b. 2 August, 1939, Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A
d. 30 August, 2015, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A

‘The family is the best microcosm to work with…’
– Wes Craven


Few directors have garnered such polarizing levels of praise and condemnation throughout their careers as Wes Craven has. While his admirers see his films as visceral, subversive, and witty, others have labelled him as crude and cynical. Critics seemed to take further umbrage at Craven himself; at how the man behind some of cinema’s most disturbing portraits of humanity was, in fact, a bright, eloquent individual who spoke clearly and devotedly in interviews; someone who viewed his work far more seriously than he viewed himself. Robert Englund himself perhaps best surmised the surface disconnect between Craven and his work. Prior to his audition as Freddy Krueger in the seminal A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), he had expected to meet a ‘Prince of Darkness’. Instead, he was greeted by a preppy, polo-wearing, polite Craven. I have used the term ‘surface disconnect’, due to Craven’s films and subject matters arguably being so personally tied to his own experiences and fears, something I will elaborate on in this Great Directors piece. 

Another aspect of Craven’s career that likely infuriated his more ardent critics was his sustained popularity. It is quite rare that a genre director- let alone a horror one- manages to maintain his or her relevance for nearly 40 years. This is more remarkable considering how erratic Craven’s body of work is. Many of his major films are often sandwiched between failures- although, as will be exhibited, even these could be fascinating. Many put this prolonged success down to his constant reinvention. While many other great horror directors would ardently stick to their formulas with diminishing returns, Craven would display a remarkable tendency to shift and evolve. Through this piece, I will chart the frequent, surprising shifts in Craven’s career. In doing so, I will also place an emphasis on how he maintained his core themes and interests throughout such changes. Most prominent among these traits are his complex relationship with faith, and a frequent fascination with dreams, spirituality, and subconsciousness, often being catalysts for his narratives. Most pertinent, though, is the darkly humorous deconstruction of the typical American family seen in so many of his films. From his grimy debut The Last House on the Left (1972), to his final, polished work Scream 4 (2011), Craven’s art insisted that true horror often stemmed from the home. Even David Thomson, who wrote one of the most scathing critiques of Craven, conceded that he displayed ‘an ironic appreciation of family structure as an horrific thing in itself’1. As will be exhibited, Craven’s complex representations of family elevated even his lesser works.

Early Works & Career Beginnings

Craven grew up in a fractured household. His parents divorced when he was four, and his father died of a heart attack a year later. As he would put it, ‘By my fifth birthday…I’d been exposed to a lot of anger, and to death’2. He was raised in relative poverty, with his family holding strict evangelical Christian leanings. In church, he would often be exposed to visions of the hellish, unbelievers’ afterlife. Seldom was he allowed to read comic books or watch films. Following his passion for literature and creative writing, Craven would initially pursue a life of literary academia. During this time, he would master the art of recording his dreams, writing them down as soon as he would wake up. As he progressed through various degree levels, Craven would also gain a taste for filmmaking, creating short works with the filmmaking society on his campus at Clarkson University, New York. This would pull his attention away from his prospective teaching career, resulting in an ultimatum from his supervisors: to focus on his studies, or to drop it all in favour of pursuing film. Shortly afterwards, he would leave the University to become a messenger for a production company in New York, with a wife and two children in tow.  

Craven’s formative years in the film industry during the late 1960s would be difficult. In addition to his messenger role, he would work in a variety of jobs, including as a teacher and a taxi driver. The financial struggles during this period would also place great strain upon his marriage, which would end in a divorce in 1969. Things began to change in 1971, when he earned his first professional credit as an editor in the comedy film You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat (Peter Locke, 1971). That same year, he would produce Sean S. Cunningham’s second movie, Together (1971). Cunningham, who would eventually go on to direct Friday the 13th (1980), would prove to be one of the most important figures in Craven’s career, producing his debut feature, The Last House on the Left3.

Though he would go on to direct better films, Last House remains Craven’s most shocking and upsetting work, as well as the most difficult to discuss. A graphic reimagining of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), the film centres around the rape and murder of two girls by a gang of escaped convicts who then, by chance, end up at the house of one of the murdered girls. On finding out what they have done to their daughter, the girl’s parents exact a brutal revenge. The film is as grotesque as it sounds, with Craven refusing to skip anything. Befitting of a first feature with little prior filmmaking experience, it is stylistically crude, as if its director was still figuring out the medium. Shots are often off-balance, the performances inconsistent, and its use of themes- primarily the hidden capability for violence within middle class society- less subtle than what would later arrive. However, it is precisely these amateurish qualities which lend the film its visceral power, particularly when comparing it to its glossier, ineffective 2009 remake. 

