If you felt your blood run cold last night, it was undoubtedly due to the passing of Wes Craven, the horror maestro who did perhaps more than any single filmmaker of the 20th century to influence and shape the “slasher” genre.
So now is the perfect time for you to cuddle under the blankets and let Netflix help you relive Wes Craven at his best.
If you’ve been remiss in getting to know your Craven filmography, or just haven’t watched any of his films for a while, Netflix is the perfect jumping-off point to see him at his best. And there’s even an unexpected twist: a well-received Craven film that’s not a horror film, starring Meryl Streep. Yep. Meryl Streep.
Let’s take a look.
Craven, a humanities professor who quit academia to go make movies, singlehandedly reinvented the genre no less than three times—starting with his very first feature film. The low-budget 1972 shocker Last House on the Left led to a trend of revenge exploitation films and gave us the famous tagline “It’s only a movie…” Then, 12 years later, he did it again, with Nightmare on Elm Street, a film so famous it hardly needs blurbing.
Elm Street gave us Robert Englund’s iconic villain Freddy Krueger, the now-ubiquitous trope of the terrified-but-still-plucky teenage girl, Heather Langenkamp’s endearing Nancy, and the film debut of Johnny Depp. Oh, yeah, and an entire decade of nightmares.
Craven’s film traded on horror tropes that were familiar by 1984, like the bullied kid back for bloody revenge, but it also gave us plenty of shocking moments that were outrageous for the genre at the time, like the famous bed full of blood. It also came loaded with not-so-subtle sexual subtext that laced the story of a girl whose nightmares had deadly waking consequences with a profound real-life menace.
Though Craven only directed a handful of the many films of the Nightmare franchise, the two that are on Netflix are well worth watching. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge largely re-produced the effects of the first film, but by applying Freddy’s fixation to a teenage boy instead of a girl, it also produced one of the most famously homoerotic films in horror history—nearly destroying the career of star Mark Patton in the process.
This documentary explores the lasting legacy and popularity of Craven’s greatest creation and the behind-the-scenes stories of the first film and many of the follow-ups. It also features interviews with many of the cast and crew, including Craven himself.
Many view Scream as Craven’s ultimate remixing of his own horror themes, but that’s only because they haven’t sampled this morsel of total postmodern ’90s WTFery, released two years earlier.
New Nightmare is a delightful film that imagines Craven, Langenkamp, and Englund as characters in a fictional version of reality—one in which the nightmares of Nightmare on Elm Street are coming after them. If you think you know self-aware, tongue-in-cheek takes on the always-savvy horror genre, then the scene where Heather Langenkamp visits a Robert Englund who’s cosplaying as Freddy Krueger to ask him if by any chance the real Freddy Krueger has been visiting the real (fictional) Robert Englund should have your brain bent for a long time to come.
And if there were any doubt in your mind that Craven is great at the non-clichéd variety of strong female characters, Heather Langenkamp’s “character” should convince you, as she somehow manages to juggle being a mother, actress, and cult celebrity, all while facing her demons, and grabbing a gun to hunt down her own nightmares.
4) Scream (1–3)
Just when critics had decided Craven was past his prime, Scream came along in 1996 and completely revitalized decades of horror largely mapped by Craven’s own work.
It’s hard to say what Scream is most known for: the famous Ghostface mask? The legendary opening sequence that singlehandedly revived Drew Barrymore’s career? Spawning a real-life love story between on-screen romantics Courtney Cox and David Arquette? How about just the sheer badassery of its leading lady, Neve Campbell’s indomitable Sidney Prescott?
Delightfully post-modern and still fresh two decades later, Scream and the entire Scream quadrilogy show a complete master at home with his craft and having the time of his life. It’s common wisdom that Scream 3 is awful, but once you realize the entire film is a giant homage to the farcical ’80s haunted house mystery Clue, it becomes an entirely different viewing experience. And by the time Sidney takes her last stab at the latest villain trying to kill her in Scream 4, the franchise has also revealed its most unexpected yet natural twist: Craven as a tour de force proponent of feminist horror.
Other Craven films on Netflix:
Despite great chemistry between Eddie Murphy and Angela Bassett, this is a genre hybrid that doesn’t quite hang together. Still, it’s well worth watching for Murphy’s dark, wry portrayal of the vampire Maximilian, and Craven’s take on vampires in New York.
This underrated little film from 2005 sees Christina Ricci, pre-fame Jesse Eisenberg, post-fame Milo Ventimiglia, and Riley from Buffy battle a mysterious series of werewolf attacks. Though it bombed at the box office, Cursed is a fun romp through teen horror tropes, clearly influenced by cult hit Ginger Snaps and Craven’s own ouevre.
This film is less a movie than an exercise in making a story from patchwork. Made just before Elm Street, when Craven was broke and his studio concerned about his film budget, production was halted halfway through filming. This left Craven to resort to footage from the previous movie, a cult classic exploitation film, in order to finish it. Though what’s there is interesting, it still feels like half a movie.
Surprise, surprise: Craven actually directed this moving drama about the real-life development of the Opus 118 School of Music. Starring Meryl Streep, Gloria Estefan, and Angela Bassett, the film follows a jaded violinist as she begins to teach music to underprivileged children in Harlem. Littered with famous real-life string players, the film is Craven’s only work to receive Oscar nominations: a Best Actress nomination for Streep and a nod for Best Original Song for the main theme.
Photo via Netflix