It’s easy to say that Wes Craven’s name is synonymous with horror. The man created Freddy Krueger, The Hills Have Eyes, Ghostface. Hell, even the name “Craven” sounds scary. That name and the horror genre will be forever linked, but labeling Craven as just a master horror filmmaker isn’t entirely fair. The man was a master filmmaker, period.
When Craven died of brain cancer last month, generations of movie fans mourned his loss. My mother was 16 years old when she saw Craven’s first film, The Last House on the Left. She said she sat in the theater in a horrific daze, mesmerized and terrified by what she was watching. Nearly 25 years later, I was roughly the same age when I watched Scream with the same exact emotions running through me. That was the power of Wes Craven at his best. His best films cut through and became iconic, scaring millions along the way.
Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left is one of the most audacious American film debuts I’ve ever seen. This film is fucking brutal; by far the most disturbing film Craven ever made. A casual remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, The Last House on the Left is a rape revenge thriller to end all rape revenge thrillers. The film is 91 minutes long and the majority of them are excruciating.
I’m an outspoken detractor of movies of this kind. They rarely work for me – too exploitative, too cheap, too shocking for the sake of shocking – but when they work, as this one does, they can be wholly effective. Simply put, The Last House on the Left is a well-made movie, helmed by a young, confident talent who knew full well what he was doing. A-
Here’s the thing about cult movies: the earlier you get in, the better. Whether that means seeing them when they first come out, or seeing them at a young age, the longer a cult film has to resonate with you, the better. I know The Hills Have Eyes is loved and cherished by many, but I’m sadly not one of them. I blame this on the fact that I saw the film for the first time the day after Wes Craven died. Had I seen it earlier, perhaps I would have more affection for it. Don’t get me wrong, I like it well enough. Hard not to have fun with a horror flick about a deranged family who feasts on unsuspecting travelers. But ultimately, I can’t hail it as a classic, cult or otherwise. But who knows, maybe that will change in years to come. B-
A farming community known as Hittites harass people who have either left their group, or refuse to become members. When a former Hittite is murdered, the Hittites are suspected of the killing. But when the next person found dead is a Hittite, locating the “Incubus” (that’s what the Hittites call the killer) becomes even harder.
Some highlights include Sharon Stone (in one of her first roles) as a scream queen, Ernest Borgnine hamming it up as the leader of the Hittites, a freaky bit involving a very large snake in a bathtub, and a completely batshit conclusion. Deadly Blessing is a generic whodunit thriller that bogs itself down with too many details, but I’ll give it credit for really going for it during its final moments. D+
On the surface, Swamp Thing seems to be taking itself very, very seriously. It wants you to believe the bad dialogue, the flat delivery and the monster man rubber suit shlock of it all. Or, perhaps it’s a film that’s in on its own joke. It’s a tough call, because later in Craven’s career, he became known for making movies that poked fun at their genres. But ultimately, I think Swamp Thing strives to be genuine, even in a camp classic kind of way. The film is about a noble scientist who gets turned into a Swamp Thing by bad guys. With his former lover on the run, the Swamp Thing (who has a heart of gold, mind you), must fight injustice and prove himself to his woman.
I had fun with the film, and could understand why Roger Ebert championed it. There’s a kid who works in a gas station who’s a real hoot. His sarcastic one-liners are a great divide from a movie that (I think) is taking itself a little too seriously. C-
Invitation to Hell is a “horror” romp straight out of the ‘80s. The film is about a well-to-do family who move to the California ‘burbs and are immediately courted into joining the community’s mysterious country club. Susan Lucci plays the club president in a deliciously over the top performance, yet, as fun as her work is, you’re likely to forget about this film the moment it’s over. Save its utterly bonkers opening 90 seconds, and its Poltergiest-meets-2001-meets-Plan 9 from Outer Space conclusion. D
This is the game changer. The boss of it all. The film that made Wes Craven, Wes Craven. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a film so popular, so firmly cemented into pop culture, that I have trouble lending a paragraph of fresh text to it. After all, what can I say about such a horror classic that hasn’t been said? When I rewatched this movie for this post, I found myself as excited as I was the first time I saw it. It still doesn’t carry the full domestic terror of Halloween for me (or the carnage of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but I fully appreciate its place in American cinema. And, to its credit, while Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are horror films that take themselves very seriously, it’s a blast to watch something as well made as A Nightmare on Elm Street have fun with its own fear. A-
The Hills Have Eyes Part II is a complete disaster. Craven himself disowned it shortly after its release. The movie is notable for just one reason: it contains an extended flashback from the perspective of… a dog. Really.