The Last House on the Left

Though Craven’s intentions behind making Last House so graphic- as an aggressive counter to the audience’s increased desensitisation towards violence in the media- are laudable, it is inevitably difficult to reconcile a male view of two girls being so frequently debased. Still, he never takes the film’s graphic nature less than seriously. In one of the most haunting moments in cinema, the central gang, after murdering the girls, stand around in silence, trading looks of self-disgust, as if they have suddenly, inexplicably, realised the nature of their acts. Years later, Craven would leave a screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), as he believed its violence was inserted purely for the sake of enjoyment. Tarantino was reportedly a fan of Last House. As will later be displayed, much of Craven’s work, rather than being ‘cynical’, shows a hopeful view of humanity. Last House is the exception to this, and the one Craven film that most convincingly supports this common critique. The Collingwood’s, the married couple who commit their hit back at the murderous gang, relish their opportunity for revenge, leaving the audience with the pessimistic message that, ultimately, all of humanity has a capacity for corruption. Likewise, the slow build to the murders of Mari and Phyllis within the film’s first half feels calculated, as if the fates of the characters are held above their heads. Despite its flaws, the film has many virtues. The folksy soundtrack is almost ritualistic, and David Hess’s villainous performance as Krug Stillo, the leader of the gang, is genuinely frightening, as is Marc Sheffler’s tortured role as his son, Junior Stillo. The film also shows the emergence of some of Craven’s trademark themes: a distrust of authority, and the dissolution of family. 

Many have described Last House as Craven’s breakthrough. One supposes it is, in the same way being publicly tried for murder is a ‘breakthrough’. Craven faced an immense amount of hatred upon the film’s release (it was shown in many more cinemas than he had anticipated). The film was met with disgust from most critics, although it had a few defenders, most notably Roger Ebert, who gave it a glowing review4. Upon finding out it was he who had directed this nasty little film, people would actively evade him. It would be five years until Craven would release another feature. Fearing being pigeonholed as a horror director, he spent the years following Last House’s release writing non-horror works with Cunningham, none of which were met with much interest. Most notable among these unrealised works was Mustang, a Vietnam film, and a potential adaptation of the novel First Blood before it would become a Sylvester Stallone vehicle. The only thing he directed during this period was The Fireworks Woman (1975), a pornographic film with supernatural elements. 

1977’s The Hills Have Eyes5 would be his reluctant return to horror, as well as one of his most important films. Wielding his early, rough style like a sledgehammer, Craven hardly wastes a moment in his portrayal of a suburban family fighting for survival against a group of brutal cannibals. It is unbearably, oppressively relentless. The editing is sudden and jarring, whilst Don Peake’s experimental electronic score – one of the films most overlooked aspects, and unique from other Craven soundtracks- is as violent as the onscreen events. An important asset to the film was Robert Burns, who was also the art director on Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Like that earlier masterpiece, the Nevada Desert is made to seem like the end of the earth, a purgatory inhabited only by the deformed outcasts of humankind. Rarely has an open desert seemed so suffocatingly claustrophobic.

The Hills Have Eyes

Hills works as a companion piece to Last House, with both films centring around suburban, middle-class families deploying violence as a means to an end. However, there is an important distinction, which elevates Hills above Last House and displays Craven’s maturation as a writer, as well as his increased understanding of the audience. In the latter, the Collingwood’s revenge on Krug’s gang verges on sadistic. In the former, the Carter family hardly have a choice- they are forced into acts of violence for their own survival. Therefore, they are more relatable, and a horror film can only be as good as its protagonists. Whereas Last House ends in a generational dead-end, with only the middle-aged Collingwood’s surviving, the younger Carter’s are the ones who tackle Jupiter’s family, and eventually outwit them. In one of Craven’s many subversions, Big Bob, the bullish patriarch of the Carter family, is the first to be killed. It is one of the most frightening sequences in his filmography- the once boastful figure of Bob running helplessly through the darkness, as voices taunt him from every direction. The Carters are a resourceful family pushed to commit acts of violence not only in defence, but to gain back the kidnapped baby of the family, Katy. Papa Jupiter, the head of his savage family, is arguably made more destructive through his near-death beating and abandonment by his father. He is left to grow his own civilisation, like a malignant tumour in the desert. The film is also the debut of the distinctive Michael Berryman, iconic as the poster-figure of Pluto. 

Though Hills was a success, earning more money and greater acclaim than Last House, Craven would still spend several years trying to get other projects off the ground. He would not direct another cinema release until 1981. Still, he directed the made-for-TV movie Summer of Fear (1978). It would be the first of several. Craven would dismiss these TV works, often disparaging their cheap quality. However, these are often more enjoyable than some of his cinema releases. Summer of Fear, also known as Stranger in Our House, is a slow-burn thriller, starring Linda Blair. It is a welcome change of pace from his previous two features, displaying Craven’s ability to work in a slower tempo, with the narrative following a young girl, Rachel, who harbours a deep distrust towards another girl taken in by her parents, Julie. Summer of Fear plays into the anxiety of the unheimlich: the unhomely, the feeling of our most familiar environment being made to seem unfamiliar. Though much safer than his last two films, Summer of Fear nevertheless fits into Craven’s body of work and features several memorable sequences, most notable amongst them being a bizarre horse attack, and a devil-infused conclusion. 

Summer of Fear

Successes and Failures in the 1980s

While the 1980s would see the releases of two of Craven’s most successful films, A Nightmare on Elm Street and, to a lesser extent, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), the decade was plagued with troubled productions. This is evident in his first film from this period, Deadly Blessing (1981), a horror film set within an Amish community, with a ridiculous, studio-enforced ending featuring an incubus bursting through a trapdoor. A strange, awkward film, Deadly Blessing finds Craven torn between his earlier, more visceral works, and his desire to produce a friendlier, more commercial film. The result is a movie quite unsure of where to go, shuffling somewhat aimlessly between scenes. Coming after Hills, the pacing of the film is strikingly drawn-out, and the mystery at its core is far less intriguing than the lesser-known Summer of Fear. Deadly Blessing’s dryness is a shame, as it has some interesting elements. The Amish community is an evocative setting, reflecting his own difficult childhood amidst strict religious code. The scene in which the head of the family, Ernest Borgnine’s Isaiah Schmidt, coldly severs ties with his rule-breaking son, makes him out to be as warped as the film’s killer. One wishes Craven had leaned further into the tensions between familial and religious duties, which would have resulted in a more layered film. Deadly Blessing also has a notable, eclectic cast. Borgnine is convincingly severe, whilst Berryman returns (though he is underutilised). Sharon Stone also makes her feature debut. 

