Ten Times Wes Craven Was a Fucking Genius

You know, I’m getting pretty damned tired of having to say goodbye to so many horror greats lately. Perhaps the Fates can take some time off, maybe a sabbatical for a few months. Shit, Death took a holiday. Why can’t they? Seriously, ladies, just knock it off for a while, okay?

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image from www.robyntwoney.com

The latest sucker punch to the gut of the horror community came on Sunday when Wes Craven died. The 76-year-old powerhouse writer and director finally succumbed to brain cancer (am I a terrible person for not knowing he was sick?). Most of us remember him from his work in horror, specifically Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and the immortal Nightmare on Elm Street.

But that wasn’t all he did. His non horror-works included Music of the Heart (drama true life story) and Paris, je’taime (romance). Did you know he wrote the lyrics to one of the songs used in the “Nightmare Cafe” series? He also acted in a few bit parts (and not just as himself, though he did on the TV series, “Castle”, and it was hilarious), mostly uncredited and left on the cutting room floor.

Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you everything the man touched turned to gold. Some of his movies that I personally loathe are Vampire in Brooklyn and New Nightmare. And I haven’t enjoyed much of his work since 2005 (I haven’t seen My Soul to Take, though, so I’ll get back to you after I watch it). But none of that takes away from some truly genius work, whether he wrote, directed, or both.

Though I realize I’ve only watched about 1/2 of his body of work, I present to you my ten favorite Wes Craven films, in no particular order:

Last House on the Left – 1972

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I don’t remember exactly when I saw this. I assume I was a teenager, probably in college, and so naive about the world at large. But even I knew how savage this film was. Wes wrote and directed this movie about two young women who just wanted to go see a concert and ended up raped, tortured, and murdered instead. When the one girl’s parents realize the hapless strangers they’ve taken into their home are the same ones who brutalized their daughter, they do what any parent would – they exact revenge in the most awful of ways.

You know things got heavy when Wes let his actors go to lunch and they all went off alone, not speaking to anyone, so they could process how they all just had to gut a pretty little coed for a movie.

Swamp Thing – 1982

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Written and directed by Craven, Swamp Thing stars Ray Wise as Dr. Alec Holland, a scientist trying to create a plant/animal hybrid. Unfortunately, an accident changes Alec into a swamp monster. He still retains his humanity, though, trying to do good in a world of bad. Making things difficult is a man named Arcane who keeps trying to capture the Swamp Thing and steal Alec’s research in order to make himself stronger and immortal. You know, typical egomaniacal asshattery. 

This is not the best film ever but it is so entertaining. Alec is a great sympathetic character. Plus it’s got Adrienne Barbeau and her awesome boobs!

Nightmare on Elm Street – 1984 (writer/director)

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Even if you don’t know one director from another, EVERYONE is familiar with this flick. Starring Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, and some fresh-faced cutie who probably never amounted to anything, NOES brought us an intriguing premise: a serial killer that murders people in their dreams. Fred Krueger, a ‘victim’ of suburbanite vigilantism, trolls the children of those responsible for his death. If they fall asleep, he enters their dreams and hacks and slashes and obliterates them. Pretty cool, huh? Our heroine, Nancy, fights back and defeats the scar-faced maniac.

HAHAHAHAHA! Freddy ain’t going nowhere. EVER.

Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warrior – 1987 (writer/director)

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We’re just gonna skip right over the turd burger that is #2 (see what I did there?). The third film in the NOES franchise is one of my favorite horror movies, not just of Wes’ work. We meet a new gang of kids, relegated to the mental ward of a psychiatric hospital, who are the last of the spawn from Elm Street. Nancy returns as a psychiatrist that helps these kids take control of their dreams and fight back against the increasingly campy Freddy. One girl has the unique ability to pull people into her dream world and that allows them to all band together as one indestructible force and destroy Freddy for good.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Freddy ain’t going nowhere. EVER.

