There are few directors that the horror genre owes itself too. David Cronenberg’s contribution to body horror, Dario Argento’s deeply stylistic Giallo sub-genre and, for his sheer influence in setting, establishing and remodelling trends, Wes Craven.
His 1972 feature film debut, The Last House on the Left, reimagined what the general public knew as a horror film, stripping away the ghosts, ghouls and rubber monsters, to be replaced by real-life horrors that reflected the abhorrent nature of America’s involvement in Vietnam. It was a film that marked a significant change in western cultural values, in a world that was now becoming more terrified by the concept of the horrors of man.
Slasher films soon followed, made on a similarly low-budget to create a grisly, visceral aesthetic in which Texas Chainsaw’s Leatherface and Friday the 13th’s Jason could enact their psychotic killings. Again, Craven defined a sub-genre, designing one of horror’s most iconic villains, a Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Kruger and, with him a more pulsating, fleshy and original monster to house this fantasy monster.
He would later go on to reflect on the genre as a whole, and his own self-created franchise, directing the postmodern Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994, before once again, providing a whole new generation with their own new nightmare, Scream’s Ghostface. As one of the genre’s greatest ever voices, we look back on his very favourite horror films, from gothic to sci-fi, and take careful note…
Wes Craven’s 5 favourite horror films:
Frankenstein (James Whale – 1931)
A timeless icon of horror, James Whale’s Frankenstein, based off of Mary Shelley’s original 19th-century novel, had a significant impact on a popular culture that was in the infancy of a digital revolution. As Wes Craven rightfully points out, Frankenstein hints at the “shock of what’s coming out of these huge advances in science”.
Toying with themes of birth, creation and social alienation, the classic tale follows a manic Dr Frankenstein, who creates new life and a monster, through the stitching together of lifeless body parts. Boris Karloff’s portrayal as the monster himself has since gone down in cinematic history as one of the horror genres earliest ‘villains’, his stiff, lifeless demeanour haunting a generation.
The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy – 1956)
It’s no secret that there’s something strangely sinister about small children. It’s a concept that has been explored throughout film history from the devil spawn Damien in 1976’s The Omen, to The Grady Twins in Kubrick’s 1980 horror, The Shining. However, for Wes Craven, he prefers the “cynicism and wit” of The Bad Seed.
Former producer of The Wizard of Oz, director Mervyn LeRoy’s classic horror surrounds a housewife who becomes suspicious of her eight-year-old daughter after a string of mysterious deaths. Staring a young Patty McCormack as the seemingly innocent villain, The Bad Seed is part melodrama, part psychological thriller and is a wild ride throughout, held together by the creepy central performance of McCormack.
As Craven simply puts: “It was just wonderful by saying there is no necessary innocence to childhood”.
The Exorcist (William Friedkin – 1973)
As an innovator of horror himself, it should come by no surprise that some of his favourite of the genre are innovations in and of themselves. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist brought a brand new breed of horror to the silver screen, turning stomachs and heads as it dealt in dark dealings of the devil.
Friedkin’s film would horrify a generation with its visceral account of possession and its long-lasting question marks over Christianity. As Regan scuttles like a spider downstairs and contorts her body and head “you’re put completely off-balance,” as Wes Craven asserts. “It’s beautifully done.”
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper – 1974)
Talking of innovation, along with Black Christmas released in the same year, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre laid the foundations for the slasher-movie craze of the late ’70s and ’80s. Creating an iconic villain in the horrifying Leatherface, Hooper’s film is unadulterated horror, unexplained, inexplicable and expertly put together.
“Everything about it just looked outside of the purview of standard Hollywood. It was so primal and pushed the limits of what you thought a film should do.” Wes Craven’s comments tap into a particular quality of the film, it’s rusty, rustic grassroots formation. A genuine horror in the outback of America where there seems to be something peculiar going on, something seemingly supernatural. Leatherface’s pig-squealing introduction might be cinema’s scariest ever moment, just ask Wes Craven. “I was almost under my seat during the whole movie,” he added.
Alien (Ridley Scott – 1979)
Home invasion horrors are particularly disturbing. A horrifying ‘other’, be it a sadistic killer or a gruesome monster, invading your safe, secure space—it’s a universal, primal fear. Ridley Scott’s Alien is no different, featuring a ferocious Xenomorph picking the crew of a merchant’s vessel off one-by-one.
The visual design work from artist H.R Giger is revolutionary, forming a creature and a world spitting with tangibility. The spaceships walls are cold and unforgiving, and the Xenomorph itself, a visual nightmare. As Craven comments, the film is “profoundly scary and a huge delight at the same time…It was able to get down to the nitty-gritty” of life on a spaceship, he adds.