Week 28: “A Tribute to Wes Craven”
As you may already know we last a great director on August 30th this year. He wasn’t just a great director but an influential name in the pantheon of horror film directors who created nightmares that haunted the last fifty years of our dreams. His name was Wes Craven and I’d like to take a few moments to appreciate some of my favorite films of his that had a major impact on me.
The first film I’d like to mention is The People Under the Stairs (1991). Why do you ask do I start off with this film? It just happened to be the first film of his that I ever got the chance see on the big screen. It also happened to feature an African American Brandon Quinton Adams as the main star and starred A.J. Langer, whom I ended up having a crush on due to this film and her starring in the TV show Drexel’s Class. I actually saw the film several times at the theater and then it became one of my regular Halloween fixtures once it hit video. Craven has always featured intelligent characters in his films and this film is no exception. Even now this film holds up extremely well considering its age.
Brandon Quinton Adams would again appear in another Craven project which was the short lived Nightmare Café (1992) which I also found compelling and different and of course it starred Robert England in another great role as Blackie. This was an interesting anthology style series in which not only starred England but Lindsay Frost, another great actress most familiar to fans of Dead Heat (1988) and Monolith (1993). The real shame is that no one was tuning into this series and it was cancelled after a single season.
Next up is Swamp Thing (1982). This is the Craven film I didn’t know was a Craven film for the longest time growing up. This would be on constant replay on HBO and other cable stations and I must have seen the film a million times. It also spawned the USA TV series from ’90-’93 and Return of Swamp Thing (1989), but the less said about the sequel the better. The movie was a great introduction for me to the comic book which I’m still a fan of to this day. Despite the infamy of the film now, this was one of my favorite films growing up because it didn’t just have a cool monster as a hero of the film but it starred Andrienne Barbeau, whom has been in some of the best horror and sci-fi films ever made including The Fog (1980), Creepshow (1982), Escape from New York (1981), Two Evil Eyes (1990), and The Convent (2000), to name a few. This film got a lot of replay value with me.
Another guilty pleasure film that lies in infamy with fans of Craven’s work is Deadly Friend (1986). If you see a pattern that Craven’s lesser known films were what I watched a lot of as a kid growing up then you’ll see why this film is on the list. Many consider this one of his worst films because the gore was edited out and the story barely makes much sense and it’s all edited poorly but I say a film that starred Kristy Swanson can’t be all that bad. This was the first film I remember seeing her in but it wouldn’t be the last. I would follow her career from the psychological horrors of Flowers in the Attic (1987) to the ridiculous Mannequin: On the Move (1991) to the even more infamous Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), The Chase (1994), The Program (1993). Higher Learning (1995), and The Phantom (1996), to name a few. By the late ‘90s her career was dying a slow death and even though she would continue to be in many films her starring roles would continue to dwindle. For me, the magic would survive through this first film in which her performance is raw and unrefined but she was relatable as a teenager.
Now I head into Craven’s most famous film A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) which would be higher on my list but unfortunately I was a Michael Myers fan growing up and therefore I really didn’t watch and love this film as much as I should have. What this film does have the benefit of being is the most suspenseful of the major horror franchises which includes Texas Chainsaw Massacre (TCM), Halloween, Hellraiser, and Friday the 13th. Craven is the best of the horror masters at suspense and keeping the audience on the edge of their seats without relying on the “jump scare”. TCM has its off-screen visceral horror; Halloween was a moody horror film all about what hides in the shadow; Friday the 13th was all about the “jump scare”; Hellraiser was about the gore and style and makeup FX. Craven used all these elements to create a whole atmosphere that left audiences in suspense from beginning to end and had intelligent heroines to boot. Craven would have a hand in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987) but it would be New Nightmare (1994) in which he would bring new life to Freddy Krueger in a film that commented on the Elm Street franchise and Hollywood while also bringing a fairytale quality to a horror film. Unfortunately, this film would also not do as well at the Box Office (but it still got my money).