How this film was made is far more interesting than what the film is about. Shot before A Nightmare on Elm Street, THHE Part II was scrapped during production because the money gave out. After A Nightmare on Elm Street became a hit, producers behind THHE Part II demanded that Craven finish the film using only footage he’d already shot, which was about half the movie. In turn, Craven was forced to include lengthy flashbacks in the film, which are literally extended scenes lifted directly from the first The Hills Have Eyes. We’re all best treating Part II how Craven treats it, as if it never existed. F
This one is straight crazy. A young genius named Paul has built a robot he calls BB. BB’s microchip allows him to think, feel emotion, and even protect those he cares about. Paul meets a young gal, Samantha, and after Samantha’s deranged father nearly kills her on Thanksgiving, Paul connects BB’s microchip to Samantha’s brain, turning her into a killer zombie/robot thing. So that’s Deadly Friend.
This is another Craven film that apparently got butchered by the studio. Craven initially made a gentle sci-fi romance/thriller, but after poor test screenings, the studio demanded he add gore and horror to the mix. And while Deadly Friend is an awful film, credit must be given to the fact that it contains one of the most epic deaths ever featured in a Wes Craven film. Did you know you could throw a basketball at someone and make their head explode? Because I didn’t. Not until watching this movie. D-
A genre director directing outside of their genre can spawn disastrous results. Not the case with The Serpent and the Rainbow. This is mature, confident film (partially based on a true story) about a Harvard scientist (Bill Pullman) who is sent to Haiti to recover large portions of a drug that could act as a strong anesthetic. The drug is a key part of a Haitian Voodoo religion and is said to create actual zombies (that is: people take the drug, are assumed dead, buried, then rise later). It sounds like a silly concept, and if handled any other way, the movie would play as such. But Craven takes the material seriously, treating Voodoo, hallucinations, and zombism with the same reverence as Haitian natives. The result is a good film, one worth checking out, even if it doesn’t really look and feel like a Wes Craven movie. (Oh, and extra credit to the production design/costumes. You can tell this movie was actually filmed in Haiti. It lives there.) B-
There’s a serial killer loose in L.A. and the only person who can stop him is a high school jock (Peter Berg) who can battle the killer in his dreams. Because of their dream fights, the kid leads his foster father (himself a police detective) to the killer, where the whacko is apprehended and soon fried in the electric chair. But after he’s electrocuted – and this is where it gets fun – the killer is able to possess anyone he wants and continue his murderous rampage. I don’t know what’s worse, the lame twists or the baffling “science” that is immediately taken as truth by its characters. Either way, Shocker is dud from the get. F
The People Under the Stairs is my The Hills Have Eyes. I saw The People Under the Stairs shortly after it was released on home video (I was probably 8), and I have been in love with it ever since. It’s just so crazy and fun and freaky. I mean, Jesus Christ, the movie is about crazed cannibal kids living in the walls of a house, and the insane couple who put them there. I imagine people watching this movie for the first time today would think it’s absolutely ludicrous, but because I happened upon it early, it cemented itself in my brain. Honestly, my favorite part about researching this post was having an excuse to watch this movie again. B
I adore the meta sensibilities of New Nightmare. The film is about Freddy inhabiting the real world and terrorizing many of the people involved with the original Nightmare on Elm Street, including stars Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Robert Englund, and even Craven himself. The film is a psychological mind fuck thriller in which the Nightmare franchise is as aware of itself as the audience is. And that’s a damn big risk, especially for a major studio film. Hell, even some of the New Line Cinema execs appear as themselves in the film. And I love that. I love that everyone got on board with Craven’s intrepid idea and went with it.
The film as a whole isn’t perfect (Langenkamp’s son being lifted over heavy traffic by a giant Freddy is an eye-rolling low point), but I’ll always respect the audacity of New Nightmare. B+
Vampire in Brooklyn is about a Caribbean vampire (Eddie Murphy) who travels to Brooklyn in search of a mate. His mate in mind (Angela Bassett) is a detective whose father, unbeknownst to her, was actually a vampire himself. Ultimately, this movie has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. It’s part Eddie Murphy comedy (with him playing multiple characters in heavy make-up), part Wes Craven horror film (though a slight one), and part romantic thriller (though Murphy and Bassett have zero chemistry). Certainly not a recipe for a worthy film. D-
Scream will always be my favorite Wes Craven film. No question. This movie was a staple of my childhood. I remember seeing it in the theater (at the ripe old age of 11), and whispering to my mom at the conclusion of the first scene, “They can’t do that, can they?” But they did. They screwed convention and delivered a mini meta horror masterpiece. My sentiments for this film are 100 percent genuine. I truly believe it is a fantastically entertaining, extremely well made horror film. I recently labeled it as one of the movies I’ve watched the most in my life. I’ve never found a bad time to put Scream on. It always hits. A
I suppose I’m one of the few people who like Scream 2 (nearly) as much as the original. I love the new college setting, the organic maturity of the characters (and the actors playing them); I love Courtney Cox’s hair and Liev Schreiber’s beefed-up role. Love the unbearably tense escape-from-the-wrecked-cop-car scene, and the fact that the opening Stab premiere was shot at a glorious movie theater four blocks from where I live. I just love it all. Sure, the reveal of the killers is a bit of a letdown (they are admittedly rather weak characters), but watching Sidney Prescott blast a hole in one of their heads (“Just in case.”) all but makes up for it. A-
Craven’s only feature film fully outside of the thriller/horror genre, Music of the Heart is a delicate biopic about Roberta Guaspari, a semi-depressive white woman who made it her life goal to teach violin to inner-city Harlem youths. The film is patient and controlled, its drama is well intentioned and its emotional payoffs are well earned.
