I was saddened to hear that Wes Craven died earlier this week. Born in 1939 in Cleveland, Ohio, Craven was raised in a strict Baptist family, the surest way to ensure a kid is going to grow up getting into slasher flicks. After gaining a degree in English and Psychology from Wheaton College, and a Masters in Philosophy and Writing from Johns Hopkins, Craven briefly taught English before embracing his true calling – scaring the shit out of people.
Craven’s first job in the movie industry was making hard-core, X-rated pornography, before making his name in the horror genre with the Nightmare on Elm Street series and his character Freddy Krueger. His films tend to focus on exploring reality, often with characters who pass between the world of reality and dreams. Craven often dances dangerously close to breaking the 4th wall, especially in the Krueger film New Nightmare, which he appears in in the role of director, and in the Scream series, where characters often make references to horror films.
Craven’s oeurve includes working on more than 50 films, as well as two books, a comic book series, and numerous cameos and appearances. Here are five of my favourite films that bear his signature.
1. Last House on the Left (1972)
I actually only saw this film recently, because I’m not a huge fan of exploitation-horror (and this – along with I Spit On Your Grave – is probably the classic of the genre), and it’s pretty confronting. Two girls on their way to a concert are kidnapped by a gang of escaped criminals and raped and tortured and killed, and then the parents of one of the unfortunate girls take revenge on the gang. There is a fellatio scene that … well, it will give you nightmares, which is really the point of horror films, is it not? Not for the faint of stomach, and I probably wouldn’t watch again, but it was Craven’s writing and directorial debut and an interesting piece of horror history.
2. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Another exploitation-horror and a cult-classic about a family on a road trip who are terrorised by a family of cannibalistic savages. I enjoyed this one much more than Last House on the Left, mainly I think because it serves as inspiration for Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is one of my favourite horror films. I find the characters a bit more interesting and the horror a bit more visceral and scary. Wes Craven wrote and directed this film, saw well as its sequel, and also produced the 2008 remake, back when studios were remaking all the classic horror flicks.
3. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
One, two, Freddy’s coming for you …
Sure, Freddy Kreuger is a bit camp when you look back on him now, but when I was a wee lass, these films were pure, terrifying fun. I remember my sister and I fiddling with the VCR timer to record these from late-night TV (they used to be on about 2am in the morning) to watch – we had all of them, with adverts and everything. In fact, Nightmare on Elm Street was probably the first horror I ever saw, and it definitely played a huge part in what made me fall in love with the genre. Plus, the appearance by a young Johnny Depp is something to be treasured.
4. Dracula 2000 (2000)
OK, looking at this Craven-produced film empirically, it was a major commercial and critical flop. So why is it on this list? It came out when I was in high school in full goth mode. I’d just seen The Crow films for the first time and was working my way through every gothic novel the library had in stock, so I have a nostalgic attachment to it that overrides its inherent suckiness. The plot follows Bram Stoker’s Dracula resurrected in the year 2000, and mostly serves as a showreel for Gerrard Butler’s hotness. Plus, the soundtrack was pretty awesome (full of 90s nu-metal) and actually was my first introduction to Pantera.
5. People Under the Stairs (1991)
I believe this film was on of Craven’s bigger commercial successes, and with good reason. To me, it’s got all the classic elements of a great horror – a scary house, some less-than-savoury characters, some scary-as-fuck moments, and creepy children. So many creepy children. Fool Williams lives in the ghetto. He’s about to be evicted from his apartment by his landlord, Robinson, so Fool and a couple of friends break into the Robinson’s house while they’re away, and that’s where they meet the people under the stairs … Apparently, Craven was developing a TV series based on the People Under the Stairs for SyFy Channel, but no word what’s happening to that after his death.
Those are my five favourites, but of course, there are many other awesome films, including the Scream films, the Serpent and the Rainbow, and a million others. We’re currently experiencing some massive storms in New Zealand, so it’s the perfect time to curl up with some hot chocolate and a fire and a cat and watch your way through some of these classics. Which Craven films are your favourites?
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