Remembering horror legend Wes Craven with 9 of his greatest films

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Aug 31, 2015, 11:09 AM EDT

Cinema has lost a tremendous figure in writer/director/producer Wes Craven, who died on Sunday at the age of 76. Yes, most of his work was in the horror genre -- which he never shied away from, even as he attempted to make other types of films -- but many of his movies were landmarks in that field, becoming not just classics to his fans but enormously influential on generations of filmmakers who followed him. He and John Carpenter are arguably the two most important horror filmmakers to emerge from the 1970s. 

Just like any working director with a long list of credits spanning 40 years, Craven -- who quit a stable job as a teacher to get into the movie business, writing and editing porn until he got his break -- has highs and lows in his filmography. But the highs were towering edifices in horror. From The Last House on the Left to A Nightmare on Elm Street to Scream, Craven not only broke new ground in the genre but reinvented it as well. Craven was also a true auteur, in the sense that many of his films -- and certainly his finest ones -- were a product of a singular vision and a coherent theme, often examining the nature of reality and how it could be warped by forces either metaphysical, supernatural or mystical.

Here, then, are 9 of Craven's most important movies -- crucial moments either in his career, genre history, or both. On a personal note, I got to meet and interview the man once, in 2011, and he was as intelligent, good-natured and friendly as I had always heard. The world has literally lost a gentleman and a scholar -- and one hell of a filmmaker.

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Craven's directorial debut, which he also wrote and edited, reflected both his love of arthouse cinema (it was inspired by, believe it or not, Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring) and his upbringing in an oppressive, deeply religious household in which he was not even allowed to watch movies. Yet he was fascinated by them, as well as the dark side of human nature, and those obsessions merged with his own feelings of repression to create one of the most viciously depraved works ever committed to celluloid. The story of two teenage girls sadistically tortured and murdered by a gang of psychotic thugs -- only for the parents of one of the girls to enact an equally horrific revenge -- The Last House on the Left is an endurance test that could hardly be described as "entertaining." Yet it never glorifies the violence it so graphically depicts, and its underlying subtext of a culture in decay paved the way for so much of the bleak horror that defined the 1970s.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

It was five years before Craven directed his next feature, but he followed up The Last House on the Left with a more technically proficient yet equally savage tale. In The Hills Have Eyes, a typical American family is attacked in the Nevada desert by a family of cannibals who live in the nearby mountains, with the "civilized" clan ultimately resorting to the same savagery as their attackers. Like its predecessor, The Hills Have Eyes examined the darkest corners of human nature and even delved into social commentary by having the two families act almost as distorted mirror images of each other, with the thin line between them easily erased by the movie's end. Shocking and intense, the film (which features early appearances by Dee Wallace of E.T. fame and horror icon Michael Berryman) is, for my money, one of the great horror movies of the 1970s.

Deadly Blessing (1981)

Deadly Blessing is just okay, but it's important in Craven's career for several reasons. The story of a community beset by murders that are possibly the work of a fanatical religious sect living nearby, the film was Craven's first for a major Hollywood studio (United Artists) and proved that he could transition from his earlier, more brutal works to a mainstream style that pointed the way for his eventual commercial success. It was also his first movie to have some explicitly supernatural overtones, paving the way for his later explorations of the nature of reality, although the themes still revolve around the culture clashes that fueled his previous features. The movie also marked his first time directing name-brand actors such as Ernest Borgnine, Maren Jensen (Athena on the original Battlestar Galactica) and a young Sharon Stone. 

