Wes Craven: His Career and Filmography
In the pantheon of horror directors stretching back through the 1970s, very few have their names etched in stone as true maestros of a very subversive and overarching genre. Outside of George Romero and Lucio Fulci for their contributions in horror courtesy of zombies and the 70’s Italian horror visual style respectively, Wes Craven is one of the few names to be slotted directly with that duo which is very high praise for what he had accomplished and what he has left horror fans.
Wes was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1939 just on the cusp of World War II breaking out. Despite a career stretching from 1972 on, Craven did not do a whole lot of actual directing in effect only offering up 29 films to his name with his last effort being Scream 4 in 2011.
He made an immediate impact on the Hollywood film world, however, in 1972 with his stark, uneasy (to put it lightly), depraved The Last House on the Left. A film in which he wrote the script and directed the film, it put forth a revenge horror thriller of realistic proportions as a group of girls are abducted by a group of psychopaths and subsequently get murdered brutally with rape and demeaning acts performed upon them prior to their deaths. A lone survivor proceeds to get her revenge in a true eye for an eye fashion. The movie is very well known for what it contributes on the screen, a very early prototype for later torture porn style films done two folds more effectively and uncomfortably realistically to a skin crawling point. Hit or miss yet unforgettable is the best way to describe this film as I personally did not care too much for it when I finally saw it but you can already see hints of Craven’s ability.
After a few years of bouncing around including writing the script for The Fireworks Woman in 1975, related to sister & brother incest, Craven again put up an engrossing and weird horror thriller in The Hills Have Eyes in 1977 (with a sequel coming out later in 1984 after this film’s cult success). This time, the film touched on a group of cannibals whom come upon a family whose car has broken down and proceed to abduct and terrorize the entire family throughout the movie. Again playing off what was successful in his first directorial debut, Craven brings forth a plot that could be realistically done and managed to ratchet up the drama even more here largely aided by the casting of Michael Berryman and a solid cast which also included Dee Wallace. In a lot of ways, being able to refine his craft a bit, gave way to a stronger overall film and a better developed plot with better acting performances.
Rolling into the early 1980s, Craven started to slide a little with several underwhelming pictures including Deadly Blessing in 1981, a decent enough film with some solid directions but a bit of a muddled mess plot wise. The next year came an up and down adaptation of the classic comic series Swamp Thing in 1982 starring another solid group including Louis Jourdain, Adrienne Barbeau, and Ray Wise but a mediocre plot and inconsistent costume effects largely doomed this film to mediocrity. Released in May of 1984 came Invitation to Hell centering around a family moving into a new town only to be coerced into joining a weird club. Much like his other movies during this period, a strong cast with Susan Lucci and Robert Urich got bogged down by an insufficient script.
Struggling a bit, Craven needed to find another hit and it slammed into theaters in A Nightmare on Elm Street in November of 1984. An really genius story shrouded in shadows and married to one of the most memorable slasher villains in horror history in Freddy Krueger came Craven’s best film to that point. Aided by a very good cast in Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, and Johnny Depp‘s film debut, the movie largely hinged on the performance of the villain and it was an absolute home run from the get go. A lot of the film effects were extremely well done and still hold up today with a classic set up of heroine vs. villain keeping the film from ever feeling like it was a chore to get through or bogged down at any point.
Craven turned to Deadly Friend in 1986 featuring a young Kristy Swanson dealing with more of a science fiction element involving brain transplanting, continuing to showcase Craven’s versatility in subject matter, but again was a symptom of his earlier films which didn’t quite strike through the forefront of horror fans as an inconsistent story and decent direction mostly kept this to a muddled finish. In a unique twist, Craven dipped his toes into the television realm directing various segments for the revived Twilight Zone series in 1985 and 1986. He also wrote the screenplay of 1987’s 3rd film in the NOES series, Dream Warriors which was considered a very solid return to what made the original scary while also keeping up with Freddy’s growing humor and sharp one liners.
Again bouncing back in a strong way came 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow dealing with Haiti and zombie-ism featuring Bill Pullman, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, and Michael Gough. The film hewed closer towards Craven’s early successful efforts and solid acting accompanied a well developed script to parlay itself into a very solid movie overall. In a rare case, Craven did not write the screenplay but allowed himself to show off his ability to not only adapt a novel to the big screen, unlike his Swamp Thing struggles, but to also help bring out the positives of the screenplay and the meat of the actual story.
