Wes Craven sadly passed away on August 29th, 2015 at age 76. The acclaimed horror director had been battling brain cancer and finally succumbed to the disease. While he will be missed, I wanted to pay tribute to the late great by reviewing his entire filmography. Here I rank them in order of how much I enjoyed them. This a purely subjective list, not intended to be critical or analytical, but simply a look at the Wes Craven films I loved and the ones I loved a little less. (Also, please note that I am only ranking films Craven actually directed, not ones he produced or wrote without directing.)
RIP, Wes. You will be missed
Movies I haven’t seen: My Soul to Take, Red Eye (I know, I know! It’s on my list!), The Serpent and the Rainbow, Invitation to Hell, Deadly Friend, Deadly Blessing
#15 – The Hills Have Eyes Part II – One of Craven’s few early career sequels, this follow-up to the genre-defining The Hills Have Eyes is a product of its time. Filled with 80s haircuts and motocross racing bikes, the film isn’t terribly scary and holds up as more cheesy than anything else. A good climax saves it from being unwatchable, though.
#14 – Vampire in Brooklyn – Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I watched Vampire in Brooklyn, but even the last time I watched it, I remember it being a pretty big misfire for both Craven and star Eddie Murphy. The blend of horror and comedy didn’t really work, resulting in a film that was neither scary nor funny. That said, I want to rewatch it and see if maybe there’s something that I missed the first time around.
#13 – The Last House on the Left – While this is inarguably an important film in both horror and Craven’s career, I’m not a terribly huge fan of it, more because it’s just a hard film to watch than anything else. Notorious for its violence at the time, the low-budget and equipment limitations make it look like a student film on a visual level. The subject matter is also rather unpleasant. Still, there’s no denying its importance in launching Craven’s career or the impact it had on the horror industry.
#12 – Cursed – I really wanted to love this later-career werewolf movie, and actually, it’s not a bad film at all; I’m pretty sure I like it more than most people. I love the werewolf genre and I’m not sure why it’s so hard to make a good werewolf film, but Craven gave it his best effort and it’s actually a pretty fun watch. My understanding is that there was some behind-the-scenes studio drama that resulted in it being a very different film from what he wanted it to be, but I like this film overall.
#11 – Scream 3 – The weakest of the Scream films, I still love this movie. There isn’t a Scream film I dislike, and this one only ranks as the weakest because one of them has to be. There are some neat kills and it keeps you guessing up until the end, and it does its best to retain the humor that made Scream such a hit. It doesn’t work as well as the first two, but it’s still a lot of fun.
#10 – The People Under The Stairs – Another non-Nightmare classic that helped define Craven’s career, this home invasion (with a twist) thriller is just creepy, creepy, creepy. It also tackles a subject that you rarely see in horror films, surprisingly: that one house in the neighborhood that everyone always steers clear of. It’s twisted and dark, and it’s Craven doing what Craven does best.
#9 – Scream 4 – Picking up 15 years after the first trilogy ended, I think Craven does a great job with Scream 4. In addition to having a cast of popular young actors, Craven is smart enough to bring back all the original players, and then to also satire Scream itself. He also does a good job of updating the film to reflect the changes in technology that occurred during the time when there were no Scream films. While it wasn’t a big enough hit to spawn a new franchise, it did lead the way to the current Scream TV series on MTV, which is actually a lot of fun.
#8 – Swamp Thing – As a lifelong comic book fan, Swamp Thing was always of interest to me because it was one of the earliest comic book movies around. Watching it again recently, I forgot how much of this movie was Adrienne Barbeau running, getting captured and/or knocked out, escaping, running, then getting captured and/or knocked out again. Seriously, it’s a good hour of the movie. Dick Durock is really good as the Swamp Thing. He doesn’t have a lot to do, but he does a lot with what he has. Ultimately, Swamp Thing is both fun and cheesy, awesome and kind of bad. It’s not great filmmaking, but it does have a very unique charm for sure.
#7 – Scream 2 – This is a pretty terrific sequel that suffers from only two major flaws (SPOILER ALERT!). One, killing Randy was a big mistake. He was the sleeper hit character of the first movie and was responsible for a lot of the humor. Killing him lost the audience in a lot of ways. The other major flaw was that the killer’s motivations (and who it was) seem kind of arbitrary, having no real connection to the main characters like in the first and third films. Still, it’s a lot of fun, features the iconic mask, and has the classic line about Showgirls in it.
#6 – Wes Craven’s New Nightmare – A precursor of sorts to the genre-satire of Scream, New Nightmare revitalized the aging Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (at least in creative terms), by having it take place in the real world. Craven stars as himself, and actress Heather Langenkamp (star of the first Nightmare film) plays herself, who starts to get haunted by Freddy in the real world. It’s a truly meta, fourth-wall challenging idea, and I love that Craven had the guts to try and tackle something truly original (once again) in a horror film.
#5 – Music of the Heart – One of Craven’s few non-horror films, this Meryl Streep drama based on a true story is actually a really good film. Craven proves that he has directing chops outside of the genre, and he delivers a warm, moving film that retains the signature humor he was known for. Meryl Streep is terrific (of course) and while the film was never a big hit, I’ve always felt it was underrated.
#4 – The Hills Have Eyes – Another genre-defining film, this brutal horror movie kick-started the “stranded everyday people” sub-genre. Whether it be films like the Wrong Turn franchise or any number of other horror films in which everyday people get stranded only to be attacked by others, The Hills Have Eyes really got the genre started. This film pulls no punches, but it also surprises you with who lives and who dies (and when they die), something Craven would excel at throughout his career.
#3 – Shocker – I know not many people will rank this as one of Craven’s best movies, and it’s probably not, but I have a real soft spot for it. It’s one of the very first horror movies I ever saw in theaters, and I loved it. It was that perfect blend of being a good horror movie without being so scary as to keep me up at night, and I loved the humor in it. When Horace Pinker (played by a pre-X-Files Mitch Pileggi) and Peter Berg’s Jonathan go hopping through TV channels, it’s true creative genius. This is one that I think a lot of people should either revisit or check out if they’ve never seen it.
#2 – A Nightmare on Elm Street – This is the big one. It made Wes Craven a household name, made Freddy Krueger a household name, and helped launch Johnny Depp’s movie career. Plus, it made a whole generation of teenagers afraid to go to sleep. Anytime you create a character who goes on to become an icon, you know you’ve done something right. And by taking the slasher genre and adding the sleeping/dreaming component, Craven once again took a genre convention and subverted it. The original remains the best, and it remains one of Craven’s very best films.
#1 – Scream – As much as I love the original Nightmare, Scream takes it for me. This is, as far as I’m concerned, an absolutely perfect horror film. It’s scary, filled with thrills, jumps, and that mask that couldn’t be more perfect. It’s also filled with humor from start to finish, with sharp dialogue and memorable characters. But it takes every convention of horror movies, lays them out for the audience to see them coming, makes fun of them, and then pulls them off anyway. Plus, it was brilliantly marketed, with Drew Barrymore front and center in all the advertising and then getting killed off in the first five minutes of the film. I love this movie so much; it remains one of my two favorite horror movies of all time (along with John Carpenter’s Halloween.) In fact, it remains one of my favorite movies of any genre. This was Craven at his absolute best.