Wes Craven, Master of Horror: Looking Back at his Best Scenes from Three Decades of Reinventing the Genre
30 Days of Horror
The entertainment industry was dealt a devastating blow when legendary horror movie director Wes Craven passed away at age 76. Craven created some of the most memorable villains in horror films and it is impossible to understate the impact he had on the genre as a whole – from his provocative 1970’s boundary-pushing indie films to the commercially viable franchises he later launched. Though Craven is probably best known for writing and directing A Nightmare On Elm Street, he also inspired a wave of backwoods horror films with Last House on the Left and launched the wildly successful Scream franchise with the help of scribe Kevin Williamson. Throughout his career, Wes Craven continued to find ways to reinvent the horror genre and his revolutionary work will undoubtedly continue to inspire filmmakers for years to come. Let’s look back at some of his most terrifying scenes from three different stages of his career.
Wes Craven’s Best Scenes
The Last House On The Left
Krug’s Company Killing Phyllis
Loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, Last House on the Left follows two teenage girls (on route to score some weed before a rock concert), who cross paths with a makeshift family of rootless criminals who abduct, torture, rape and brutally murder the girls. Last House is a cutthroat, bleak cautionary tale, presented in an honest, albeit provocative, way. Unlike Sam Peckingpaw’s Straw Dogs (made a year earlier), Craven never glorifies the violence in Last House On The Left. Not a single frame is set in slow motion or over-styled for the sake of making it look cool. Instead, the audience is forced to confront the atrocities directly – and the initial rape/murder sequence of the teenage girls ends with one of the most unforgettable and chilling moments in any genre film. Once the killers realize they’ve gone too far, the audience clearly sees the remorse on their faces. Last House is a ruthlessly violent film, but one that still unnerves audiences today.
The Last House on the Left
The twist in Last House on the Left comes in the second half of the film when the criminals try to find shelter and wind up at the house of the family of one of two victims. In classic backwoods-horror style, the parents quickly clue in that they are in the presence of the perpetrators, and take justice into their own hands, only their revenge is even more barbaric than the crimes committed against their daughter. The final half achieves its unshakable effect through a combination of such things as oral sex, disembowelment, and death by chainsaw.
The Last House on the Left emerged a few years after the Manson Family massacre and in the wake of the Vietnam war, and Craven intended it to be an evaluation of the decay of American Culture, onscreen violence, class divides and the naivete of the free-love-hippie era. Critics who protested about the level of violence were misunderstanding Craven’s intentions. Last House was extremely graphic, but the violence is never played for thrills. The violence, after all, is the central theme of the film.
The Hills Have Eyes
The Trailer Sequence
Wes Craven’s blood-and-bone thriller about an all-American family at the mercy of cannibal mutants in the middle of the Nevada desert is unrelenting, gritty, dark, and downright disturbing at times. Much like Sam Peckinpah’s classic, Straw Dogs, it becomes increasingly difficult to watch the nice family being terrorized. Not for the squeamish, the 1977 shocker’s most horrifying segment is, without a doubt, the trailer raiding scene, where the young Brenda Carter (Suze Lanier-Bramlett) is defined by the feral savage Pluto (Michael Berryman) as another one of the savages breaks into the trailer and tortures the women of the family, all while trying to kidnap their baby. Craven’s willingness to prolong the sequence of torture caused the MPAA to award his film with their dreaded “X” rating. Even when watching the scene present day, it is easy to see why.
A Nightmare On Elm Street
Visually, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a real treat hovering somewhere between gothic, supernatural imagery and the typical 80’s slasher fare. Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin’s work here is innovative and atmospheric, capturing a malevolent mood with light and shadow, most notably in the surrealistic basement scenes set around the furnace. Like so many films of this genre, its artistic ingenuity is intensified with various bloody set-pieces and visual effects. A Nightmare on Elm Street boasts several impressively conceived and well-executed dream/kill sequences and during production, over 500 gallons of fake blood were used for the special effects production. The special effects, most of which are low-tech, are surprisingly effective, and it should also be noted that this was the first film to use a breakaway mirror.
Craven’s probing of the waking/dreaming barrier results in some memorable kill sequences. Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) death scene, which featured her trashing across the ceiling, was partly inspired by the movie Royal Wedding (1951), which was the first movie to use a rotating set. The set for A Nightmare On Elm Street slowly spun to allow Tina to roll into position, with a camera bolted to the wall and a cameraman strapped into a chair beside it, which turned in tandem with the room. For the two shots where Rod (Jsu Garcia) and Tina reach out for one another, Tina is actually lying on the floor and Garcia is hanging upside down with his hair pasted to stay flat. It’s important to remember that this was a low budget film shot in 30 days and yet somehow Wes Craven and his team were able to pull off the impossible.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
FX man Jim Doyle was responsible for designing and constructing the ingenious full-scale gyro rotating room which was again used for Johnny Depp’s kill. For the famous blood geyser sequence, the furniture, cameraman, director, and actor were fixed in place, and the room would spin upside down, thus allowing the rigged room to appear right side up while thousands of gallons of fake blood would seem to gush, erupt and ejaculate from the bed. On the DVD commentary, Wes Craven remarks that the room spinning the wrong way was like a “Ferris Wheel from hell.” This scene was partly inspired by the elevator scene in The Shining.
