Yesterday was a tragic day for horror fans around the world, as we reported the unfortunate news of Wes Craven passing at the age of 76 in his Los Angeles home. Wes Craven left an indelible mark on the horror movie genre almost immediately with his first feature film, 1972's The Last House on the Left, and his influence will be felt for years to come, in the filmmakers that follow and carry on his legacy. As we continue to mourn the loss of this legend, we're revisiting his best work with nine of his best films.
Wesley Earl Craven was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Caroline (Miller) and Paul Eugene Craven, raised by a strict baptist family, although his father died when he was just five years old. He earned his undergraduate degree in English and Psychology from Wheaton University in Illinois, and earned his Masters in Philosophy and Writing from Johns Hopkins University. After college, he was briefly a humanities professor at Clarkson College of Technology in Potsdam, New York. His first job in the film industry was as a sound editor for a post-production company in New York City, before directing several adult films under a pseudonym, which he admitted in the 2005 documentary INSIDE Deep Throat. In 1972, he made his true directorial debut with the instant classic The Last House on the Left, which he also wrote and edited.
After The Last House on the Left launched his career, he made another classic, The Hills Have Eyes, which helped establish one of his career trademarks: his eye for spotting talent. That 1977 film starred Dee Wallace in just her second film role, after a small part in The Stepford Wives. Just five years later, she played Mary in Steven Spielberg's iconic classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. His next film, 1981's Deadly Blessing, featured Sharon Stone in her first starring role, while 1982's Swamp Thing helped launch Ray Wise's career with his first starring role. The filmmaker's biggest discovery, however, gave birth to one of today's biggest stars, Johnny Depp. The 21-year-old actor made his feature film debut in the director's 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street.
He also cast a relatively unknown Ving Rhames in 1991's The People Under the Stairs, three years before his career exploded in Pulp Fiction, and, of course, Scream helped launch the careers for a slew of young actors, such as Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy and Liev Schreiber. The sequel Scream 2 featured an early performance from Timothy Olyphant, and years before starring on Scandal, Scott Foley made his feature film debut in Scream 3. And, most recently, he cast Danai Gurira in My Soul to Take, a few years before she would become Michonne on AMC's The Walking Dead.
To honor Wes Craven's enduring legacy, we're looking back at nine of his most iconic feature films in a career that spanned more than 40 years. There is no doubt that the filmmaker left us too soon, and even though he hadn't directed a film since 2011's Scream 4, we reported earlier this year that he was developing TV shows based on his own movie The People Under the Stairs, and the comic book Disciples. While we wait for more developments on those projects, in the wake of Wes Craven's untimely death, take a look at our breakdown of his nine most memorable films.
1 A Nightmare on Elm Street - 1984
After his feature debut with The Last House on the Left, in 1972, Wes Craven went on to make The Hills Have Eyes, Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing, which were all well-received by horror fans, but his career was launched into the stratosphere with 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street. The filmmaker was inspired by a news report that chronicled a number of teenagers who died in their sleep after suffering horrific nightmares, despite having no history of mental illness. The look of his iconic Freddy Krueger character was inspired by a hobo who the director saw staring at him through his window, when he was just 10 years old. The film's success actually saved New Line Cinema from bankruptcy, taking in over $25 million from a $1.8 million budget, earning the studio the nickname "The House That Freddy Built."
The film marked the acting debut of a 21-year-old Johnny Depp, but, oddly enough, Johnny Depp didn't even audition for the role of Glen Lantz, at first. The young actor was spotted by the director while he was accompanying his longtime friend, Jackie Earle Haley, to his audition. The filmmaker asked him to read for a role, which he ended up winning. Although Jackie Earle Haley didn't win a role, in an ironic twist of fate, he ended up playing Freddy Krueger himself in New Line's 2010 A Nightmare on Elm Street remake. Despite not even intending to audition, Johnny Depp beat out a number of young actors who would also go on to become huge stars in their own right. Others who tried out for the role include Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, Brad Pitt, Kiefer Sutherland, Nicolas Cage and C. Thomas Howell. A Nightmare on Elm Street also launched the career of Heather Langenkamp, who beat out a number of notable actresses for the Nancy Thompson role, including Jennifer Grey, Demi Moore, Courteney Cox and Tracey Gold. 12 years later, Courteney Cox would star in the filmmaker's biggest hit, Scream.
