Monday, August 31, 2015

Our Favorite Wes Craven Movies

Today the world is less scary.

Wes Craven has died at the age of 76. He had brain cancer. I did not even know he was sick.

The horror community is inconsolable. He was one of the true towering greats of the genre, a guy who made classics of one form or another in four different decades. And though he made a few movies outside of the genre, it is his work in horror that has made him the stuff of legend.

Not every Wes Craven movie was great; as we observed recently on our podcast, his lows were very low. But his highs were also higher than just about anyone else's, and in any conversation about the most important filmmakers in horror his name should always be among the first mentioned. He was a director who felt dangerous because his films didn't follow traditional rules of cinema and because his real-life personality seemed so at odds with the stuff we saw in his movies. It's the quiet ones you have to look out for.
Adam Riske: My favorite Wes Craven movie is Scream. It's the horror movie that was most seminal to my teenage years and it still kicks all kinds of ass even almost 20 years later. Being a teenager was scary back in the 1990s (I can't even imagine being one today) and Scream tapped into that anxiety in such a clever and exciting way. The boogeyman wasn't the other, it was one of your friends. How terrifying is that? Scream is a perfect horror movie. When Wes Craven hit on all cylinders there were few better than him, not just in horror but in any genre. He will be missed. I'm going to add a bunch of his movies to my must-watch list for #ScaryMovieMonth in tribute. RIP.

Mike: After watching The Last House of the Left, I wanted to take a shower. After watching The Hills Have Eyes, I wanted to take two showers. After watching Swamp Thing, I fell in love with Adrienne Barbeau. After watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, I tried to stay awake forever. After watching Shocker, I bought the soundtrack immediately. After watching New Nightmare, I was blown away that a director could return to a franchise he created and turn it on its head. After watching Scream, I believed in the horror genre again. After watching Scream 2, I believed in the horror sequel again.

Wes Craven’s movies, whether great or not-as-great, always made me feel something. That’s so rare in a filmmaker and it’s what I’ll miss most about him.

Rest in peace, Mr. Craven, and thank you.
JB: Above all else, we must remember that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson revived the moribund horror genre in 1996 with Scream. I still remember seeing it on opening night and being impressed with its scariness, its self-awareness, and its audacity. Imagine appropriating John Carpenter’s iconic Halloween score for your film because the main characters happen to be watching Halloween while being stalked. Incredible. Like Psycho, Scream’s twist ending plays fair and is not a cheat—I highly doubt many people in the audience guessed the killer’s identity, but at least (in theory) it was possible.

I also remember Wes Craven’s insightful additions to two horror documentaries, Fear in the Dark and The American Nightmare, both of which I used to show in my film classes. Craven observed that “Horror films do not create fear, they release fear. They are a vent.” I was twenty five or twenty six when I first heard those words, and they blew my mind. I later discovered that Craven spent some time as a teacher, and I always wondered if that was one of the reasons he knew so well what scared young people.

R.I.P. Wes Craven. You will be missed.
Adam Thas:  Wes Craven has always been an important director to me in the sense that he really did introduce me to horror twice. One of the first horror movies I had ever seen was A Nightmare on Elm Street and, being quite young at the time, it scared me so much that I didn’t watch another of the Elm Street movies for years. Eventually when I was in middle school I had become pretty accustomed to horror movies and decided to give the rest of the Elm Street movies aside from the first one I didn’t like them very much. Then in ’94, my BFF Mike dragged me to see New Nightmare and I cannot express how much I loved that movie when I first saw it. I thought it was so smart and scary at the same time; it really turned upside-down what I thought movies could be, and horror in particular. 

Years later I found myself living in Wheaton directly across from Wheaton College in Illinois. Among their list of alumni is Wes Craven. For those of you who aren’t aware of this town, it has the largest number of churches per capita in the entire United States and is the epitome of suburban America. I would go out on runs through the town around the big houses surrounding Wheaton and wondered how much of Craven’s inspiration for movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, The People Under the Stairs or Scream was inspired by the images that surrounded him. To this day I can’t drive through that area without thinking about those movies and a college-age Wes Craven.

Melissa Uhrin: On Saturday night we hosted a "drive-in movie night" in our garage and the second movie in our line-up was Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street. The film has always been a favourite of mine, but I had only ever watched it alone. Needless to say, my group experience with a bunch of horror fans made it my favourite viewing of the film to date. When I read of his passing on Sunday, I was so incredibly sad, but appreciative that the legacy he left behind is something that can be enjoyed forever. What better way to honour someone than to wrap yourself up in a lifetime (forty years!) of their best works? That's my plan for this week, all things Wes Craven. Thank you for a lifetime of entertainment.