Deadly Blessing

Swamp Thing (1982) is better, being Craven’s clear attempt at a non-horror mainstream movie. It is one of the stranger works in his filmography, foregoing many of his usual themes in favour of a straight comic-book adaptation. Craven’s career may have gone in a very different direction had Swamp Thing been more financially successful. The film was his attempt to prove that he could handle action and onscreen romance and, largely, he succeeds. Focusing on the origins of the DC character, the film is one of his most likable, and is considered a cult classic by many. The comic-book style panel transitions are charmingly antiquated, as is Harry Manfredini’s dramatic score. An air of melancholy hangs over the rather slight narrative, with the titular figure being a tragic outcast, rejecting society and disappearing further into the jungle in Swamp Thing’s final shot. The film was beset with financial troubles, however, meaning the film’s rubber-suit effects evoke 1950s monster-movies rather too much, ultimately harming the final product. 

Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing’s lukewarm box office disheartened Craven. Nevertheless, he spent the next few years attempting to gain finance for what would eventually become his defining film: A Nightmare on Elm Street6. Craven, who wrote the script in 1981 after shooting Swamp Thing, was inspired by newspaper articles about young men who had complained of nightmares and refused to sleep, only to be found dead shortly after. Another piece of inspiration for the film stemmed from a blurry memory of his own childhood trauma. When he was a young boy, Craven looked out of his bedroom window one night to see a lone man across the street. He was startled when the man responded to his gaze by shooting him a smile and moving across the street to his front door. When Craven woke his brother, they went downstairs to find nothing. The look that anonymous man had shot Craven, something no story can accurately evoke, was the basis for Freddy Krueger. Furthering the notion of Krueger stemming from Craven’s trauma was the fact that he was directly named after a childhood bully, something which also informed the naming of ‘Krug’ in Last House. Though Elm Street’s concept, about a killer who could strike within young people’s dreams, was dark and full of potential, it was rejected by numerous studios. Disney showed some interest, although they wanted Craven to make it suitable for children. He thankfully declined this. Paramount Pictures were more stinging in their rejection, noting the film’s similarity to another upcoming project of theirs, Dreamscape (Joseph Ruben, 1984). As the rejection mounted, Craven found himself in increasing financial strain.

In his desperate situation, Craven would accept an offer to shoot a quick, cheap sequel, The Hills Have Eyes Part II7 (1985), filming it in 1983. Though passionless, the filming of Hills II was apparently a pleasant one, with several members of the original cast returning. However, filming was largely abandoned with only two-thirds of it having been shot. It would eventually see release in 1985 after Craven’s success with Elm Street. It arrived as a sad, unloved product, rejected by its creator, and padded out with flashbacks and exposition. It was met with the worst reviews of his career. 

The Hills Have Eyes Part II

A more successful 1983 shoot was that of Craven’s second, and best, TV movie, Invitation to Hell, a film which fulfils the cheap, camp promise of Summer of Fear. It has one of the most joyously ludicrous openings of any movie from the decade. A man is driving down the road when he sees a group of bikini-clad girls. Distracted, he runs over a pedestrian. Before the man can comprehend his situation, the victim, an incredibly cosmeticized woman seemingly straight out of a commercial, springs back up, points at the man, and melts him. This woman is Jessica Jones, the director of an exclusive, high-society Country Club, which, it turns out, hosts a doorway to hell. Invitation to Hell deserves more consideration within Craven’s filmography. Not only is it immensely enjoyable, but it seems to be a critique of consumerism and high society, something which he would fully tackle in The People Under the Stairs (1991). Its story follows Matt Winslow, an engineer, who finds himself under increased pressure from his friends and family to join the sinister Country Club. He soon finds himself feeling isolated from those around him, including his own family. This narrative is reminiscent of a story Craven would tell, from his childhood. His older brother, a kind of ‘father figure’, spoke to his church congregation and confessed that he had backslidden and ‘the lord was upon him’. Craven experienced a ‘feeling of desolate loneliness mixed with having rejected what had to be embraced’8. One finds parallels between this haunting memory and the way in which Matt Winslow is forced into becoming an outcast through his refusal to join the ‘Country Club’.   

Invitation to Hell

Elm Street would eventually fall into the hands of New Line Cinema, an independent company that had, up until that point, only distributed films, not produced them. Craven was given huge levels of creative freedom. The result was his commercial breakthrough. No slasher movie before this had leaned so completely into the supernatural; and few since have emerged as such potent works. The film is a stream of subconscious nightmare imagery, spilled from Craven’s own fears and anxieties. He would inventively dub this imagery ‘rubber reality’, a ‘confusion of images from wide-awake reality and the dream state’9. The blurring of lines between dream and reality is inspired, giving the film a palpable sense of tension throughout. Classrooms morph into areas of remembered trauma, whilst bedrooms – typically the safest spaces – become bloodied murder scenes. At the centre of it all is Freddy Krueger, one of the most upsetting villains in film; a scarred, vengeful child murderer. With all the sequels that followed, which painted Krueger in an increasingly comic light, many have forgotten how little he is seen in the original. He spends much of the first Elm Street in the shadows, a menacing boogeyman of whom little is known. While the sequels attempted to make Krueger a comedic character for the audience, his quips in the original are warped jokes only he would find funny. 

