DreadWorld Tribute: The Top 8 Wes Craven Films

The horror community was recently rocked with the death of iconic writer/director Wes Craven. While many sites were quick to cobble together tributes, many of them well done, I just couldn't sit down to write this until now - and frankly it's taken a couple of beers for me to even step over this threshold. Wes Cravens films, particularly The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes are directly responsible for much of the content you, the dear reader, see on this site. Without those films my interest in horror, hell in film, never would have been sparked. Those two films opened my eyes - literally, to the possibilities that were held within a visual medium. I'd never seen someone push the boundaries the way Craven did, particularly with Last House. I can still remember where I purchased Last House, and the feelings I felt when I started watching it and the way my insides were turned ti mush when I'd finished watching it.

Post Hills, Craven struggled to make his next mark on the big screen. Deadly Friend is a criminally underrated film he directed that's probably most famous for featuring a young Sharon Stone than for it's association with Craven unfortunately. But it wasn't until 1984, that Craven truly struck pay dirt with the release of the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. Nightmare changed the game. Not only was Freddy Krueger a slasher icon for the 80's, he became one of the first anti-heroes. By the end of his run on top Freddy was more famous for his quips than his kills. Not since Godzilla had the public wanted to root for a bad guy as much as they wanted to root for Freddy.

It was Freddy who laid the groundwork for Cravens 90's productions. Wrestling the character back from its comic roots, Craven made Freddy scary again with New Nightmare. Self aware, long before meta was meta, New Nightmare was frightening, but it was also very smart. The film paved the way for Craven's most successful film, 1996's Scream. As he had with Last House and Nightmare, Craven again changed the game. Horror became a haven for in-jokes and characters knowing exactly the type of situations they were in.

He was always a man looking for the next big thing and as a very learned man, Wes often looked to darkest depths of humanity for inspiration. Even his most sensational films were always based in reality. "Last House" was in essence a remake of Bergmans The Virgin Spring. Hills was a take on Scottish Sawney Bean Family. Nightmare was based on an article Craven had read about people dying of fear in their sleep. Horror was everywhere around us. You only needed to look for it. Craven was brilliant enough to not only find it, but to germinate the seed of a horrific thought into terrifying brilliance.

Craven was my, and I'm sure a lot of folks first doorway into the world of what horror could be. Whether it was Last House, Freddy or Scream, Craven's films will continue to be that gateway for future generations of horror fans. Now I know Wes, ever the humble man, would have wanted any sort of "Top Whatever" list, but I don't think any tribute to the master that is Wes Craven would be complete without recognizing some of his best works, so lets get to it shall we?

The Top 8 Wes Craven Films

Honorable Mentions: Red Eye, Shocker, Deadly Friend

8. The People Under the Stairs


Perhaps Cravens most Joe Dante-ish film, if that makes any sense (it does in my head, so I'm going with it.) Craven has always dipped his toes in social commentary, but with "People" he dove right into the post-Reagan socio-economic suburbia. "People" was Cravens warning about the assumed gentleness of polite society. Be careful about what you see, the truth is always much worse, and in Cravens case it wears a leather gimp suit. It's like Dante's The Burbs taken to it's most fucked up conclusion.

7. Swamp Thing


Cravens first real swing at the big time was this comic book adaptation from 1982. While kind of out of Cravens wheel house, he still manages to instill, in what could be a laughable monster film, with enough humanity to soften the heart of even the hardest gore hound. Swamp Thing was an HBO staple in the cable stations early days, then became a Saturday afternoon regular feature on WPIX here in New York (sans Adrienne Barbeau's excellent breasts) for years after that. Starring the afore mentioned Barbeau, Ray Wise, Craven fave David Hess, and Bond villain Louis Jordan, Swamp Thing may be the most underrated film in Cravens cannon...and poor Jude!

6. The Hills Have Eyes


Too low you may say, and I can understand your argument. Had I seen "Hills" before "Last House," I might tend to agree. But frankly the violence in "Hills" seems tepid to that found in Last House. Now it introduced the world to Michael Berryman and started the trend of the cannibals stalking a deserted country road motif that hundreds of films have aped over the years so "Hills" certainly has earned it's place in film history. While I'm not as high on "Hills" as others, it's certainly a biting commentary on the dynamics of the American family. In it's way "Hills" is a reverse "home invasion" film. The protagonists invade the home of the antagonists and are forced to deal with the consequences.  

