Total Recall

Total Recall: Wes Craven's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Scream 4 director.

by | April 14, 2011 | Comments

Wes Craven

Horror is one of Hollywood’s most consistent money-making genres, and it’s been a terrific gateway for some of our most well-respected actors and directors — but unless you’re really good at playing a homicidal maniac behind a mask, it’s hard to make a consistently successful career out of scaring people. Though his filmography has certainly weathered its fair share of ups and downs, Wes Craven is a notable exception to the rule: starting with 1972’s Last House on the Left, he’s demonstrated an uncommon gift for freaking out filmgoers around the world. In honor of his return to the Scream franchise this week, we decided to lock the door, close the curtains, and take a peek (through our fingers, natch) at his best films, Total Recall style!


10. The Serpent and the Rainbow

The years immediately following his Nightmare on Elm Street breakthrough weren’t especially kind to Wes Craven; he tried to prove he was capable of more than horror (the short-lived sitcom The People Next Door) while searching for new franchises (Shocker) and raiding his past for cash-grab sequels (The Hills Have Eyes II). One small bright spot during this period, however, was 1987’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, which followed a scientist (Bill Pullman) on his nightmarish quest to uncover the truth about a Haitian herbal toxin rumored to turn people into zombies. While it wasn’t a huge hit, Rainbow represented a more cerebral — yet still plenty scary — turn for Craven, something appreciated by critics like the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson, who observed that the director “seems wiser and more story-conscious — but thankfully still full of the same surprises.”


9. The Last House on the Left

The original poster warned that The Last House on the Left “rests on 13 acres of earth over the very center of Hell” — and included instructions for avoiding fainting spells while watching the movie. Pretty standard stuff for this kind of grisly exploitation fare, but Last House is a tad more deranged than most, plunging the audience into a sickening succession of nightmarish random violence, sexual depravity, and bloodthirsty revenge. As an artistic statement on the costs of violence, it boasts arguable merit — and for sheer revolting spectacle, it’s (thankfully) hard to match. “It isn’t artistically adroit,” admitted Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader, “but if success in this genre is counted by squirms, it’s a success.”


8. Music of the Heart

After rejuvenating his career with the first two chapters in the Scream trilogy, Craven took a surprising turn into uplifting, reality-based drama with 1999’s Music of the Heart, the story of a Harlem violin teacher (played by Meryl Streep) whose dogged determination (and incredible luck) helped save a school arts program — and put her fundraising concert on stage at Carnegie Hall. It’s just the kind of true story that Hollywood loves to coat with corny melodrama, and while most critics agreed that Craven wasn’t immune to that impulse, they ultimately felt that Streep’s performance — which earned her an Academy Award nomination — helped distinguish Music from similar films. As Eleanor Ringel Gillespie wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Streep’s extraordinary performance makes this the rare inspirational movie that actually is, well, inspirational.”


7. The Hills Have Eyes

Throw together a “no nukes” message with 89 minutes of stereotypes about rural people and you’ve got The Hills Have Eyes, Craven’s gleefully deranged 1977 hit about a traveling family (whose members included a young Dee Wallace) stalked and murdered by a pack of cave-dwelling mutants in the Nevada desert. Featuring a truly memorable performance by Michael Berryman as the brutal clan member known as Pluto, Hills has spawned a number of sequels, a remake, and a sequel to the remake, but none of them hold a candle to the sadistic original. Marjorie Baumgarten of the Austin Chronicle was part of the wave of critical applause, writing that “Inventive story ideas and humorous touches give this horror picture an enduring relevancy and stylistic flourish.”


6. Swamp Thing

After making a name for himself with unabashed horror movies like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, Craven made a bid for crossover territory with 1982’s Swamp Thing, an adaptation of the DC Comics series about a scientist (Ray Wise) whose experimental formula ends up turning him into a hulking mound of sentient plant matter. It sounds campy, and it definitely is, but Craven has always had a pretty sharp knack for this stuff, and particularly in the context of pre-CG comic book films, Swamp Thing earned a surprising level of admiration from critics who appreciated its so-bad-it’s-goodness — as well as Craven’s taste in leading ladies. Cole Smithey fell into the latter camp, reminiscing, “Oh yes, Adrienne Barbeau. Thanks for the memories.”