Much of the enjoyment derived from Elm Street stems from its central mystery: who exactly is Freddy Krueger, and why are these kids being targeted? What are their parents hiding from them? As well as a mystery, the film is also all about religion and belief. Christian imagery abounds: crucifixes hang over beds, working to keep the devil-like figure of Krueger away. In the film’s conclusion, Nancy, the protagonist, removes Krueger’s powers by declaring that he is not real. Elm Street, therefore, can be seen from Craven’s own complex perspective on faith: that religion can be used as a force of good, so long as one is willing to banish thoughts of fire and brimstone. Despite its bloodshed, Elm Street should be recognised as one of Craven’s most hopeful works. Yet, though Nancy manages to save herself, she cannot save her friends, and cannot fix her fractured family. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Another aspect which the direct sequels lack is the excellent characterisation of the original. The only film which comes close to managing this is A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987), not-so-coincidentally the only sequel in which Craven co-wrote. The central quadruplet of teenagers is much smaller than other horror films, and this works to Elm Street’s advantage. The protagonists talk in naturalistic dialogue, and their home lives are glimpsed at. Even Freddy’s first victim, Tina, is made to be genuinely sympathetic, with a clearly troubled home life. Equally troubled at home is Nancy, one of the great horror film protagonists; strong, resourceful, and compassionate. Her mother is an alcoholic, whilst her father is a stern, good-hearted, but overbearing police officer. Though Nancy’s father is a competent officer, the film largely shows the justice system to be inefficient and incompetent. Her mother vaguely states that Krueger had initially been released from prison ‘on a technicality’. Elm Street also has an iconic electronic score, more melodic than the one from Hills, although less sharp. It is also the screen debut of Johnny Depp, further proving Craven’s excellent capacity for selecting young actors. 

Though Elm Street was by far Craven’s biggest success at that point, the following years would prove difficult. Riding on his recent success, he would move on to another project he hoped would be as popular: Deadly Friend (1986). The film is generally regarded as one of his weakest efforts, although it remains a fascinating failure, and an example of the trappings of studio meddling. Deadly Friend was intended by Craven to be a suburban teenage reimagining of Frankenstein. Hoping for his film to gain a wider audience outside of horror fans, he aimed for only soft horror elements. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. had other ideas, and, after lukewarm test screenings, demanded that Craven shot six additional gore sequences. Consequently, Deadly Friend is extremely uneven, veering between a dark teenage comedy, and a violent, special-effects horror extravaganza. The film’s forced ‘shocks’ are so clearly stitched in that one can almost see the strained seams. Its ending, in which a robot bursts from a corpse, is astoundingly illogical, whilst a scene in which a head is exploded via a basketball is so brazenly over-the-top it severs any attachment to the narrative. Somewhere beneath the wreckage is a sad, ironic drama, in which the adult human characters are more monstrous than the re-animated local girl, Samantha. 

Deadly Friend

He would soon bounce back with The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), a voodoo-tinged adventure-horror that was warmly received. Filmed in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the production was notoriously difficult. Various crew members fell ill, and Haiti was plagued by political strife, creating an uneasy atmosphere. While lacking the emotional levity of his best work, The Serpent and the Rainbow nevertheless stands as one of Craven’s most enjoyable achievements. Rather than merely exoticizing the voodoo elements at its centre, the film seems genuinely engaged with them, tying them to a tale of political intrigue and paranoia. It was Craven’s first film shot outside America and displays his ability to use this to his benefit, furthering his ‘rubber reality’ technique. Bill Pullman’s lead, Dennis, experiences multiple, potion-induced hallucinations throughout the film. This leads to some of Craven’s most claustrophobic sequences, with the image of being buried alive something the film obsessively returns to. As in Elm Street, trauma and anxieties are returned to, and the lines between dream and reality are blurred. 

The Serpent and the Rainbow

Indicative of Craven’s up-and-down trajectory at this point, 1989 would be a far less successful year. Craven’s first television series, The People Next Door (1989), would air only five episodes before being cancelled due to disastrous ratings. Centring around a man whose imagination is so vivid that things he thinks of really do materialise, the show further exhibits Craven’s attempt to bridge thoughts and reality, and his belief in the strength of mind. His major project of that year, Shocker (1989), was an even more painful failure. It was his attempt to launch a franchise as popular as Elm Street, with an equally iconic antagonist. The film is ambitious and filled with unique ideas. Pinker is an executed serial killer, who lives and travels through electricity, manifesting himself through televisions. He is also able to possess other people, creating a frequent sense of paranoia. It also features a jock protagonist, Jonathan Parker, who holds a psychic relationship with Pinker. For its first 30 minutes, it seems as though the film may be the success Craven wanted it to be. Parker’s family are slain by Pinker, leaving him with his cold, affectionless adopted father. The reveal that Pinker is Jonathan’s real father, though a stretch, and adds a level of complexity to their rivalry. And, whilst the final sequence of the two fighting across different television broadcasts faced huge delays and production problems, it is memorable and ambitious. Like Deadly Friend, the film suffers hugely from a tonal disjointedness. Craven had not yet fully succeeded in mixing darkness and comedy, and the rock-oriented soundtrack dates the film much more than his other works.


