Wes Craven: From Exploitation to Mainstream Slasher

Wes Craven

2 August 1939 – 30 August 2015

It was reported in the early hours of this morning that Wes Craven has sadly passed away at 76 years old. Bringing life and vitality to the horror genre, he not only created a set of brilliant and iconic films during his career of over four decades, but his legacy is responsible for one of the most profitable film franchises of all time, as well as uncovering some of Hollywood’s most major stars including Johnny Depp and Sharon Stone who starred in his 1981 cult hit Deadly Blessing. Here we’ll be taking a look at four of Craven’s most significant benchmarks, painting a picture of how crucial he has been not only to the horror genre, but the film industry as a whole:

Left to Right: Sandra Peabody as Mari Collingwood and Lucy Grantham as Phyllis Stone

Left to Right: Sandra Peabody as Mari Collingwood and Lucy Grantham as Phyllis Stone

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Craven’s directorial debut came in 1972 with The Last House on the Left, a benchmark rape-revenge exploitation horror that took inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960). Highly controversial and heavily censored internationally, the film was branded a “video nasty” during the eighties rise in horror censorship and banned in the UK. It wasn’t until 2002 that the BBFC would allow the film to be passed with an 18 certificate, containing 31 seconds of cuts for DVD release. In 2008, Last House was taken back to the BBFC for another proposed DVD release and, in light of the recent “torture porn” boom which saw the Saw (2004 – 2010) and Hostel (2005 – 2011) franchises passed uncut with 18 certificates, it was finally agreed that the film could be released uncut.

Away from the controversy, The Last House on the Left did not only kick-start Craven’s career but it also helped create a name for producer Sean S. Cunningham who would go on to produce the comedy horror House franchise (1986 – 1992) and a number of Friday the 13th sequels in addition to the 1980 original which he also directed, and actor David Hess who would later go on to star in another notorious “video nasty”, Ruggero Deodato’s House on the Edge of the Park (1980).

In 2009, The Last House on the Left was given the horror remake treatment, the same as many iconic seventies and eighties horrors, and despite the film being changed significantly with a fresh cast and crew, Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham stayed true to their roots by acting as producers of the film.

The Hills Have Eyes

Michael Berryman as Pluto

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Five years on from The Last House on the Left, Craven directed The Hills Have Eyes, a film centring a stranded suburban family in the Nevada desert who are hunted by a family of savages.

Though the film itself is better known for its poster making an appearance in Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), it remains to have a cult following and stars Dee Wallace in her second feature film, instigating a long line of leading horror roles with such films as The Howling (1981), Cujo (1983) and Critters (1986), and Michael Berryman in a role that would later see him star in a wide variety of film and television shows including teen comedy Weird Science (1985), The X-Files (Episode: Revelations, 1995), and Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and The Lords of Salem (2012).

In 1985, Craven directed The Hills Have Eyes Part II which he later went on to disown, remarking that the film was solely made to make money.

During the early boom in horror remakes during the noughties, The Hills Have Eyes was remade by Alexandre Aja in 2006 offering a slightly different take on the original but inevitably creating a quality horror film. Like with The Last House on the Left, Craven stayed true to his roots by acting as a producer and when it came to the subsequent 2007 sequel, he both produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay with his son, Jonathan.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Wes Craven with (Left to Right) Jsu Garcia, Amanda Wyss, Heather Langenkamp and Johnny Depp

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

New Line Cinema, otherwise known as “The House that Freddy Built”; A Nightmare on Elm Street was produced and distributed by the company in 1984 and became their first commercial success, building the foundations of a legacy for both the Elm Street franchise and New Line who are most recently responsible for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003) and Hobbit (2012 – 2014) trilogies.

A Nightmare on Elm Street would go on to define Wes Craven’s career and influence multiple generations of horror fans, quite possibly making it the definitive slasher movie of the eighties. The film is an engaging topic on a critical and academic level, carrying the typical tropes of pre-1984 horror whilst putting its own twist on them and adding a little something that’s unique.

Starring Johnny Depp in his debut performance, Elm Street can be thanked for uncovering the Hollywood hero. The film also provided career benchmarks for Heather Langenkamp (main protagonist Nancy Thompson) who rose to the Scream Queen hall of fame, and Robert Englund (Fred Krueger, needs no explanation) who would be treasured by horror filmmakers and regularly cast as either the boogeymen – see The Phantom of the Opera (1989) and The Mangler (1995) – or the good guy – see Craven’s Wishmaster (1997) and Urban Legend (1998). Lin Shaye, like Robert Englund in that she already had a number of film and television roles under her belt, had a small role in the film as Nancy’s teacher. From here on, she would become a familiar face in horror cinema with roles in such films as Critters (1986) and its first sequel (1988), but most notably in the recent Insidious franchise (2010 – 2015) as recurring character Elise Rainier.

It’s always touching to watch interviews with the cast and crew of A Nightmare on Elm Street because they always speak so fondly of their time on set; this sense of enjoyment and closeness really comes through in the film and is further suggested in Elm Street’s legacy. Though none of the future films up until 1994 would be directed by Wes Craven, the franchise spurred five sequels with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) having Craven on board as an executive producer, along with Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon reprising their original roles of Nancy and Donald Thompson. In 1994, Wes Craven lovingly directed New Nightmare which saw Freddy Krueger enter the “real world” and corrupt the production of a fictional Elm Street sequel. Critically, New Nightmare is often coined as the best film in the franchise since Craven’s 1984 original, with the likes of Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, John Saxon and Wes Craven playing themselves.

Wes Craven on the set of Scream with Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich

Wes Craven with Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich

Scream (1996)

Replicating the pleasant working family that A Nightmare on Elm Street had, you only have to look at Twitter over the past 18 hours to realise how warm it was for the cast and crew to work on Scream. A satirical comedy horror that stopped to make fun of itself, the film was crucial for an entire generation of horror fans, presenting a different kind of slasher and appealing to a new age of viewers. To see our full review of the film, click here.

Scream championed up-and-coming talent with a strong cast who stayed true to the franchise for its original trilogy (1996 – 2000), not forgetting Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette who played Sidney Prescott. Gale Weathers and Dewey Riley respectively, returning for Craven’s fourth instalment in 2011 which introduced the slasher subgenre to yet another new generation. On the topic of cast, let us not forget Wes Craven’s hilarious cameo in the first film as Fred the Janitor.

Most recently, the Scream franchise was taken from the big screen to the small screen with the development, production and broadcast of MTV’s Scream: The TV Series. Having Wes Craven act as an executive producer for the show, the season finale is due to premier in the US tomorrow. With the show renewed for a second season, let’s hope that good is done and Wes Craven’s name is honoured.

What are your favourite Wes Craven films?

Comment with your thoughts.

Daniel Sheppard


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