A Nightmare On Elm Street
The Famous Bathtub Scene
Another effective scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street is when Nancy is attacked by Krueger in her bathtub and pulled under the water into a pitch-black pool leading to a back alley chase where Freddy stalks her. To achieve this effect, the tub was put in a bathroom set that was built over a swimming pool. During this underwater sequence, Heather Langenkamp was replaced with a stuntwoman.
Also, worth noting is the melting staircase as seen in Nancy’s dream, which was created using pancake mix and directed by Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham (who for whatever reason, is uncredited). Finally, the sequence in which Freddy is set on fire, shot in one long take (with several cameramen), featured one hell of an elaborate and dangerous stunt by stuntman Anthony Cecere (who won the best stunt of the year for his work).
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Horror maven Wes Craven stepped away from his usual slasher movie milieu with The Serpent and the Rainbow, a thriller loosely based on a true story. Adapted from the book of the same name by Wade Davis, the film follows an anthropologist on a trip to Haiti after hearing rumours about a drug used by black magic practitioners to turn people into Zombies. Depending largely on psychological horror, and working from a screenplay by Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun, Craven whips up some truly memorable dream sequences, some unsettling poetic images, and a host of visual metaphors — rather than the usual splatter shocks and special effects that made him famous. Craven doesn’t hold back and lets loose an assault of surreal and horrific images including a zombie bride, demonic possession, and a startling scene with Bill Pullman waking up next to a decapitated human head. The opening scene alone, where a needle is poked inside a corpse’s eyeball is enough to make your shriek — but perhaps the scariest moment is when Dennis (Bill Pullman) slowly slips into a comatose state before being buried alive.
The People Under The Stairs
The Bathtub Scene
Wes Craven wrote and directed The People Under the Stairs, a surrealistic horror-comedy, which was inspired by a true story about parents keeping their children locked in a basement for years. The People Under the Stairs is an unusual beast — a mix of classic horror mysteries and the spate of cannibal-family horror films that followed on the heels of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s success. It’s a very strange film indeed, tackling issues of child abuse, incest, capitalism, socioeconomic divides, and race relations in equal measure. Craven offers a number of weird scenes including the outlandish image of Everett McGill running around the house dressed head-to-toe in studded black leather bondage gear while wielding a shotgun. But the moment that stands out the most is the scene where the crazed Mrs. Robeson violently throws her teenage daughter Alice (A.J. Langer) into a steaming bathtub and begins scrubbing her body with a wire brush. The performances combined with Craven’s energetic direction make it a scene most horror fans will get a kick out of.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is not just another cash grab in a series of increasingly silly sequels, but rather, a startling and original reinvent of the series and a movie that would inspire Craven’s next big franchise, Scream. Craven sets this version in the ‘real’ world where the original is only a film and the original star Heather Langenkamp is playing herself (along with Wes Craven, Robert Englund, John Saxon, and various New Line Cinema executives). It’s a movie within a movie and much like the original film, New Nightmare has some standout scenes of horror— but the best scene without a doubt calls back to the original film and features a rotating set in the hospital room as Langenkamp tries to save young Dylan (Miko Hughes) from the deadly claws of Freddy. Even though New Nightmare isn’t quite as scary as the original made ten years prior, the entire production is steeped in an unsettling atmosphere thanks partly to the special effects team supervised by William Mesa who all did a superb job.
The Opening Scene
By now, most cinephiles are familiar with the famous opening scene in Wes Craven’s Scream. Written by screenwriter Kevin Williamson, Scream is a brilliant deconstruction of the horror genre — canny, witty, and surprisingly effective as a slasher film itself. Williamson, who was then a novice screenwriter with no prior experience, was shopping around a spec script for Scream (originally titled Scary Movie). The screenplay became the subject of a bidding war between various studios overnight and Williamson wisely sold the rights to Dimension Films who handled the project with loving care.
