Monday, August 31, 2015

The Hills Have Teary Eyes: Remembering Wes Craven, the Master of Horror

The sad news that “master of horror” Wes Craven has passed away has shocked, upset, and left a ripple of grief throughout not only the horror fan community but in movie fandom in general. Odds are you’ve seen at least one of Craven’s many iconic films. Craven was a true pioneer in the genre having spent nearly 5 decades tackling the ever evolving genre of horror. How many directors who started in the 70s still have viable careers to this day who aren’t Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese? He was constantly changing and evolving as a creative force going from his early days in the “torture porn” genre to the slasher films of the 80s, and even stopping for a rest in the Meryl Streep Oscar Bait Genre. Many would assume a man known for creating such horrifying visions must be some kind of creep but the actors and filmmakers who worked with him all remember him as a kind and gentle guy. And a smart one too: he left his career as a college professor to direct movies, which he was never really allowed to watch in his childhood. He didn’t even mean to become the Master of Horror, he sort of stumbled upon it and thank goodness he did: he’s created some of the most iconic characters, moments, and films in the genre. Here’s a list of ten essential Wes Craven films (my personal Craven Top Ten to be exact), so fire up the Blu-ray player and remember the guy who made us all a little scared of the dark.  

1) A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) Wes Craven’s certified horror classic “A Nightmare on Elm Street” not only spawned an entire franchise but helped build New Line Cinema into a full-fledged Oscar-winning movie studio. A bunch of suburban teenagers keep having similar dreams about a dirty burned man with a razor clawed glove. It seems he wants to kill them and when the teens start dying off one by one, it’s soon revealed that the teens’ parents just might be responsible somehow.  Craven introduced the world to Freddy Krueger (the name of schoolyard bully from Craven’s childhood) who quickly became one of the most beloved horror icons ever created. Oh, and he was a child molester and murderer. It’s funny that this film was released as the slasher craze was just sort of hitting a rut and then  it became a phenomenon. Sometimes it’s all about timing. Tina getting dragged across the ceiling is one of the franchise’s most disturbing and frightening images. Wes Craven proved he was a horror master with this film.


2) SCREAM (1996) If “Halloween” is the grandfather of the slasher genre, “Scream” is the grandson. “Scream” is a wonderful ode to the horror genre that every fan should love and appreciate. Its witty script from Kevin Williamson is about teenagers who are stalked by a masked killer who torments his victims by asking them movie trivia. It’s wildly bizarre but amazingly creepy. The opening sequence starring a frightened Drew Barrymore is one of the best horror film openings ever. Craven made it work as if it were a short film but then the movie’s plot begins and explores an interesting story about a girl named Sidney who the killer may just have a personal vendetta against. This was a surprise hit that not only reinvigorated the slasher genre but Wes Craven’s career.


3) WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994) Confession time: technically, I like this movie more than "A Nightmare on Elm Street" but it's not exactly the horror classic the original is. These top three are basically in a league of their own and are practically interchangeable, but I digress. Taking place ten years after the release of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” this seventh entry in the Nightmare series was conceived by its original creator Wes Craven as a thriller that takes place in the “real world” in which actors and crew members from this horror series play themselves and are tormented by a darker version of Freddy Krueger. It was a wild idea that originally didn’t please fans of the series as they probably wanted something more traditional. But this wildly imaginative and original take on this series is a fascinating drama about how horror films can affect children – “Nightmare” heroine Heather Langenkamp plays herself, starts having nightmares about her pizza-faced co-star, and her young son Dylan begins having psychotic episodes. Is she crazy or is Freddy trying to get her and her son? This was a great prelude to the themes Wes Craven would later explore in the “Scream” series with greater financial success.


4) RED EYE (2005) How does a horror director stay relevant and reinvent himself? By not directing a horror film obviously. Wes Craven had already done that back in the 90s with the violin drama “Music of the Heart.” The only thing horrifying about that film was Meryl Streep not winning another Oscar. Craven attempted a change of genre again in 2005 that featured his expertise in suspense but with an action flair. The result was the outstanding little thriller “Red Eye.” The film is essentially a hostage thriller that takes place aboard an airplane. Cillian Murphy is equally charming and creepy as Jack Rippner a mysterious man who “kidnaps” Rachel McAdams’ resourceful hotel manager aboard a red eye flight who unravels a political assassination plot. More in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock, the PG-13 rated film features very little blood, a rare departure for Craven, and ups the action as these two fascinating characters play a delightful game of cat and mouse, from their seats. The film’s final act features more typical slasher/stalker stuff with plenty of moments to make you jump. It’s a real treat for Craven fans looking for something a little different.