2 Scream - 1996
After directing films for 24 years, at the age of 57, Wes Craven had his first $100 million film with the horror movie parody Scream. Working with just a $14 million budget, Scream earned $103 million domestically and $70 million internationally for a worldwide box office tally of $173 million. Kevin Williamson's edgy script about a group of teens fleeing from a masked killer was able to blend horror and comedy so efficiently, influencing scores of horror-comedies that we still see today. Wes Craven went on to direct the sequels Scream 2 (1997), Scream 3 (2000) and what would end up being his last feature film, Scream 4 (2011). The franchise's legacy still lives on to this day, with MTV's Scream TV series, which debuted in late June and has already been renewed for a second season.
Although it ended up being one of the biggest hits in his career, Wes Craven almost turned down the chance to direct Kevin Williamson's script, since he was trying to distance himself from the horror genre. Robert Rodriguez, Danny Boyle, George A. Romero and Sam Raimi were offered the chance to direct, but Kevin Williamson felt that the filmmakers didn't "get" his script, as most of them thought it was a straight-up comedy. Thankfully, Wes Craven eventually signed on, reinventing the horror genre once again in the process.
As we mentioned before, Wes Craven didn't direct any of the sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street, but this is the only follow-up he was involved with as a writer and executive producer. While it isn't known how involved Wes Craven was in the casting process, this sequel marked the feature film debut of Patricia Arquette. It also marked the first feature writing credit for Frank Darabont, who was credited alongside Wes Craven, Bruce Wagner and director Chuck Russell. The story followed those who survived Freddy Krueger's attacks banding together to fight this nefarious villain. The sequel was the first movie in the franchise to open at #1 at the box office, grossing $44.7 million throughout its theatrical run. Wes Craven's original concept for this horror sequel involved Freddy invading the real world, haunting the actors who starred in his movies. This premise was eventually rejected by New Line, although Wes Craven ended up turning it into another movie on our list, New Nightmare.
4The Hills Have Eyes - 1977
After his impressive debut with The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven solidified his place as a director to watch with his 1977 follow-up The Hills Have Eyes. The filmmaker considers this story an homage to Tobe Hooper's original classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, following a family on vacation who are targeted by a brutal clan of savages after being trapped in the Nevada desert. In fact, many of the props from the twisted family's cave actually came from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, since art director Robert A. Burns worked on both projects. The film was originally given an X rating when submitted to the MPAA, forcing the director to make enough cuts to secure an R rating, but it is believed that his original cut is no longer in existence. Wes Craven went on to direct the 1985 sequel The Hills Have Eyes Part II, and he served as an executive producer on the 2006 remake The Hills Have Eyes and its 2007 follow-up The Hills Have Eyes 2.
5The Serpent and the Rainbow - 1988
By the time the late 1980s rolled around, the zombie movie genre had seemingly run out of steam. So, naturally, it seemed to be a perfect time for Wes Craven to revitalize the genre with 1988's The Serpent and the Rainbow, which is still considered by many to be one of the scariest zombie movies of all time, and one of the director's very best offerings. Just one year after starring in the hit spoof comedy Spaceballs, Bill Pullman signed on to play Dennis Alan, an anthropologist who heads to Haiti to investigate a secret drug used by voodoo practitioners that turns people into zombies. Surprisingly, unlike his previous bouts with the MPAA, the filmmaker was given an R rating on its first submission, but that doesn't mean the project was without its difficulties. During the middle of production in Haiti, the country's government informed the cast and crew that they could no longer guarantee their safety, due to a political uprising, so they were forced to move to the Dominican Republic for the remainder of the shoot.
