The 15 best Wes Craven horror films, ranked

The 15 best Wes Craven horror films, ranked

From a serial killer who haunts your dreams to a cannibalistic family roaming the desert, we rank our picks for the best horror flicks in the legendary director’s catalog.

By Will Harris October 26, 2022 at 04: 50 PM EDT

Although he started his career in education, teaching at a high school as well as a couple of colleges, once Wes Craven bought a used 16mm camera and started making short films, it was only a matter of time before he made his way into the movie business. From his first feature-length effort in 1972 (The Last House on the Left) to his final cinematic endeavor in 2011 (Scream 4), Craven was a force to be reckoned with in the world of horror, and while that wasn’t necessarily where he spent all of his time – take 1999’s Music of the Heart, for instance – it was unquestionably where he made the most impact as a filmmaker. Read on to check out EW’s picks for Craven’s 15 most frightening films.

15. Shocker (1989)

Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi) is a serial killer, and a prolific one at that, having killed over 30 people. When Lt. Don Parker (Michael Murphy) is hot on his trail, Pinker cools things off dramatically by killing Parker’s wife and two of his foster children. Still alive, however, is Parker’s other foster son, Jonathan (Peter Berg), who starts having dreams about Pinker’s whereabouts, resulting in Pinker’s capture and subsequent electrocution. Bad news, though: Pinker signed a pact with Satan, and when he’s electrocuted, he’s actually transformed into electricity and can possess others, during which time he can continue his murder spree. Upon realizing Pinker’s fate, Jonathan sets out to find a way to stop Pinker permanently, a task that’s easier said than done.

In his review of the film for EW, Ty Burr describes Craven as having “a wicked sense for pop dread,” adding that “he doesn’t throw away a single idea,” and while the context of the remark makes it only partially complimentary, he’s not wrong. There’s a lot of commentary going on within the film, which teeters tonally between horror and dark comedy, but it’s an effort that has rightfully come to be appreciated as an underrated Craven classic.

14. Deadly Blessing (1981)

It’s surprising that this early ’80s Craven film has such a low profile, particularly since it features an early role for Sharon Stone as well as one of the angriest and creepiest performances Ernest Borgnine has ever given. (We’ll just say it: the Razzies were wrong to nominate him for Worst Supporting Actor for this film. Wrong, wrong, wrong.)

Martha and Jim Schmidt are a couple who maintain a farm in the middle of a Hittite community. Heavily religious, the Hittites look less than favorably upon the Schmidts as a result of Jim — a former Hittite — leaving the community after getting married. When Jim is killed, seemingly as a result of a mechanical accident, two of Martha’s friends drive in from the city to help her get through this tough time, only for a flurry of events to occur which seem intended to have Martha share the same fate as her husband.

Say what you will about this film and its flaws, but it possesses arguably the single most WTF ending of any inclusion on this list. We’re not saying it’s a good or bad conclusion, but one thing’s for sure: you absolutely, positively won’t see it coming.

13. Stranger in Our House (a.k.a. Summer of Fear) (1978)

After three feature films, Craven moved from New York to Los Angeles, a relocation which resulted in him picking up the opportunity to do this TV movie for NBC. In addition to providing Linda Blair with her first horror film after completing The Exorcist and Exorcist II: The Heretic, this TV movie also holds the honor of being the first adaptation of one of Lois Duncan’s books. (Duncan also wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, Killing Mr. Griffin, and — on a different tip — Hotel for Dogs.)

The film stars Lee Purcell as Julia Grant, a teenager who is abruptly orphaned when her parents die in a car accident. Enter her aunt Leslie and uncle Tom (Carol Lawrence, Jeremy Slate), who invite her to move into their house with their daughter Rachel (Blair) and son Bobby (James Jarnigan). Although Julia starts out shy, she soon becomes more outgoing, and when strange events start taking place, Rachel comes to the perfectly reasonable decision that her cousin is a witch. TV movie though it may be, Craven instills the material with plenty of startling moments, though perhaps none more startling than seeing a young Fran Drescher in an early role.

