Wes Craven, one of the most successful horror movie directors of all time and the man responsible for the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises, has died at 76, reports the Hollywood Reporter.
Craven had been battling brain cancer.
The director's final film stands as 2011's Scream 4, an attempt to reboot the famous slasher movie franchise for a new generation. When it didn't take off, MTV launched a Scream TV show instead. That program continues to feature Craven as an executive producer.
These are the five films you need to see to understand why Craven was a master of onscreen suspense.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Loosely based on Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, Craven's film was excoriated by some upon its release for its dark, ultra-violent look at what happens when a middle-class couple's daughter and her friend are viciously tortured and assaulted by a group of escaped criminals. When those same criminals cross paths with said middle-class couple, things take a turn for the bloody.
Wes Craven's direction never lets us out from under almost unbearable dramatic tension (except in some silly scenes involving a couple of dumb cops, who overact and seriously affect the plot's credibility). The acting is unmannered and natural, I guess. There's no posturing. There's a good ear for dialogue and nuance. And there is evil in this movie. Not bloody escapism, or a thrill a minute, but a fully developed sense of the vicious natures of the killers. There is no glory in this violence.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
It's impossible to escape how largely Elm Street looms over the careers of virtually everyone involved in it — including Craven. The story of Freddy Krueger, a horribly burned high school janitor/child murderer who begins haunting the dreams of local teens, the film's eerie blending of actual reality with dream reality breathed new life into the subgenre of horror movies starring teenagers, precisely at a time when the exploits of Halloween's Michael Myers and Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees were wearing thin.
Craven and Krueger portrayer Robert Englund never quite escaped their most famous creation, but at the very least, the film's critical reputation has been improved in recent years. Wrote Matt Singer at the Dissolve in 2014:
Few directors have ever made movies using the language of bad dreams more effectively than Wes Craven. Throughout A Nightmare On Elm Street, the characters slip between reality and dreams, and the scariest part about their journeys between the two is how indistinguishable one is from the other. They should be safe as long as they stay awake—but what if they’re already asleep and don’t even realize it?
Also worth watching: 1994's incredibly self-referential New Nightmare, which feels like a warmup act for the wildly successful Scream.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
This film in which Bill Pullman faces down the forces of voodoo is going to win nobody's awards for cultural sensitivity. In its portrayals of faceless hordes of mostly black voodoo practitioners attempting to wipe out Pullman's seemingly straitlaced professor and/or turn him into a zombie (and not a Walking Dead zombie), the film almost gleefully tramples over all sorts of racial hot buttons.
But setting all of that aside, this is a terrifying film. Craven was always hungry to prove he could work in modes other than straight-up gore, and The Serpent and the Rainbow shows that readily. Yes, it has its big, bloody moments, but this is a more sinuous sort of film and a highly underrated chapter in Craven's canon. Wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:
Depending largely on hallucinations and psychological terror (a la Altered States), and working from a Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun screenplay inspired by Wade Davis's nonfiction book of the same title, Craven provides more atmosphere and creepy ideas than fluid storytelling. But it's nice for a change to see some of the virtues of old-fashioned horror films—moody dream sequences, unsettling poetic images, and passages that suggest more than they show—rather than the usual splatter shocks and special effects (far from absent, but employed with relative economy).
Dubbed a disappointment when it opened to only $6 million in 1996, Scream hung in there at the box office, eventually legging its way to more than $100 million and kick-starting a new boom in teen-focused horror, one that burned itself out almost as quickly as it arrived. (Later films in the Scream franchise would follow this general downward trend.)
But looking at Scream now, it's easy to see why the film took off so readily. For one thing, Kevin Williamson's script is devilishly fun, and its central big idea — that the characters inside of this slasher movie know the rules of slasher movies — was a truly original one when the film debuted. Yes, many of the trends it kicked off very quickly grew tiring, but Craven keeps the tension ratcheted up as tightly as possible, beautifully blending horror movies with a straightforward mystery, where the killer could be anyone.
Wrote Richard Harrington of the Washington Post:
You get a sense of the wild ride ahead from the opening sequence in which a teenager (Drew Barrymore in the Jamie Lee Curtis "Halloween" mold) is tested over the phone -- at first chummily, then suddenly meanly -- by a phantom psycho caller who quizzes her about slasher movies. "If you answer correctly, you live," he warns. She doesn’t and Craven unleashes a living, knife-wielding nightmare who wears black robes and sports an Edvard Munch-"Scream"-like death mask that’s truly unsettling.
Red Eye (2005)
Though Craven never wholly disowned his horror roots, he clearly longed to break out of the genre and do other things. This resulted in career decisions both bizarre (the 1999 Meryl Streep drama Music of the Heart!) and unfortunate (the incredibly terrible Vampire in Brooklyn). But this late-summer hit from 2005 showed that Craven's mastery of tension and suspense could extend to thrillers, not just horror films.
In it, a young woman played by Rachel McAdams gets on board a late-night flight, only to find herself seated next to a seemingly friendly young man played by Cillian Murphy. Except he's far from friendly, and she's about to be put through the wringer. It's a sleek, nasty little bit of business, and it's perfectly played by McAdams and Murphy, showcasing Craven's success with actors. Wrote Stephanie Zacharek in Salon:
With Red Eye Craven plays us like an orchestra of violins, and most of the fun comes from our own recognition that we’re responding exactly as he wants us to. We fall for his tricks, and then laugh at ourselves for doing so — punk’d! Red Eye doesn’t just stick to the basics — it reminds us why they still matter.
Correction: The original version of this article featured the trailer for the Nightmare on Elm Street remake.