Morbidly Beautiful writers honor the legacy of Wes Craven, celebrating 10 of our favorite films from the man who helped shape the face of modern horror.
Dubbed a “Master of Horror” due to his pioneering work in the genre, Craven remains one of the most influential genre filmmakers in modern history.
We take a look back at ten of his films that left an indelible mark on horror — and on our writers as horror fans. While not every film on this list is considered his best work, even in his “misses” Craven brought a level of intelligence, heart, and originality to every project that helped make his legacy so enduring.
THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977)
Recommended by Vicki Woods
I love ’70s horror films. There is a raw grittiness to horror made in this era that is hard to duplicate. One of my favorites, the film that scared me to death and cemented my love of the slasher genre, was Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. I was forever hooked by the burgeoning horror master who would continue to haunt my dreams for years to come.
I had many a deep conversation in my best friend’s backyard. Kicking back, joint in hand, we debated life’s deepest (at least for our young brains) questions. We often talked about how we’d react if we were to ever be attacked by monsters (real or supernatural). Would we fight back, run cower, or just give up? We could talk about this for hours, quoting our favorite horror films and analyzing the most brutal kills.
It’s around this time I discovered my lifelong desire to get bloody and scare the crap out of people, using many of the ideas I saw on screen for my inspiration.
I’m not sure if, on the first viewing of The Hills Have Eyes, I fully understood any of the deep metaphors or social commentary. I just cheered whenever there was gore! What I do know, is by the second viewing, I noticed that the two groups — the protagonists and the antagonists — were mirror images of each other. Even though they could not have been more different on the surface, both groups represented dysfunctional families.
It’s as if Anderson was asking, “How far would you go to protect your family?”
It’s a question he would continue to explore throughout his career.
Despite the fact that most of the allegories and satire went right over my head, The Hills Have Eyes made a big impact on me. My parents had plots of land out in the Mojave Desert not far from where the film was shot. My childhood vacations consisted of horrible boring road trips to see rocks, dirt, and Joshua trees. I relentlessly pointed out that there could be crazy people living out here any time my parents talked about moving.
This film is also responsible for my abhorrence for showing dead animals in movies. I hated that the (SPOILER ALERT) dog died in the film, and in such a gory way. It haunts me to this day, and I still can’t watch when an animal is killed in a horror film, even if it serves the plot.
Bottom line, however, is that I love this terrifying horror film from my formative years. I’ve become a big fan of Michael Berryman, who was so perfect for this role. And I definitely credit this film as helping make me the horror fan I am today.
SWAMP THING (1982)
Recommended by Syd Richardson
Not to be confused with the most recent iteration of Swamp Thing (which was canceled after one season, despite rave reviews), this 1982 release, sometimes going by the title of Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing, follows a scientist that is transformed into an enormous, semi-indestructible plant monster who protects the Southern swamps from evildoers.
In full disclosure, I don’t like superhero films and definitely prefer Craven’s horror works. But I can’t deny that this film has a certain likability and charm to it. And, where Craven puts his spin on it, Swamp Thing actually feels much less like a superhero origins film, and more of a tragic horror tale about an experiment gone wrong, vis-a-vis Cronenberg’s 1986 hit The Fly.
Heroine Alice Cable is a relatable protagonist that’s competent, headstrong, and capable of beating the shit out of her captors — and then going skinny dipping in a leech-infested bog to celebrate her victory.
I also loved that the concoction scientist Alec Holland (Ray Wise) whips up in his quest to cure global hunger, which later turns him into the titular Swamp Thing (Dick Durock), doesn’t change people at random. Rather, it amplifies the natural qualities found in the people who dare to take a sip. For example, one drink of the potion turns hulking, loudmouthed goon Bruno (Nicholas Worth) into a diminutive, pig-like runt who cowers at most things, thus exposing his true essence.
There are some neat special effects that have that kind of early ’80s, low-budget-film charm.
This is especially true during the final fight scene between Swamp Thing and the transformed Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan) as a boar-monster — that borders more on hilarious than climactic. Also, young Reggie Batts as local teen Jude who stumbles onto this White People Nonsense that nearly gets him killed (until he is revived by Swamp Thing) is a great side-character that faithfully accompanies Alice through her adventures in the American South.
