The Films of Wes Craven
The Last House on the Left (March 9/09)
Wes Craven's debut, The Last House of the Left follows a pair of carefree teenagers (Sandra Cassel's Mari and Lucy Grantham's Phyllis) as their plans for a fun night out are thwarted after they're captured by four sadistic killers (David Hess' Krug, Fred Lincoln's Weasel, Jeramie Rain's Sadie, and Marc Sheffler's Junior). On their way out of town, however, the quartet coincidentally wind up staying in a house belonging to Mari's parents (Richard Towers' John and Cynthia Carr's Estelle) - which effectively paves the way for a revenge-filled third act. Filmmaker Craven has infused The Last House on the Left with a pervasively amateurish vibe that extends to virtually every aspect of the proceedings, with the atrocious score, heavy handed screenplay, and almost uniformly unimpressive performances ranking high on the movie's long list of deficiencies. The exceedingly low-rent production values subsequently ensure that the more overtly horrific elements within Craven's script often fall completely flat, while the inclusion of several altogether needless instances of comedic relief (ie two bumbling cops played by Marshall Anker and Martin Kove) prove effective at compounding the movie's hopelessly incompetent atmosphere. Craven's far-from-subtle modus operandi permeates virtually every aspect of the proceedings, with John and Estelle's transformation from wholesome, Leave it to Beaver-esque parents to calculating, blood-thirsty animals undoubtedly the most eye-rolling example of this. There's ultimately little doubt that The Last House on the Left's status as a horror classic is nothing short of baffling, and it's a marvel that Craven was able to parlay the movie into a bona fide film career (it's just that bad).
The Hills Have Eyes
Long before Wes Craven made Scream or even A Nightmare on Elm Street (and especially Music of the Heart), he made The Hills Have Eyes - a sporadically effective Texas Chain Saw Massacre ripoff. An extended family making their way through the country in a car/mobile home find themselves stranded in the desert after dad inadvertently runs the car off the road. After an excruciatingly long 45 minutes of setup, the family finally winds up under attack by a group of psycho hillbillies with names like Pluto and Jupiter. If it didn't take so long to get going, The Hills Have Eyes surely would have worked a whole lot better instead of wearing out the viewer's patience. Still, there are some chilling moments here, such as the fiery crucifixion of the dad and the baby that almost winds up dinner for the hillbillies (seriously, has there ever been a movie in which the baby gets it? This one comes pretty darn close!)
Stranger in Our House
Swamp Thing (March 11/11)
Based on the long-running comic book series, Swamp Thing follows mild-mannered scientist Alec Holland (Ray Wise) as he's transformed into the title creature after a violent altercation with his nemesis (Louis Jourdan's Anton Arcane) - with the film subsequently detailing the character's efforts at both protecting the object of his affection (Adrienne Barbeau's Alice Cable) and avoiding the advances of Arcane's soldiers. Filmmaker Wes Craven has infused Swamp Thing with a surprisingly deliberate sensibility that ultimately dampens the movie's overall impact, as there's simply never a point at which the viewer is able to wholeheartedly work up any real interest in the protagonist's exploits. The distressingly sluggish pace is compounded by the film's lack of engaging supporting figures, with writer/director Craven's decision to emphasize Barbeau's character certainly proving somewhat disastrous (ie she's just not compelling in the slightest) - although it's worth noting that Jourdan's bland turn as the villain plays just as key a role in the movie's downfall. And while the inclusion of a few effective action-oriented sequences, ie the Swamp Thing attacks jeep full of armed commandos, sporadically buoys the viewer's waning interest, Swamp Thing, for the most part, comes off as a disappointingly thin endeavor that seems to have been designed to appeal solely to young boys - with this feeling undoubtedly cemented by the monumentally silly climax in which two men in chintzy rubber suits fight to the death.
Invitation to Hell
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Click here for review.
The Hills Have Eyes Part II
The Serpent and the Rainbow
The People Under the Stairs
Wes Craven's New Nightmare
Click here for review.