5. Red Eye

After 2000’s Scream 3, Craven took a five-year hiatus from directing, only to return in 2005 with a pair of movies: Cursed and Red Eye. The less said about the former film, the better, but Red Eye was actually something of a return to form for Craven — a claustrophobic thriller about a hotel manager (Rachel McAdams) who finds herself sitting next to a terrorist (Cillian Adams) on an overnight flight. The tight-focused setup of Carl Ellsworth’s script eventually gives way to an overblown final act involving an assassination attempt (and an underwater missile), but most critics didn’t mind; as Roger Ebert wrote, “After a summer of crashes, bangs, endless chase scenes and special effects that belittle the actors standing in front of them, what a pleasure to see characters in a thriller doing what people like themselves possibly could do.”


4. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

After six installments — most of them made without Craven’s involvement — the Nightmare on Elm Street series was looking a little tired. Ultimately, not even Craven’s return for 1994’s New Nightmare was enough to lure back filmgoers who’d grown numb to Freddy Krueger’s increasingly cartoonish antics, but it wasn’t for lack of trying: the seventh Nightmare offered a nifty twist that brought Freddy out of the movies and into the real world, where he terrorized Heather Langenkamp, the star of the first film. And even if audiences weren’t having this Nightmare, critics rewarded it with the franchise’s best reviews in years — including Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who called it “An ingenious, cathartic exercise in illusion and fear.”


3. Scream 2

What’s the only thing that makes more sense than a horror movie that satirizes the conventions of the genre? A sequel that makes fun of horror sequels, of course — and with Scream 2, Craven added a new layer of wicked fun to the franchise, winking at the genre’s rote formula by explicitly laying out — and often subverting — audience expectations. The cast is bigger, the body count is higher, and the ending is stuffed with twice as many last-minute surprise revelations, and Scream 2 transcends them all. As Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum put it, “A yum-yum cast of pretties pull off the neat trick of affectionately counting the many ways available to horror sequels to suck, without making a sequel that sucks.”


2. Scream

Slasher films were — ahem — all but dead by the mid-1990s, due in part to the flood of cruddy sequels churned out by the genre’s many franchises. Craven was indirectly responsible for some of this, so it’s perhaps only fitting that he was the one who revitalized slashers with 1996’s Scream, a gleefully meta slice of teen horror that poured on buckets of satire to match its rivers of fake blood. “It’s been a long time since a teen-slasher movie has offered up anything but dull buckets of gore,” wrote Margaret A. McGurk of the Cincinnati Enquirer, adding, “With Scream, the genre reclaims its roots.”


1. A Nightmare on Elm Street

You knew we’d end up here, right? No matter how many movies he makes, and no matter how many frights he gives audiences, Wes Craven will always be most closely identified with the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and this 1984 classic is the reason why. No matter how many times Freddy Krueger resurfaces in subpar sequels and reboots, it can’t erase the pure effectiveness of the original. No child of the 1980s will ever forget the spine-tingling dread they felt the first time they saw Freddy’s razor-tipped gloves, or heard the haunting refrain “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you” — and film fans of all ages agree with the words of Shannon J. Harvey of Australia’s Sunday Times, who called it “One of the best all-out horror movies ever made.”

In case you were wondering, here are Craven’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. A Nightmare on Elm Street — 78%

2. Scream — 70%

3. Music of the Heart — 68%

4. Red Eye — 66%

5. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare — 65%

6. The Hills Have Eyes — 61%

7. The People Under The Stairs — 60%

8. The Serpent and the Rainbow — 60%

9. Scream 2 — 54%

10. The Last House on the Left — 53%

Take a look through Craven’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Scream 4.

Finally, here’s Pere-Lachaise, Craven’s contribution to the omnibus film Paris, Je T’Aime, which features a ghostly cameo from an Irish writer of some renown:

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