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6 times Wes Craven reinvented horror

Posted at 10:38 AM, Aug 31, 2015

Wes Craven — one of Hollywood’s most creative horror directors — died Sunday at the age of 76. But as with all successful filmmakers, Craven’s legacy will live on through the movies he crafted in a career that spanned more than 40 years.

Not only was Craven instrumental in a couple of the most popular horror franchises in history but he proved he could also make dramatic films in 1999, when he directed “Music of the Heart.” That movie earned two Academy Award nominations, including one for actress Meryl Streep.

But he seemed to be most comfortable making scary movies. Listed below are six times when Craven reinvented the horror genre.

“The Last House on the Left” (1972)
Written and directed by Wes Craven

Two years before “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” and six years before “Halloween” terrified people with gritty, in-your-face scares, Craven’s debut movie shocked audiences. It was a low-budget film about a pair of teenage girls who are kidnapped and terrorized by a group of criminals — and it made a killing at the box office.

In 1972, its depictions of rape and other sexual violence were controversial enough to get “The Last House on the Left” banned in some countries. Today, the movie is seen as influential in its unflinching style and has been praised by contemporary horror directors. In 2009, a remake was produced by Craven which topped the U.S. box office.

“The Hills Have Eyes” (1977)
Written and directed by Wes Craven

Craven’s gift for making hit movies out of grisly, offbeat subject matter continued to show in 1977 with “The Hills Have Eyes.” It follows a family who becomes stranded in the Nevada desert after their car breaks down, leaving them prey to a host of deformed and depraved cannibals. The plot and look of this movie are hardly inviting but audiences loved it, leading to a $25 million box office smash atop an estimated budget of less than $300,000.

According to Stephen King’s 1989 documentary “This is Horror,” Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes” was the first in a long line of scary movies to make onscreen references to other horror films. In 2006, a remake was produced by Craven and earned $69.6 million worldwide.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984)
Written and directed by Wes Craven

In 1984, Craven created one of the most iconic movie characters — and franchises — ever to hit cinemas, and in the process he reinvented the teen slasher genre. It’s hard to imagine a time before Freddy Krueger existed but this was his first appearance and the character’s popularity propelled “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to six sequels, a spinoff film and a 2010 remake.

The original was praised by critics and was one of 1984’s highest-grossing R-rated movies. It also marked the onscreen debut on Johnny Depp.

“Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (1994)
Written, directed and executive produced by Wes Craven

Ten years after “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” Craven surprised audiences by revisiting his most famous creation and making one of the most meta movies in Hollywood history. “New Nightmare” stars Heather Langenkamp as herself, the star of the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and follows her involvement in an upcoming sequel to the original film. Confusing, right?

While the plot — filled with constant references to the history of the franchise and a cameo by Craven himself — is a bit labyrinthine, “New Nightmare” scored points with critics for being an original take on the well-worn character of Freddy Krueger. The movie blurred the line between fiction and reality.

“Scream” (1996)
Directed by Wes Craven

In the early 1990s, horror seemed like a dying genre, as most scary movies were being released straight-to-video due to falling box office earnings. Today, many film historians cite Craven’s “Scream” as the film that rejuvenated horror.

This one follows a group of teenagers in a small town that is being terrorized by a serial killer who is evidently a horror buff. References to previous horror movies were common in Craven’s films but this 1996 box office smash took that practice to a new level and made the question, “What’s your favorite scary movie?,” frightening in itself. It inspired countless imitators and three sequels, all directed by Craven.

“Red Eye” (2005)
Directed by Wes Craven

In the years following 2004’s “Saw,” horror shifted from teen slasher movies to more gory fare that is commonly called “torture porn.” During that shift, Craven directed one of the most grown-up thrillers of the 2000s.

Red Eye” starred Rachel McAdams as the victim of a kidnapping/terrorism plot aboard a red-eye flight from Dallas to Miami. The film collected $95.5 million worldwide and was praised as a claustrophobic horror movie for post-9/11 America. It was the last PG-13-rated movie directed by Craven.

Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.