Several names float to the very top of the horror genre, from early genre enthusiasts like James Whale and Lon Chaney to modern directors like Ari Aster and Guillermo del Toro. As many personalities as there are within the realm of horror, few have earned as prominent a place as Wes Craven, the legendary filmmaker behind such works as Scream, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
One of the greatest directors of his time, Craven reshaped the trajectory of horror from the late 1960s until his death in 2015. Along with John Carpenter, George Romero, Tobe Hooper, and David Cronenberg, Craven pushed the boundaries of the genre in unique directions, perfecting timeless horror subgenres and inventing more than a few new ones.
From cult classic exploitation films to treasured Halloween classics, here the best Wes Craven movies, ranked from best to worst.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Between A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, fans have a hard time choosing Craven’s definitive best film. However, nobody can overstate the role A Nightmare on Elm Street played in the growth of the slasher film, helping breathe new life into the horror subgenre just as it seemed ready to die out in the mid 1980s.
Adding some unique elements to the script, Craven brought a level of sophistication and artistry to the slasher, characterized by its dreamy atmosphere and disorienting psychological tone. The combination proved effective, elevating Craven to the very top of the genre – a prestigious place he’d continue to hold for the remainder of his life.
By the mid 1990s, the slasher craze of the 1980s had run its course. 1996’s Scream, a postmodern, meta-fictional take on the tried-and-true slasher formula, resurrected the long-dormant genre and kicked off a slasher resurgence that lasted into the next decade.
Based on an impeccable script by Kevin Williamson, Craven used Scream as an opportunity to mock the genre he helped make famous, pointing out the harebrained plot elements, stereotypes, and clichés associated with the slasher film. To everyone’s surprise, this satirical approach worked wonders, paving the way for a film that was smart, funny, and – most importantly – terrifying from start to finish.
3. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
As with most slasher franchises of its day, A Nightmare on Elm Street devolved from a straightforward horror film into camp with each new entry. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare brought the series back to its roots with a unique metafictional take on the Nightmare saga that marked Craven’s return as director.
Set outside the overall continuity of the Nightmare film series, New Nightmare poses a very simple question: “What if Freddy Krueger haunted the lives of the people involved in the Nightmare on Elm Street series?” Over the course of two hours, Craven explores that question to its fullest possibilities, creating an unsung masterpiece of a meta slasher in the process. It's one of the best Wes Craven movies, and the strangest.
4. Scream 2
Unlike his earlier contributions to Nightmare on Elm Street series, Craven opted to remain with the Scream franchise for the long-run, returning to direct each of its original three sequels, beginning with 1997’s Scream 2.
Avoiding the pitfalls of most slasher sequels, Scream 2 pushes the boundaries of its series forward, all the while mocking the inferior quality of slasher sequels in general. As with its predecessor, the result made for a splendid Wes Craven movie, some critics even contending that it surpassed the quality of the original film.
5. Red Eye
Easily the most underrated entry in Craven’s body of work, Red Eye channels the work of Alfred Hitchcock, relying on limited settings, few characters, and a sense of unease that grows more palpable and chaotic with time.
As two strangers who meet by chance on a red-eye flight, Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy give sensational performances, inhabiting their roles with ease (especially Murphy, who goes from a blue-eyed playboy into an icy killer in a matter of seconds). Compared to his later works, it wouldn’t be exaggeration to call Red Eye the last great of Wes Craven's movies.
6. The People Under The Stairs
Next to Red Eye 1990’s The People Under the Stairs ranks as Craven's most underrated film. One of the most hilarious movies in Craven’s canon, its simple but sprawling setting allows for some creative situations between the hapless hero (Brandon Adams) and the twisted couple (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) hunting him through their derelict mansion.
As with many of Craven’s films, the movie also incorporates a fair amount of inherent messages and thematic discussions buried within the plot, including meditations on capitalism, poverty, racism, and gentrification.
7. The Hills Have Eyes
After the frosty reception to his debut film, The Last House on the Left, Craven crafted the now-classic horror film, The Hills Have Eyes. The Southwestern version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the success of the film catapulted Craven to stardom, helping him transition from an ambitious indie filmmaker into a full-fledged Hollywood director.
Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven infuses a healthy amount of humor into this morbid slasher, managing to weave in some subtle commentary on religion and class struggles in America.
8. Swamp Thing
On paper, Wes Craven and superheroes don’t seem like a great mix. Against all odds, though, Craven made for a fitting director when it came to helming the 1982 superhero film, Swamp Thing. Retaining the underlying horror atmosphere of DC’s original comic book series, Craven helped the film achieve a kitschier tone, harking back to the iconic Universal horror movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Far from a campy mess, Craven managed to keep the movie in line with the comic’s more poignant moments, glorying in the beauty of the film’s natural surroundings and at the underlying gentleness of its titular character. It's a strange, beautiful entry among Wes Craven movies.
9. The Serpent and The Rainbow
Another undervalued horror film from the 1980s, The Serpent and the Rainbow sees Craven adapt the controversial nonfiction book of the same name by Wade Davis (ignored by most critics for its slew of scientific inaccuracies).
Opting for a more dramatic approach with very little basis in Davis’s source material, Craven instead crafts a film that feels like a lost E.C. horror comic from the ‘50s, offering a lurid portrait of voodoo from an outsider’s perspective (Bill Pullman’s bookish Harvard researcher). Though a bit too reliant on its superb special effects, the movie still succeeds at getting under the skin of viewers.
10. Scream 4
The final film directed by Wes Craven, Scream 4 sees Craven return to the genre he helped revolutionize with movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and the original Scream.
Dismissed by fans upon its release in 2011, it’s since become recognized as one of the strongest entries in the series, celebrated for its intelligent implementation of social media and internet-based fame. Perhaps the most underrated installment in the Scream franchise, it’s a fitting final farewell for Craven, whose career went out with a bang thanks to this film.
11. The Last House on The Left
Even when compared to the other films that make up Craven’s filmography, The Last House on the Left stands alone as the most controversial movie of its era. Criticized for its explicit subject matter upon its release in 1972, it’s still an uncomfortable and disturbing movie to watch, even by today's standards.
Craven’s directorial debut, the polarizing nature of The Last House on the Left nearly ended his career before it even began. Fortunately, the director rebounded with later, more palatable Wes Craven movies like The Hills Have Eyes (which, compared to this movie, is like comparing Bambi to A Clockwork Orange).
12. Music of The Heart
Music of the Heart feels like a cinematic experiment among Wes Craven movies, marking his first and only film foray into genres outside of his typical horror or thriller territory.
A sweeping biographical drama centered around the professional violinist Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep), Craven’s sensibilities don’t always match the conventional nature of a biopic. Thanks to Streep’s sublime performance, though, the movie manages to triumph over its otherwise meager number of flaws.
13. Scream 3
Just because it’s by far the weakest entry in the Scream franchise to date doesn’t mean Scream 3 is an altogether bad film. As with every installment in the series thus far, it offers a great deconstruction of the horror genre, in this case lampooning slashers made within the Hollywood system.
However, the twist reveal regarding the killer’s identity and motivations prevents the film from rising to the same level as its predecessors, concluding the original Scream trilogy on an somewhat underwhelming note.
Richard Chachowski is an entertainment and travel writer who has written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, Looper, Screen Rant, Fangoria, and Sportskeeda, among many others. He received his BA from The College of New Jersey and has been a professional writer since 2020. His geeky areas of interest include Star Wars, travel writing, horror, video games, comic books, literature, and animation.
Richard has been an avid consumer of movies, television, books, and pop culture since he was four-years-old. Raised on a diverse mix of Clint Eastwood Westerns, Star Wars, sci-fi and horror films, Alan Moore comics, and Stephen King novels, he eventually turned his various passions into a creative outlet, writing about film, television, literature, comics, and gaming for his high school and college newspapers. A traveling enthusiast, Richard has also managed to create a career out of journeying abroad, venturing to such awe-inspiring places as the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, the rainforests of Costa Rica, and the scenic coastline of Haiti. Upon graduating from TCNJ, Richard set his sights on a career in journalism, writing extensively about the art of traveling and the entertainment medium for various online publications. When he’s not busy making his way through The Criterion Collection, he can be found either reading or planning a trip somewhere (preferably someplace with a scenic hiking trail).