6. The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Science fiction fans who are aware that David Lynch was once asked to direct Return of the Jedi, sometimes ponder, “What if …?” Horror genre fans might similarly ask themselves, “What if (insert favorite horror director) made a children’s movie?” For Wes Craven, this was it.
A child protagonist, a quest for gold, a seemingly ordinary house riddled with traps, secret passages, and hidden allies to combat the over-the-top villains – The People Under the Stairs was sold as a straight horror film with a giant skull on the poster, but in reality, it’s much more funny and adventurous than that.
Made for a mere $6 million, Craven was allowed to make a darkly-comic fantasy in the tone of Hansel and Gretel, and he didn’t feel beholden to producers. The story follows Fool (Brandon Adams), a poor black kid living with a sick mother in a Los Angeles ghetto, as he breaks into a rich landlord’s mansion in search of a rumored treasure.
Ving Rhames plays Leroy, who enlists Fool’s help in the first place, and offers some comic relief early in the film. The real treat, depending on your rating of this film, comes from the sexually-repressed, villainous caricatures who are the landlord Robesons.
Though there are some frightening and sexual images in the film, it’s balanced with slapstick aspects like an electric doorknob zapping people or monstrous pitbull ramming its own head into a wall, only to pass out from a non-lethal shock. There is case to be made this is, by far, Craven’s most misunderstood picture, and as such, it welcomes a repeat viewing through a different lens.
7. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
The story behind New Nightmare, and the transition it marked for Wes Craven, are potentially more important than the film itself, which was the lowest grossing, yet most critically praised, of all Freddy’s excursions.
The tumult started with the first sequel. The original A Nightmare on Elm Street’s success saved New Line Cinema from bankruptcy. Bob Shaye, founder of the company, was eager to continue that success and decided (against Wes Craven’s will) to turn the film into a franchise. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) was born, and its vision of Freddy confused Craven – the new Freddy forced the film’s protagonist to kill people instead of doing it himself in their dreams.
So when New Line approached him to write the third film, he saw an opportunity to “right the ship” and secure profits from the sequels. His first pitch: make Freddy real. Have him torment the actors (not the characters) from the original movie, but this time in real life. New Line Cinema rejected that idea as being too meta, however, and it stayed in his head until – eight years later – he was able to bring it to life.
While it is criticized for its slow pacing, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare changed Freddy’s look and intention back to the darker, more cerebral villain Craven had originally imagined him to be. More importantly, it unveiled a new Wes Craven, whose interest in deconstructing the genre that made him famous would pay off very, very soon with a little script titled “Scary Movie.”
8. Scream (1996)
Known as “Scary Movie” in script form, Scream was part-homage, part-send-up of a genre that Wes Craven had been growing more and more disillusioned with, especially following the poor reception of New Nightmare a year earlier. The movie follows Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) as she attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of her mother one year earlier, and more importantly, the recent, seemingly related deaths of students all around her.
In the film, almost all of the main characters are seen as suspects by other characters, and plot twist aftet plot twist continue to change the film’s landscape until the very end reveals the true killer.
Quick-witted, and fast-moving, Craven’s Scream was by-and-large credited with revitalizing a sagging horror genre that had been weighed down by endless, mind-numbing sequels and poor production quality. That said, Craven turned the film down initially, ironically upset with the amount of misogyny and violence that was inherent in the genre that he helped create.
It wasn’t until Barrymore signed on to the film that he changed his mind, because at the time, it was highly unusual for successful actors and actresses to sign up for horror films. It was considered by some to be career suicide.
As an old adage says, “Hindsight is 20/20.” During filming, the smashing success of Scream was anything but assured. Craven often dealt with mistrust from Bob Weinstein, who disliked the iconic Scream mask, thinking that it wound not be scary.
After seeing dailies from the opening of the film, Dimension Studios also considered booting Craven from the project altogether, because they felt that it was too lighthearted. Unable to explain his vision properly, Craven and Editor Patrick Lussier created a rough workprint of the first 13 minutes and sent that in. Only then, did Dimension relent and give Craven their vote of confidence.
9. Music of the Heart (1999)
Craven, after the success of Scream, signed a three-film contract with Dimension – two of which were horror movies. The third property, however, was the one that sold him – the true story of Roberta Guaspari, a violin teacher in an inner city school. Craven, a former teacher and a fan of classical music, was instantly hooked. Madonna, originally slated to play Guaspari, dropped out and was replaced by Meryl Streep, at the insistence of Craven.
“It’s sort of a culmination of almost 30 years trying to do something outside of the genre,” said Craven. “Not because I don’t like the genre, but because I’m a person … an artist who wants to do a lot of different things. Just never before has that opportunity been presented.”
Music of the Heart disarmed traps indicative to the often melodramtic inner-city school genre, according to critics who praised it, by having the characters play the roles very straight and to-the-point, letting the story itself extract the tension and drama, instead of overacting for it. The final concert, especially, held an air of tension and payoff that was credited largely to Craven and his background in horror and thrillers.
Streep was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for her performance, yet Craven would only step away from the genre film only one additional time in the future, directing the short love-story “Pere-Lachaise” for the collection Paris Je’Taime in 2006.
10. Red Eye (2005)
Rachel McAdams stars as Lisa, a hotel manager flying home on the “red eye” after attending her grandmother’s funeral. She meets Cillian Murphy’s character, Jackson, with whom she shares some chemistry and romance until he reveals that he intends to use her in a terrorist plot to assassinate the head of Homeland Security. From that point, the game of cat and mouse begins as Lisa attempts to escape.
Red Eye is one divisive film. A quick search will turn up just as many 1-star reviews as it will 10-star reviews. The reason it makes an Essential Wes Craven list is for its sheer economy. At 85 minutes, Time Out’s Nigel Floyd sang its tight-quartered praises while simultaneously thanking Wes Craven for making a movie with very few special effects or cinematic tricks that out-thrilled the “Fantastic Fours and The Islands” of the time. Many notable critics echoed the sentiment.
Like Spike Lee’s taut thriller Inside Man (2006), Red Eye showcases a veteran director’s skills working with a tight script and talented actors, but also highlights his studious nature of what makes people afraid: “By trapping her on the plane with innocent people in peril, the villain puts her in a very vulnerable position. There are decent human beings all around her, but she can’t really tell them what’s going on.”
Author Bio: Shawn Hudson is a graduate student living in Asheville, NC. He loves all kinds of movies and grew up watching horror films, but in particular, his passion and time have recently been directed towards making his podcast, http://www.moviebombsquad.com, the best bad-movie-lovin’ show around. Follow the show on Twitter @Yoggins or at http://www.facebook.com/groups/moviebombsquad.