I’ve never been a big horror fan. I get squeamish with bloody action, jump scares always catch me, and I don’t really like looking at disturbing images in general. But when a horror film is well crafted, I can’t seem to look away. Only one director managed to change that, and after his tragic passing, I figured it was only right to celebrate his art.
Wes Craven’s horror wasn’t just about scaring you for the moment, it lingered. His films are cerebral, well paced, and meticulously detailed, and he always found a way to make a horror film about the characters rather than the action. Even when he wasn’t directly involved, his work left a mark on cinema.
With all of that said, here are five of Wes Craven’s best.
My Soul to Take
“Wake up and smell the Starbucks.”
I had a hard time narrowing Craven’s films to five (I really could’ve just put everything here), and almost went with Red Eye or The Hills Have Eyes, but My Soul to Take is just so weird. It’s Craven’s take on small town myth horror, and it’s got all sorts of weird sensibilities that make it stand out from the rest. It’s got a guy who’s probably a demon, teen archetypes who get zero development, a killer who talks to himself, and a supernatural thread tying it all together. Are the souls of the seven kids actually connected or is the main kid just crazy? Unlike his other films, Soul has a very deliberate tone and pace that sort of treads lightly and lets the tension build. It’s quite a film.
“Forgot the first rule of remakes, Jill. Don’t fuck with the original.”
Scream may have changed my life (and turned my crush on Neve Campbell into full blown love), but Scream 4 absolutely nails it. Starting with New Nightmare all those years ago, Scream 4 is a film that could’ve only existed after Craven spent a career honing his craft and paying attention to the route horror was going in. With Hollywood’s fixation on reboots and sequels, Craven churned out one last sequel and capitalized on Scream’s meta-contextual narrative with a reboot and sequel that works. Horror reboots hardly ever work, and sequels never truly live up to the standard of the original, but here’s one that surpasses even the original idea. Setting a new status quo as it simultaneously enforces the old one all the while somehow bringing the series to an ultimate, satisfying conclusion? It’s insane how well it works. Great cast, great writing, great editing, and even super heroics. Just greatness.
The People Under the Stairs
“May they burn in hell.” “Forever and ever in hell.”
This film is special to me for numerous reasons. First, it’s the first horror film I saw with a non-white protagonist. Secondly, it’s the first horror film I saw willingly acknowledging the wage disparity among classes. And finally, it’s basically a twisted kid adventure film. Think of a slightly more dark and horrific Goonies, and you’ll realize why a dude is wearing a gimp suit while trying to kill this kid as he makes friends with some monsters and discovers a hidden treasure. People Under the Stairs is tense, gruesome (Ving Rhames’ body is used as a literal puppet distraction at one point), there are explosions, intrigue, and it’s even a straight action movie leading toward raining money at film’s end. It’s non-traditional in the best way, and I’m so glad it exists.
The Last House on the Left
“Are you sure we’re not going to put you folks to any trouble?” “Oh nonsense, our home is yours.”
You can’t talk about Craven’s best work until you talk about his first. Bursting onto the scene with a twisted home invasion film, Last House is aggressive, disturbing, and it’s full of such provocative imagery it sticks with you forever. Even way back then Craven was capable of masterful work with a film that had you rooting for the bad guys’ end. It’s his most demented piece of art and it’ll forever be a staple which all other home invasion films compare to. It’s like the whole BC/AD thing. There’s Before Last House on the Left (BLHOTL) and after (ALHOTL).
A Nightmare on Elm Street
“Whatever you do…don’t fall asleep.”
It’d be impossible to write out a list like this and not include the big dog. The film that made something as pleasant as sleep seem like the worst thing in the world. Combing all sorts of primal fears like helplessness, death, and children, Elm Street pretty much started my addiction to caffeine. Through the years the fear has been alleviated thanks to The Simpsons, but Freddy’s always coming. Nightmare changed the game completely. Rap songs, Mortal Kombat, tons of films, changing from horror to comedy and back to horror again without fail, and even had a crossover with another horror juggernaut and it wasn’t the worst thing ever. Thanks to Wes, there’ll always be a nightmare on our streets.
These may be his five best, but his other works were all just as good. We’re gonna miss you. What are your favorite Wes Craven works?