His inconsistency continued, however, in 1989 with Shocker about a man executed who comes back to life via electricity. It would also feature Heather Langenkamp and include Michael Murphy, Peter Berg, and Mitch Pileggi of X-Files fame. Craven followed that up with a television movie version of Night Visions in 1990. It too featured Pileggi along with James Remar but was ultimately forgettable and for good reason.
Craven’s fortunes started to turn in 1991 with The People Under the Stairs, a thriller about a group of juvenile delinquents whom break into a home only to find a brother and sister with a group of stolen children and the group suddenly finds themselves as the trapped. As usual, Craven married a very solid cast with a solid story and managed to turn a fairly conventional plot into a good, taught little thriller without needing to heavily rely on the supernatural to achieve his goals. Ving Rhames and Sean Whalen are just a couple names from the cast who put in a good effort under Craven’s directorial eye.
Dissatisfied with the bungling of his franchise, Craven set out to create arguably his best movie in a crazy meta horror thriller with New Nightmare featuring a weird reality of the present day of the key people involved in the original NOES with a scary, dreamlike quality that made the series such a standout initially. It’s a bit of a mind fuck to watch but the way Craven melded both reality with the fictional life of those involved is a true testament to how good Craven could be behind the camera despite his varied struggles and ineffective movies otherwise.
Eddie Murphy and Craven teamed up for Vampire in Brooklyn in 1995 and it was awful from the get go and a rare flop in Craven’s repertoire featuring such high caliber talent otherwise. The movie also starred Angela Bassett, Kadeem Hardison, and reunited Craven with Zakes Mokae.
Luckily for Craven, he had Scream and Scream 2 in 1996 and 1997. A new franchise that would see Craven helm the director’s chair for all 4 films in the series and was bolstered by a really, really good 90’s cast of actors and actresses along with great screenplays that managed to straddle that line between poking fun at itself as a parody of the genre as a whole and yet Craven’s ability to direct made the movie so chilling and serious in its efforts that it managed to pinball into a straight, effective, and highly memorable scary horror slasher in its own right. Much like the classic series he’s otherwise known for, this also was aided as much by the mask design and “Ghostface” moniker of its villain into something that superseded just horror fans gravitating towards it to become a cultural phenomenon at large.
During this period of success, he also executive produced films: a completely forgettable film in Mind Ripper in 1995, a guilty pleasure favorite of mine in 1997’s Wishmaster starring Tammy Lauren and Andrew Divoff about an evil djinn that gets released, and Carnival of Souls in 1998. Another completely forgettable movie but notable for having Shawnee Smith in the cast. He also would executive produce the infamously bad Dracula 2000 which featured a decent cast including singer Vitamin C! It’s watchable but as usual, bogged down with an inconsistent plot and inconsistent acting and characters.
Despite being surrounded with Scream, Craven took a bit of a departure in 1999 with Music of the Heart starring Meryl Streep, Aidan Quinn, and reuniting him with Angela Bassett. The plot was the standard fare at the time of a white person teaching black students how to overcome their surroundings with the key focus being violins and music in this case but Craven made it work stepping away from his general comfort zone while aided by one of the best actresses to ever hit Hollywood. It’s a great film to watch in a sense as it really highlights Craven’s ability to not only bounce around in subject matter but also indicates that he isn’t a one note director and could have had an equally great career directing safer, more “serious” films if he had so desired.
Craven continued his horror and thriller dabbling in 2005 with an inconsistent yet enjoyable favorite of mine in Cursed dealing with werewolves starring Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg. Much like most of his output, the film has parts that work really well while the story and acting partly struggle to keep up with his directing abilities resulting in a bit of a muddled mess overall that teases how good it could have been. Yet Craven would save his better film for August with Red Eye, a tense thriller set mostly on an airplane starring Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. Craven does his best work erring closer to the thriller side of his movies and working in a mostly confined place allows Craven to ratchet up tension, get solid performances from his actor and actress, and develop a mostly solid plot although it fades a bit towards the end in my opinion.
Craven also continued with side projects including co-writing the screenplay for the fairly awful American remake of the Japanese film Pulse in 2006, starring Kristen Bell and Ian Somerhalder. He closed out his career directing the hyped but ultimately underwhelming My Soul to Take in 2010 about a serial killer stalking seven kids with his birthday and the penultimate Scream 4 in 2011, a solid return to what made the original and sequel mostly work.
Although he passed away, Craven served as executive producer for ten episodes of the Scream television series airing on MTV along with the horror thriller The Girl in the Photographs set to be released in Canada on September 14th starring Katharine Isabelle, Christy Carlson Romano, Kal Penn, and Mitch Pileggi.
Rest in Peace to one of the true visionaries of the horror genre.