Reinvention in the 1990s

The 1990s would be Craven’s most assured decade, creating a string of successes and solidifying his presence as a household name. After making another thriller for television, the trashy Nightvisions (1990), he would make The People Under the Stairs10 (1991), the work in which he finally grasped the combination of horror, comedy, and satire that would help him to succeed throughout the decade. His first movie since Hills to avoid the supernatural, The People is a masterpiece in dire need of reappraisal. It is a searingly angry horror satire about class disparities, showing an adept blend of horror, comedy, and adventure. The film’s set-up is one of his most urgent: in addition to his mum dying of cancer, Poindexter “Fool” Williams and his family are being evicted from their apartment by their cruel landlords, the wealthy Robesons. Smart but still just a kid, Fool teams up with an older man, Leroy, to break into the their house and rob them. Unbeknownst to them, The Robesons are a murderous, incestuous, abusive couple. Perhaps the most unhinged antagonists in a Craven film, they are completely lacking any self-awareness, criticising the poverty-stricken lower classes they feed off whilst revelling in their own debauchery. They also keep a mass number of pale prisoners under their stairs, establishing their own class system within their household. It is also hardly a coincidence that both Fool and his family, as well as Leroy, are black, eventually fighting back against the white family who have exploited them for so long. 

The People Under the Stairs

The People attacks several familiar Craven themes with previously unseen levels of abrasiveness. The typical nuclear family structure is seen as an enforced, prison-like device. A typical family on the surface, the Robesons are abusive to their daughter, Alice, who they keep as a prisoner. Strictly religious, they also punish Alice if she does not follow any of their rules, failing to see any of their own hypocrisies. Though the film avoids any of the hallucinatory sequences seen in so many Craven films, the Robesons’ house is a twisting labyrinth; a funhouse from hell, filled with hidden tunnels, violent guard dogs, and traps. It has the best set design amongst any of Craven’s films. In addition, Fool and Leroy are both endearing, likeable leads, with genuine stakes for Fool in his pursuit of the Robesons’ riches. The rest of the characters are equally memorable. Besides the Robesons, the young Alice is a genuinely tragic figure, whilst the affectionately named ‘Roach’, the mute man who lives inside the walls of the house, fits in with Craven’s increasingly large gallery of bizarre outsiders. 

Craven’s successful streak would continue through New Nightmare (1994), his return to the Elm Street franchise. The full title is Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a loud reclamation of the series. Though Scream (1996) would popularise a then-new type of self-referential horror, New Nightmare is more inventive in its approach. Its entire narrative based around a meta-concept: during the making of a new Elm Street film, featuring the returning cast from the original film (with the actors playing themselves), Freddy Krueger invades the real world and haunts the production’s cast and crew. The film, therefore, further complicates the original’s ‘rubber reality’, creating a complex reality/fiction/dream dynamic. Heather Langenkamp, who portrayed Nancy in the original film, returns, playing herself as someone who is highly uncomfortable over her role in the first Elm Street. Sometime between Elm Street and New Nightmare, Langenkamp had been harassed by an unknown stalker who claimed to be a fan of the original film, and her tense self-portrait here is tied closely to her own experiences. 

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

With her son being aggressively haunted by Freddy Krueger, Heather must figure out a way to banish him, and free her son. In the film’s most important scene, she meets Wes Craven – also appearing as himself- who reveals to her that this ‘real’ Krueger is following the script he is currently writing, and, to defeat him, Heather must also follow the script, reprising her original role as Nancy. Herein lies Craven’s philosophy on horror films: as a method of healing, of facing and overcoming one’s anxieties. As he would state in an interview: ‘I’m a person who understands how people are afraid, and who’s making films about that fear and how to overcome it’11. New Nightmare returns to the stripped-down nature of the first Elm Street, raising suspense through its deliberate slow pace. This is also reflected through Craven’s aesthetic, adopting longer shots, most apparent in the film’s mesmerising opening tracking shot, inspired by Robert Altman’s The Player (1992). The design for Krueger is also altered in order to separate him from his ‘fictional’ counterpart. The Krueger in New Nightmare resembles a statue of himself; made from a material no one is quite sure of. It is ultimately one of Craven’s most thoughtful works, one about our need for stories, and what it means to create them.  

During the 1990s, Craven seemed increasingly disinterested in the idea of “pure” horror and would continue to try to escape the genre trappings, as seen in his 1995 dark comedy Vampire in Brooklyn, starring Eddie Murphy. After a series of failures, the film was intended to be Murphy’s comeback, and Craven relished the opportunity to work with him. Unfortunately, Vampire in Brooklyn was lambasted by critics, and underwhelmed at the box office. Along with Hills II, Deadly Friend, and My Soul to Take (2010), it has long been considered one of Craven’s worst. Yet, of these films, Vampire in Brooklyn is easily the least deserving of its negative reception. It has aged far better than many of Craven’s other works, whilst also being an intriguing outlier in Murphy’s filmography as one of his few dark, villainous roles. It is also one of Craven’s most purely fun films, in spite of its somewhat difficult writing process, in which he collaborated on the screenplay with Charlie Murphy. Ironically, the latter conceived Vampire in Brooklyn as a straight horror film with no comedic elements. Conversely, Craven envisioned the film as something lighter, and proceeded to inject more humour into the screenplay. Many criticisms of the film have taken aim at these tonal clashes; at how the comedy and horror elements cancel eachother out. On the contrary, these elements work are amplify one another- the slapstick elements of the horror are suitably grotesque, whilst much of the films’ humour derives from its strange tonal shifts. As well as this, it deserves praise for its fascinating evocation of nocturnal Brooklyn, its charismatic performances, and for having one of Craven’s best endings.

