Horror Director Wes Craven’s (1939-2015) Legacy of Terror

The horror community is in mourning today as it begins to process the loss of Wes Craven, a man whose name is now synonymous with terror. Over a 40 year career, the director helmed some of the scariest movies—and created some of horror’s most memorable characters—of all time. In honor of the director, who died last night after battling brain cancer, we take a look back at some of his best and most frightening films that will lurk eternal in the shadows of our nightmares. Like any good horror monster, Craven and his legacy will never truly die…

Nightmare on Elm Street:

One, two Freddy’s coming for you; three, four better lock your door…

Thirty years later and this child’s refrain is more than enough to send chills down the spines of all who hear it. In the midst of the 80’s slasher craze, Wes Craven created the granddaddy of them all with Freddy Krueger—a child molesting murderer who sought revenge on those who had killed him by invading the nightmares of their children. Freddy was never scarier than he was in his initial outing, and it’s a testament to Craven’s abilities as a director that it worked as well as it did. It was kind of a goofy concept, to be sure, and while later entries reveled in the silliness of the character and premise, Craven plays it absolutely straight for the first go around the block. Terrifying imagery and haunting scenes elevated this movie beyond what it might have been to become a true high point in the horror genre that has yet to be surpassed. In fact, over the three decade history of the franchise, the only time Freddy was able to reach the same heights of horror again was in…

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare:

You are all my children now…

This is honestly the only other Nightmare movie worth considering. The seventh film in the franchise, it sought to undo the camp elements that had been played up between entries 2-6 go back to its roots as a bold new direction in horror. New Nightmare found Craven stepping into meta waters, as it focused on Craven and the cast of Nightmare on Elm Street and their attempts to bring the franchise back to life, only to be derailed when Freddy manifests into the real world. The concept flipped the series on its head, bringing new life to a series that had been basically dead for about three movies. While it wasn’t the first movie to explore the idea of an artist’s creation coming to life in the real world, New Nightmare played out better than anyone had hoped and delivered a Freddy movie that was both reverent to the original and entirely new and horrifying. Craven would, of course, go on to continue his meta-exploration with…

Scream:

Do you like scary movies?

This horror movie about horror movies brought a whole new meaning to the term “genre savvy.” This was the culmination of 15 years of watching silent psychopaths stalk and terrorize their victims and the first horror movie to openly discuss the rules of the genre. It played to our expectations in order to make its point and became one of the few horror movies to become a true pop culture phenomenon outside of the relatively small circle of horror fanatics. Working from a genius script by Kevin Williamson, Craven crafted a masterpiece of satire that feels every bit as scary as the works it was deconstructing. It’s a movie that spawned three sequels and an MTV series, securing its legacy as both a cultural touchstone and a monument to horror. What’s surprising about this movie was its balance of horror and comedy—by staying true to what horror, specifically the slasher genre, had become, it was able to showcase both the ridiculousness of the genre while also serving as a guide to how to do it right.

The People Under the Stairs:

Forever and ever in Hell…

Classism, racism, sexism…The People Under the Stairs explored it all. This was a work of genius that was ignored in its day and still has yet to get the proper critical reevaluation it so deserves. A group of inner-city youths find themselves trapped in a house that, by all outward appearances, is the perfect symbol of idyllic suburban living. Yet something terrifying was going on beneath the surface, and the lily white couple who preached about God’s love had more than a few secrets stashed beneath their stairwell. Like Scream, The People Under the Stairs is more funny than it is terrifying, which serves only to make the horror that much more palpable. It’s one of Craven’s least acclaimed films, and it’s also one of his best. Here the director was at the top of his game, showing the world that he wasn’t some mere one trick pony and that he could handle works with a bit more depth than what people were used to.

Last House on the Left:

I want you to take the gun, and I want you to put it in your mouth, and I want you to turn around and blow your brains out.

Craven’s first film may not have been his best, but there’s no denying the sheer terror displayed in this story of rape and revenge. The director pulled no punches with this 1972 classic, and it’s as haunting today as it was 43 years ago. As difficult as the film is to watch, it sets the tone for Craven’s entire career—the violence and terror of Last House on the Left were to become the hallmarks of the director’s style, and it serves almost as a statement of intent here. “I am not here to hold your hands and make you feel good, I am here to disturb the shit out of you,” the film seems to say. Gut-wrenching and uncomfortable, it was a remarkable debut for a director who would become a master of horror. It’s a low-budget, B-movie classic that is, in many ways, the perfect horror movie.

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