Scream was an unexpected smash hit in 1996, revitalizing the horror genre and inspiring a new generation of self-knowing teen slasher films and when it was released, the scene everyone couldn’t stop talking about was the prologue which lasts thirteen minutes and is so good, it could easily exist as a short film in itself. We all know how it plays out — viewers are quickly introduced to Casey (Drew Barrymore), an all-American girl who’s in her kitchen making popcorn in preparation for watching a scary movie. The phone rings, and there’s a mysterious voice on the other end who invites her to play a game. We all know how it ends, but what most people don’t know is that Drew Barrymore had signed on to play Sidney Prescott, the resilient “final girl,” but after reading the script, she asked Craven if she could switch parts and play Casey instead. When Scream premiered in theaters, the poster featured a close-up of Drew Barrymore’s face, and her name appeared on all the promotional materials, leading audiences to believe that she was the film’s protagonist. The unexpected death of Drew Barrymore’s Casey took audiences by surprise and Scream went on to become the most talked-about movie of 1996.
The opening scene was filmed in sequence over the course of about a week. In order to keep Barrymore in character while receiving those mysterious phone calls, Craven kept actor Roger Jackson (the voice of Ghostface) in a separate location, where he could watch the action through a monitor. The first scene was modeled after the underrated When A Stranger Calls, only this time the actress with top billing wouldn’t survive past the opening credits. Indeed, Alfred Hitchcock had used the same trick to great effect in 1960’s Psycho, stunning audiences when lead actress Janet Leigh’s character was murdered halfway through the film, but nobody had repeated this trick since.
From the opening close-up of a ringing telephone to the final stab, the prologue is pitch-perfect. Craven relied on a Steadicam operator to follow the actress through the large house and while the location at first starts off bright and spacious, the corridors and the rooms slowly become darker and narrower as Casey becomes increasingly more frightened. Of course, what follows is a defining moment of the entire franchise: I’m of course speaking of the willful acknowledgment of horror movie cliches, something that also caught audiences off guard. From here on out, the final five minutes of the prologue is essentially a cat and mouse chase, until Casey has nowhere left to run and is “ripped open from end to end”. In those final seconds, Craven teases the audience by not showing the killer’s face when Casey pulls down his mask. And knowing that she was only seconds away before her parents came home only added salt to the wounds.
Also worth quickly noting is Marco Beltrami’s incredible score. A relatively unknown composer at the time, Beltrami skilfully masks the fact that budgetary restrictions meant he had a relatively small orchestra to work with and yet he provided a killer soundtrack that would launch his career.
As with the first film, Scream 2 is a fun deconstruction of horror movie conventions and manages to poke fun at terrible sequels without falling victim to the same fate. Scream 2 opens approximately two years after the original and as in the first picture, there’s a great prologue to kick things off. Scream 2 opens on a movie within the movie, based on the events of the first Scream film, wherein Heather Graham stands in for Casey Becker and Tori Spelling plays Sidney Prescott in a film titled Stab. Watching the movie-within-a-movie is Phil (Omar Epps) and Maureen (Jada Pinkett Smith) who quickly find themselves victim to a copycat killer running loose in the movie theater. The fabulous opening not only perfectly encapsulates the meta-fictional work that screenwriter Kevin Williamson is famous for but it perfectly parodies the original Scream while raising the scare factor by having Maureen literally murdered in front of a packed house of innocent bystanders. As stipulated by one of the “rules of sequels” uttered by Randy, the body count in Scream 2 is higher than that in the original, and the opening scene is just the start of what is by far, a bloodier film.
Cat & Mouse Chase in the Film School
There’s a reason why Randy Meeks is the fan favourite of the Scream series, and while I could easily list several great scenes with the cinephile boasting his cinematic knowledge (such as when he debates the merits of sequels and explains the rules during film class), this list is really about Wes Craven’s direction and not Kevin Williamson’s screenplays. While the original Scream features the iconic opening as listed above, the rest of the film was pretty standard stuff when it comes to the slasher genre. Scream 2 however, aspires to a lot more than slasher fare which explains why this list features more scenes from the sequel.
The fictionalized movie based on a “real” incident that in fact exists only on celluloid is pretty great, but as much as I love the opening listed above, it doesn’t quite have the level of nail-biting suspense found in the foot chase through the university.
Handsomely shot by Peter Deming, with an eerily unsettling score from Marco Beltrami, the cat & mouse game follows reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and officer Dewey (David Arquette) who are chased by Ghostface through the long corridors of the auditorium until taking shelter in a university radio station where Dewey finds himself trapped in a soundproof booth where Gale, with her back turned towards him on the other side of the glass, can’t hear him crying out for help while he’s being repeatedly stabbed in the guts.
The Car Crash
Last on the list is a simple but effective scene in which Wes Craven displays his skill as a master of suspense. After a terrible car crash, Sidney and Hallie must crawl over an unconscious Ghostface in order to get out of the stolen cop car. The sequence lasts nearly four minutes and takes place entirely within the confines of the vehicle, and yet, Craven sets up various cameras from dozens of angles to try and capture just how difficult it is for these two girls to climb out, without waking up the killer.