Vampire in Brooklyn

Craven’s awkward yet charming mix of horror and humour in Vampire in Brooklyn would coalesce more convincingly in 1996’s Scream. It is, along with Elm Street, his most popular film, as well as being one of his best. Craven’s most important act of reinvention, it was also a reinvention for horror cinema. Building on the script for New Nightmare, Scream is similarly self-reflexive, although this time with broader strokes, with frequent references to the slasher genre, which, during the 1990s, had become increasingly stale. A large part of the film’s credit should go to Kevin Williamson, a then-struggling screenwriter responsible for Scream’s existence, and central to its success. With Scream and its successive sequels, he became the most important figure to the prolonged longevity of Craven’s career, as well as a household name in his own right. Indeed, it is Williamson’s dialogue that made Scream such a unique film upon release. Rarely had the central teens in a film been so smart and self-aware. It was this self-awareness that helped the film to break free from the steady pile of genre tropes that had built up over the years, by having the characters reference these very tropes. Unlike its imitators, Scream’s referencing to past horror films manages to be both reverential and parodical, as if lovingly poking holes in an old friend’s ways. Whilst often witty, the references also make the film more frightening, with its teens being killed despite their savviness, as if the killer is an inescapable, all-pervading force. 

Perhaps to a fault, Scream’s opening sequence, in which its highest-calibre actress, Drew Barrymore, is murdered, is its most effective passage. After this moment of pure horror, Craven settles for a tone which veers closer to a murder-mystery punctuated by moments of irony. Yet, Craven still almost declined to direct the film due to its high levels of violence, something he had tried to distance himself from in recent years. Typical of the eager-to-please Craven, he repented when a fan he came across suggested that he had become too tame in recent years. And, though the screenplay was largely masterminded by Williamson, there are several aspects of Scream which fit Craven’s thematic interests. Most central, of course, is the familial trauma which haunts its protagonist, Sidney Prescott. We eventually find out that her mother had been raped and murdered prior to the film’s events. Though we do not see this murder, its details feel more disturbing than any of the onscreen killings. Sidney’s dad, meanwhile, is largely absent throughout the film’s runtime, and is hardly given much characterisation, perhaps purposefully so. Much like Elm Street’s Nancy, Sidney is a resilient, endearing protagonist, maintaining her compassion in the face of past and impending traumas. 


With Scream being such a success, Craven was signed on to direct two more sequels. Likely predicting Scream being a hit, Williamson had not only let its central characters survive- he had also written story outlines for Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000). The former was released barely a year after the original. Remarkably, it does not feel remotely rushed, building on the characterisation of the original, whilst the change from high school to college feels like a natural progression. It also adds another layer of irony to the series by commenting on sequel tropes. The set-pieces are also grander, particularly the metatextual opening, in which a killing takes place in a cinema, whilst a trashy film based on the events of the original plays. There is also an Hitchcockian pursuit set during the daytime, which ranks among the tensest moments in Craven’s oeuvre. 

Scream 3 is much less successful, having suffered a troubled development. After the Columbine High School Massacre occurred in 1999, violence in the media became more scrutinised. As a result, the film underwent heavy rewrites, with comedic elements stressed and violence dulled. The setting was changed to Hollywood, and this broadening of scope impairs the proceedings, with its supporting characters being an uptight film crew, rather than the likable students of the first two films. The biggest misgiving of Scream 3, though, is replacing Williamson with Ehren Kruger, who fails to convincingly replicate the satire of the film’s predecessors. Scream 3 is still better than its reputation suggests, a mostly satisfying, if rushed, conclusion to the trilogy, returning to the familial focus of the original.

If Craven seems disinterested throughout Scream 3, that’s because he was. It was largely contractual, with him only agreeing to it so he could get the funding for a more personal work, Music of the Heart (1999). Craven had always wanted to break out from the horror and thriller genre, and there is great irony in the fact that it finally emerged off the back of two of his most financially successful horror movies. His only film to be nominated for an Oscar Award, Music of the Heart is a terribly respectable drama about a struggling single mother, Roberta, played by Meryl Streep, who discovers a new lease of life when she begins violin classes in a troubled Harlem elementary school. Music of the Heart holds a novel position in Craven’s body of work for being his only straight drama. Yet, the film’s formal politeness makes it less interesting than his sharper and more gleefully idiosyncratic works. Even so, it is not completely separate from the rest of Craven’s films. Occasionally, Music of the Heart leans into familiar Craven territory, occasionally flirting with darker elements. Roberta’s home life is initially plagued by disappointment and loneliness, whilst the Harlem school she works at constantly sits on the fringe of violence. The film is most interesting when it hints at this dark backdrop, yet it rarely explores it, instead favouring a more cloyingly sentimental narrative. Craven’s representation of struggling minorities is much better displayed in The People, which feels increasingly relevant and dynamic with each passing year. 