Swamp Thing (1982)

If Deadly Blessing displayed a (relatively) more mainstream-friendly Craven, even flashing a little humor here and there, he took the plunge wholeheartedly with the zany and self-aware Swamp Thing. Based on the DC Comics book (before Alan Moore got hold of it and infused it with a lot more gravitas and true horror), Swamp Thing was actually one of the earliest comics-based films to follow in the wake of Superman (1978), although its budget and dated effects -- including the rubber Swamp Thing suit itself, inhabited by stuntman Dick Durock -- frequently let it down. Still, Swamp Thing is fun to watch and has a comic book tone that's true to its time, plus Adrienne Barbeau at her most luscious. While a Craven movie through and through, it showed another side to his talent and style.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Craven's first commercial hit -- it grossed over $25 million on a budget of less than $2 million -- remains one of his defining works, not to mention a landmark of horror cinema. With this movie, Craven found the theme that would permeate so much of his genre work for the next 30 years: the nature of reality and its warping, in this case through dreams that bleed into waking life. He also introduced Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund in a career role), the dream-inhabiting child predator and serial killer who went on to become woven into the fabric of pop culture itself. Freddy's devolution into wise-cracking franchise star -- spawning six sequels, a TV series, a remake and countless imitators -- doesn't take away from Englund's original, terrifying performance nor the power of the film and its surreal imagery. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a masterpiece.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Loosely based on a non-fiction book by anthropologist Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow may be Craven's most frightening film. Bill Pullman stars as Davis stand-in Dennis Alan, who is sent to Haiti by a drug company to investigate a potion used in voodoo rituals to create zombies, only to run afoul of a bokor or sorceror (Zakes Mokae) who first warns Alan away and then attempts to murder him and steal his soul. The movie features the kind of surreal, hallucinatory imagery that Craven first employed in A Nightmare of Elm Street, although one scene in which Alan is tortured by the military police is worthy of his sadistic early films. While the portrayal of voodoo and Haitian culture might be considered politically incorrect today, the movie is one of the best of the genre to focus on that mysterious religion.

The People Under the Stairs (1991)

A modest hit, The People Under the Stairs is almost a bookend to some of Craven's older films. Centered around a house where an insane brother/sister couple keep a tribe of cannibalistic children hidden away in the basement and walls, the movie returns to one of Craven's favorite themes, civilization vs. savagery. But the film is expressly political (and liberal) as well, with the psychotic, greedy Robesons treating not just the children in their house but the poor families who rent homes from them as little more than chattel. Entertaining and occasionally scary, The People Under the Stairs almost feels now like a palate cleanser before Craven's next major shift.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

Craven did not direct any of the sequels that followed A Nightmare on Elm Street until returning to write and direct this one -- a genre-bending work that was ahead of its time and sadly confounded fans of the series (it remains the lowest grossing entry in the series). Yet New Nightmare revolves around a brilliant concept: what if Freddy Krueger could be summoned into existence in the "real" world through the movies being created about him? In a masterstroke, original Nightmare stars Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon, along with Craven, play themselves, while Robert Englund appears as himself and Krueger. The latter is portrayed here as much darker and less comical than in the previous sequels, and the movie's exploration of art and reality overlapping makes it one of the more cerebral horror films of the last 25 years. While not a success for the director, New Nightmare did pave the way for the revolutionary smash to come two years later.

Scream (1996)

Followed the twin box office misfires of the terrific New Nightmare and the woeful Eddie Murphy vehicle A Vampire in Brooklyn, Craven was recruited by Dimension Films to tackle a screenplay by Kevin Williamson originally titled Scary Movie. In the script, a group of teenage friends are stalked by a masked serial killer -- with the twist being that the teens already know all the horror movie cliches that they are supposed to enact. A blackly humorous comment on the genre and a masterful exercise in post-modern irony, the movie, eventually titled Scream, was right in Craven's thematic wheelhouse and proved to be the spark needed to revive a moribund horror genre as well as Craven's own career. The movie is clever, fast-paced, ingeniously self-aware and also quite scary -- and ended up being the biggest hit of Craven's filmography, grossing $173 million worldwide. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, it was a genre-defining work, launching three sequels, a current TV series, and legions of like-minded post-modern horror outings, although none were as successful as this original and still unique gem.