Vampire in Brooklyn
Scream (April 2/11)
Directed by Wes Craven, Scream follows Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) as she and her friends are stalked by a mask-wearing psychopath known only as Ghostface. There's little doubt that Craven, working from Kevin Williamson's screenplay, does a superb job of grabbing the viewer's attention right from the get-go, as the movie opens with a striking and thoroughly captivating stand-alone sequence revolving around the pursuit and murder of a high schooler (Drew Barrymore's Casey). It's an engrossing scene that ultimately stands as a high point within the proceedings, which ensures that the film subsequently has its work cut out for it in terms of matching that level of intensity (and although Craven does come awfully close, the thirteen-minute prologue is, in the final analysis, far more effective than anything that follows). The central storyline, once it kicks in, comes off as a purposefully familiar affair that pokes fun at the slasher genre's various clichés and conventions, as Williamson does a nice job of blending the traditional (yet consistently compelling) narrative with self-referential bursts of dialogue (ie Jamie Kennedy's scene-stealing character outlines the three rules one needs to obey to survive a horror flick). Adding to the agreeable atmosphere are the tense kill sequences and uniformly engaging performances, with the end result a fun, well-paced slasher that remains one of the best modern examples of its kind.
There's little doubt that Scream 2 suffers from as underwhelming and nigh disastrous a beginning as one could envision, as director Wes Craven and scripter Kevin Williamson, in their efforts at replicating the original film's remarkably tense opening, kick the proceedings off with an ill-conceived (and poorly executed) pre-title sequence that instantly establishes an atmosphere of pervasive mediocrity. It's not until the narrative proper kicks in that Scream 2 begins to display some of the same attributes present in its admittedly superior predecessor, with the storyline, which follows Neve Campbell's Sidney as she's once again stalked by Ghostface, generally holding the viewer's interest in spite of an overlong running time and a decidedly sluggish second half. The impressively star-studded cast's stellar efforts play a pivotal role in cementing the movie's mild success, although it's clear that Jamie Kennedy's mesmerizing work as prototypical film-geek Randy Meeks stands as a highlight - which ultimately ensures that the character is sorely missed following his departure at around the midway point. It is, as a result, impossible to label Scream 2 as anything more than a perfunctory (yet consistently watchable) sequel, with the movie's rushed schedule - it did, after all, arrive in theaters less than a year after the original - undoubtedly playing a major role in its less-than-cohesive vibe.
Music of the Heart
Scream 3 (April 4/11)
At the very least, Scream 3 does manage to improve upon the seriously lackluster opening contained within its immediate predecessor - as the film kicks off with a suspenseful sequence in which series veteran Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) meets his grisly end. The remainder of the movie, which follows recurring and fresh cast members alike as they're pursued by Ghostface, ultimately feels closer in spirit to the underwhelming first sequel than to the above-average original, with the curious decision to take the emphasis off Neve Campbell's Sidney Prescott certainly ranking high on the film's list of faults - as the majority of the new characters are simply not compelling enough to sustain the viewer's interest through the expectedly sluggish midsection. (It also doesn't help that scripter Ehren Kruger stresses Gale (Courteney Cox) and Dewey's (David Arquette) fairly tedious investigation into the mysterious past of Sidney's mother.) There's subsequently little doubt that the erratically-paced narrative suffers from an almost pervasive lack of tension and suspense, with this vibe heightened by Kruger's questionable reliance on incongruously comedic elements (ie the Jay and Silent Bob cameo). And although the movie does improve somewhat in its final half hour, Scream 3 is, in the final analysis, a rather anticlimactic finish to a series that started out with such promise - although it's certainly impossible not to get a kick out of the clever final shot that literally leaves the door open for further installments.
Cursed (July 23/05)
It's impossible to watch Cursed without wondering what could've been. The film was finished in 2003, but Harvey Weinstein (whose "Harvey Scissorhands" nickname makes more and more sense as the years go by) ordered director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson to essentially reshoot the entire thing. As a result, Skeet Ulrich's substantial part was cut completely, and the actor was replaced by Joshua Jackson. And, adding insult to injury, the film was recut and re-edited at the last minute to garner a PG-13 rating. But despite the massive changes and last-minute reshoots, Cursed is actually not half bad. Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg star as siblings who are transformed into werewolves and must subsequently figure out who infected them in order to break the curse. While the movie understandably feels quite disjointed and there is - when you get right down to it - no actual story here, boredom never quite sets in thanks to the engaging performances, over-the-top instances of gore (this review applies to the R-rated DVD), and surprisingly effective kill sequences. But as entertaining as the film's first hour is, the last forty minutes - in which the remaining survivors are interminably chased around a wax museum/nightclub - just seems to go on and on. If not for that aspect of Cursed, there's no doubt that the movie would've been just as effective as Scream (the first Craven/Williamson collaboration).
