For this year’s Halloween celebrations, Audiences Everywhere is looking back on some of the horror icons who are no longer with us and looking at some of their most famous/infamous movies. For the first week, we’re looking back at Wes Craven, a true master of the genre who made some of the most iconic horror movies of the past forty years. Don’t forget to take to Twitter for your chance to win all of these films.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Overview: Two teens are captured and tortured by a gang of criminals who then take refuge in the house of one of the girls.
Hard: This is a hard movie to watch. It is a dirty, gritty movie that unflinchingly depicts a cruel, hateful crime perpetrated by monsters against innocents and innocence. To say it is not for the faint-hearted is an understatement.
The Last House on the Left is the story of Mari and Phyllis, two teenage girls who are trapped, tortured, and brutalised by prison escapee Krug and his gang of violent psychopaths, first in a flop house and then in the woods near to Mari’s family home. The third act takes a turn when the criminals unknowingly take refuge in the house of Mari’s parents, who decide to take the law into their own hands.
Cruelty: This is a cruel movie. It constantly gives you hope for the girls’ escape and the scene of the worst offences against them is only a few metres from a place in which they should be the safest. Writer and director, Wes Craven doesn’t flinch away from this cruelty and piles it on, using Mari’s knowledge of her whereabouts to build her despair as she simply can’t get home even though it is so close to her.
For Craven’s first movie this is something incredibly hard to watch and actually quite repugnant, yet there is some technique on display that elevates it above simply torture porn. Craven is patient and builds up the horror and suspense of the situation before letting all the fireworks go off for the cinematic finish, which provides some kind of release following the too realness of the first hour of the movie.
Tone: This finale is jarring with the rest of the movie and the tonal disparity doesn’t stop there. Throughout the movie and its brutal scenarios, there are some odd musical choices with lots of high energy and jaunty music, and even a strange theme tune about the villains as though they are anti-heroes or Wild West outlaws when they are most definitely not. They are rapists and sadists who force the girls into situations that are incredibly cruel and filmed in such a way that the whole thing feels almost like a snuff film. Along with the strange musical choices, Craven has the law enforcement characters be inept to the point where they could be played by Abbott and Costello without any script changes required. If Craven added these characters to provide levity alongside the violence, he very much miscalculated the amount of hilarity these cops bring to proceedings.
Overall: While it is a movie I hope to never watch again, I can also see a lot to appreciate technically about The Last House on the Left even while I find the story and a vast majority of the scenes sickening and unnecessary. It is merciless and cruel but Craven shows he has an eye for a shot and an unflinching stomach for horror. As an introduction to him, it shows a filmmaker out to make a name for himself, while also showing that there are some jagged edges that need to be smoothed out as his career flourishes.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Overview: A family on a road trip get stalked and terrorised by mutants in the desert.
Cover: The Hills Have Eyes feels like a great band doing a cover version of a great song. Think Jimi Hendrix covering Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” but with Wes Craven covering Tobe Hooper’s seminal The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Hills Have Eyes doesn’t feel like another filmmaker thinking they can improve upon another movie, it feels like Craven saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and said, ‘I wanna do that too’ and The Hills Have Eyes was born.
The Hills Have Eyes follows a family driving to California who run afoul of a gang of irradiated cannibals in the middle of the desert. Structurally it is similar to The Last House on the Left in that the first act is a lot of set-up, the second is a crescendo of violence and cruelty, and the finale has the victims fighting back against their tormentors. It is a cleaner movie than The Last House on the Left with more confidence and less of the weird stylistic choices that are so jarring in Craven’s debut. It also has the advantage of the villains being heightened cinematic villains, so that their cruelty towards the family doesn’t feel as brutal and become too hard to watch as it does in the more realistic The Last House on the Left.
Double Feature: It makes a great double bill with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Craven flips a lot of Hooper’s movie on its head for his take on deformed monsters killing lost travellers. First, there is the interesting choice of making his family a lot more conservative than the hippies of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Big Bob, the patriarch of the lost family, is an ex-cop who probably voted for Nixon and in 2017 would be sharing Facebook posts about climate change being a hoax. The family is made up of All-American tropes and Craven makes sure there is enough of them to provide a lot of fodder for the baddies to kill off. These aren’t the free-loving teens of Chainsaw Massacre. This movie basically depicts one kind of nuclear family versus another kind.
Another big change is to put the action is wide open spaces rather than the confines of the Hardesty house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Having the long shots of the camper van broken down in the middle of the desert invokes a lot of modern Australian horror in which the relentless outbreak is itself a villain in the movie. With The Hills Have Eyes, the desert provides no cover and no hiding places for when the mutants inevitably attack.
