If Wes Craven, who died last night in Los Angeles, was never quite the “master” of terror that ads would so often proclaim him as, he was mostly no slouch either, having earned a place in the horror film iconography of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and aughts. I had heard second-hand from people who’ve worked with him that he was losing a step or two on some of his more recent film sets, but his brain cancer was a fairly well-kept secret, and he certainly seemed coherent and articulate when I had a chance to interview him back in 2011 (it is unfortunately no longer online). Wes Craven indirectly taught me that blind hero worship does not hold up when I saw Shocker and hated it, but he also taught me an old dog can learn new tricks, and that one misstep doesn’t make you fall down forever.
76 is too young to lose a man who, even in his atrocious penultimate film My Soul to Take, was writing young characters with a vibrancy and believability that too many people his age forget. Though he tended to stumble when following a formula, his most beloved horror films utilized unique source material, blazed original trails and set the standard for so many imitators to come. Let us now take a moment to celebrate the best of them – and trust me when I say MY best will be slightly different than most others.
8. Swamp Thing.
In 1982, people didn’t just make movies out of any old obscure comic book character they wanted – especially if the main character was not an appealing superhero, but a walking plant. But Craven did, in a bid to prove he could handle more stuntwork and action-oriented plotlines. The Swamp Thing himself is not, perhaps, the most realistic comic creation ever put to film, and is pretty obviously a stuntman in a rubber suit (actor Dick Durock, who played every subsequent live-action take on the character until his death, became more known in that role than any other). However, despite merging Matt Cable and Abby Arcane into one character, it was faithful enough, and it caused DC Comics to un-retire the series on the page. The rest is history – under Alan Moore, Swamp Thing was the first regular DC title to blatantly ignore the Comics Code Authority, and spur the launch of Vertigo.
These days he’s a fixture in the DC Universe – and you can partly thank Wes Craven for that.
7 Red Eye.
When the guy sitting next to you on a plane reveals that his name is “Jackson Rippner,” for God’s sake, switch seats!
Craven tried to go Hitchcockian in this thriller that, for much of its running time, sees psychopath Cillian Murphy threaten and blackmail his in-flight aisle-mate Rachel McAdams. As she tries to find ways to signal the danger without alerting his watchful gaze, the mood stays thoroughly tense, though once the plane lands we get some rather silly, over-the-top action antics.
That same year, Murphy would put a sack over his head and take on Batman, but Rippner was the better of his villain roles that year.
6. Scream 4.
Yes, I’m serious.
I’m sympathetic to Quentin Tarantino’s take on the original Scream and its first two sequels – I remember coming out of the theater thinking, “that was okay, but Sam Raimi would have hit it out of the park.” There’s a difference between actually subverting cliches and simply pointing them out, and I’m not sure screenwriter Kevin Williamson was ever entirely clear on that.
With Scream 4, however, enough time had past that a whole generation had grown up with Scream as their standard, and the movie was now specifically mocking them and their expectations. In having his metaphorical serpent of a franchise devour its own tail, Craven pushed the joke as far as it could go, and I will argue that it’s his funniest film. As a swan song, it’s bizarrely apt – a commentary on a commentary on the kind of thing he made his name with, and a cheeky nod to all the remake rights he was selling off in order to keep funding his own projects.
5. The Serpent and the Rainbow.
When we think of zombies, we’re inclined to imagine the George Romero kind – rotting, walking corpses who feed on brains and can only be stopped by a bullet to the head. Craven was the rare modern horror director to go back to the Haitian roots of zombie tales, with Bill Pullman playing a botanist in search of rare herbs who finds the one that mimics death in its subjects – and an evil soul-stealing “bokor” who uses it.
Taking a lot of liberties with the nonfiction book of the same name, the director crafted a fun supernatural suspense film that wasn’t immediately embraced, in part because people didn’t know whether to expect a true-life drama or a monster movie. Those of us who’ve discovered it on video or cable in the years since, however, know that it’s a unique take on a familiar genre, and one of but many must-see Pullman performances (watch him take a nail to the nutsack!).
