Last year, beloved horror director, screenwriter, and producer Wes Craven passed away at the age of 76. Even if you’ve never seen a Wes Craven movie (and who are you if you haven’t?), you are undoubtedly familiar with his work. Not only did he almost single-handedly revitalize the horror genre in the late 90s with the Scream franchise, but he’s also the man behind one of the scariest movie villains ever created: Freddy Kreuger. Even if you’re the sort of person who looks down on horror as an inferior genre, it’s hard to deny the impact that those two franchises alone have had on pop culture in the past thirty years. The brilliance of Craven, however, has less to do with the mass appeal of his films and more with the intuitively subversive directorial instincts that allowed him to redefine an entire genre decade after decade.
By the time of his death, Craven had built an illustrious career. Nearly every single one of his movies was a box office success, many of which fared well with critics, too (a rare feat for any horror director). He even directed Meryl Streep in one of her many Oscar-nominated roles in the 1999 drama Music of the Heart (let’s see John Carpenter try to make that claim). Three of Craven’s movies in particular, however, cemented his status as a truly prolific talent. Spanning three decades, these are the Craven films that not only feature his greatest work, but also had a major impact on the film and horror industry as a whole.
1. The Last House on the Left (1972)
Compared to the outright torture and violence audiences see in modern franchises like Saw or Hostel, American horror was actually a rather subdued genre up until the early ’70s. Hitchcock had convinced everybody that alluding to the violence was scarier than actual violence, and consequently most of the horrific aspects to horror films were usually implied without being explicitly featured on screen. The most iconic embodiment of this filmmaking approach is the infamous shower scene from Hitchcock’s own Psycho: not once do you see the knife contacting Janet Leigh’s flesh, but she’s obviously being stabbed to death.
In his early days as a filmmaker (late ’60s/early ’70s), Craven found himself directing porno flicks under a pseudonym until he got funding for his first full length feature, The Last House on the Left. For anyone who hasn’t seen this cult classic of exploitative horror, be warned that it is not for anyone with a weak stomach. In the movie, two teenage girls on their way to a concert are kidnapped by a gang of psychotic convicts who proceed to beat, rape, and murder them. When those same convicts con their way into one of the girl’s homes, her parents figure out that these people have done something horrible to their daughter, and conduct a gruesome revenge plot of their own (spoiler alert: someone gets their penis bitten off).
Perhaps it was his experience filming flesh and vulgarity for the porn industry that informed his exploitative sensibilities, or maybe it was the imagery from Vietnam bombarding the American psyche that pushed him towards such violent extremes. Either way, LHOTL was a critical and box office success, and pushed American horror to darker and more explicit levels than it had ever been before. For better or worse, the genre hasn’t been the same since.
2. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Who among us has never had a Freddy Krueger nightmare? A psychopath child-molester who kills kids in their sleep as revenge against their vigilante parents immediately struck a chord with audiences, and eventually launched an entire franchise that included six sequels, two reboots, a television show, and Robert Englund’s entire career. Though some of the sequels are worse than others, it’s safe to say the ones that involved Craven were immensely better than the ones that didn’t.
Like I said before, however, mass appeal isn’t the only thing that made Wes Craven’s movies important. Yes, ANOES took slasher movies to deliriously clever new heights and made Freddy Krueger a household name for decades to follow. The thing that makes this movie hugely relevant to the film industry as we know it today, however, was Craven’s relationship with the production company funding the movie. ANOES was the most high budget movie Wes Craven had made up until that point; the money came courtesy of a producer named Bob Shaye, who was trying desperately to get his fledgling film production company off the ground. After ANOES became a surprise hit, Shaye realized he had a potential money-making franchise on his hands, and that franchise could secure the financial future of his company. Holy crap, was he correct! Though Shaye often made the mistake of excluding Craven from involvement in the later films, he ruthlessly cranked out sequel after sequel, and the production company became a massive success as a result. To this day, the company calls itself “the house that Freddy built.”
So which production company was it? Oh, just a little mom-and-pop shop called New Line Effing Cinema. You may be wondering, “How have I heard of New Line Cinema?” It’s no big deal, they’re only the studio behind the Rush Hour, Austin Powers, and Lord of the Rings Trilogy, among countless other classics. That’s right: Peter Jackson owes everything to Freddy God Damn Krueger. Welcome to Prime Time, Bitch!
3. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
If you’re a Wes Craven fan, you may be wondering why I would opt to include New Nightmare on this list over Scream. After all, the latter is single-handedly responsible for the horror movie renaissance of the late ’90s and early ’00s, and probably the better film, to boot. Yet without New Nightmare, Scream would never have seen the light of day, and certainly wouldn’t have become the celebrated, genre-defining film that it ultimately became.
Once Bob Shaye ran Nightmare on Elm Street into the ground with five subpar sequels (each one slightly worse than the last), Craven was frustrated with what had become of Freddy Krueger. Where Freddy was a legitimately terrifying and sinister presence in the first movie, he had essentially become a Looney Tunes character by the last one. As a fan of the franchise, I can say that I enjoy those later movies, but they’re not exactly what I would call “good,” and they’re definitely not scary. Craven wanted to find a way to bring the character back to his diabolically terrifying origins, but New Line had effectively ended the franchise with the conclusively-titled sequel Freddy’s Dead. With the mythology of Freddy’s fictional world completely exhausted, how was Craven supposed to revive a dead character in a way that still felt fresh and scary?
The solution? Bring Freddy into the real world.
New Nightmare took Freddy out of the fictional town of Springwood, Ohio and brought him to the nonfictional city of Hollywood, CA. The movie stars the original lead of the first Nightmare movie Heather Langenkamp as… well… Heather Langenkamp. In the movie, Langenkamp plays herself as a married actress and mother who is starting to have Freddy nightmares right as Wes Craven (who also appears in the movie as himself) starts writing a new Nightmare script. At first it seems like she’s just a stressed out mom (after all, Freddy isn’t real), until it becomes very clear that Freddy Krueger is a force of evil that can’t be contained by the boundaries of fiction.
Though the Nightmare franchise had always had meta elements about it, it was with New Nightmare that Craven officially solidified meta-horror as a full subgenre (which he later mastered with Scream). Since then, many filmmakers have mimicked the style, some with more success than others. While meta-horror is sort of on the outs right now — the last great entry in the genre was probably Cabin in the Woods — New Nightmare used tongue-in-cheek references and slyly self-aware characters to create a genuinely terrifying and unnerving experience. In doing so, Craven once again changed the landscape of horror irrevocably.
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