Fireworks Woman, is undoubtedly tied to Craven’s own struggles with religious guilt and breaking free culturally and psychologically.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A surreal spin on the ‘sins of the father’ theme and an exploration of suburbia’s dark underbelly, A Nightmare on Elm Street landed at a crucial time. Teenagers, by now a major demographic for Hollywood, had ready access to horror titles. Besides theatres and drive-ins, they could watch them at home thanks to VHS. This portal into every living room or teenage bedroom only heightened the film’s luridly subversive streak, what with iconic villain, Freddy Krueger being a child killer. Craven’s insidious blurring of nightmare and waking life – what became defined as ‘rubber reality’ – provided an extraordinary febrile edge to the slasher sub-genre. A film so influential, an entire generation of genre film creatives can claim to be the children of Elm Street.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Adapted from Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis’s non-fiction account of his trip to Haiti, where he researched the components of so-called ‘voodoo zombie powder’, The Serpent and the Rainbow is an Indiana Jones adventure done realistically. What could have been crass and insensitive in lesser hands is rendered suitably tortured and intoxicating by Craven – here getting to film abroad for the first time and with his largest budget to date. As a portrait of a ravaged country, which has experienced almost constant repression and turmoil, the director draws poignant parallels between the tragic zombie figure of Caribbean mythology and a once proud nation serially abused by colonialists and dictators.
The corrosive and unchallenged effects of television on impressionable minds inspired Shocker. While Universal saw Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi) as a potential Freddy Krueger phenomenon-in-waiting, Craven’s tongue-in-cheek comedy is a commentary on what happens when horror movies stop being frightening and trade in nothing but dumb one-liners, making the bogeyman more a figure of amusement than terror. Today, it looks like a dry run for New Nightmare (1994). It can be read, too, as a middle finger aimed squarely at New Line and their increasingly daft Freddy franchise. Shocker’s fizzy pop energy scales satirical heights during the finale, set inside the world of television, whereupon the dumb jock hero and supernatural monster duke it out, momentarily invading everything from cartoons to live broadcasts. Shocker plays the idiot, but it’s smarter than it appears.
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Boobytraps and sadistic game-playing occur frequently throughout Wes’s filmography. The People Under the Stairs is a horror-themed rendition of hide-and-seek, with a boy (Brandon Adams) trapped inside the prison-like home of racist property developers and cannibalistic siblings (Twin Peaks alumni Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, acting their roles with pantomime élan).
The backdrop of urban renewal as a method of social cleansing directly affecting African American communities makes The People Under the Stairs another of Craven’s socially conscious depictions of American society. An empathetic, anti-capitalist fairy tale, it especially found favour with kids, making it one of his most beloved works.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
1991’s Final Nightmare promised us ‘Freddy’s Dead’, but the dream demon’s creator was coaxed back into the fold, having had nothing to do with the series since its third instalment, Dream Warriors (1987). New Nightmare is a formally radical masterpiece (it cannily opens without a credits sequence), immediately plunging star Heather Langenkamp down a red and green striped rabbit hole, making Freddy’s official farewell a Carroll-ian ‘Heather in Elm Street Land’ affair – Kreuger being the March Hare, the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen all rolled into one. A virtuosic anxiety dream, whose ending loops back directly to the start, New Nightmare’s wild postmodernist attributes paved the way for Scream and is a barnstorming critique of horror’s place in pop culture.
Violence is never something cool or enjoyable in Wes World – it’s immoral, repellent and calculated to disturb. He never lost track of this belief, famously walking out of Reservoir Dogs (1992), reacting with distaste to what he read as Tarantino’s gleeful, attention-seeking use of torture.
Scream begins as an ironic homage to the ‘babysitter telephoned by a maniac’ urban legend. Toying with viewer expectations, the cat and mouse thrills abruptly cease when Ghostface stabs Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) in the chest. Cheer-the-psycho-on frolics are put into screeching U-turn: the victim’s anguish and tears, the murderer taunting her with the knife (intended as a symbol of phallic supremacy and humiliation), then the weakened, futile attempt to fight back and crawl away. The mood is changed entirely. This kind of emotional gravity and morality marks Craven out as a sensitive yet provocative-when-necessary artist.
Red Eye (2005)
A welcome opportunity to do something a bit different from the norm, Red Eye is a riveting thriller breathlessly paced and engagingly played by Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. The Hitchcockian set-up involves an unsuspecting businesswoman (McAdams) coerced into a madcap terrorist scheme by a silver-tongued villain (Murphy). Post-9/11 travel paranoia meets a battle of the sexes, showcasing a seldom-seen side to the director’s skillset. There’s plenty of fun to be had as McAdams’ plucky and quick-thinking heroine turns the tables on Murphy’s smug baddie.