12. Scream 3 (2000)

First things first: this is the worst of the Scream films, and we know that the biggest reason that it’s creatively disappointing is that screenwriter Ehren Kruger had the traumatizing task of stepping into the shoes of Kevin Williamson, who created the series and penned the scripts for the preceding two films. Plus, it was just before production began on the film that the Columbine massacre occurred, which led to the studio requesting more of a focus on the comedic elements than violent ones.

That said, there’s something to be said for the theory that Scream movies  are like pizza: even when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good. EW‘s Michael Sauter wrote of the film that Parker Posey and Jenny McCarthy offer enough new life to the franchise “that you’ll pray they don’t get snuffed too early.” Other notable cast members for the sequel include Patrick Dempsey as a detective, Lance Henriksen as a producer, Scott Foley as the director of the latest film based on the events in Sidney Prescott’s (Neve Campbell) life, and Carrie Fisher as a receptionist who acknowledges that she looks like Carrie Fisher. It’s not top-shelf Craven, but it plays slightly better now than it did then.

11. Swamp Thing (1982)

Back in the dark days before superhero movies became a several-times-a-year occurrence, it was an insanely big deal when a studio decided to adapt a comic book property. But to this day, it’s still staggering to consider that Embassy Pictures teamed up with Wes Craven to make a Swamp Thing movie. Created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing was a cult character, one who Craven hadn’t even been aware of before being approached to direct the film, but he gave it his all, upping the creature’s profile considerably as a result.

Ray Wise plays Dr. Alec Holland, a scientist working on a bioengineering project so top-secret that the lab is located in a swamp. When Anton Arcane (Louis Jordan) and his men invade the lab in an attempt to steal the formula that Holland has been working on, an explosion occurs, and the resulting fire mixed with the chemicals and the swamp itself transform Holland into…Swamp Thing. Teaming up with Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), Swamp Thing takes on Arcane, resulting in a truly monstrous battle between the two. While not a true horror film, there are enough genre-centric elements within Swamp Thing to make it worthy of inclusion.

10. The Last House on the Left (1972)

To say that Wes Craven’s directorial debut is a tough watch is an understatement — and that’s even by 2022 standards — so you can only imagine how well it went down with the general public when it was released 50 years earlier. The film revolves around 17-year-old Mari, who heads off to a concert with her friend Phyllis to celebrate her birthday, only to run into a quartet of prison escapees which includes a rapist/serial killer, a heroin addict, a psychopathic sadist, and a child-molesting peeping tom/ murderer. Where things go from there, we dare not even say, except to underline that this is in no way a film for the faint of heart or stomach.

While EW wasn’t around when the film was originally released, Owen Gleiberman referenced it in his review of the 2009 remake, writing that Craven “basically refracted Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring through the dementia of the Manson family.” Mind you, he also called it “vile,” but he did at least concede that it was also “terrifying.” Upon its original release, however, Roger Ebert called it “a tough, bitter little sleeper of a movie that’s about four times as good as you’d expect.”

9. Scream 4 (2011)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Woodsboro, two high school students are murdered by Ghostface, and — what are the odds? — the murders take place the day before Sidney Prescott (Campbell) returns to her hometown to promote her book. Guess who suddenly becomes a suspect?

Arriving 11 years after the release of the disappointing Scream 3, this sequel felt like the return of an old friend, the kind who — despite the way things ended the last time you saw them — you’re still excited to see again because you have so many fond memories of the times you shared together back in the day.

In her EW review, Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote that “the tour de force funny/ scary opener is better (and more surprise-packed) than any since Drew Barrymore picked up that phone of doom in 1996,” calling it “a giddy reminder of everything that made Scream such a fresh scream in the first place.” While the rest of the film might not have hit the same such heights, it remains a sentimental favorite among Scream fans for being Craven’s final film, and it shows that his ability to serve up scares remained strong to the very end.

8. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Anyone who’s seen this film has probably scoffed at the opening-card claim that it’s based on a true story, but it’s kinda sorta true: it’s loosely based on the book of the same name by Wade Davis, who detailed his trip to Haiti to determine the veracity of the tale of Clairvius Narcisse, who was ostensibly poisoned, buried alive, and then revived as a zombie. (This explains the book’s lengthy subtitle, “A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies, and Magic.”)

Bill Pullman plays some approximation of Davis, except his character initially visits Haiti to study herbs and medicines with a local shaman, only to return to Harvard and find himself hired by a pharmaceutical company to investigate the drug used by Haitian voodoo priests to create zombies. Of course, it turns out there’s more to it than that, resulting in some pretty nightmarish moments, including not only zombies but voodoo possession as well.

“The visual look of the movie is stunning,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review of the film, adding that “even the obviously contrived scenes, including some of the hallucinations and voodoo fantasies, have an air of solid plausibility to them.”

7. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

When the Carter family — parents Bob and Ethel, teenagers Bobby and Brenda, and eldest daughter Lynne, her husband Doug, and their daughter Catherine — sets off with their trailer on their way to a vacation in Los Angeles, they don’t have a clue what hellish fate they’ll soon endure. To be fair, though, it’s not like any of them ever would’ve predicted that they’d have a run-in with a family of cannibal savages. Darned if that isn’t exactly what happened, though, and while things don’t get quite as bad for the Carters as they did for the residents of The Last House on the Left, we’re still talking rape, murder and, yes, a little bit of cannibalism, too.

In reflecting on the 2006 remake, Owen Gleiberman reminisced about seeing the original film upon its initial release, recalling how “the low-budget grunginess…was integral to its effect; it told you that the film came from outside the system, that it was made with a lack of restriction — on violence, and on imagination, too — that big-studio horror didn’t share.” That said, don’t bother looking for the 1985 sequel, The Hills Have Eyes 2: it’s generally considered to be the worst film in Craven’s filmography.

6. The People Under the Stairs (1991)

When Poindexter Williams (Brandon Adams) — otherwise known as “Fool” — discovers that he and his family are being evicted from their apartment, he joins Leroy (Ving Rhames) and Spencer (Jeremy Roberts) on an illicit mission to break into the home of their landlords, the Robesons, and rob them. When Spencer gets inside but doesn’t come out, Leroy and Fool wait until the Robesons leave, after which they enter to find that a) Spencer is dead, and b) there are a bunch of weird, pale children being kept locked in the basement. Then the Robesons come back, and things go horribly, horribly wrong for Fool.

Twin Peaks fans will immediately recognize “Daddy” and “Mommy” Robeson as Everett McGill and Wendie Robie, a.k.a. Big Ed and Nadine Hurley, but there are several other familiar faces in the mix, including A.J. Langer (My So-Called Life) as Alice Robeson, Sean Whalen as Roach, and Bill Cobbs as Grandpa Booker.

The People Under the Stairs is best described as having the sensibility of an early Wes Craven film but with the budget of an early 1990s Craven film and a surprisingly socially-conscious premise hidden within its grooves. Definitely an interesting, oft-forgotten gem amongst Craven’s work.

5. Scream 2 (1997)

It’s a rare feat for a film to deliver a sequel that matches the creative success of its predecessor, and no matter how you feel about Scream 2, there’s no question that it does a tremendous job of trying to hit the same highs as the original. 

In this instance, the events of that initial flick have been transformed into a film called Stab, with Heather Graham playing the role of Casey Becker, the character played by Drew Barrymore in Scream. Are you following this? Well, if not, all you really need to know is that there’s a murder at the sneak preview of Stab, committed by someone wearing a Ghostface mask. Naturally, this immediately sends the media straight to Sidney Prescott (Campbell), who’s trying to return to some semblance of a normal life, and chaos ensues, as does considerable bloodshed.

In her review, EW‘s Lisa Schwarzbaum praises Craven, screenwriter Kevin Williamson, and the cast for their ability to “pull off the neat trick of affectionately counting the many ways available for horror sequels to suck, without making a sequel that sucks,” calling the film “as sophisticated about the mechanics of Part 2s as the original was savvy about horror flicks.”

