Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
It’s difficult to keep the name Wes Craven out of a serious discussion regarding horror films. While he, like most every other director, directed his share of mediocrities — Deadly Friend, anyone? — nearly every horror film he made has something to say as opposed to just trying to scare you. His filmmaking career lasted four decades, starting with The Last House on the Left in 1972, culminating in 2011’s Scream 4, and I’ve liked or loved almost all of his films, including his underrated non-genre effort, Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep. But what are the five best films Craven directed? Here are my picks…
5. Red Eye (2005)
While Craven is known for horror, and pretty much only horror, he has directed the occasional non-genre movie, including this thriller starring Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. This claustrophobic film is barely eighty minutes in length, allowing the audience to feel like they’re another passenger on that plane. The breathless pace made this memorable thriller feel like the work of a new kid on the block, not a forty-year veteran of the business.
4. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
While there are some interesting touches to be found in Craven’s first amateurish feature, it’s this second feature, the aptly titled The Hills Have Eyes, that really put him on the map in horror filmmaking. Everything about this movie screams the 1970s, but in a good way, with the grainy look of the 16mm film and the desolate terror of the desert landscape. Craven really works you in this one, allowing the audience to get settled with the family of main characters, before unleashing onto them a group of cannibalistic mutant creatures. This is Craven at his gleeful best.
3. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
While maybe not his all-time best or scariest film, New Nightmare might be his most ingenious. After five sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street, many of which lost the magic of the original, the head of New Line, Bob Shaye, asked Craven if he’d consider returning to the series with a new installment. What Craven decided to do might be considered a little head-scratching, but what he pulled off was nothing short of astonishing. Before the late 1990s, when all the horror movies got all self-referential, Craven made a film that looked at horror itself, in films and in real life. For any fan of the horror genre, this is a must-see.
2. Scream (1996)
This was a revolutionary horror film that literally started a new wave of horror films between 1997 and 2001; Scream is also just one heck of an entertaining movie. While it’s filled top to bottom with pop culture references, it isn’t dated in the least. Written over the course of a weekend by a hungry young horror writer looking for his big break, the script somehow made it into the hands of Craven, who at this point was starting to look outside the horror genre for inspiration, to sign on. The sequels all have their strong points, but the original is far and away the best, with the most subversive, hilarious writing in just about any popular horror film ever made.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The original. The incredible. Craven’s 1984 horror masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street took years to get made until the previous mentioned Bob Shaye, who ran a little-known, barely existing studio New Line Cinema at the time, took a chance on Craven and the script and made the super small-budgeted movie happen. In return he got a studio, and Craven made the finest, memorable, most genuinely terrifying film of his career. Freddy Krueger became a pop icon; Johnny Depp, appearing here in his first film role ever, became the number one superstar on the planet; and Craven, a guy who just wanted to tell a cool story, got to make his movie. Well done, sir.
Watching Like a Writer
There’s so much in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street that can help you with your writing. How to tackle dreams and nightmares in your fiction. How to write a kick-ass female heroine. How to develop tension and dread. But what maybe this film helps with the most when it comes to my writing is creating a unique and terrifying central antagonist. Freddy Krueger was inspired by a hobo who scared Craven as a child, and thus Craven gives the character in this film some memorably creepy qualities, a never-ending menace that sticks with the viewer long after he or she has watched the film. I want to create a character like Freddy Krueger in my horror fiction one day. Something truly original and frightening at the same time.
Think of a unique antagonist for a potential horror story you’re going to write. Who would it be? What would he or she look like? What would be the goal of your villain?