The Serpent & the Rainbow (1988) would be another one of my favorites because it was the very first zombie film I ever saw that was based upon the voodoo zombie and not the undead zombie. As a kid I was expecting the undead zombie but I was completely surprised when I first saw this film. I had never been exposed to the voodoo zombie before this film. George A. Romero’s zombies were zombies to me up until this film but this film opened up my entire mind to the endless possibilities out there. By this time I was well aware of who “Wes Craven” was and I had seen most all his major films up until then.
So when Shocker (1989) was released it was one of the few films of ’89 that were on the top of my “Must Watch” list. Unfortunately, I missed this one at the Box Office (as it would be another couple years until the release of The People Under the Stairs) but I must have seen the film a hundred times when it found its way on video. This film is the rare Craven film on this list that was not suspenseful but more on the level of being an exciting and vibrant action-horror hybrid with all kinds of supernatural events going on. I’m also a huge fan of the soundtrack for this film and I must have played it a thousand times growing up (I still have my copy on cassette if you can believe that).
Before I go any further I’d like to backtrack to the film that usually gets glossed over which is The Hills Have Eyes (1977). I actually saw its sequel The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1984) first but I enjoyed that one so much I searched out the first one. After watching the first one, which I did love more, the sequel continued to be a guilty pleasure that had introduced me to another of one of my favorite Craven films. Now The Hills Have Eyes may not be one of Craven’s best films; it’s certainly one of the most dated but it has a raw charm to it that I just love and whenever I’m in the mood to watch this film I watch its sequel as well (and now I’ve added the remake for a triple feature). These films are usually at the bottom of any Craven fan’s “Best of” list but I would take both of these films over much of Craven’s output post late ‘90s.
The last two major films on my “Best of” Craven’s list will include Scream (1996) and Scream 2 (1997) because they re-kicked started Craven’s commercial career in Hollywood. After a string of underperforming and mediocre films the original Scream became one of Craven’s biggest successes spawning three additional sequels and now an MTV television series. The original Scream is just what Craven needed to put himself back on the map and prove to Hollywood that he still had what it takes to appeal to young audiences. It was also a shot in the arm for the horror genre as the film was smart and the characters were smart and the film was suspenseful and kept audiences on the edge of their seats from beginning to end while also providing plenty of laughs when and where needed. Scream 2 heightened these aspects from the first film and made them even better. With a higher budget, more celebrities and better production values this was a horror film with the look, feel, and budget of a major Hollywood film.
I didn’t really care for either of the other sequels Scream 3 (2000) or Scream 4 (2011), which is unfortunately Craven’s final film. Both were technically fine but neither was as shocking or interesting as the first two but that’s the nature of diminishing returns for sequels. The same can be said of the Elm Street sequels as well. Cursed (2005) is one of Craven’s worst films for many different reasons (I could dedicate a whole article on this) while Red Eye (2005) is the odd duckling of the bunch. It’s technically a great film and the performances are also great but it doesn’t feel like a Craven film. It feels like a film that any other horror director could have handled. Craven’s style is absent from this film. Vampire in Brooklyn (1995) is its own mishap and has never been on my list of Craven films to watch despite looking and feeling like a Craven film. The comedy falls flat and most of the actors seem bored to be in this comedy-horror hybrid.
I can appreciate the ground breaking The Last House on the Left (1972) and what it did for Craven’s career but this is a film I’ve always hated. I’ve given it several watches over the years and I still hate it. I prefer the remake over this film and in fact have watched the remake more times. I’ll not mention Craven’s TV movies as none of them are on the same level as his theatrical films and I skipped over Music of the Heart (1999), which is actually a pretty decent film, and the highly forgettable and uninteresting My Soul to Take (2010), which lacks the “pop” and excitement of Craven’s best films.
The only films of Craven’s I’ve yet to see are Deadly Blessing (1981) and Night Visions (1990) so I won’t comment on those.
All in all Wes Craven has had a long career of crafting some of our most unforgettable nightmares. His career had its ups and downs but he continued to be successful and produce quality films till the end. He also managed to produce a lot of films and continued to influence the next generation of horror film-makers including his own son Jonathan Craven. The horror genre has lost one of its greatest contributors and we should all take a few moments to reflect on that.
I wish Mr. Craven safe travels in wherever his spirit finds a home and we will all continue to marvel the dreams and nightmares that he gave us all.