(Photo by Rogue Pictures, Dimension Film, New Line, DreamWorks / courtesy Everett Collection)
Wes Craven’s debut, 1972’s scarring rape-revenge thriller The Last House on the Left, was among the first cross-cultural grindhouse flicks out there: It cost $87,00 to make and made back 36 times as much. At the time, America was mired deep in a losing Vietnam War slog just as its citizens lost faith in their social institutions, a mood reflected in Last House‘s success, announcing audiences’ new appetite for gritty, grubby, boundary-pushing cinema. Craven, already hardened beyond most normal sensibilities after a previous career directing pornographic films under different nom de guerres, knew how to push the violence, sex, and rage right up to the edge.
With aspirations to emerge from the horror grotto, Craven nonetheless returned to the genre in 1977 with the agitated, belligerent The Hills Have Eyes, which transported the menace of Last House into the desert mountains.
The ’80s were the golden age of slasher movies, with thanks in no small part to Craven. He dipped his toe into the subgenre with 1981’s Deadly Blessing, before making the enormous slashy splash with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dozens of slashers were being released a year by 1984, but it was Craven’s bright idea to freshen things up by bringing the supernatural into the mix, thus creating one of horror’s great icons: Freddy Krueger, as portrayed by Robert Englund.
Horror films had a tough go at it in the ’90s, both creatively and at the box office, with Craven one of few genre directors to survive with a career intact. Always one to infuse satire and literacy into the shocks wherever he could, Craven turned to meta-textual tricks for New Nightmare and Scream. The latter fit like a knife in snug flesh with the decade’s laid-back cynicism, ushering in a new age of teen slashers.
Highlights of Craven’s post-Scream career include, of course, the well-received first sequel, directing Meryl Streep to an Academy Award nomination in Music of the Heart, and the Certified Fresh thriller Red Eye. Scream 4, in 2011, would become his final movie – and it just recently ticked over onto Fresh territory. Here, we look back on a storied film journey from one of the undisputed masters of horror, with all Wes Craven movies ranked by Tomatometer! —Alex Vo