After Swamp Thing, Craven was so embarrassed about the final product that he didn’t touch another project until two years later when he helmed the production of The Hills Have Eyes Part II. Yet, even in this semi-maligned film that has had audiences divided for the past four decades, a bright spot emerged; Craven reportedly came up with the idea for A Nightmare on Elm Street while producing Swamp Thing.
The fact that one of the most iconic characters ever to come from the horror genre was conceived while directing an origins movie for a DC superhero is an absolutely crazy thing to learn. But it certainly puts this film in a new light, at least for me. And it raises the question: how can I hate superhero movies if it was a superhero movie that spawned one of my favorite franchises of all time?
For all SWAMP THING has working against it, the fact that Wes Craven still managed to pull together a fun, memorable film shows the kind of genius this man had, and how neither the world of superheroes or horror is quite the same without him.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
Recommended by Kourtnea Hogan
I used to have nightmares about Freddy Krueger as a kid, which is funny considering I didn’t see a single Nightmare film until I was about thirteen. My mom was terrified of him and didn’t think I could handle it. She banned a lot of horror movies from the house, but anything involving Freddy was top of the list. Luckily for me, my grandma is also a horror hound. And once I was old enough to stop being afraid of, well, everything, I begged her to watch them with me when I spent a weekend at her house.
I immediately fell in love with the first film. It is a true masterpiece of cinema, with some of the most beautiful and extreme shots in horror. I was in absolute awe the first time I watched Tina get dragged up the wall — and would go on to have numerous nightmares about her in the body bag.
As a budding filmmaker, I also become fascinated with the technical aspects of the shoot, especially that “rotating room”. I loved Craven’s commentary in the ultimate Nightmare doc, Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy: “Fluids can flow uphill, characters can rise, they can walk up walls, they can fall from ceilings. We can deal as dreams do with things that are sort of in violation of gravity… a violation of time and space.”
The Elm Street movies broke every human law; anything could happen in them, because they weren’t ruled by logic.
Everything was a nightmare. People could get sucked into beds, eaten by giant Freddy worms, or even get turned into roaches and made to suffer in a roach motel.
Robert Englund was a masterful villain: funny, creative, and absolutely evil. I fell in love with the charisma. And, of course, there’s final girl, Nancy. Finally, we get a final girl with real agency. Everyone around her refuses to take her seriously, but that doesn’t deter her. A town needs saving, and she’s going to do it.
Juxtaposing the primal fear of the unknown with the real horrors of the world — and how we react to them — A Nightmare on Elm Street makes us question the nature of morality and the consequences of vengeance. Was the angry mob justified in doing what they did to Krueger (and keeping it a secret), or are the parents just as much to blame for the terror that befalls the Elm Street kids?
Speaking of those kids, the series is also a shining example of youth power, essentially boiling down to young people’s struggle to be heard and to write their own stories; no matter how much blood they have to wade through to claim their identity and independence.
Without the mind of Wes Craven we might have never gotten a slasher that could speak and twist reality. Craven was a horror icon, and his legacy lives forever in a house with a red door on every Elm Street in the US.
DEADLY FRIEND (1986)
Recommended by Tiffany Blem
While it’s far from his most popular film, my personal favorite from Mr. Craven is the tragic, cautionary tale of Samantha Pringle (Kristy Swanson) in the 1986 dark love story, Deadly Friend. This science fiction thriller is a far cry from what the cinematic genius was known for, and it required so many edits and reshoots that it no longer resembles the original story he wanted to tell.
Based on the book Friend by Diana Henstell, test audiences made it clear they wanted more violence, blood, and gore. And that’s what they got. This film has my favorite kill scene involving a basketball and the head of Anne Ramsey, who plays the curmudgeon Elvira — a woman easy to hate.
After suffering a nasty fall down the stairs at the hands of her father, teenager Samantha dies, devastating her boyfriend Paul (Matthew Labyrteaux) and friend Tom (Michael Sharrett). Because Paul is a scientific genius, he decides that the best thing for them all is to take the microchip from his beloved dead robot and implant it into Samantha’s brain.
Ignoring the pleas of his best friend Tom, Paul soon realizes that he’s created a deadly monster, and the only way to stop her is to watch her die all over again. What follows is heartbreaking, but necessary to stop the deadly rampage of an angry, reanimated teenager with superhuman strength.
The music is so upbeat that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a horror film, which is what I believe Craven was going for initially.
