6 Must-See Wes Craven Movies, Ranked
Wes Craven, acclaimed director, writer and producer, passed away on August 30, 2015 at the age of 76. Craven left four decades’ worth of work behind before succumbing to brain cancer, and while not every project was scary — 1999’s Music of the Heart was an acclaimed drama co-starring Meryl Streep — most of them were, and his movies are among the most seminal contributions to the horror genre.
A flurry of obituaries on Craven quoted one of his most famous observations about his craft: “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.” Fear isn’t the only emotion his work released, particularly in the two franchises he’s most remembered for, Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. The former’s considered a horror series, despite its surreal sight gags and villain Freddy Krueger’s penchant for punny one-liners. The latter is billed as a sharp parody of the slasher sub-genre with some genuine chills baked in. But Craven’s instinct to play in the overlapping space between laughter and fear is why both resonated so deeply with fans, and his brightest glints of genius lay in that talent for doing so.
Not every entry in Craven’s canon was a master work. 1986’s Deadly Friend features Kristy Swanson lurching around as a cute teenybopper-turned-lab creation, and it’s more Mystery Science Theater 3000-funny than “probing the unexplored corners of your psyche” disturbing. Three of his films have been subject to wholly unnecessary remakes in the past ten years, and he’s credited as a producer on all of them. But his movies were often very good and never boring — not least Vampire In Brooklyn, another Craven genre-blender starring Eddie Murphy and American Horror Story player Angela Bassett.
But which of Wes Craven’s films are his six best? Scroll down for our picks.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
A loving, all-American family is just trying to enjoy their family road trip when auto trouble leaves them stranded in the desert — and to the family of creepy cannibals who’ve entrapped them, they’re sitting ducks.
Craven considered Hills an homage to big-bad-hillbilly-family classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and according to IMDB, the two films even shared some props. Forget the 2006 remake, if you’ve seen it — it lacks the rough-hewn quality that makes the original so unsettling, and (more importantly) it lacks horror icon Michael Berryman as the creepy Pluto.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Back when video stores were still a thing, the cover art on The Serpent and the Rainbow‘s VHS tape haunted many a kid who dared to skulk around the horror aisle. What’s scarier than the idea of getting buried alive? Well, being a stranger in a strange land who’s poisoned by a drug that turns you into a zombie, for one.
Independence Day‘s Bill Pullman plays an anthropologist who’s sent to Haiti for an investigation that goes very, very wrong. Craven plays on the viewer’s supernatural fears of zombies and exotic witch doctors, but it’s rooted in a deeper anxiety about facing danger when abroad and having little recourse — and losing control over your own body.
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
“She’s been feeding that thing between the walls again!” People Under the Stairs has everything: Offbeat humor, creepy children, a Boo Radley-type figure named Roach and, like the killers in The Hills Have Eyes, a cannibalistic inbred family.
Twin Peaks fans might recognize the actors who play Mommy and Daddy Robeson, as Wendy Robie and Everett McGill also played husband and wife on the surreal David Lynch drama.
The movie that inspired three sequels (all directed by Craven), an MTV series, a mildly funny Wayans brothers franchise and countless other pop culture references managed to serve up real scares even as it deconstructed the traditional horror movie’s “rules.”
Scream‘s innovation came from Craven’s obvious affection for and knowledge of the genre, evident in his direction, but it’s also due to Kevin Williamson’s killer script — after the film launched his career, he created a little show called Dawson’s Creek.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
The tagline for Craven’s directorial debut was, “To avoid fainting keep repeating, ‘it’s only a movie it’s only a movie it’s only a movie,” and that’s not hype. Last House on the Left is disturbing, raw, and (even for people with a Scream-level understanding of horror movie conventions) evokes a feeling of genuine danger, like anything can happen. Craven was quoted as saying that “the deepest horror, as far as I’m concerned, is what happens to your body at your own hands and others,” and that’s fully in play here — in gritty and occasionally surprising ways.
David Hess played the supremely chilling alpha villain Krug, and he also composed the music for the film. Director Eli Roth reused Hess’ songs in his debut feature Cabin Fever.
A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Craven said never expected to see Nightmare as a franchise, but he clearly underestimated Freddy Krueger’s mass appeal. The first film is frightening, sexy, psychologically piercing and grabs you right from the opening sequence in Freddy’s boiler room of broken dreams.
If you’ve somehow never seen the first film in the series — which kicked off Johnny Depp’s career — run don’t walk to Netflix. Oh, and never sleep again.