Overall: A much more assured movie from Craven, The Hills Have Eyes shows his maturing style with the patience he exhibited in The The Last House on the Left still there but with a lot more of a hold on what kind of story he wants to tell, so there isn’t a lot of random humour amidst the cruelty.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Overview: A monster stalks and kills teenagers in their dreams
Krueger: With A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven managed to create one of the most enduring monsters of horror cinema and also broke into the mainstream. Freddy Krueger will always be the character most associated with Craven and in this first instalment, it is interesting to see Kruger in his purest form before the sequels made him a more ridiculous and larger than life character.
In A Nightmare on Elm Street, the jumper and hat wearing slasher is more of a stalk them in the shadows type of character than a spotlight-hogger. However, he still has a lot more personality than other monsters in this genre like Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees. Craven has proven time and again that he likes to play with his food and he imbues Kruger with a playfulness and a sense of humour as he stalks his teenaged prey.
Dreams: A Nightmare on Elm Street follows Nancy and her friends as they find themselves attacked in their dreams by Freddie Krueger, a disfigured man who wears a glove mounted with knives. They very quickly realise that the urban legend that says if you die in your dreams you die in real life may be more real than they thought.
One of the great things about this movie is that Craven keeps the dreams grounded in reality so that they feel like actual nightmares. There are no MC Escher rooms or flights of fancy. Each nightmare is familiar with a lot of running that doesn’t get you anywhere, staircases you can’t climb, and an eerie disconnect between whether or not the character is actually dreaming or not. Each dream scene has that duality so we’re not instantly sure the characters are dreaming or if Krueger has found his way into the real world.
Nancy: Nancy Thompson is a fantastic main character, and it is wonderful to see her go on the offensive pretty soon into proceedings. She is a classic Craven heroine in that she very quickly begins to turn the tables on Krueger once she has pieced together what he is. Seeing her planning out how to capture him and kill him is a wonderful departure from teens running and screaming until an opportunity arises to kill their attacker.
Overall: This is a fantastic first part of a franchise that very quickly went off the rails. The special effects have dated a bit but for the most part, this is a great slasher movie that plays with conventions and expectations and brought two of the best characters in slasherdom to life: Freddie Krueger and Nancy Thompson.
Overview: A stalker attacks a small town filled with teens who seem to know lots about horror movies
Postmodern Horror: Scream was not Wes Craven’s first foray into post-Modernist horror, but it was definitely his most successful after Wes Craven’s New Nightmare suffered from being both the seventh movie in a tired franchise and not having enough Freddy Krueger in it. Scream burst onto the scene and reinvigorated the slasher genre leading to a variety of copycats and pretenders who saw the box office potential for smart mouthed, good-looking teens being stabbed by masked murderers. It is not often that a director gets to jumpstart a genre, but like Spielberg inventing the summer blockbuster twice (Jaws and Jurassic Park), Craven managed to re-crown himself the king of the slasher.
Scream is notable for its level of self-awareness in terms of the tropes, clichés, and rules of a horror movie, and also how Kevin Williamson’s script dances on the tightrope of acknowledging these tired tropes while also using them to great effect for his own tale of teenage slaughter.
Horror Fans: The movie follows the exploits of the teens of Woodsboro High as they are picked off by Ghostface, a killer in a mask inspired by Munch’s “The Scream”. The main character, Sidney, is the classic virginal high schooler whose mother died under suspicious circumstances and whose boyfriend appears to be cosplaying Johnny Depp for this role.
Sidney and her friends are well-versed in the horror classics and, throughout the movie, references are made to, among others, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Frankenstein, Psycho, The Exorcist, Carrie, The Fog, Prom Night, Hellraiser, and The Silence of the Lambs. This is very much a horror movie made in the wake of Tarantino, in which movie fans are making movies for movies fans with movie fans as the characters.
Williamson manages to create a neat subversion by making his characters aware of the mistakes they shouldn’t make before they inevitably make them anyway. We all watch horror movies and scream at the characters not to do dumb things, and in Scream the characters do the same.
Opening: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the opening fifteen minutes of this movie in which Drew Barrymore’s character is called and stalked by the killer. As a piece of short fiction, it is a masterpiece and there are very few horror movies that have openings that come even close. It is claustrophobic, creepy, and terrifying, and Craven shoots the whole thing with long unbroken takes and big open backgrounds filled with hiding places. It has Craven’s cruelty as the victim comes very close to being saved and also a sense of playfulness with the killer on the phone beginning with a charm offensive before going on the offensive. I can’t imagine watching this opening and not being fully drawn into the movie as it is one of the best things Craven has ever filmed.
Overall: Even though Craven didn’t write the screenplay there are a lot of his tropes in there: a nastiness tempered by humour, a control of tension, and a main character who reaches a point where she’s taken enough shit and needs to fight back. In terms of stylishness, we’re a million miles away from the gritty brutality of The Last House on the Left, but twenty years did nothing to dull Craven’s blades when it comes to the kill.
Featured Image: New Line Home Video