6Shocker - 1989
Shocker is one of the director's many films that wasn't received very well upon its initial release, but went on to gain a devoted cult following. In fact, Shout! Factory is releasing a Blu-ray collector's edition on September 8. Mitch Pileggi, who would go on to play Walter Skinner in Fox's The X-Files just a few years later, stars as serial killer Horace Pinkner, who is sentenced to death via electrocution. The electricity that caused his death ended up bringing him back to life, as he goes on a quest for revenge against young football player Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg), who turned him in. Many fans note that the "dream" connection between Jonathan and Horace is similar to A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it still remains a favorite of Wes Craven fans to this day. With the new Blu-ray release, it will likely bring even more fans into this already sizeable cult following.
7 The Last House on the Left - 1972
The Last House on the Left is the one that started it all for Wes Craven, but fans may not know that it also helped launch the careers of two other filmmakers. Sean S. Cunningham, who only had one producing credit to his name at the time, served as a producer on this film, eight years before he went on to start a new horror franchise by directing the first Friday the 13th. Steve Miner, who directed Friday the 13th Part 2 and Friday the 13th Part III, also had an uncredited role as a "Hippie Taunting Deputy." The gruesome story, which centers on a pair of teenage girls who are abducted on the way to a rock concert, lead to the film being banned for over 30 years in England and Australia. Like many of his films, The Last House on the Left was remade in 2009, starring Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Garret Dillahunt and Aaron Paul.
8 The People Under the Stairs - 1991
Wes Craven put a unique twist on the home invasion sub-genre with 1991's The People Under the Stairs, which went on to earn $31 million worldwide from a $6 million production budget. This thriller centered on a young boy (Brandon Quintin Adams) who breaks into a house with two adults, only to discover a twisted pair of siblings who were "raising" their own "children" under the stairs. As is the case with many of the director's films, the plot was inspired by a true story of burglars who had broken into a house. When the cops arrived, the burglars were nowhere to be found, but they did find a number of children who were locked in their rooms, never allowed to go outside by their parents. Back in April, we reported that the filmmaker signed a deal with Unviersal Cable Productions to develop a TV series based on this film, with Michael Reisz (Shadowhunters, Unforgettable) writing the script.
9 New Nightmare - 1994
After 1987's A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, New Line pumped out three more sequels in consecutive years, 1988's A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and 1989's A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, which ended up being the last in the original series. Wes Craven came back to put a new spin on the franchise, and the horror genre in and of itself with 1994's New Nightmare, which deconstructed the entire genre, featuring franchise stars Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, John Saxon and even Wes Craven playing versions of themselves, as a demonic force uses the Freddy Krueger character as a portal into our real world. The film was nominated for Best Feature at the 1995 Independent Spirit Awards, and lead to his biggest hit, 1996's Scream. While New Nightmare didn't fare quite as well at the box office as the last two sequels, it's considered by many to be essential viewing in the Wes Craven canon.
Bonus Movie - Deadly Friend - 1986
You didn't think we could stop at just nine Wes Craven movies, did you? The director followed up A Nightmare on Elm Street with the 1986 film Deadly Friend, where he toyed with sci-fi elements for the first time. The story follows a young boy (Matthew Laborteaux) who uses the chip from his destroyed robot BB to save the life of his new neighbor Samantha (Kristy Swanson), who has become brain-dead after her abusive father pushed her down a flight of stairs. The film came out a few months after Kristy Swanson's other two hit films that year, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Just a few years later, she would go on to star in the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Deadly Friend is often overlooked in Wes Craven's filmography, taking in just $8.9 million during its theatrical release, but now is a perfect time to revisit it, or check it out for the first time.
Bonus TV Episodes - The Twilight Zone
Between 1985 and 1986, Wes Craven directed five episodes of the 1980s version of The Twilight Zone, including the pilot Shatterday/A Little Peace and Quiet, which featured one of the first starring roles for Bruce Willis, just after he landed Moonlighting. Another episode, Dealer's Choice, featured an early performance from Morgan Freeman, four years before his breakthrough turn in 1989's Lean on Me. Her Pilgrim Soul featured one of Gary Cole's first performances, along with a young Danica McKellar in her acting debut, just three years before landing the role of Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years. The last episode he directed, The Road Less Traveled, was written by none other than Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin in 1986, 10 years before he would publish his first A Song of Ice and Fire novel, entitled Game of Thrones. The collaborators he worked with on these handful of episodes is nothing short of astounding.