4 Must-See Wes Craven Movies

Horror heavyweight Wes Craven’s career spans from evil violence to laugh-out-loud send-ups, but these four critically acclaimed films, highlighted in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, are all on our must-see list.

1. The Last House on the Left (1972)
Writer-director Craven burst onto the screen for the first time with his barrier-breaking, controversial horror flick The Last House on the Left. It was an often banned and vilified movie that he intended to reflect the terror of the times. The United States was preoccupied by the Charles Manson slayings, political assassinations and the Vietnam War. Although this debut was based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), Craven intensified the story by prolonging the agony of the tortured teen victims. His bleak, unsettling and angry film also commented upon the undermining of the American middle-class family. One of the victims’ parents sought unreflective payback from the perpetrators by castration and butchering-by-chainsaw. Many of Craven’s trademark themes would soon be repeated. For instance…

2.The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Craven’s follow-up was the outrageous The Hills Have Eyes which told about an inbred, cave-dwelling cannibalistic clan hiding in the desert hills. In contrast was the suburban family that they preyed upon — the vulnerable, vacationing Carter and Wood families stranded off the “main road.” Craven’s emphasis was on class conflict: the survivors of the civilized families and their mutant, feral counterparts. He toned down some of the gore from Last House… although there was still rape, baby-kidnapping, gun murder, crucifixion-burning, the chomping of a pet parakeet head, stabbings, a dog attack and a rattlesnake-induced death. He even added elements of black comedy (Ethel’s hysterical exclamation about her charred husband’s body: “That’s not my Bob!”). The tagline gave away Craven’s approach: “A nice American family. They didn’t want to kill. But they didn’t want to die.” Craven’s final blood-red freeze-frame emphasized that self-defense had crossed the line toward sadistic revenge.

3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Craven next singlehandedly revived the teens-in-terror slasher flick sub-genre and spawned a major franchise. A Nightmare on Elm Street revealed his fascination with the subconscious, dreams and nightmares. He created one of the most well-known horror villains — the sexually-deviant, reincarnated, sadistic, hideously-grotesque child killer Freddy Krueger. The premise of the series was that the children of Freddy’s past persecutors — now grown-up teens at odds with their parents — would experience Freddy’s haunting from Hell in their sleep. The movie elevated the prototypical slasher film into an inventive story about the intersection of surreal nightmares and reality. For a showdown with Freddy, smart and resourceful teen heroine (Heather Langenkamp) decided to play by “dream rules” and tricked the dream demon into entering her reality so she could defeat him on her own turf.

4. Scream (1996)
Wes Craven’s surprising horror hit Scream self-reflectively spoofed stalker/slasher films, beginning with the character of a killer named Ghostface costumed for Halloween as the Grim Reaper. The satirical, self-aware script (by Kevin Williamson) deliberately referenced numerous horror classics, especially the rules as one hapless teen victim was punished for getting the facts wrong about Friday the 13th. Craven’s film noted the truth about most scary movies: “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.” But then, he deftly and effectively inserted the genre’s common plot devices into the mayhem to further his own ends thereby celebrating the genre it was ridiculing. Notice cameos from Linda Blair (The Exorcist) and from Craven himself as a janitor. —Two telling quotes about how life imitates art: “It’s all one great big movie … only you can’t pick your genre,” and “Don’t you blame the movies! Movies don’t create psychos! Movies make psychos more creative!”

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See the full schedule of 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die lineup on SundanceTV, or order a copy of the 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book.

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