4. The Hills Have Eyes.
Before Freddy and Ghostface, Craven’s biggest contribution to the movie monster canon was Pluto, the giant hillbilly cannibal played by Michael Berryman, whose unique mug has gone on to grace many a movie since.
Craven’s third feature as director was his second with classical origins, as it updates the legend of Sawney Bean, a 16th-century Scottish patriarch of a cannibal clan who has also been referenced in Attack on Titan. Like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which came out a couple of years prior, it played strongly upon the class divisions and cultural clashes made raw by the upheaval of the ’70s; also like Texas Chain Saw, it got a fairly respectable remake in the 2000s, when a time of war once again exposed a deep societal polarization.
3. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
Following Freddy’s Dead, a dismal sequel which semi-ignored continuity and wrapped up the Nightmare on Elm Street series in headache-inducing, green-and-red 3D, Craven returned to the characters he created with one goal in mind: make Freddy Krueger scary again. To do so, he re-envisioned his dream-stalking slayer as the embodiment of an evil force breaking free of the script for a Freddy sequel and terrorizing lead actress Heather Langenkamp and her kid.
The story within a story, which also saw Craven and Robert Englund play themselves, was Craven’s first real stab at meta-commentary on the kinds of films he’d been making, and would lead him to try again, with more profitable results (and a less interesting outcome, if you ask me) with Scream. Freddy would resurface one more time in the crossover Freddy vs. Jason, but this was the real grand finale, with the creator putting his own creation to rest by acknowledging that ultimately, he belonged in a contained film series.
2. The Last House on the Left.
Rape-and-revenge movies, by definition, tend to be unpleasant to watch, but Craven’s 1972 feature directorial debut, based on an Ingmar Bergman film that in turn was based on an ancient legend, has more in mind than just violating its heroine so her parents can take brutal revenge. While Bergman’s The Virgin Spring implies that God has a plan, but it’s at times a fucked-up and awful one, Craven’s take effectively killed the sixties dead, showing the rape as part of a general loss of control in society, as parental and law enforcement authority breaks down, and must be forcefully re-asserted after its many flaws are made apparent.
Equal parts bizarre social satire and dark drama, the original Last House has a lot more nuance than many of the similarly themed films which followed.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street.
I was far too young to see – or even be interested in seeing – this classic slasher when it first came out, but when the sequel became a thing, I started seeing pictures of Freddy Krueger and being struck by what a unique horror creation he was. The contrast of the utterly normal hat and sweater on such a twisted face gave him an element of something that should not be, as if the laws of reality had gone wrong somewhere, and the finger-knives were self-evidently threatening.
In the third film, the franchise ventured further out than any previous horror series had dared, allowing Freddy to warp and bend the dream reality to his will, and become literally anything you could imagine. Sometimes this allowed for excessively jokey variations, like Freddy’s hand becoming the shark fin from Jaws, but in general it allowed individual filmmakers to do whatever they liked with the burnt man who kills you in your dreams. And when Platinum Dunes tried to remake the original, they found that Robert Englund’s Freddy was up there with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein – you can replace him, but it’s a bad idea to.
If Freddy were the only thing Wes Craven had ever created, he’d have earned a spot in the pop-culture hall of fame – with his foul-mouth and mean-spirited wisecracks, the killer broke new ground as a slasher villain audiences rooted for rather than against, making him a perfect icon for a decade in which teenagers were the “prey” of every business around, and predatory profits were celebrated above all. With no rules holding him back – at least until the dream demons showed up in part 6 – he was the ultimate free spirit and poke in the eye to authoritarian parents who could not protect their kids from him.
I still hold that the Nightmare series is the best and most consistently interesting long-running horror franchise, maintaining more or less the same story through most of its installments and serving as the launching ground for the likes of directors Renny Harlin and Chuck Russell, and actors including Johnny Depp and Patricia Arquette.
Aside, perhaps, from Clive Barker’s Pinhead, Craven created the most unique cinematic bogeyman of my lifetime. May he rest eternal in more peaceful slumber than many of us enjoyed after taking in his more terrifying creations.
Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.)
Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist