Famed horror director Wes Craven died at 76 on Sunday. And while he’ll likely be remembered for his incredibly famous and successful horror franchises — he did give the world Scream and The Nightmare on Elm Street — he directed a huge number of other brilliant films over the course of his long and storied career. To celebrate his life and work, here are seven movies from his filmography that you should watch or revisit. Especially if there’s one or two on here you’ve maybe never seen before.
Craven’s works tend to share a common exploration of the nature of reality. A Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, dealt with the consequences of dreams in real life. New Nightmare “brushes against” (but does not quite break) the fourth wall by having actress Heather Langenkamp play herself as she is haunted by the villain of the film in which she once starred. At one point in the film, the audience sees on Wes Craven’s word processor a script he has written, which includes the exact conversation he just had with Heather — as if the script was being written as the action unfolded. The Serpent and the Rainbow portrays a man who cannot distinguish between nightmarish visions and reality.
In Scream, the characters frequently reference horror films similar to their situations, and at one point Billy Loomis tells his girlfriend that life is just a big movie. This concept was emphasized in the sequels, as copycat stalkers reenact the events of a new film about the Woodsboro killings occurring in Scream. Scream included a scene mentioning the well-known Richard Gere urban legend. Craven stated in interviews that he received calls from agents telling him that if he left that scene in, he would never work again. He directed Scream 4.
Let’s countdown 8 Best Wes Craven films
8. Swamp Thing (1982)
It may not seem as ‘serious’ a horror film as some of the other entries on his resume, but Swamp Thing is a fantastic movie, showing Craven’s ability to create monsters that are more than just monstrous. The titular creature is more misunderstood than villainous, and that emotional resonance is what makes this more than just another horror film.
7. The Last House on the Left (1972)
No, we’re not talking about the 2009 remake. We’re talking about Craven’s first movie, the one which put him on the map as a director and writer. It may be from 1972 but it still has the power to terrify us to our very cores, as it follows a group of convicts who brutally murder a 17-year-old girl and are left at the mercy of her vengeful parents. It’s incredibly violent, but not in the gimmicky way many recent horror movies have been.
6. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Another genre-defining film, this brutal horror movie kick-started the ‘stranded everyday people’ sub-genre. Whether it be films like the Wrong Turn franchise or any number of other horror films in which everyday people get stranded only to be attacked by others, The Hills Have Eyes really got the genre started. This film pulls no punches, but it also surprises you with who lives and who dies (and when they die), something Craven would excel at throughout his career.
5. Red Eye (2005)
Though Craven is known as the master of horror, he also nailed the straight thriller with Red Eye, which relies more on psychological fear than anything else. The film follows a woman (played by Rachel McAdams) trapped on a flight sitting next to a terrorist (the incredibly chilling Cillian Murphy) who threatens to kill her father unless she helps him murder a government official. The setting gives the film an incredibly claustrophobia that ups the adrenaline and the fear, even without a blood-spattering villain. It is also a showcase for the two leads, who each turn in one of their best performances to date.
4. The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Like Scream, The People Under the Stairs has Craven pushing the boundaries of the horror genre he helped define and create. It’s strange, uncomfortably hilarious and still terrifying, which combines all the best things the director can do on film. It’s also one of Craven’s most subversive films, following a young black boy fighting against evil landlords trying to force his family out of their home.
3. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Easily Wes Craven’s most underappreciated film, nonetheless, The Serpent and the Rainbow boasts several terrifying scenes (including the video above). The plot, with it’s voodoo themes and kitsch elements, still effectively remind us of more old fashioned type horror films, while keeping the scares coming Craven provides moody dream sequences, unsettling poetic images, and passages that suggest more than they show—rather than the usual splatter shocks and special effects
2. Scream (1996)
This is arguable the perfect horror film. It’s scary, filled with thrills, jumps, and that mask that couldn’t be more perfect. It’s also filled with humor from start to finish, with sharp dialogue and memorable characters. But it takes every convention of horror movies, lays them out for the audience to see them coming, makes fun of them, and then pulls them off anyway. Plus, it was brilliantly marketed, with Drew Barrymore front and center in all the advertising and then getting killed off in the first five minutes of the film. This was Craven at his absolute best.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
This is the big one. It made Wes Craven a household name, made Freddy Krueger a household name, and helped launch Johnny Depp’s movie career. Plus, it made a whole generation of teenagers afraid to go to sleep. Anytime you create a character who goes on to become an icon, you know you’ve done something right. And by taking the slasher genre and adding the sleeping/dreaming component, Craven once again took a genre convention and subverted it. The original remains the best, and it remains one of Craven’s very best films.