Like many, the news of Wes Craven’s death last night left me stunned. As someone who writes about the cultural impact of horror, it is difficult to overstate Craven’s contribution to the genre. Leaving behind a catalog of work that provokes and challenges, Craven was a visionary who understood that the only way to truly understand what it is that scares us, is to look into the darkness unblinkingly. By continually manipulating horror tropes to keep pace with audience expectation, Wes Craven’s body of work stands alone for both its diversity and its longevity.
Here are my choices for the top three not-to-be missed Wes Craven moments.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
When asked to describe The Last House on the Left to those who have never viewed it, I only need two words: psychological warfare. To be honest, it took me four separate viewings to make it through the entire film. With violence that is both unrelenting and explicit, the film offers controversial commentary on the perceived safety of suburbia. Craven faced a barrage of criticism ranging from complaints that the film perpetuated violence against women to calls to have the film banned for sadistic pornography and violence. And yet, history has regarded the film as a seminal work in horror. Craven’s commitment to filmmaking that did not shy away from its exploration of hidden perversions helped transform the genre from schlocky monsters to legitimate pieces of cultural criticism.
Key Scene: After having survived unspeakable brutality, Mari attempts to clean herself in a lake only to be fatally shot by her assailants. The scene of Mari’s broken body floating in the lake is a curious study of tranquility intersecting with violence and is made even more jarring by dismantling the audience’s expectation that Mari would survive.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Growing up, A Nightmare on Elm Street was the film we would sneak at sleepovers once the adults went to bed. With a sense of humor that underscored the gore, the film has all the hallmarks of 1980s horror: teenage promiscuity, jump scares, over the top bloodbaths, and an accessible Final Girl. But it also contains commentary on the ways in which the confines of reality are malleable and makes the point that nightmares have nothing on the horrors that lurk in the daylight. In creating Freddy Krueger, Craven created a horror villains whose mere name was enough to strike fear in the hearts of a generation of children.
Key Scene: Much has been written about the film being an examination of adolescent sexuality and the cultural fears that topic inspires. In thinking of which scene resonated with me, I came back to this analysis and instantly thought of Nancy’s bathtub scene in which, unbeknownst to Nancy, Freddy’s gloved hand rises from the water. It is a jarring scene that reminds us that even when we feel most safe, we really aren’t.
Scream 4 (2011)
In a sense, it is a jarring thought to think that the man who gave us The Last House on the Left is the same who ushered in the Scream franchise. With its reflexive use of horror tropes and its unapologetic incorporation of sarcasm, Scream is a pivotal moment in horror. By explicitly acknowledging the genre’s campier qualities, the film gave a wink to an increasingly jaded audience and made the film a much more participatory undertaking. But as we were laughing, Craven provided jump scare after jump scare that were so effective because they were so unexpected.
Key Scene: The false ending in Scream 4 is a brilliant twisting of audience expectation. We believe that Jill has successfully cast herself as the female survivor of a new generation only to be taken out by a still alive Sidney. As she watches her cousin die, Sidney reminds us of a fundamental rule of horror remakes: “Don’t fuck with the original.”