Wes Craven made a career out of debunking the traditional values of cinema with shocking scenes and nightmarish characters. But, on several occasions, he also displayed a unique ability to blend genres while keeping viewers glued to their seats. While his films were never meant to capture the kind of award recognition that many strive for, Craven followed the golden rule of film: Entertain and enthrall. We lost an icon on Sunday when Craven passed away at 76, but after decades in the movie business, Craven left an impact that will be felt for generations.
Here’s a look back at the resume of one of the most revered figures in Hollywood.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
One of the many themes that pervaded Craven’s work is placing the power back into the hands of the victims of a crime; The Last House on the Left was no different. Featuring some shocking moments, especially for its time, the film played like a grindhouse horror piece with scenes of torture and rape. But, there remained a glimmer of hope in this gritty revenge fable with a moral compass that allowed the parents of a brutalized woman to extract a measure of justice in the bloodiest way possible. Unlike many other films during the slasher-film era, Craven’s first directorial effort had the victims of a brutal assault commit possibly even more depraved acts with the film asking the question: What constitutes an “eye for an eye?”
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
The Hills Have Eyes once again saw Craven pitting an ordinary family against extraordinary circumstances, and the lengths that family would go to protect their livelihood. Craven was seemingly enamored with the idea that the “victims” in his films were not helpless subjects, and the old adage about the volatility of a cornered animal was one that he enjoyed exploring. Even today, Craven’s sophomore (well, third if you count his “adult” film from 1975) effort retains a grainy, horrific quality to it that cements it as a classic of ’70s cinema.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A landmark film that spawned numerous sequels, this horror classic that introduced us to a dream monster by the name of Freddy Krueger is the definitive work of Wes Craven. Truly terrifying in both physical and psychological realms, the idea of a scarred monster that could kill you in your sleep was not only inventive, but it resonated with audiences everywhere.
While the sequels began introducing tongue-in-cheek elements, the original film remains as scary as it was when it was released in the early half of the ’80s, and Krueger will go down in cinematic history next to names like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987)
This film starring Bill Pullman was a departure from Craven’s earlier efforts in that it didn’t feature a definitive monster. Part noir, part psychological horror, we follow Pullman’s character as he delves deeper into the horrors of the dark voodoo arts. The Serpent and the Rainbow is probably best remembered for its haunting ending in which Pullman finally learns the truth behind the voodoo spell in question.
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Displaying his affinity for strong female characters, Wes Craven took us into a depraved and demented household where a pair of evil parents locked up and imprisoned a group of people in their basement. The tale was almost like a play on a Disney fable, where a “prince” has to rescue the heroine who is essentially detained against her will by a pair of vicious monsters in the form of a devious couple. Since its release, The People Under the Stairs has become a bit of a cult classic, and to this day, it remains one of Craven’s most cherished films.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Playing as somewhat of a meta-prelude to Scream, Wes Craven returned to write and direct the seventh film in the franchise, this time with the caveat that Freddy Krueger is now haunting the cast and crew responsible for turning his tale into Hollywood fodder. Original Freddy foe Heather Langenkamp returned to play herself as she strives to vanquish the nightmare demon who has somehow invaded the real world. Craven — unhappy with the direction his most famous character took following his creation — had Freddy return to form with a new look as well as a renewed mean streak. The film helped close the chapter on Freddy — well, until his reboot — and is generally thought to be one of the best entries in the Nightmare franchise.
In 1996, more than 25 years after his feature film debut, Wes Craven — with the help of scribe Kevin Williamson — managed to reinvent his career by taking the horror tropes that he had used for the past several decades and turning them on their ear. Scream helped usher in a new era of teenage slasher films that all had an air of self-awareness, but none of them were as potent or as poignant as this. While the film spawned several sequels and even a TV show, none of them could capture the magic of the original.
Music of the Heart (1999)
Craven dipped into the melodrama well with this look into the struggles of an inner-city music program. Meryl Streep earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance, and while the film received some mixed reviews, the feature displayed Craven’s ability to helm fare outside of his darker sensibilities.
Red Eye (2005)
With the exception of a few films like Vampire in Brooklyn, and the ill-conceived Cursed, many of Craven’s later works concentrated on the Scream sequels. In 2005, though, he once again stepped outside the paranormal-horror genre for this thriller starring Rachel McAdams in which the protagonist must fend off a terrorist that is trying to use her to carry out an assassination plot. The film worked on many levels, both as a psychological thriller and as an action film, and it proved, once again, that Craven was a master at blending genres.