News of the death of Wes Craven from brain cancer has sent the community of horror fans into grief—and also remembrance of the director's many successes. A former academic who taught at the college level, Craven entered directing through uncredited gigs on porn, then by putting his name to the 1972 exploitation thriller The Last House on the Left, which he consciously modeled on Ingmar Bergman's Oscar-winning The Virgin Spring. A gunky, disturbing movie, Last House captures its post-Manson moment perfectly. It's not a film that gives you hope for human nature, as murderous hippies encounter something far worse: murderous suburban parents.
Craven will always be popular for Scream and its three sequels, all of which he directed. Those follow-up films were a mixed bag, but there's no denying the power of the first Scream (1996) and its smarty-pants teens who hope to outwit terror by knowing the "rules." In a way, Scream shows us the dawning influence of Quentin Tarantino, who recently admitted he would have liked to direct it himself. As long as Halloween is celebrated, you will see people dressed up as "Ghostface" (hat tip to Edvard Munch).
To these eyes, Craven has two all-time masterpieces: Red Eye (2005), though not strictly horror, is his most skillful bit of suspense-mongering, a film-long flirtation/chase between Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams, much of it on a plane. And A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) haunts our dreams forever. The gloss of the '80s sometimes gets a little thick, but the heart of the film's fear feels extremely fresh. In the movie's most disturbing moment, a mother (Ronee Blakley) tells a story of an evil man, saying, "He's dead now. He's dead because Mommy killed him. I even took his knives." The sins of the parents come back on the children. Craven knew how to get us.