Shame on me, but I was actually dreading Music of the Heart. It was one of the few Craven films I hadn’t seen, because I assumed it was going to be another maudlin musical biopic. But it’s better than that. It has heart and compassion. Streep is fine too. Her Roberta doesn’t belong in the top echelon of Streep’s characters, but she gives Roberta a depression that is very believable. It’s a vulnerable performance in a gentle film, from the last guy you’d expect one from. B-
I’m able to tolerate Scream 3 better than most people. That doesn’t mean I think it’s as good as its predecessors (it’s not), nor as bad as its 11-years-later follow-up, but I’m able to have fun with it. The problem of film is that it’s too big. Part of this is location based. Scream is contained within the quiet town of Woodsboro, and its sequel is set on a small college campus. Los Angeles is too big a place for Scream 3. There’s too much distraction in the film, too much running around from here to there. Another aspect of the film’s largeness is budget. It’s well over double the budget of the first film, and that shows in distracting ways. For instance, does a Scream film really need to have a house in the Hollywood Hills explode in a gas fire? Using poor CG, no less?
I’m being a little too harsh, because there are things I like about the movie. Parker Posey is amazing, and David Arquette has a blast fully diving into Dewey’s dorkiness. And is there such a thing as a bad Carrie Fisher cameo? Scream 3 may be too big for its own good, but its best characters are enough of a selling point. B-
“Look, I infected Zipper and he’s gone werewolf. You--ya gotta believe me.”
That’s an actual line from this film. And really, if you’re going to sit through Cursed, you better start in with a good sense of humor. This movie is so damn silly, mostly because it takes itself so seriously. Which, I think (…hope), is by design. It’s about a brother and sister (Jesse Eisenberg and Christina Ricci) who try to find the werewolf who attacked them, before they become werewolves themselves. Scott Baio has fun playing himself, and Judy Greer is nutty in that best Judy Greer way. But other than Cursed’s (purposeful?) humor, I can find no real reason to recommend it. D
You meet a man. He’s in the airport line with you, waiting patiently. You strike up a conversation. He’s nice. You spot him at the bar. More talk. He’s charming. He’s seated next to you on the plane. That’s funny. Funny cute. Until it’s not. And then you’re fucked.
I love Red Eye. Rachel McAdams stuck and terrorized at 30,000 feet, Cillian Murphy mastering a unique psychopathic charm. We see a lot of movies that take place in planes. Many of them use the organic confinement as a source of tension, which is smart. But that’s not enough to maintain a film, even one that clocks in at just 85 minutes, like Red Eye. What makes Red Eye work is its impeccable use of physical and emotional confinement, but also solid acting, and a believable premise. Once we get off the plane, the movie does unravel a little bit, but in ways I’m willing to forgive. A-
Paris, je t’aime: “Père-Lachaise” (2006)
If you want to know how to make an excellent five and a half minute film, one that perfectly encapsulates love and fear of commitment, look no further. A
Sixteen years after the death of a schizophrenic serial killer called the Riverton Ripper, a group of kids all born the night the killer died (who call themselves the Riverton Seven), are being picked off one by one. Is the killer one of them, or has the Riverton Ripper come back to resume his bloodthirsty ways? I remember hearing about My Soul to Take when it first came out, and in the years since, I had completely forgotten about it. Minus a fun, but all too brief Frank Grillo performance, there’s nothing about this film worth recommending. D-
At some point, physical strength has to come into play. When the killers were revealed at the end of Scream 4, I called bullshit right away, simply because I didn’t believe they could physically pull it off. They look like they could barely make it through a gym class let alone knife so many people to death.
But this is a final problem at the end of a host of them. For starters, there is no reason for this movie to exist. Scream 3, for all its issues, had a fitting conclusion that deserved to be left alone. Scream 4 is a cash-in on the success built by the franchise’s prior films, and one that pales in comparison. It’s not even good to see the original characters again. The whole time I watched Scream 4, I kept wishing that they would’ve been left alone. Amusing opening, though. D+
The Last House on the Left
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Paris, je t’aime: “Père-Lachaise”
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
The Hills Have Eyes
The Serpent and the Rainbow
The People Under the Stairs
Music of the Heart
Just Plain Bad
Invitation to Hell
The Hills Have Eyes Part II
Vampire in Brooklyn
My Soul To Take