Like the rest of the horror community, I’m profoundly affected by the sudden passing of Wes Craven. I’m hard pressed to think of anyone else who had such a profound and lasting influence on American horror; his contributions simply can’t be understated. His name is almost synonymous with some of the most iconic films and franchises of the past several decades: A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, Scream, and The Last House on the Left, for example.
But Wes Craven was a prolific filmmakers, responsible for many more characters besides Freddy, Ghostface, and Krug, and many of his lesser celebrated movies are no less exemplary. In tribute to his brilliance as a writer, director, and a producer, I’ve assembled a list of Craven’s most underrated gems. So as you memorialize him by revisiting his classic films, consider throwing a few of these into the mix. Enjoy!
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
A full year before Candyman took horror out of gothic mansions and onto the mean streets, Wes Craven wrote and directed The People Under the Stairs, a film starring a disenfranchised minority actor set against a backdrop of urban decay. Thanks to a recent deluxe Blu-ray rerelease, courtesy of the good folks at Scream Factory, this one is soaring in popularity—on the verge of transferring to the list of Craven’s most celebrated movies.
Another one poised to jump in prominence thanks to an impending re-release by Scream Factory is Shocker. Craven had high hope for the film, aiming to launch a franchise on par with Nightmare; unfortunately, underwhelming critical reception killed that possibility—which is a damn shame in my opinion. Shocker gave us an antagonist with the ability to jump between host bodies years before movies like Fallen and Jason Goes to Hell ran with the concept. But Horace Pinker (played with excellence by a young Mitch Pileggi) is more than just a baddy with ghostly attributes: He’s a complex and deeply troubled serial killer made more powerful in death—like an evil Obi-Wan Kenobi!
Vast differences between Asian and American cultures, including differing attitudes regarding technology and the supernatural, made rewriting the Japanese horror film Pulse (2001) for US audiences a difficult task. Still, Wes Craven and Ray Wright tackled the task with the kind of aplomb we’ve come to expect from the Master. Americans might not have known what to make of a cybernetic afterworld, but the script is solid, and the film is surprisingly atmospheric and chilling.
My Soul to Take (2010)
The fact that this film holds a mere 9% “Freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes is all the proof I need that those statistics are completely worthless. What critics dismissively declared “dull” was an understated, restrained presentation of a disembodied antagonist, presented with the seriousness necessary for a film that explores the link between mental illness and violence. People need to get over the fact that My Soul to Take isn’t Scream, essentially comparing apples with oranges, and give the film a fresh look.
New Nightmare (1994)
The “meta” aspect of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare threw some fans for a loop. Here, we have a film written & directed by Wes Craven, starring Wes Craven—as Wes Craven! Thus, there is no other movie, in my humble opinion, that reveals more about how he defines himself as a filmmaker. New Nightmare also offers incredible insight into how the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise affected his life—and the lives of others closely associated with the film (namely, Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund).
Red Eye (2005)
Red Eye has none of the supernatural trapping that are usually considered Wes Craven’s hallmarks. Instead, we are given a psychological thriller that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud off. Like a modern version of Strangers on a Train with a twist, it’s a political thriller with serious suspense—especially for those phobic of airplanes!
Cursed saw Wes Craven reuniting with his Scream co-collaborator Kevin Williamson on another film aimed at 20-somethings. Perhaps taking a page from Ginger Snaps, Craven and Williamson offer a female-centric take on werewolf mythology, set in fame-obsessed Los Angeles. The fact that Cursed went through several iterations and re-casts before completion led many to deem it a hot-mess, but I think the script and acting are both solid and definitely worth the attention of horror fans.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Wes Craven did an amazing job directing The Serpent and the Rainbow, based on the nonfiction book of the same name by ethnobotanist Wade Davis. It’s an exploration of zombie folklore as it exists in Haiti, where native Clarvius Narcisse alleges he was poisoned to the point of appearing dead before being entombed and later resurrected by a hoodoo practitioner. Much more academic than any of Craven’s films, The Serpent and the Rainbow will absolutely cripple anyone who fears being buried alive.
As Executive Producer of the 2005 gross-out creature horror Feast, Craven was undoubtedly able to exert his influence on the film’s writers and director from behind the scenes. Indeed, this movie crackles with many tropes first pioneered by Craven in the late 1980’s.
The Breed (2006)
Another film that Wes Craven influenced as Executive Producer is the 2006 killer dog flick The Breed. It’s the directorial debut of Nicholas Mastandrea who was specifically recruited by Craven after the two worked together on New Nightmare.
Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010)
At 240 minutes, Never Sleep Again is generally considered the most comprehensive documentary about the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and (obviously) Wes Craven is a major player in this story. It’s amazing to hear him discussing his influences and inspirations for creating the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie in the early 1980’s. His opinions on the entire franchise offer incredible insights, and his return to the franchise as writer & director of New Nightmare feels like a triumphant homecoming. More than merely stories though, Never Sleep Again offers an incredible window into Wes Craven as an artist: Thoughtful, intelligent, and extremely creative. Craven was clearly one in a billion, and he will be sorely missed.
What are your favorite underrated films by Wes Craven? Will you be memorializing him by revisiting his work? Sound off in the Comments section!
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