People Under the Stairs – 1991

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Wes wrote and directed this absolute joy of a campy horror movie. A brother and sister (simply credited as Man and Woman) keep a slew of kidnapped children in their basement whom they torture and abuse (if not kill). They treat one girl, Alice, as if she were a ‘normal’ daughter but who are we kidding here? Enter Fool and Leroy, two thieves who find themselves trapped in this hell house and must try to escape and save as many victims as they can. 

I love the sense of abandon in this film. It felt like Craven just wanted to have some fun with the horror genre and I think he succeeded!

Red Eye – 2005

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Acting in the sole capacity as director, Wes brought us this thriller about Lisa, an everyday girl who is basically kidnapped on a routine flight by her charming seat mate, Jackson Ripper (little groan worthy name right there). His job is to facilitate the assassination of a Homeland security officer and he needs Lisa’s help to do it. By setting up the potential murder of her father, Jackson assures her compliance. 

Another movie that’s not horror, this tense thriller was slick and entertaining, especially with Cillian Murphy as the bad guy.

Deadly Friend – 1986 (director)

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Again, not another outstanding film but oh, so enjoyable. Paul, a nerdy outcast that is a genius at robotics, moves to a new town with his mom. He falls for the neighbor girl, Samantha, while his other neighbor is a cranky old bat who destroys his best friend, a robot named BB. When Samantha is killed by her drunk asshole father, Paul sneaks into the morgue and inserts BB’s brain into Samantha’s skull case. Hilarity ensues as Samantha loses her humanity bit by bit and uses her acquired robot skills to turn a basketball into a deadly weapon. 

Corny, campy, all around terrible but it’s so bad it’s good.

Scream – 1996 (director)

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Wes Craven pumped new blood into the serial killer trope with this little doozy. Sydney is still reeling from her mother’s murder from one year earlier. She and her friends, all horror movie loving, clean cut kids, are now being stalking by a masked killer who picks them off one by one. Everyone is a suspect. It doesn’t help matters that Gale Weathers (seriously – what is with the goofball names?), a reporter out to make a name for herself, consistently intrudes on Sydney’s life and the ensuing investigation. 

By the time this movie was made, the original teeny-bopper serial killer meme had peaked in it’s hay day with the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th (the originals, thankyouverymuch). So just when you thought the idea of maniacs making social commentary on the sexual promiscuity of today’s youth by skewering them on spears was through, Wes Craven Frankensteined that bitch back to life.

Cursed – 2005 (director)

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A werewolf running amok in L.A. attacks Ellie and Jimmy, a brother and sister on their own since their parents’ deaths. As both begin to change, they realize the wolf is taking over. They must find the creature who attacked them and kill it if they are to have any hope of remaining human. 

There are only a handful of werewolf movies that I enjoy and this is one of them. I loved watching Jimmy and Ellie change from these accommodating milquetoasts to powerful, sexual, confident people. I actually wanted them to complete the transformation instead of curing it. The whole Craig Kilborn scene where he cuts his finger…titillating to say the least.

The Serpent and the Rainbow – 1988 (director)

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Now, I may have lied when I said these movies weren’t in order but I think subconsciously I saved the best for last. Bill Pullman plays Dennis Alan, an anthropologist who travels to Haiti in search of a drug used to turn people into zombies. He wants to use it to produce an anesthetic. Unfortunately, Haiti is in the middle of a revolution at the time and Dennis pisses off a very powerful psychotic witch who subjects Dennis to the most tortuous horrors.

I have an extreme fear of being buried alive so this movie freaks me the fuck out. It has stuck in my craw from the first time I watched it and it doesn’t get any less frightening with each subsequent viewing. Brilliant film filled with terror and horror that doesn’t rely on blood and gore and CGI to scare the shit out of its audience.

Thus endeth my list. I’m sad that Wes is gone. I’m sorry for his family and friends that now must live without him. But I am glad that he left behind a wonderful film legacy that can entertain us for the years to come. Thank you, Mr. Craven, for all you have given us. Rest in peace.

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