4. Red Eye (2005)

If there’s one thing that’s bad about being a director who’s associated with two major horror franchises, it’s that their non-franchise, genre-adjacent films tend to slip through the cracks more often than they should. And while his psychological thriller Red Eye made nearly $100 million in its theatrical run, it’s still one of those Wes Craven films that people often forget about. 

Rachel McAdams stars as Lisa Reisert, a hotel manager who, while on her way home to Miami after attending her grandmother’s funeral, meets Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy), a handsome fella who seems nice at first but in mid-flight reveals himself to be an assassin whose next target is staying at the hotel Lisa manages. If Lisa doesn’t help Jackson with his task, Jackson will kill Lisa’s father, leaving Lisa little more than the duration of the flight to figure out how to save her father and Jackson’s target.

As Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote in her EW review, “the movie’s most exciting passages take place in stillness and close-up, with the low-budget simplicity of two faces reacting to one another by the glow of the overhead reading light in a darkened cabin.” It’s a tour-de-force of tension and one of Craven’s best.

3. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

Taking the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise into meta territory way before meta was cool, New Nightmare was Craven’s first time helming an Elm Street flick since the initial film, and doing so was a conscious choice: it provided him with the opportunity to return to a tone far closer to the original Nightmare than any of the sequels released in the interim.

The film ostensibly takes place in “the real world,” which is to say that Craven, Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, John Saxon, and New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye all play themselves… and, yes, Englund also reprises his role as Freddy Krueger. The storyline revolves around the concept that the Nightmare on Elm Street films somehow captured an ancient supernatural entity that was freed after the release of Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, and now it stalks their dreams, sensing that killing Langenkamp will let it loose into the world at large.

Yes, it’s an absolutely preposterous premise, but seeing the original cast members playing alongside each other again is fun, and it’s clear that Craven relishes taking the film in a darker direction this time around, leaving viewers amused as they wonder nervously, “Yeah, but…is it only a movie?”

2. Scream (1996)

By 1996, the slasher film genre might not have been completely dead, but it had definitely become a parody of itself, which is why it felt so fresh when Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson decided to mock the genre and, in doing so, managed to reinvigorate it.

The town of Woodsboro is on edge after the murder of high school student Casey Becker (Barrymore), but Sidney Prescott (Campbell) is on edge already, struggling with the anniversary of her mother’s rape and murder. Being a big local news story, newscaster Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) is working on a story tied to the anniversary, which only serves to make things worse for Sidney. Meanwhile, Casey’s murder has led to the suspension of school, spurring a party that soon turns into a bloodbath. 

As EW’s Michael Lee Simpson wrote in our recent ranking of the various films in the Scream franchise, “Jarring, scary, and now a cultural phenomenon, Scream became a revelation that reshaped the slasher sub-genre with whip-smart dialogue, paying homage to classic horror films like Halloween and Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street while becoming a classic of its own.” Say, as long as we’re speaking of the latter film…

1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

No matter how many times the character of Freddy Krueger may grace the silver screen, it’s doubtful that he’ll ever come across as disconcerting and terrifying as he does in his original outing.

The premise of the film has been oft told at this point, but for the handful of neophytes out there, Freddy Krueger (Englund) was a child murderer who avoided conviction for his crimes on a technicality but subsequently ended up being burned alive by the victims’ parents in their quest for justice. Now, Krueger haunts the dreams of local teenagers, murdering them as a way of exacting revenge on the parents who burned him to death. Yes, this was Johnny Depp‘s feature film debut, but believe it or not, Craven creates such a gripping horror story that a young Depp isn’t a distraction.

In EW’s Halloween 2004 countdown of the scariest movies of all time, we wrote, “Director Wes Craven makes the most banal aspects of adolescence hellish, whether it’s turning the sanctity of childhood bedrooms into murder zones or a phone into a demonic tongue.” We stand by that. This isn’t just the best horror film by Craven, it’s one of the best horror films by anyone.

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