5. The Serpent and The Rainbow


Cravens most underrated film in my opinion, despite it's awful third act. This film does so much right early in the film that it's easy to forgive the ridiculousness of the films last frames. It's essentially an Indiana Jones film, had Wes Craven been allowed to direct an Indiana Jones film. Serpent is Wes's adventure movie, an adventure film where Indiana Jones gets a spike driven through his penis. Bill Pullman and Paul Freeman give two of the greatest performances of their long and storied careers. Craven for his part, spreads his wings a bit, but still stays true to his horror roots. If the "Don't bury me...I'm not dead" scene doesn't get you, than you just might be.

4. Wes Craven's New Nightmare


No film in Cravens filmography has risen in reputation as much as New Nightmare has over the last decade. In musical terms New Nightmare is Cravens David Bowie album. It's years ahead of its time and only after it's been dismissed by critics and its creator has moved on to their next project does the public finally understand what the creator was trying to do. New Nightmare reclaimed the Freddy character from its joking, one liner spewing, tepidness and turned it back into what it was meant to be - a force of evil. Heather Langenkamp has never been better (not even on "Just the Ten of Us") and Robert England hadn't seemed as enthused with playing Freddy since the inaugural installment of the franchise. New Nightmare was meta before meta was even a thing and set the stage for what we would see in horror over the next fifteen years.

3. A Nightmare on Elm Street


Where Craven really became "Craven." After placing the horror word on notice with "Last House" and "Hills", Craven struggled to bring his vision to the big screen. Then he read an article in a medical journal about people in Latin America who went to sleep and never woke up - seemingly dying of panic while they slept and horror cinema was changed forever. Before Freddy Krueger became a punchline, he was terrifying. Craven created the new archetype for the final girl. No longer was she chased, Laurie Strode style, in hopes of survival. Nancy bucked up, and dove in to Freddys dream, taking the fight to him. She was certainly tougher than any of the "final girls" we've seen before. 

2. Scream 


I believe this is the only film on the list that Craven didn't write (Swamp Thing was, and still is a comic book, but Craven get a screenplay credit if I'm not mistaken), but I'm too lazy to look it up. Regardless of the writing credit, and the script is certainly brilliant, this is Cravens film 100%. From the opening kill to the killers reveal, it's all Craven. Scream revolutionized and in many ways saved horror after the 80's had seemingly gone out of it's way to bury the genre. What Craven had started with New Nightmare reached it's apex with Scream. Suddenly characters were aware that other films existed, they were smart, they knew the "rules." Even with "meta" pouring out of it's, well, pores, Scream still managed to be scary as hell. Watch the kitchen scene between Skeet Ulrich, Mathew Lillard and Neve Campbell, it's possible Cravens most chilling work. Scream marked the third time Craven changed the horror genre, he did it for the first time with....

1. The Last House on The Left


I've mentioned many times on this site and other's I've written for that Last House on the Left was my "gateway" film. It's the film that showed me what was possible with the visual medium. here was a film maker that was interested not just in making pretty pictures, but saying something. here was someone who was interested in challenging the way the audience watched films. "Last House" pushed as many buttons as possible, but it didn't do it just to get a rise out of folks. It pushed the boundaries to expand peoples minds. David Hess is magnetic as the sadistic Krug. Craven uses Bergmans The Virgin Spring as his jumping point for this lesson as to what a family would do to their tormentors when pushed to the limit. It's something the recent glut of home invasion films have been imitating in spades. Craven beat them all to the punch by 40 years. and that' the story of Cravens career he's been the trend setter, time after time he beat us all to the punch.

Wes Craven the film maker will be missed, but maybe not as much as Wes Craven the man. He was a gentle soul that found himself thrust by his sheer brilliance, to the forefront of a brutal genre. He was just at home bird watching as he was directing mayhem on the screen. he was an influence on every film maker, regardless of genre over the last 40 years and he will be missed. 

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