Erika:  I think Red Eye is a bit underappreciated in the Wes Craven canon. It’s basic and straightforward, yes, and it includes a few eye-rolling lines of dialogue (the ending stands out), but overall, Red Eye grabs the audience and takes it on an 83 minute fast-paced roller coaster that reminds us what a thriller can be like when it's actually thrilling.

I once watched Red Eye with a group of high school seniors who had earned a ‘free’ 90 minutes. It was Halloween, and they voted to watch a movie as their reward. But what scary movie is not rated R? What scary movie is school-appropriate? And what scary movie that is not rated R but IS school-appropriate will fit into a 90-minute time frame? Thank you, Mr. Craven. I have never seen students so glued to anything the way they became wrapped up in Rachel McAdams’ character’s experience. I have never seen an entire group of people physically jump at the same time or audibly scream at the same time (followed by laughter – they were simply having so much fun wrapped up in this story). And when a character achieves a goal near the end of the film, well, the whole building could hear the students’ joyous, excited cheers. In a time when directors seem to want all of their films to be three-plus hours long, Wes Craven made a fun, suspenseful movie that plays fair and always keeps the audience's sympathies in mind. While a thriller set on an airplane might seem like bad taste in post-9/11 America, Red Eye is able to play on our fears without ever exploiting them. It may not be the typical Wes Craven movie, but it was further proof of what a talented director and skillful manipulator of an audience he was.
Patrick: If you were a horror kid in the '80s, Wes Craven was the architect of your fears.

That can't be overstated. Wes Craven was the first horror director whose name I recognized and associated with other films; when the ads for Shocker ran on TV, I knew it was made by the guy who had created Freddy Krueger. And while John Carpenter made a LOT of classic horror films in the '80s, they were movies better appreciated by grown ups. He helped invent what Roger Ebert called the "dead teenager" movie with Halloween, but there was nothing particularly youthful about his work.

Not so with Craven, whose movies were often messy and very adult but had a reckless imagination to them that spoke directly to us '80s kids. A Nightmare on Elm Street is the first rated R horror movie I remember watching (without my parents' permission) and the first movie that really, truly scared me. I was scared of it before I even saw it; my friend's description of the movie's standout moments were enough to give me ulcers at 8 or 9 years old. It has, in the last 10 years or so, become arguably my favorite horror movie of all time despite its many lesser sequels and bad imitations. I can make a case that either the original Nightmare or Romero's Dawn of the Dead is the single best horror movie of all time.

But Craven didn't just rest on one masterpiece, and he never shied away from working in horror but instead embraced it, becoming one of the genre's greatest and best-spoken ambassadors. And his movies continued to speak to us '80s kids, whether it was the doomed Young Adult love story of Deadly Friend or Shocker, a horror movie entirely about heavy metal music and television, two of the biggest obsessions of our generation. Just when he had gotten away from making movies that speak directly to young audiences -- New Nightmare is a great, great film but plays more like a graduate thesis with its big ideas and cerebral pacing -- Craven directed Scream in 1996 and introduced a whole new generation to the magic of the horror movie. Just as there are so many of us '80s kids who love horror because of A Nightmare on Elm Street, there are just as many '90s kids who have Scream (and the rebirth of studio horror it inspired) who discovered the genre because Wes Craven reinvented it.

It never occurred to me what it might feel like when Wes Craven died because it never occurred to me that Wes Craven would die. He and his work have been a part of my life almost since I can remember. I can't stop thinking about his soft-spoken demeanor and his incredible intelligence and the way those things often seemed totally at odds with the nastiness and insanity that found its way into his films. He's a guy who exorcised his demons on film. He saved his nightmares for the screen. We're so lucky that he shared them with us.
Heather Wixson: This just really sucks.

I know that’s not necessarily an eloquent way to begin a tribute to one of the greatest Masters of Horror of all time but that’s really all I can think right now. How do I even begin to write about the genius who made so many films that for the most part, had a hugely profound influence on me as both a fan and as a writer? I can’t, but I’m going to do my best to try.

I can remember the very first time I saw Freddy Krueger. A Nightmare on Elm Street had just come out on VHS and my best friend Jenna’s parents rented it so that they could watch it with friends. Of course, us kids weren’t invited because while we were allowed to watch a lot of horror movies, the rule was that our parents had to see it first to see if we could ‘take’ it. The thing was...we couldn’t wait. So I remember that night, Jenna and I crawling on the floor from her bedroom out to her living room (a good 25 feet away), sneaking into the room behind the couch, and peeking out from behind it to get a look at what all the fuss was about.