Red Eye (August 20/05)
Featuring star-making performances from Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy, Red Eye is a tense, exciting, and thoroughly entertaining little thriller that succeeds despite an incongruous third act that feels like it'd be more at home in a slasher movie. McAdams plays Lisa Reisert, a hotel executive who catches a late-night flight back home for her grandmother's funeral. While on the plane, Lisa finds herself unwittingly caught up in a conspiracy to assassinate a high-ranking politician. Though the trailer unfortunately divulged most of the film's twists, Red Eye remains unusually gripping throughout (that thrillers of this sort are becoming increasingly rare certainly makes it easy enough to overlook some of the movie's deficiencies). McAdams delivers a confident, engaging performance that only cements her status as a bonafide movie star, while Murphy's charismatic turn as the film's sinister villain offers the actor the chance to create a character we can't help but like (even when he's doing some seriously evil things). Director Wes Craven - along with screenwriter Carl Ellsworth - does a nice job of establishing the admittedly outlandish situation and imbuing the film with a feeling of sustained dread, although the filmmaker can't quite resist the temptation to revisit his slasher roots towards the conclusion. Having said that, there's no denying that Red Eye delivers exactly what it promises (and at a refreshingly abbreviated running time, too).
My Soul to Take
A thunderously boring and astonishingly inept piece of work, My Soul to Take follows several teenagers as they're knocked off one by one by a mysterious figure that may or may not be the ghost of a notorious killer. It's a familiar yet serviceable premise that's employed to pervasively (and shockingly) unwatchable effect by writer/director Wes Craven, as the filmmaker kicks the proceedings off with an obnoxiously over-the-top prologue that immediately alienates the viewer - with the subsequent introduction of the movie's uniformly bland and underdeveloped protagonists perpetuating the movie's atmosphere of relentless tedium. Craven's reluctance to offer up a concrete storyline - the film mostly follows the characters as they're individually killed - is exacerbated by his reliance on dialogue that one imagines is supposed to sound clever and hip (but instead comes off as forced and artificial), while even the movie's horror-based elements manage to underwhelm on a woefully consistent basis (ie where's the gore?) The inclusion of an absolutely endless climax cements My Soul to Take's place as a thoroughly abominable piece of work, and it does go without saying that the film not only marks a low point within Craven's career but also within the horror genre itself.
no stars out of
The best of the Scream sequels, Scre4m details the chaos that ensues after Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to her hometown of Woodsboro during a book tour - with the film subsequently following characters new and old as they're pursued (and murdered) by Ghostface. Director Wes Craven, working from Kevin Williamson's screenplay, does a superb job of immediately capturing the viewer's interest, as the movie kicks off with a brilliant, hilariously self-referential opening that rivals the original's justifiably legendary prologue in terms of effectiveness. From there, Scre4m hews closely to the formula established by its predecessors - with the film blending the characters' talk-heavy exploits with impressively brutal kill sequences. (In terms of the latter, Scre4m is certainly the bloodiest entry in this refreshingly R-rated franchise since the 1996 original.) There's little doubt, however, that the sequences revolving entirely around the movie's fresh batch of characters - eg Emma Roberts' Jill, Hayden Panettiere's Kirby, Rory Culkin's Charlie, etc - simply aren't as engaging or engrossing as they should be, and one can't help but wish that Williamson had afforded more screentime for the series' returning figures (including Courteney Cox's Gale Weathers and David Arquette's Dewey Riley). And although the movie grows increasingly uneven as it progresses - eg a fairly endless scene involving the surviving new cast members - Scre4m recovers for a climactic confrontation that's actually quite well done and rather suspenseful. (This is despite the absolutely ludicrous reveal of the killer(s) identity, as it's impossible to comfortably overlook the pronounced disparity in height between the killer(s) and Ghostface.) The end result is a consistently watchable slasher that successfully manages to appeal to both newcomers and the series' fans, with the revitalized atmosphere ensuring that the inevitable Scream 5 (5cream?) is indeed something worth getting excited about.