He wanted a bigger focus on the plot, and more character development — focusing on the blossoming love story between Paul and Samantha. Craven wasn’t into the idea of Samantha going on a killing spree. He stated:
“The scares don’t come from her, but from the ordinary people, who are actually much more frightening. A father who beats a child is a terrifying figure. That’s the one person you’re afraid of in the movie. The idea is along the lines that adults can be horrible, without being outside what society says is acceptable.”
He is absolutely correct. Samantha is sad and frightened over the changes in her, and it reminds you how awful being a teenager can be.
I like that Craven tried to keep it PG when everything else he was doing was rated R. In the end, it didn’t work. In fact, the film received an X rating at first. But the effort is visible. While audiences didn’t care for the finished product, Deadly Friend holds a special place in my heart. I believe it paved the way for Craven to venture into unexplored territory and deliver more than just iconic slashers and meta horror blockbusters.
THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)
Recommended by Danni Winn
“In the legends of voodoo the Serpent is a symbol of Earth. The Rainbow is a symbol of Heaven. Between the two, all creatures must live and die. But because he has a soul Man can be trapped in a terrible place where death is only the beginning.”
Wes Craven’s contributions to the genre are monumental. He has created some of the most iconic villains and films that have easily become time-honored classics. But he has also dished out some devilishly effective, lesser-discussed titles. One of these, The Serpent and the Rainbow, happens to be my favorite.
For Craven’s ninth feature horror film, he explored the true story of botanist Wade Davis and his quest to validate and study an herbal zombification found in Haiti. True to form though, Wes meticulously weaves in some terrifying taboos, while trading visceral horror for pure psychological mayhem.
Starring young Bill Pullman (fresh off Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs) as the intrepid Dr. Dennis Alan, The Serpent and the Rainbow wastes no time making the viewer feel absolutely out of their element, as a foreign land with unfamiliar customs and a mercilessly hostile government regime are set as the backdrop.
When I first watched The Serpent and the Rainbow as a young teen, it truly terrified me. I remember the movie poster and VHS proudly touting, “From the Director of A Nightmare On Elm Street and kind of expecting something akin to his previous productions.
Instead I got a “Based On A True Story” nightmare that led to many sleepless nights for me.
Shot on location in Haiti and Dominican Republic, the film delivered some unforgettable images. Among those were the countless white candles surrounding Dr. Alan in the dark jungle as he had a nightmare — a premonition — of a decrepit skeleton in white. Then there was the deep, disconnected voice and being of zombified Christoph. But most of all, there was that utterly traumatizing scene of Alan being buried alive… and that goddamn tarantula being thrown in with him.
Besides haunting my psyche, the respectful and mysterious way Wes depicted Voodoo in this film also helped ignite a lifelong fascination with researching the different world religions.
Released in 1988, four years after ANOES, you can still clearly note Craven’s preoccupation in The Serpent and the Rainbow for the universally relatable and terrifying themes found in both films: dreams, fate, and the subconscious. Craven perfectly preys upon many of my deep-seated fears in this film, and perhaps that is why I have continued to love it the way I do.
Recommended by Guest Contributor, Mike W.
At 20 years old, I was full of hope and empty of worry. I lived for music, movies and girls. Ah well, two out of three ‘aint bad, right? So when I was given a soundtrack CD to listen to, I was intrigued — especially when I found out the movie was directed by that Elm Street guy! That movie was Shocker.
It’s been almost 30 hard years since then. So it was with some excitement, and a little trepidation, that I sat down to rewatch it.
The parallels between Craven’s wildly successful A Nightmare on Elm Street and this one can’t be ignored.
But does the film deserve to be derided? Is Shocker simply an attempt to cash in on the success of ANOES by Universal Studios? It would be easy to say yes if you only looked at reviews and a plot synopsis. (I’m not interested in giving you either, by the way; there are plenty of places you can check those out.)
But I humbly propose there’s much more to it than that.
The first thing that struck me was the film’s amalgamation of styles. It has a strong thriller vibe, especially in the first part. It’s slightly slower paced than a typical 80s horror film — with a longish set up and a menacing, fairly dry feel. In act two, however, things turn more darkly comedic… sometimes unintentionally so.
The little girl telling the digger, “Come on, move you fucker!” had me snort laughing. If things had stayed like that, I’d have been happy. But we also get a ghost romance storyline which seemed shoehorned into the movie for sentimentality’s sake. And that ending. Oh dear.
