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Six definitive films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Wes Craven

American filmmaker and writer Wes Craven is routinely cited as one of the pioneering figures of 20th-century horror cinema. Dubbed the ‘Master of Horror’, Craven conducted a re-examination of the genre by deviating from the conventions of horror filmmaking and incorporating satirical elements about the socio-political climate of America. His works continue to serve as inspirations for future filmmakers who want to be as innovative as him.

In an interview, Craven commented on his relationship with horror: “It’s very difficult for me to even define what a horror film is. I think a lot of the films I’ve done are quite far from the ‘classical horror film.’ You know, the car stalling in the middle of the woods in a dark night beside a haunted mansion and things of that sort. Even the Hammer films. I’ve never really felt that close to that particular part of the genre.”

He continued: “A lot of the films I’ve made are just kind of using the genre, because that’s where I was in effect, to talk about violence and hallucinative reality and kind of the irrational curve of the 20th century… I don’t know if anyone in the genre has, but I’ve never felt–especially since I didn’t have a big background in the genre–that I was ever consciously making ‘horror films.'”

As a celebration of his enormous contributions to the world of cinema, we take a look at some of the most definitive works from the illustrious filmography of the legendary Wes Craven.

Wes Craven’s six definitive films:

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Now remembered as Craven’s directorial debut, The Last House on the Left was a remake of the 1960 Ingmar Bergman revenge drama called The Virgin Spring. It follows a seventeen-year-old girl who is kidnapped on her birthday and is brutally tortured by a gang of criminals.

Craven said: “We approached Last House as a story that already existed. I saw it in Bergman’s film and Bergman saw it in a book-tale in a minstrel song that had been around in his country for several hundred years. So we thought that here’s a great story that has lasted for centuries, the basic core of it.”

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

A fascinating satire on American morality, The Hills Have Eyes tells the story of a suburban family who gets stranded in the desert and acts as prey for local cannibals. Craven borrowed from the likes of John Ford and Tobe Hooper in order to make this 1977 gem.

The filmmaker studied Greek and Roman mythology while making The Hills Have Eyes. In an interview, he commented: “They were very primal… the reason those myths have stayed for so long is because they really nailed certain things about the human condition. They were carrying our cultures in a way that was elemental, boiled down to the barest bones of what we’re all about.”

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

The first addition to the incredibly popular franchise, the film marked the on-screen debut of Craven’s legendary creation Freddy Krueger. Armed with vicious razor blades, Freddy hunts down and terrorises a group of teenagers who have dreams of dying.

Craven recalled: “I [got] into making television movies of the week, which allowed me to shoot in 35mm and got me into the guilds, and that sort of led to Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing. Then my career was nowhere, until – bang! – Nightmare on Elm Street comes out, and suddenly everybody is writing about it and you’re a hero in the community again.”

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Based on the eponymous book by an ethnobotanist named Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow follows the adventures of an anthropologist who travels to Haiti in order to research a mysterious drug that is being used to transform humans into zombies.

The film explores the curious case of Clairvius Narcisse, a local from Haiti who claimed that he was poisoned by someone and buried alive. After he died, he was apparently revived by an individual as a zombie and forced to work as a slave under terrible conditions.

The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Another intriguing satire about gentrification, the pernicious machinations of capitalism and class consciousness, The People Under the Stairs follows a group of robbers who break into a house but get trapped inside a strange place. The film was based on an actual new story from the 1970s which took place in Los Angeles.

Cinematographer Sandi Sissel claimed: “When I first read The People Under the Stairs, I was struck by the mixture of horror and satire. It was also interesting that Wes wanted to do a film with African-American actors as the good guys pitted against the evil slumlords. I must admit that on the first reading I missed a lot of the references to horror and instead read it as a narrative.”

Scream (1996)

Considered by many to be Wes Craven’s magnum opus, Scream completely redefined the rules of the horror game. Featuring a self-aware, reflexive script full of meta-humour, Scream was one of the first horror films that had the ability to laugh at itself and still be scary.

The director reflected: “Most of the scripts that come across your desk are terrible. They’re derivative, they’re ugly and they’re just gore for gore’s sake…I found it a very appealing script. It’s really wonderfully written, it’s very funny. It’s scary when it means to be scary, extraordinarily well-informed about the genre itself.”