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12 Wes Craven Films You Need To See

The Scream and Nightmare on Elm Street filmmaker died Aug. 30. These are the movies that made him a horror legend.

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1. The Last House on the Left (1972)

MGM

"To avoid fainting, keep repeating, 'It's only a movie...'" Over four decades since its release, The Last House on the Left is still tough to watch. Wes Craven wrote, directed, and edited this adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, in which a group of escaped convicts brutally murder a 17-year-old girl, then find themselves at the mercy of her vengeful parents. The Last House on the Left is gritty and perverse: Craven's directorial restraint and the film's small budget favor realism over style, and make the violence that much harder to shake.

2. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Vanguard

The 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes — which Craven produced — is one of the better modern horror remakes. But there's really no comparison with the original, which feels just as shocking even without nearly as many bursts of graphic violence. A story of Craven's own devising, The Hills Have Eyes gave a glimpse into the depths of his creativity. If a group of people running afoul of homicidal mutants sounds familiar, that's because The Hills Have Eyes — like most of Craven's films — was influential enough to inspire countless iterations of the concept.

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3. Swamp Thing (1982)

Sony Pictures Entertainment

With Swamp Thing, Craven was able to show some of his range: In particular, he was working to establish himself as someone who could take on action-heavy mainstream entertainment. More so than his prior films, Swamp Thing was about having fun. But even if it's not all that deep, the movie still reflects some of Craven's greatest talents, including creating complicated, emotionally resonant monsters. The titular creature is merely misunderstood — a sort of latter-day Frankenstein — and with Craven at the helm, he's an imposing but still sympathetic figure.

4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

New Line Cinema

When it comes to slasher franchises, there are three biggies: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street. But Fred Krueger was an entirely new kind of slasher villain, and his debut film completely reinvigorated the genre. This wasn't a silent, lumbering Michael Myers offing irresponsible teens — this was a clever, quippy Freddy invading his victims' dreams. Halloween and Friday the 13th came first and they, too, were hugely influential, but A Nightmare on Elm Street showed that a slasher could be high-concept and still completely terrifying.

5. Deadly Friend (1986)

Warner Bros.

Some might scoff at the inclusion of Deadly Friend on this list, but the film is, at the very least, interesting for what it could have been. This was Craven's attempt at trying something different, a sci-fi thriller with limited gore. Yes, it's an odd, very '80s movie: Kristy Swanson plays a girl who is murdered by her abusive father and brought back as a robot. But there is still plenty of Craven's sensibility here. And as it turned out, audiences demanded gore, so the final cut includes some truly shocking violence. It's not a Nightmare-level classic, but it's a fascinating film.

6. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

New Line Cinema

No, all sequels don't suck! A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 is one of the most enjoyable installments in the franchise. (It also marked Craven's return to the franchise — as co-writer — after the much maligned, but homoerotic, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2.) What makes Dream Warriors so great is Craven's willingness to experiment with genre: It's still a slasher in many ways, but he also incorporated elements of action and fantasy. This is the Nightmare movie in which kids use dream-induced super powers to fight back against Freddy — and it's 1,000 times better than it sounds.

7. The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Universal Pictures

The People Under the Stairs is as strange as it is hilarious. It's also yet another example of Craven pushing past the boundaries of genre conventions. Instead of a white teenage Final Girl, his protagonist is a young black boy. The villains are the evil landlords trying to force his family out from their home. (They're also killers, but that's almost secondary.) The People Under the Stairs is scary and deeply funny, but perhaps most important it demonstrates Craven's ability to engage with the world around him, subverting traditional horror to satirize society's ills.

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8. Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

New Line Cinema

It's hard to imagine Kevin Williamson writing Scream without the influence of New Nightmare, which slashed through the fourth wall and changed horror forever. Craven plays himself in the movie: He's writing a new Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, but the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur as Heather Langenkamp (star of the original film) is menaced by a very real Freddy Krueger. New Nightmare was a risky experiment, and while it didn't pay off at the time — it's the lowest grossing film in the franchise — it established meta-horror as a new subgenre.

9. Scream (1996)

Dimension Films

And then there was Scream, in which Williamson took meta-horror to the next level. With his brilliant screenplay and Craven's direction, Scream became a modern horror classic. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream completely redefined the genre for a new generation. It was a smarter, hipper, funnier slasher — still full of blood and guts, but also a cutting sense of irony. While much of the credit for Scream's success goes to Williamson, it's impossible to overlook the work Craven did in further transforming the genre he largely helped build.

10. Music of the Heart (1999)

Miramax Films

If you're a diehard horror fan looking to explore the Wes Craven oeuvre, you'd be forgiven for overlooking Music of the Heart, his only non-genre film. Meryl Streep stars as Roberta Guaspari, a real-life violinist who worked to bring music education to inner-city schools. Music of the Heart is a slight but satisfying drama. For Craven fans, it's mostly interesting because it is such a stark departure from anything that came before or after. Craven may have been the master of horror, but it would have been interesting to see him make more attempts at branching out.

11. Red Eye (2005)

DreamWorks Pictures

Red Eye is more thriller than horror. Craven didn't write it, but his direction here shows a tremendous amount of skill, particularly given that the film relies on psychological violence and not gore to terrify its audience. (In that respect, this is what Deadly Friend could have been.) As with many of Craven's later films, Red Eye is commonly disregarded, but it's easily one of his best 21st-century movies. It's stressful, restrained, and ultimately very effective, a testament to its director's long career in getting under viewers' skin.

12. Scream 4 (2011)

Dimension Films

Although Scream 4 has its detractors, there's a lot to enjoy about the (for now) final installment in the Scream film series — and Craven's last film. It was another collaboration between Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson, and it's another deliberate step forward in genre-expansion. Craven was the horror filmmaker of the '80s, but with Scream he showed off his modern sensibility. And Scream 4 took things even further: Craven could be a horror icon for his past work and a contemporary innovator, always setting the stage for what's coming next.

Correction

Wes Craven co-wrote the story and screenplay for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, but he did not direct it. This post has been updated to clarify his role on the film.

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