So I hated it, right? Well, no.
Despite its shortcomings, it has some truly great moments.
Horace’s limp mimicked the Zodiac Killer from Dirty Harry pretty much exactly, and I’d love to know if that was intentional. The use of news reports throughout the movie to drive plot and give exposition was really well done, and some of the more subtle ANOES references were great for meta fans.
The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Heather Langenkamp, Jonathan having a water bed just like Glen, and lots more little things made this a wet dream for hardcore horror fans who live for cinematic Easter eggs.
Is Shocker Craven’s best movie? Not at all. But it also doesn’t deserve to be ignored or just written off as Universal’s attempt to create a Freddy franchise. If you love Craven and haven’t seen this lesser celebrated gem, I highly recommend you strap yourself in for a bumpy but really fun ride.
WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994)
Recommended by Allyssa Gaines
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare takes place 10 years after the original Nightmare on Elm Street was released. This film follows the actress that played Nancy, Heather Langenkamp, in a fictionalized version of herself. Heather now has a son, Dylan (Miko Hughes), and a husband, Chase (David Newsom).
Heather has been having nightmares involving Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). After being woken up from one of these dreams by an earthquake, she sees her husband’s fingers bleeding. This injury shakes her up, because this is exactly how he was injured in her dream. She dismisses this idea and goes along with her husband’s idea that it was a result of the earthquake.
Heather finds out from an official at New Line Cinema that Wes Craven has been secretly working on a new Nightmare film, which would star her as Nancy, and she is less than thrilled about hearing this. She’s also distraught to learn that Chase has secretly been working on a new prototype for Freddy’s claw. After Dylan has an episode and acts like someone is trying to get him, Heather calls Chase and begs him to come home from his business trip out of town.
Chase hurries home, but on his way home, he falls asleep at the wheel and is attacked by Freddy’s claw.
Heather learns that things from the script keep occurring in her actual life.
She continues to have nightmares about Freddy trying to take Dylan. Heather visits Wes Craven, and he admits to her that he has been inspired to write the script by the nightmares he’s been having. He explains that the only person that can actually stop Freddy is her, because she played Nancy.
Nancy takes Dylan to the hospital in the hopes of getting him some help for the traumatic episodes he’s been having. While in the hospital, Freddy comes to take Dylan, but he manages to escape Krueger’s claws after a terrifying encounter. Heather rushes home, only to realize that her house has transformed into the infamous Elm Street house, and she has transformed into Nancy.
Ultimately, Heather finally accepts that she must play Nancy one last time to save her son and defeat Freddy for good.
This addition to the Nightmare franchise is, for many fans, the scariest and best film in the franchise. And I highly recommend it for fans of the Nightmare series as well as fans of Craven’s unmatched ability to deliver compelling and truly frightening meta horror.
VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN (1995)
Recommended by Alli Hartley
Fresh off of the meta-horror classic Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Craven was eager to shift into comedy. At the same time, superstar Eddie Murphy had just finished the Beverly Hills Cop franchise and was anxious to branch out as well. This alignment of the stars resulted in a collaboration that became Vampire in Brooklyn, a glorious mess of a horror comedy that is less “you got my chocolate in your peanut butter” and more “you got my sardines in your strawberry milkshake”.
The plot feels a bit like Bram Stoker’s Dracula meets the classic Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America.
Murphy plays Maximillian, a centuries-old vampire who comes to Brooklyn to seek his bride, a half-vampire and the last of his kind. Flawlessly played by Angela Bassett, police detective Rita Veder is haunted by a tragic family history and a life too small for her dreams. Maximillian quickly embeds himself in her life, uprooting a blossoming romance between Rita and her partner, Detective Justice (Allen Payne).
There are a plethora of reasons why Vampire in Brooklyn was such a flop.
Stories of Murphy’s off-screen antics indicate he may have played a major role, along with the enormous pressures from the studio. For his part, Murphy blamed his (I’m not kidding) hairstyle. But even without the greased-back mullet, Vampire in Brooklyn never managed to strike a consistent tone.
The film veers wildly between menacing and slapstick, from true horror to some truly horrific accents.
This is a shame, because Basset’s performance contains the seeds of greatness. Even with her character’s inconsistency, she is mesmerizing. Bassett nails each emotional turn, from embarrassment at her attraction to Maximillian, to despair at her own bloodlust.