Music of the Heart

Final works of the 2000s and 2010s

Though not without its faults, Music of the Heart successfully capped a decade in which Craven proved he could do far more than just straight horror. It was the most colourful and fascinating period of his career. Whilst successful horror directors of the 1970s and 1980s had hit creative slumps in the 1990s, Craven ended the decade revitalised, and more popular than ever. Yet Cursed (2005) emerged as his most confusing and aimless project. The critical and commercial failure of it must have been especially painful for Craven, as the film has been in development since 2000. It also reunited him with Williamson, with the two envisioning Cursed as a witty, postmodern take on werewolf movies, reinvigorating them much like how Scream reinvigorated the slasher. Alas, this was not to be. More than any of his other films, Cursed was a casualty of studio tampering, with Bob Weinstein requesting multiple changes, to the extent where the final product resembles a completely different beast to the one originally in development. Most criminal of these changes was the replacement of Rob Bottin’s practical werewolves with unconvincing computer-generated ones, which renders much of the werewolf sequences semi-watchable at best. Even without the knowledge of its troubled production, Cursed still comes across as haphazardly constructed; a patchwork of awkward comedy and ineffectual horror. Some of Craven’s strengths shine through amidst the disparate plot strands. Themes of loss and trauma are hinted at through the few mentions of the protagonists’ deceased parents, and Craven’s strong casting choices remain intact- despite much of the initial cast being cut from the final film. 


In the same year however, Craven would balance the risible Cursed with Red Eye (2005), one of his finest films, and certainly one of his most underrated. Running at under 90 minutes, it is a ruthless exercise in screen economy; no single moment feels superfluous. It also displays the director at his most chameleonic. The film spends much of its first act masquerading as a romantic comedy- albeit one with ominous undertones. This initial set-up is crystallised by the lead casting of Rachel McAdams, then known primarily for her roles in comedy films. Red Eye is then revealed to be a claustrophobic chamber thriller that plays into post-9/11 anxieties, all about the helplessness of being stuck on a flight with your worst nightmare. Cillian Murphy’s Jackson Rippner is the forementioned nightmare: a cruel, calculating terrorist, who derives joy from psychologically torturing McAdams’s Lisa. Murphy is dynamic in the role. His odious charm reaches the viewer like a thin layer of ice, a veneer liable to quickly shatter if stood on. He deserves to rank among Craven’s best villains. In the film’s final act, he transforms into a bogeyman-type figure as he chases Lisa around her father’s house. Here, one recalls the monstrous Robeson’s in The People, or even Freddy Krueger as he hunts Nancy during Elm Street’s conclusion. Red Eye also boasts Craven’s last great female lead, Lisa. She is another character who absolutely refuses to play the victim, working to outsmart Rippner with every chance she gets, eventually winning out over her past traumas in the process. 

Red Eye

In many ways, Craven’s next film, the supernatural slasher My Soul to Take12, is more personal and interesting than Red Eye – though it does not come close in terms of quality or enjoyment. Not only was it Craven’s first screenplay since 1994’s New Nightmare, but it has some similarity to an unpublished novel he wrote as a student. The novel, submitted as his graduate thesis, was titled ‘Noah’s Ark: The Diary of a Madman’, and is written from the schizophrenic protagonist’s perspective. Like that work, My Soul’s central figure, the teenage outcast Bug, must face the possibility that he has another personality, or, ‘soul’, living inside of him. The film’s premise is fun, if convoluted: the ‘Ripperton Seven’ is a group of teens all born on the same day a schizophrenic murderer, Abel Plenkov (The “Ripperton Ripper”) is killed. Believing that they are each inhabited by one of Plenkov’s seven personalities, the group hold an annual ritual to prevent him from returning. When the ritual is failed by a police interruption, members of the ‘Ripperton Seven’ are murdered one by one. What follows is a strangely disjointed and vague slasher mystery, akin to some half-remembered dream of a much better horror film- one that never existed.  

My Soul to Take

My Soul’s narrative only grows more convoluted as the film progresses. This is not helped by its permanently confused lead character, nor its editing, with the film lurching suddenly between scenes with little context or set-up. This disorientation is deepened by the cinematography, which has a rushed, handheld look. Though it is easy to blame My Soul’s shortcomings purely on its aesthetic aspects, the problems largely come down to Craven’s screenplay. It has a myriad of problems, but its most significant shortcoming is simply that it feels too dated. Coming from Craven, who was always so adept at keeping up with the shifting landscape of horror cinema, My Soul feels stubbornly retro. Despite all of this, the movie still comes across as one of Craven’s most personal and sincere efforts. He was nearing 70 when he made it, and My Soul accordingly muses on ideas of life after death, touching on the inter-state between mortality and immortality. It also continues the classic Craven traits of dysfunctional, sometimes abusive families, and the idea of one generation’s burden being passed onto the next one. It is unmistakably a Craven film, and he was clearly proud of it. It is no surprise, then, that he was deeply wounded by the My Soul’s reception, which earned him some of the worst reviews of his career. In an interview with Christina Radish some months later, she told Craven: ‘You’re a master of horror, and that’s something nobody can take from you’. ‘Oh yes they can’ he replied, adding later in the interview that ‘When you do a film like My Soul to Take and people think it sucks, that hurts’13

