It’s time again to celebrate the work of a great horror filmmaker. Today it’s Wes Craven, a man who reimagined the genre again and again over his career. Sometimes with graphic violence, sometimes with satirical humor, always with a vivid imagination, Craven could make the viewer feel unsafe – a great place to start if you’re making a scary movie. Do you like scary movies?
5. Last House on the Left (1972)
Wes Craven made his dubious feature directorial debut with this 1972 revenge fantasy. Watch the film at your own risk, and follow the tale of a trusting family whose beloved and wholesome daughter falls into the hands of evildoers. Her fate is unknown to her family until her attackers are unknowingly taken in for the night by her family in an act of kindness. Once their crime is discovered, the family abandons decency and wreaks bloody vengeance.
Craven’s interest is the brutality – of the killers, and then the family. He wallows so mercilessly in both that this picture carries a measure of notoriety missing from anything else Craven’s directed – even The Hills Have Eyes. It’s been banned in countries the world over.
His film is not a good one, and what psychological merit it has – the idea of decent people abandoning decency in favor of blood soaked revenge – isn’t Craven’s own. (Last House on the Left is, in fact, a remake of Ingmar Bertman’s Oscar winner The Virgin Spring.) Still, for all its cartoonish sadism and contempt, for its artless disgust, Last House is an interesting genre entity, particularly as the first step in Craven’s career. It’s a horror film, plain and simple. No tidy idea that violence can be resolved through violence, or that any act of brutality is justifiable. It’s an ugly film that leaves you feeling ugly, but horror is not meant to brighten your day, eh?
4. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Wes Craven’s original Hills – cheaply made and poorly acted – is a surprisingly memorable, and even more surprisingly alarming flick. Craven’s early career is marked by a contempt for both characters and audience, and his first two horror films ignored taboos, mistreating everyone on screen and in the theater. In the style of Deliverance meets Mad Max, Hills was an exercise in pushing the envelope, and it owes what lasting popularity it has to its shocking violence and Michael Berryman’s nightmarish mug.
The Hills Have Eyes is not for the squeamish. People are raped, burned alive, eaten alive, eaten dead, and generally ill-treated.
In fact, Craven’s greatest triumph is in creating tension via a plot device so unreasonably gruesome no audience would believe a film could go through with it. The freaks kidnap a baby with plans to eat her. But by systematically crushing taboo after taboo, the unthinkable becomes plausible, and the audience grows to fear that the baby will actually be eaten. It’s not the kind of accomplishment you’d want to share with your mom, but in terms of genre control, it is pretty good.
3. Scream 2 (1997)
Updating his celebratory meta-analysis of genre clichés, Craven checked back in on Sydney Prescott (Neve Campell) and crew a couple years later, as the surviving members of the Woodsboro murders settled into a new semester at Windsor College. The movie Stab, based on the horrors Sydney and posse survived (well, some didn’t survive) just two years ago is already out and screening on campus, but has it inspired copycat killers?
Craven, working again from a screenplay by Kevin Williamson, goes even more meta, using the film-within-a-film technique while simultaneously poking fun at horror sequel clichés in his own horror sequel.
And in the same way Scream subverted horror tropes while employing them to joyous results, the sequel – funny, tense, scary, smart, and fun – manages to find freshness by digging through what should be stale.
2. Nightmare on Elm St. (1984)
Teens on suburban Elm St. share nightmares, and one by one, these teens are not waking up. Not that their disbelieving parents care. When Tina woke one night, her nightgown shredded by Freddie’s razor fingers, her super-classy mother admonished, “Tina, hon, you gotta cut your fingernails or you gotta stop that kind of dreamin’. One or the other.”
Depositing a boogieman in your dreams to create nightmares that will truly kill you was a genius concept by writer/director Craven because you can only stay awake for so long. It took everyone’s fear of nightmares to a more concrete level.
The film was sequeled to death, it suffers slightly from a low budget and even more from a synth-heavy score and weak FX that date it, but it’s still an effective shocker. That face that stretches through the wall is cool, the stretched out arms behind Tina are still scary. The nightmare images are apt, and the hopscotch chant and the vision of Freddie himself were not only refreshingly original but wildly creepy.
1. Scream (1996)
In his career, Wes Craven has reinvented horror any number of times. When Scream hit screens in 1996, we were still three years from the onslaught of the shakey cam, six years from the deluge of Asian remakes, and nearly ten years from the first foul waft of horror porn. In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor.
What you have is a traditional high school slasher – someone dons a likeness of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting and plants a butcher knife in a local teen, leading to red herrings, mystery, bloodletting and whatnot. But Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.
What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. As the film opens, Casey (Drew Barrymore) could have survived entirely (we presume) had she only remembered that it was not, in fact, Jason Voorhees who killed all those campers in Friday the 13th; it was his mother. A twisted reverence for the intricacies of slashers is introduced in the film’s opening sequence, then glibly revisited in one form or another in nearly every scene after.
We spent the next five years or more watching talented TV teens and sitcom stars make the big screen leap to slashers, mostly with weak results, but Scream stands the test of time. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but we think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.