In an alternate universe, this film would put the focus, like so many of Craven’s finest films, on a tortured, strong woman struggling with generational trauma and trying to reconcile two very different parts of herself. In this cut, blessedly, there would be no Preacher Pauly.
For those curious, Vampire in Brooklyn is getting a release on Blu-ray September 15th, 2020 (#releasethebassettcut). And though this may be far from Craven’s finest work, it’s still more than worth sinking your teeth into.
Recommended by Kelly Gredner, Spinsters of Horror
Scream was released in 1996, and prior to this I was already a pretty well versed horror fan. I loved the films Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Pet Sematary and many more. I often hosted sleepovers with friends, and we would pull all-nighters watching these now horror classics.
Once I started high school, my group of friends changed somewhat, and we became a much smaller and tight-knit group. Some of my favorite memories with them was when we would watch Scream. It was me with my best friend, and our boyfriends at the time, and we watched it ALL THE TIME.
Scream was (and I would argue still is) the penultimate, group watching, jumping, laughing in your parent’s basement, horror movie.
As teenagers, we related to the characters: my boyfriend was Randy (goofy, well versed in movies), I was Sidney (the brainy, brunette Final Girl), my best friend was Tatum (sassy, perky, and well endowed), and her boyfriend was Stu (lanky, clever, and attractive).
We watched many other movies, horror and non-horror, but the memories watching Scream are the most poignant.
It’s a whip smart meta horror for the ages, and we lived for it!
As we grew older, we broke up with our boyfriends (my best friend’s boyfriend did not try to kill me, thankfully), and friendships became strained (though my friend and I are still in touch after 20 years). But I will always remember those movie nights warmly.
It was a much easier time, though we wouldn’t have believed it then. Friendships were crucial. You rallied for those sleepovers — and the quality time spent on the weekends, just palling around. It was a more innocent time before we had to worry about careers, finances, where we were going to live, or the very real horrors of adulthood.
Scream is in my top ten horror films of all time — for good, smart reasons –– but my fondest memory of the movie is how it brought friends close together over screams and laughs.
Wes Craven was a brilliant and sweet man who loved horror. He gave us a lot of wonderful films, but SCREAM will always hold a cherished place in my black, horror-loving heart.
Recommended by Jackie Ruth
Wes Craven’s 2005 werewolf movie Cursed is not one of the director’s most beloved films, despite the fact that it was even written by Kevin Williamson (who also wrote Craven’s 1996 hit Scream). The movie’s cast is a who’s who of early 2000s actors: Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg star as siblings, while Milo Ventimiglia, Joshua Jackson and Judy Greer all play significant roles.
In a weird turn, it also features Scott Baio, Lance Bass and Bowling for Soup — all as themselves. Maybe this casting is part of the reason that Cursed feels like a healthy dose of nostalgia, even though I never saw it in the mid-2000s.
I’d never even heard of it until a few years ago, when my friend and I were browsing the horror section at our local video store. They had sections dedicated to beloved (and prolific) horror directors, including John Carpenter, George Romero and, of course, Wes Craven. I haven’t seen all of Craven’s movies, but I love a lot of them. I grew up loving and being terrified of Freddy Krueger, and the Scream series is actually something I put on as somewhat of a comfort.
So we rented Cursed and, unsurprisingly to me, it was a lot of fun! I mean, I love a werewolf that’s ready to offer up a middle finger in defiance. Plus there’s sort of a mystery plot, too.
And even though Cursed is not as beloved as some of Craven’s other films (maybe rightfully so), there are parts of it that feel like they have his heart.
For one, it has a pro-LGBTQ storyline — an entire decade before gay marriage was legalized. I think, with his films, Craven was always trying to tell the stories of people who were marginalized or victimized, whether directly or indirectly.
Another giveaway that this is a Craven work is his humor, which is sometimes dark or subtle and sometimes more straightforward. Jesse Eisenberg’s character in this movie may feel incredibly familiar, with a sort of awkward and geeky exterior but a dry, almost-but-not-quite assured way of speaking. But this is way before we all knew Columbus in Zombieland or his take on Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. The team of Williamson and Craven contributed to that.
While Cursed will not end up on most people’s “Top 5” lists of Craven’s filmography, it’ll always be a little bit special to me. It’s a great mix of camp and seriousness for me, and it’ll be one of the Craven movies I revisit time after time.