Top Ten, Wes Craven

Wes Craven: The Definitive Ranking

I was really disappointed in Wes Craven’s career. I knew of the highlights before embarking on the whole journey, but I didn’t expect pretty much everything outside of those highlights to be something close to dreck. What makes it most frustrating is that his earliest films, horror films made because they were the only things he could get financing for, demonstrate a real attempt to intellectualize concepts through the horror genre. He felt like someone who could elevate the genre, but he simply never mastered the fundamental mechanics of storytelling.

That lack of understanding of the particulars of how stories come together undermined effort after effort. His best work that he wrote almost feel like accidents while the rest are simply scripts by others he didn’t mess up. The one work that felt like the best combination of another writer’s efforts and Craven’s cinematic abilities was The Serpent and the Rainbow, an effort he never tried to follow up on stylistically.

Of course, his work on the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises has firmly planted him on a pedestal in the minds of many genre lovers, but his weaknesses are simply too manifest, obvious, and pervasive for me to hold him up anywhere close to someone like John Carpenter who, while he might not have hit homeruns with every film, understood cinematic storytelling on a level that Craven simply didn’t. A large part of that is that Craven had no formal cinematic education, but he also didn’t seem to have much of an informal one, not even seeing a movie until he was a teenager.

Still, I went through it all, including his television movies, and I have ranked them, as is my wont. Do check out my other definitive lists for their definitiveness.

24. The Hills Have Eyes II

“There is nothing to this film. From a basic narrative point of view, it’s dead on arrival. From a visceral, just enjoy the gore, point of view, there’s literally nothing to enjoy. There’s barely even any T&A. This is probably the worst movie of Craven’s career, and I can see why he would disown it.”

23. Shocker

“The ending here is just embarrassing and nonsensical, making all the narrative frustrations leading up to it not worthwhile in the least.”

22. Summer of Fear

“Really, this is kind of embarrassing. Linda Blair is okay in it, and I think she might be the highlight of the film. That’s kind of sad. I don’t dislike Blair at all, but she was pretty much sleepwalking through this. And she’s the highlight. Sad.”

21. My Soul to Take

“None of it is interesting. None of it matters. This movie is dumb.”

20. Swamp Thing

“It’s not very fun, not very involving, and not very good.”

19. Night Visions

“It’s honestly awful. It feels like Craven trying to stretch out from movies, which, after Shocker, he seems to have grown really tired of, and into television, but his move is outright terrible.”

18. Chiller

“This isn’t Craven’s worst film, but it’s near the bottom. That first thirty minutes or so is intriguing and ends with a bit of a bang of a body horror spectacle that is actually quite creepy. Everything after that is just dull, plodding, and formless.”

17. Scream 2

“I really disliked this film. The meta stuff does worse than nothing, it actually points out the failings of the film. The emotional center of the first film, Sidney, has been watered down to nothing because the film isn’t about her but about tricking the audience.”

16. The People Under the Stairs

“Unfunny, unscary, incoherent, and uninvolving, The People Under the Stairs joins the ignominious ranks of some of Wes Craven’s worst work.”

15. Scream 4

“This was Wes Craven’s last film, and it’s sadly an appropriate one. He brought nothing to the film except a base technical skill that was probably as much a source from his technical team than him. It’s really just Williamson’s script, warts and all, brought to the screen.”

14. Vampire in Brooklyn

“Apparently caught between Murphy’s image as a comedian, that he both couldn’t let himself escape and wanted to escape at the same time, the film tries to be both, and Craven simply didn’t have the skill to wed the two together. What that ends up creating is a tedious experience as we wade through a dull script, hitting comedic moments that don’t really hit and clash with everything else around it, and guess the ending a long time before it arrives with nothing else to engage us along the way. It’s not exactly Craven’s worst film, but it is definitely a drag.”

13. The Last House on the Left

“I can see a certain, very rough promise in store for Wes Craven in his first film, but it cannot rise above its exploitation roots. He’s trying, but he’s not yet in a place where he can make it work yet.”

12. Deadly Friend

“Without the bloody violence, this might have been a weird but passable entertainment. With the bloody violence, it gains the dimension of the guffaw which neither elevates nor degrades the rest of the film. It’s an odd duck in this final form, though I would be somewhat curious in the original (which seems to have been lost).”

11. Cursed

“It’s definitely not Craven’s worst work, but it’s kind of in line with what I would expect from the Williamson/Craven team at this point.”

10. Music of the Heart

“Anyway, the film is fine. It’s okay. It’s not bad, and it’s not particularly good. Streep is good in the role that anchors a lot of it, but the storytelling is so fractured across time and subplots that there’s no real digging into anything to can provide emotional catharsis by the end. It’s really the sort of end product I might expect from a television director making one of their first efforts into feature films, and I think it demonstrates some of Wes Craven’s major limits on his abilities. He had visions of doing more than horror, but horror was where his ability seems to have fit best.”

