Total Recall: Wes Craven's Best Movies
We count down the best-reviewed work of the Scream 4 director.
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!
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."
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."
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."
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."