And what we saw absolutely terrified me, but also intrigued me. It was the scene where Nancy is desperately trying to run up her stairs and Freddy wasn’t too far behind, wearing a fake face and mocking this poor young girl. It was truly the things that nightmares were made of, especially for me at age 7, and yet, I knew I HAD to see this movie. So imagine my dismay when I was informed by my mom that I wasn’t allowed to see Nightmare and so I probably spent the next six months or so bugging the hell out of her about watching it.

She finally succumbed and I finally was able to see A Nightmare on Elm Street for myself at my babysitter’s house (as part of a double feature with Children of the Corn -- certainly a messed up day for me) and I honestly don’t think I slept more than an hour that night. Freddy had infected my brain.

But over time, Freddy became something completely different than a symbol of fear to me (which is kind of messed up when you consider that in the original film, he is a pedophile). He was a constant figure in my childhood that had a lot of ‘inconsistency’ to it. I can’t really explain it, but somehow I found Freddy comforting and it’s still that way even now, 30 years later.

It’s remarkable that Freddy was just one of many notable creations from Craven’s illustrious career as a filmmaker, especially considering the fact that the dreamstalker is just as popular now as he was back in the 1980s during his heyday. And as we all know that Craven influenced the genre with more than just A Nightmare on Elm Street; he created Ghostface, gave us incredible films like The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People Under the Stairs, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Red Eye and the truly revolutionary New Nightmare. Even his ‘lesser’ films (lesser by other folks’ standards, not mine, as I recently chatted about on the podcast I did with Patrick) like Shocker, Vampire in Brooklyn, Deadly Friend or My Soul to Take all have redeeming qualities to them and show strokes of Craven’s genius throughout.

I know Patrick asked us to write about one of our favorite Craven film’s, but honestly I couldn’t choose just one because so many of my cinematic milestones involve his work so it’s hard for me to choose just one film specifically to focus on. The man shaped my childhood and my adulthood, and for that I’m forever grateful. Tonight, my soul feels like it shattered into a million pieces because we lost a true legendary talent, a man who always seemed to be creating films that were ahead of their time and just a few steps ahead of the rest of the horror genre. I don’t even know how you try and summarize the impact of someone like Craven, and so I think I could write this piece a hundred times over and still feel like it’s inadequate in the end.

So I’ll just finish off this piece with this: thank you, Mr. Craven for sharing with us your wry sensibilities, your penchant for creating terror, your ingenuity and your innovative spirit and above all else, your horror-loving heart for over 40 years. There have been a lot of greats in the world of horror, but Craven and his talent are truly legendary and wholly one-of-a-kind.

And while this isn’t something I’ve necessarily enjoyed writing, I do hope the silver lining to all this is that maybe now Scream 4 will finally get the love that it has so justly has deserved these last four years.


  1. This was super classy, guys. Great job. Serpent and the Rainbow is his most slept on. a masterpiece.

    1. Yeah, I just saw Serpent and the Rainbow last year during SMM and really like it a lot.

    2. Nice, yeah, I've always thought that Serpent...was a super underrated and almost scary film.

  2. My eyes got a little watery reading this. Wonderful piece dedicated to a wonderful man. Maybe it's my childhood nostalgia connected with horror, but there's something about losing a master of horror that is more heartbreaking to me than a different type of movie maker. Craven was just so special. And Nightmare is right behind Fright Night for my favorite horror film. 'He will be missed' doesn't quite cover it... but darn it he will be missed.

  3. Thank you for this. All of you, thank you. As devastated as I am, it means the world to me to know there are other people feeling what I'm feeling. I can never overstate how much I love this community.

    Also, Heather, I'm going to give Scream 4 another chance. Your passion for it is enough to move me to try to see it from your perspective, so I'll be revisiting it (and Craven's commentary track) before the week is through.

  4. These are incredible, touching tributes. I'm as stunned as everyone else, as I don't think any of us knew this was coming. However, the man may be gone, but his indelible legacy lives on through his horror masterpieces like Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which will be spinning at my place tonight.

  5. I was super bummed when I heard this news, especially after recently listening to the Horror Directors podcast and having that remind me how much I loved Wes Craven. Growing up in the 80’s, Wes Craven and his films helped me become the horror fan I am today. I loved watching horror films and was always a huge fan of Freddy Kruger, even when he devolved into his campy, quippy era. While nothing beats his early works from the 70’s, Last House on the Left or The Hills have Eyes for sheer terror; sitting down and watching the original Nightmare on Elm Street is the perfect scary movie, it has the right amount of blood, gore, scares and humor that make horror films great. Although I haven’t seen it in quite some time, one of my all time favorite Wes Craven films is The People Under the Stairs, I just loved the way he plays with the genre and has fun in this film, it was like he had nothing to lose and just went for it, and for that I applaud him. For all is ups and downs over the years, Wes Craven will go down in history as one of the most iconic and influential horror directors and I will miss him dearly.

