Wes Craven is on the short list of modern horror movie masters, having cornered the market on innovative, genre-defining films since the 1970s. Few people have had as big an impact in shaping modern horror as he's had, directing landmark films that have set the tone for three separate decades of genre moviemaking.
Craven never went to film school -- instead earning a Master's degree in writing and philosophy from Johns Hopkins University -- in part because his strict family upbringing had taught him to be wary of the corrupting influence of movies. Ironically, his directorial debut, The Last House on the Left, would be one of the most graphic and controversial works of the 1970s.
Having broken into film as a sound editor for Sean Cunningham (who would later direct Friday the 13th), Craven wrote, directed and edited Last House in 1972, with Cunningham producing. A horrific tale of rape, murder and revenge based on Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, the movie was budgeted at less than $100,000 and went on to earn over $3 million in the US. Though controversial (it has yet to be released uncut in the UK), it, along with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre two years later, helped set the stage for a new level of realism and brutality in horror movies that fed into the "slasher" explosion of the '80s.
With his next film, 1977's The Hills Have Eyes, Craven expanded the scope of the graphic exploitation with which he'd found success. The story of a vacationing family tormented by cannibalistic mutants scored a bigger box office and bigger influence over the horror landscape. The film earned enough of a cult status that Craven helmed a sequel in 1985, and when exploitation made a comeback in the 21st century as so-called "torture porn," he produced a remake in 2006 and a sequel to the remake in 2007. None of the later films stirred up as much controversy as the original, proving how far ahead of his time Craven was.
The early '80s became a breeding ground for violent slasher movies, but all too often they were mere carbon copies of the benchmark films, Halloween and Friday the 13th. Craven, however, proposed a bold new vision in 1984 with A Nightmare on Elm Street, a supernatural tale whose villain, Freddy Krueger, invaded victims' dreams. This setup provided the director the opportunity to craft eye-popping visual effects with limitless imagination, breathing new life into the slasher genre and generating seven sequels to date.
Craven's penchant for horrific dreamscapes continued in the late '80s with The Serpent and the Rainbow and Shocker. The former explored the ancient traditions of Haitian voodoo while the latter delved into our modern dependence on technology, but both featured the director's otherworldly visual touch and surreal exploration into alternate realities.
Then, in 1994, he returned to his original dream world with Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Having had little to do with the Elm Street sequels to this point, he brought the series, which had become increasingly cartoonish, back to its dark roots. He further pushed the creative envelope by casting actors from the films as themselves and having Freddy haunt them in "real life," a blurring of reality that hinted at the direction Craven would later take in the Scream franchise.
In the early '90s, Craven continued his renegade streak by directing a pair of films with primarily African-American casts. Black horror movies had been rare since the '70s "blaxploitation" era ended and were practically nonexistent among major theatrical releases. While Vampire in Brooklyn was a straightforward vampire story featuring Eddie Murphy, The People Under the Stairs was a twisted fairly tale that had a distinct sociopolitical agenda relevant to African Americans.
By the '90s, the slasher genre had become stale, with so many clichés that it was ripe for parody. Recognizing this, Craven delivered Scream, a self-aware slasher film containing in-jokes about the conventions of such movies -- once again blurring the boundary between what is real and what appears on the screen. Scream was a smash hit, earning over $100 million domestically and spawning two popular sequels, which Craven also directed. It also spawned a series of mostly inferior copycat whodunits, from Valentine to the Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer series.
The success of the Scream franchise afforded Craven the freedom to explore genres outside of horror, from the drama Music of the Heart to the action thriller Red Eye. However, he hasn't abandoned the genre that made him famous. He's continued to produce a steady stream of horror releases, such as Wishmaster, Dracula 2000 and Feast, winner of the reality TV competition Project Greenlight. Plus, his production company, Midnight Pictures, has dedicated itself to remaking or creating sequels to several of his own movies, including The People Under the Stairs, Shocker and The Last House on the Left -- appropriately, returning the director back to where he started.
Select Horror Filmography:
- Scream 4 (2011)
- My Soul to Take (2010)
- The Hills Have Eyes II (2007) [Producer]
- Pulse (2006) [Writer]
- The Breed (2006) [Executive Producer]
- The Hills Have Eyes (2006) [Producer]
- Cursed (2005)
- Feast (2005) [Executive Producer]
- Dracula 2000 (2000) [Executive Producer]
- Scream 3 (2000)
- Scream 2 (1997)
- Wishmaster (1997) [Executive Producer]
- Scream (1996)
- Mind Ripper (1995/I) [Executive Producer]
- Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)
- New Nightmare (1994)
- Nightmare Cafe [TV series] (1992)
- The People Under the Stairs (1991)
- Night Visions (1990)
- Shocker (1989)
- The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
- The Twilight Zone [TV series] (1985-1986)
- Deadly Friend (1986)
- The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985)
- Chiller (1985)
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
- Invitation to Hell (1984)
- Swamp Thing (1982)
- Deadly Blessing (1981)
- The Evolution of Snuff (1978)
- Summer of Fear (1978)
- The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
- The Last House on the Left (1972)