Retrospective: 6 Essential Wes Craven Movies | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Retrospective: 6 Essential Wes Craven Movies


It was devastating to learn that Hollywood has lost one of the most recognisable and influential horror filmmakers in the modern cinema. According to The Hollywood Reporter, horror maestro Wes Craven died at the age of 76 from brain cancer. Once a humanities professor at Clarkson University, Craven left the academic world to begin his next journey as a filmmaker. Surprisingly enough, he started his early film career dabbling in hardcore porn under various pseudonyms. Then in 1972, he finally made his directorial debut in THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. But it wasn't until the year 1984 that turned Craven into an overnight sensation following the phenomenal success of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. The rest, of course, is history.

In honour of his life as a filmmaker throughout the decades, here is the six essential movies directed by Wes Craven in chronological order:

1. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)


Definitely not for the squeamish, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT marked a directorial debut for then-unknown Wes Craven. A hugely controversial movie at the time of its release in 1972, THE LAST HOUSE OF THE LEFT was a grisly exploitation thriller that never skimped on its graphic depiction of violence and sexual depravity. The brutal-rape sequence was particularly hard to watch that made the movie such an unpleasant experience. And believe it or not, the movie was actually inspired from Ingmar Bergman's 1960 classic THE VIRGIN SPRING. Like many tiny-budgeted movies, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was not without its flaws: choppy editing, misplaced comedy (the one involved the two dumb cops played by Marshall Anker and Martin Kove) and sometimes cheesy soundtrack. Although the movie was rough around the edges, it still ranked as one of the most disturbing movies ever seen until today. A remake followed in 2009 -- a similarly brutal, but tedious genre exercise of gore and sexual violence.

2. THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977)


Following the controversial debut of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, Wes Craven returned with another low-budget cult classic in THE HILLS HAVE EYES. The story was basically a simple setup: a middle-class American family stranded in the desert, and found themselves being terrorised by a clan of crazy maniacs. Although the movie wasn't as graphically violent as Craven's directorial debut, THE HILLS HAVE EYES remained an exhilarating cinematic experience. Blessed with Craven's raw and tense direction, the movie also drew similarity with Sam Peckinpah's 1971 classic STRAW DOGS, especially how far a decent-looking American family would do in order to survive. An atrocious sequel followed in 1985, which was best left forgotten. However, the 2006 remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES by French director Alexandre Aja, was a rare horror remake that improved upon the original in many areas including better cast and better gore effects.

3. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)


The horror movie that placed Wes Craven as one of the most influential genre directors of the modern era. Unlike most horror movies of the '80s populated by copious amounts of gore effects and gratuitous nudity, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was an inventive genre picture about a group of high-school teenagers (led by Heather Langenkamp) being terrorised in their dreams by a boogeyman known as Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). The concept itself was a scary, yet intriguing premise that explored the psychological insight of our basic human fears and anxieties. Then there's Robert Englund, who nailed his role perfectly as Freddy Krueger. In fact, his appearance alone was enough to send you goosebumps: a horribly-disfigured child killer dressed in his trademark fedora, as well as red-and-green striped sweater who killed his victims with his razor-fingered glove. He was such a horror icon that Englund was forever identified by fans around the world as the definitive Freddy Krueger. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was an overnight success during the time of its release in 1984, and spawned a number of sequels as well as an ill-fated 2010 reboot with Jackie Earle Haley stepping into Englund's shoes as the new Freddy.

4. WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994)


Ten years after Wes Craven took the horror genre by storm with his first NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET in 1984, he tried to recapture his glory days in NEW NIGHTMARE. The movie received largely positive reviews from critics, but many fans of the series were divided by Craven's meta take of his own creation. As a result, NEW NIGHTMARE was the lowest-grossing movie in the series. Frankly, it was a shame because I personally felt NEW NIGHTMARE ranked as one of the best sequels after A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987). Craven's "movie-within-the-movie" approach was both clever and clearly ahead of its time (he would revisit the same formula two years later with better success in SCREAM). The only major gripe was the way Freddy's (Robert Englund) iconic face looked strangely plastic.

5. SCREAM (1996)


Prior to the release of SCREAM in 1996, slasher genre was already milked dry with the same old horror clich├ęs. But thanks to the first-time screenwriter Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven, SCREAM offered a revolutionary makeover that reinvented the slasher genre inside out by poking fun against the formula. Laced with clever in-jokes and self-referential humour in the vein of a pitch black-comedy setup, SCREAM was one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. The movie worked because of its engaging, yet unpredictable storyline that kept you guessing the killer's identity until the end. From the iconic opening scene featuring a memorable cameo by Drew Barrymore to a shocking twist in the blood-soaked finale, the movie was best remembered as Wes Craven's memorable comeback to the horror territory. Also, who could have forgotten the knife-wielding masked killer of Ghostface? SCREAM was such a groundbreaking success that it spawned three sequels and a TV series by MTV. Of course, like most horror franchises, the original remained the best in the series.

6. RED EYE (2005)


A radical departure from his usual comfort zone, Wes Craven proved to be a versatile filmmaker in handling psychological-thriller territory. But ironically, DreamWorks didn't promote RED EYE the way it supposed to be. Instead, the studio tried to fool the audiences by deceptively marketed the movie as a supernatural thriller (remember the original teaser trailer containing footage of Cillian Murphy's character with glowing red eye and the palm of a hand pressed against the airplane window during the mid-flight?). Even the teaser poster suggested as if the movie was a horror genre set in the confined space of an airplane.

False and misguided marketing campaign aside, RED EYE was a straightforward thriller that had nothing do with supernatural elements, otherworldly being or indestructible serial killer at all. Blessed with a tight script by first-time feature screenwriter Carl Ellsworth (a TV veteran who penned episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess), Craven made great use of the airplane's confined space to generate claustrophobic tension effectively. With the help of cinematographer Robert Yeoman, Craven favoured a lot of close-ups to heighten the verbal intensity between Lisa (Rachel McAdams) and Jackson (Cillian Murphy). Then there's the action-packed finale where Craven went all-out, with Lisa attempted to outrun and outwit Jackson. The cast was equally top notch: Rachel McAdams was terrific, but it was Cillian Murphy who stole the show as the menacing villain.

Best of all, RED EYE worked so well because it hits so close to home in a timely fashion that evoked the post-9/11 anxiety. Although the movie had its fair share of implausibilities and an awkward romantic comedy-like setup in the beginning, RED EYE remained a rare gem -- a great non-horror movie directed by Wes Craven.

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