Luckily for Craven, My Soul was not to be the final, depressing note of his career. Scream 4 (2011), his last work, would be released less than a year later. It acts as a fitting coda for his original trilogy, and his filmography, with a group of younger characters taking on the baton from the older, original cast. Whilst paying homage to past horror traditions, the work also focuses on how much the genre has changed in the eleven years since Scream 3. Whereas My Soul felt outdated on release, Scream 4 feels very much in touch with the horror zeitgeist of the 2010s. It pokes fun at the ‘torture porn’ trend of the time, as well as the endless reboot and franchise fatigue so prevalent during the period. The latter is best encapsulated in the film-within-a-film-within-a-film opening, which contains multiple fake-outs and franchise references, and marks the most disruptive and playful beginning to a Craven film since New Nightmare. Scream 4 is also one of Craven’s most aggressively violent films, referencing the increased gratuity of modern horror cinema through its own gory killings. Yet the most notable aspect of it is the way in which many of its younger characters are detached from this violence through their frequent use of social media, something that has been portrayed to a greater extent in other media since its release. One could easily make a case for it being the best Scream sequel, with some even arguing that it surpasses the original14

Scream 4


After Scream 4, Craven largely stepped back from directing until his death in 2016. He left behind a rich body of work; one containing far more tonal and aesthetic range than he is typically given credit for. If anything, the scope of his filmography makes the task of summarising it a difficult one. Such difficulty is worsened by the fact that the quality varies wildly from film to film. On inspecting Craven’s career, his great works are equalled in number by curious failures, films flawed either due to studio interference or his own creative miscalculations. What one leaves with, though, is a deep sense of the man’s own anxieties and preoccupations. As stated earlier, so many themes and tropes recur obsessively throughout his filmography- most notably the fixation on dysfunctional American families, with his parental figures often coming across as more disturbing than his more literally monstrous antagonists. Though his best horror films can be appreciated on purely visceral terms, Wes Craven is a great director because so many of these works are deeply personal. Despite his initial reluctancy to become stuck making horror films, he would quickly come to use the genre as a subtle gateway through which he could explore multitudes of themes and thoughts close to him. Horror was the mask he used throughout his career. It is little coincidence that Music of the Heart, his only film with no elements of horror or science fiction, is his least personal project. He was also able to reinvent not only his career multiple times, by the genre itself. Such playful innovation is abundant, from Elm Street’s experimentation with the tropes of the slasher film, to the postmodern playfulness of New Nightmare and the Scream franchise. Through using the genre as a mode of self-exploration whilst also toying with its confines, he expanded the notion of what a ‘horror’ film was. It has now been some time since Craven passed away, and even longer since his last film was released. Yet, as they become more distant, his films only continue to grow in influence. 


  • The Last House on the Left (1972)
  • The Fireworks Woman (As “Abe Snake”, 1975)
  • The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
  • Stranger In Our House (Made for TV, 1978)
  • Deadly Blessing (1981)
  • Swamp Thing (1982)
  • Invitation to Hell (Made for TV, 1984)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985)
  • Chiller (Made for TV, 1985)
  • Casebusters (TV Episode, 1986)
  • Deadly Friend (1986)
  • The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
  • Shocker (1989)
  • Nightvisions (Made for TV, 1990)
  • The People Under the Stairs (1991)
  • Nightmare Café (TV Series, 1992)
  • Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
  • Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)
  • Scream (1996)
  • Scream 2 (1997)
  • Music of the Heart (1999)
  • Scream 3 (2000)
  • Cursed (2005)
  • Red Eye (2005)
  • Paris, je t’aime (Segment, 2006)
  • My Soul to Take (2010)
  • Scream 4 (2011)


  1. David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Fifth Edition (Little, Brown, 2010), pp.210.
  2. Robin Finn, ‘At lunch with: Wes Craven’, found in John Wooley, Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2011), pp.10
  3. The Last House on the Left will henceforth be referred to as Last House.
  4. The Last House on the Left Review’, Roger Ebert (January 1972) < https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/last-house-on-the-left-1972>.
  5. The Hills Have Eyes will henceforth be referred to as Hills.
  6. A Nightmare on Elm Street will henceforth be referred to as Elm Street.
  7. The Hills Have Eyes Part II will henceforth be referred to as Hills II.
  8. John Wooley, Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2011), pp.15.
  9. Ibid, pp.21.
  10. The People Under the Stairs will henceforth be referred to as The People.
  11. Brian J. Robb, Screams and Nightmares: The Films of Wes Craven (Titan Books, 1998), pp.9.
  12. My Soul to Take will henceforth be referred to as My Soul.
  13. ‘Director Wes Craven interview’, Christina Radish (April 2011) < https://collider.com/director-wes-craven-interview-scream-4/>.
  14. ‘Bet you didn’t see that coming: Why Scream 4 may be the best film in the franchise’, Brian Keiper (April 2021) < https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3660168/bet-didnt-see-coming-scream-4-may-best-film-franchise/>.

About The Author

Hal Young is an independent filmmaker and cinephile from Aberystwyth, Wales. An MA Film Research graduate from The University of Warwick, he wrote his dissertation on the relationship between aesthetics and meaning within the works of Nobuhiko Obayashi.

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