5) SCREAM 4 (2011) Fifteen years after the original film rejuvenated the horror genre came this sequel that was set to relaunch the popular slasher franchise that restarted it all. Unfortunately, the film’s box office performance was rather disappointing as audiences seem to be weary of horror movies with numbers like 4 in the title. Fortunately, this remains arguably the best “Scream” sequel as it has everything a “Scream” film should: wonderful death scenes and solid dark humor. Ghostface returns after a decade to finish the job on Sidney Prescott where she returns to her hometown and a new generation of witty teenagers meet their maker. The meta factor is dialed up to an eleven here and all your favorite [living] “Scream” characters return. Who will survive and what will be left of them? Unfortunately, it’s the last film Wes Craven would ever direct.


6) SCREAM 2 (1998) This fast-tracked sequel is the follow up to the surprise hit “Scream.” This sequel, while not as good or scary as the first film, (the new characters are less interesting and nothing is quite as scary or clever as the first film’s opening) takes a rather original look at horror sequels and continues to skewer the conventions found within them. Heroine Sidney Prescott is now in college, with a new boyfriend and guy friend Randy in tow, where a series of copycat murders spring up. The film features another witty script from Kevin Williamson with a wonderful art imitating life plot detail about the events of the first film being turned into a successful horror film called ‘Stab.’ Definitely one of the better slasher sequels out there, but shame on them for killing Randy.


7) THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991) Fans of the genre, know that horror was in a strange place in the early 90s. There wasn’t much great stuff and the horror films that did existed were truly odd. Case in point this little seen gem from Wes Craven about a pair of rich loons who own a gigantic labyrinthine, booby-trapped house with hordes of pale, zombie-like teenage boys locked in the basement. The film’s hero is a young black boy from the ghetto and the film is actually a decent social commentary about the current state of socioeconomic race relations. I’m not sure it’s really all that scary, but it’s certainly an example of something somewhat different in the genre and truly a product of its time that only someone like Wes Craven could cook up.

8) SCREAM 3 (2000) The “Scream” movies are obviously one of my all-time favorite film series. While part 3 is arguably the weakest of the three, it ended the series (until the fourth one of course) in probably the best way possible and features the great addition of the hilarious Parker Posey. Here the setting is now Hollywood where art imitates life while imitating art. Though it remains the least frightening of the series, and at this point Craven almost appears to be dialing it in (the latter part of his career was mostly dominated by this series), there is enough here to satisfy fans of this immensely popular set of films which now includes an in-name-only MTV television series spinoff.



9) SHOCKER (1989) I have to admire Wes Craven’s failed attempt to create another original slasher villain (Let’s just forget that he attempted that yet again in the truly forgettable “My Soul to Take”). Here he presents us with Horace Pinker, who murders families at night while they sleep, not unlike the Thomas Harris villain from “Red Dragon.” After being convicted and sentenced to death by electric chair, he somehow survives his capital punishment, and begins infecting various electrical outlets and jumping from various bodies (an idea later explored in the Denzel Washington film “Fallen). It’s up to psychic high school jock Peter Berg to save the day. The film’s TV adventure finale is totally bizarre, hilarious, and fun. A lesser known, and ultimately underappreciated, but truly inventive Wes Craven effort.


10) THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) – Also known as, The Last Movie on This List. No one really enjoys watching Wes Craven’s first foray into horror filmmaking because it’s so disturbingly violent and shocking. But it’s still miles ahead of other similar exploitation films like “I Spit on Your Grave” in terms of production value. A very, very early example of the type of horror genre dubbed “torture porn” this low budget shocker concerns a group of disturbed individuals who rape, torture, and murder a pair of young teen girls, only to be tortured and murdered themselves by the girls’ parents. Wes Craven’s cinematic fascination with booby-traps begins here. This is ultimately sick stuff, similar to but different from the originally X-rated “The Hills Have Eyes,” and a must-watch for anyone who is fan of Craven’s filmography.

CREDITED CO-WRITER BONUS: 
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987) Wes Craven rarely wrote films that he didn’t also direct. There were some exceptions. He co-wrote part three of the "Nightmare" series (after having nothing to do with part two), which remains one of the most popular fan favorites. This was a transition point in the series, where Freddy started becoming somewhat of a jokester. Hence lines like: “Welcome to primetime, bitch!” A young Patricia Arquette leads a young cast of suicidal teenagers committed to a mental hospital, though the suicides are the handiwork of Freddy Krueger. Original "Nightmare" heroine Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) returns as an intern who helps the teens fight off Freddy for good (or until the franchise became financially unviable). There are some inventive effects and dream sequences here, most notably the puppetry dream in which a teenage boy’s veins are ripped out and used as marionette strings.

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