9. Scream 3

“Still, it’s decent. It’s not good, but it didn’t aggravate me like the second one. It also leaves the meta elements on the table as little more than window dressing (Jamie Alexander coming back as Randy in a video taped message about the rules of trilogies is so unbelievable as to reach the point of parody). I’ve never been that enamored of the meta elements of this series, but this felt like the film, in the beginning, that could most take advantage of it. It doesn’t, though. Meh. It’s decent.”

8. The Hills Have Eyes

“Anyway, I would never go so far as to call this good, but it’s an advancement on Craven’s ability. The characters, while too many, are a bit better fleshed out in thanks to the longer runtime and less attention paid to exploitative elements. In terms of basic horror thrills, it delivers well enough while its going. It’s not bad, but it’s nothing particularly special either.”

7. Deadly Blessing

“It’s not some lost masterpiece by Craven, nor is it nearly as unwatchable as Summer of Fear. It’s a somewhat acceptable mixture between a character piece and thriller with an ending to write home about.”

6. Invitation to Hell

“Still, that ending is something else. I kind of loved it. It really wasn’t enough to save the whole film, it’s simply too dull up to that point to save, but I think it comes reasonably close. If you can make it through the first hour, there’s something special towards the end.”

5. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

“Wes Craven really stretched here, and, like always, I feel like he could have used a strong writing partner to help craft the ideas into something more solid. I would say the messiness is a virtue, but he gets kind of lost in the middle with the concern over Dylan. If I could change anything it would be to diminish the concern over the child and refocus it more fully on Heather herself with Dylan’s safety being a supporting mechanism to the terror instead of having it be the alternating focus. It muddles and drags down the middle as it is. However, the beginning and final half hours are really good, enough to raise the whole film to a messy, but satisfying and ambitious, entry in the franchise.”

4. Scream

“As it is, the film is a solid outing from a clever script handled professionally by someone who’d been making movies for more than twenty years. It’s entertaining, and it even works on multiple viewings. It doesn’t have the promise of Craven’s earlier quality work, but it entertains well.”

3. Red Eye

“This is a short, simple film without a whole lot to say. It’s a solidly entertaining thriller, and it could have been a window to Wes Craven finding a new direction for the final stage of his career. That’s not where he went, though.”

2. The Serpent and the Rainbow

“It helped that the script Richard Maxwell actually has the structure of escalating stakes that Elm Street lacked. It does lack the focus and tightness of Suspiria, but it’s still within the same ballpark.”

1. A Nightmare on Elm Street

“I really do like this film. I think it’s a good slasher with real imagination that takes horror seriously instead of just an excuse for gore, but I also feel like it could have really used another rewrite.

There’s real horror here, but it could have been just a bit more.”

25 thoughts on “Wes Craven: The Definitive Ranking”

  1. This series has been really educational. I’ve been aware of Craven for a long time, and have seen (I think) six or so of his films without really coming away with anything other than a shrug.

    But Craven always had the reputation of being an “intellectual horror director,” moreso than any other genre director, and I can see that that assessment was simply misplaced. He seemed like a competent craftsman (kept the film in focus, framed the right elements, cut at the right times, etc) but a mediocre writer who thought he was better than he was.

    Overall, an illuminating journey, though I imagine for you it was like “A ranking of burgers from the 12 most popular fast food restaurants.”

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    1. I walked in with similar preconceptions. Reading some of my reviews from his earliest movies, I was really ready for Craven to break out with great intellectual horror at some point. It just never happened.

      Very frustrating.

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  2. Interesting list, I’m surprised Craven’s TV movies ranked so high. Deadly Blessing was meh, apart from Sharon Stone’s rack, and Invitation to Hell did not live up to the cheese it started with…though dat ending…

    Likewise ‘Last House on the Left’ isn’t GOOD perhaps but it’s one of the examples of Craven actually making Horror instead of ‘movie product’.

    Likewise, I also mentally thought of Wes Craven as a ‘better’ horror creator but honestly…he only made a few movies that had real horror.

    And I still consider ‘Deadly Friend’ to be good horror story, even if it’s also a comedy at times.

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    1. The only thing that really buoyed Invitation to Hell was that ending. It was twenty minutes of interesting. I was probably too generous, but it being a top ten film in Craven’s body of work is an indictment of his body of work. Same with Deadly Blessing.

      Both were far better than Chiller or, ugh, Night Visions.

      I do wonder. If he had passed on Scream, would his reputation have been nearly as high as it is now? He’d essentially just have A Nightmare on Elm Street.

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