  6. Great piece guys. This passing seems a bit tougher than the recent. I didn't know Craven was as old as he was, and I hadn't heard anything about him being sick. His filmography is....dubious, but when he was on, man was he on. But Scream was especially big for me as a kid. It came out when I was 10, and I wasn't really into horror before that, and it just blew me away. I may have seen it 100 times by now. Every weekend, myself and a few friends would hang out to watch horror and action movies, and Scream was always one of them. Every. Week. Thinking back now, it's kinda strange that it hit so big with me, since I didn't get most of the references, but I just always found it so cool and hip.

    My favorite thing about Craven though, even more than his directing, was any interview he gave. Whether it's stories about making Nightmare or talking about the behind the scenes of Deep Throat, he always had something interesting to say.

    RIP to a great guy. He'll be missed by countless people. I think I'm going to have to make a change to my Scary Movie Month to include some Craven films I haven't seen. Last House on the Left, Serpent and the Rainbow, the People Under the Stairs, maybe even Deadly Friend (why the hell not?), you're on deck.

  7. Really nice Column everyone, R.I.P Wes, a true Master of Horror

  8. Awesome article, a fitting tribute to one of the greats by the F This Movie crew. I'm going to be watching Craven's collective works the next couple of weeks, picked up the original Last House on the Left today, couldn't find Shocker or People Under the Stairs at my video store, guess I'll have to look online.

  9. From Nightmare on Elm Street to Scream 4, most of Wes Cravens movies I saw on the big screen.
    I will always remember my first viewing of Nightmare on Elm Street in a packed theater in 1984, leading to lots of screams, jumps and even some walkouts. It was a riot I only may have experienced one or two times again in the 31 years since.
    Together with Friedkin`s The Exorcist, which made me run out of the theater at age 13 and Carpenter´s The Thing, which made lots of other people run out of the theater, he gave me one of the most remarkable cinematic experiences of my life.
    Even if Craven wouldn´t have made another great film, which clearly isn´t the case, I would be eternally grateful for that.

  10. Great column. I don't know if they hadn't have died so soon after one another if I would have ever otherwise linked them - but the double blow of both Wes Craven and Oliver Sacks departing really made me sad. They both came across as such gentle, thoughtful people - no matter what they were examining. Both were constantly examining the connections between our brains and how they relate to the world - and also, how tenuous our identities can be when challenged by inner and outer forces.

    Quick weird story - on Sunday night, for no reason at all, I decided to watch ’Never Sleep Again’ with my wife, even though she’s never seen a single Wes Craven movie. By the end of the four hours, we both kind of loved Wes - and decided to watch a couple of his movies on the Monday.

    Anyway, we went to bed, and in the night I had a nightmare that I got up, went to the bathroom, and was attacked by some kind of monster. Then I woke up, went to the bathroom, and felt a little spooked that I was playing out my dream, beat by beat. Of course, there wasn’t any monster, but on my way back to bed, I thought I’d check out the internet.

    And because the last thing I’d done before I went to bed was google Wes Craven’s name, it updated and told me that he’d just died.

    It was really pretty spooky, but I couldn’t help feeling that a guy like Wes would have found that pretty amusing.

  11. Scream was the first horror movie I ever saw when I was 10 years old and I became obsessed with it and watched it so many times that I still have it memorized. It was the movie that made me fall in love with horror and that kind of thing is priceless to me so Wes Craven will always have a special place in my heart. I loved Scream so much that when the third one came out my parents took me to see it even though they were not into those movies at all, and even though the movie wasn't great, the experience was very special to me. He was such an icon and such a creative force for horror and he will very much be missed. He will forever be beloved by me for introducing me to horror. Rip Mr. Craven.

  12. Very classy and respectful way to address his passing.

  13. I can still remember the fateful day when my aging Grandmother took me to the movies for my 6th Birthday and somehow me and my sister ended up seeing the original Nightmare On Elm Street - I was absolutely terrified and have loved horror movies ever since - So long Wes...

  14. Last House on the Left (1972) Wow, I was equally uncomfortable and entertained by this low budget, rough film. It's not bad at all, especially when you put the time it was made and what Wes had to work with. A few funny things I noticed: there's a scene where the guy gets his penis stuck in his zipper...Was There's Something About Mary an homage to this film? lol Also, the scene at the end with the chainsaw instantly reminded me of the original Texas Chainsaw, the sound is so loud in that scene, is there any weapon more effective on film than a chainsaw?

    Watching - My Soul to Take right now. First watch for me, I skipped it when it came out due to reading some not so great reviews. I dunno, maybe I just connect with Craven's filmmaking on another level, I think it's pretty good so far, hopefully it ends well. No one did the slasher film better than WES CRAVEN!!