Wes Craven is one of the most influential names in horror. Over the decades, he brought such landmark movies as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, Last House on the Left, and The Hills Have Eyes to life. Craven died just a couple weeks ago, bringing a bitter close to his wonderful career and leaving a void in the world of our nightmares. However, some of Craven’s best films aren’t necessarily his most popular, and have gone relatively unwatched in comparison. If your bad dreams are lacking a little spice, I humbly bring forward some lesser known Craven treats you can no longer put off watching.
(Oh, and if you watch the trailers, be aware that some of them can be a little spoiler-y at times!)
THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)
The real-life zombies of Haiti have been a fascination to the rest of the world for decades, and The Serpent and the Rainbow is the ultimate dark exploration of that fascination. Dr. Dennis Alan, a successful and daring anthropologist in the mold of Indiana Jones, is dispatched to Haiti by a pharmaceutical company who want to obtain a sample of “zombie powder” for potential medical use. With the help of a local doctor, Alan begins his search for someone who will share the secret of zombification. That quest turns out to be insidiously dangerous, as the Tonton Macoute, a paramilitary intimidation force, have designs on keeping the secret in Haiti.
What makes The Serpent and the Rainbow so effective is its gripping realism. It spares no feelings in the depiction of grinding poverty under the tyrannical rule of the Duvalier family in Haiti. For the movie’s first half, most of the threats are very, very real ones experienced by the people of Haiti in the 20th century. When the horrific fantasies and nightmares begin to seep in, it all seems so real thanks to what came before. Toss in great earnest performances, an ingenious exploitation of the fear of being buried alive, and a sequence involving a well-placed nail that will give all men a permanent cringe and voila! You have a chilling and original horror classic.
THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991)
In The People Under the Stairs, young Poindexter “Fool” Williams lives in the slums, his house owned by cruel landlords “Mommy” and “Daddy” Robeson. Fool’s sister can’t make enough money to pay their mother’s medical bills and pay rent, but her boyfriend Leroy (Ving Rhames, just a couple years away from being Marsellus Wallace!) makes a secret plan with Fool to rob the Robesons. Unfortunately, their landlords turn out to not just be elitist snobs but murderous inbred psychopaths with a house full of killer booby traps. Fool has to make it out alive while keeping a promise to save the kind and meek Robeson daughter Alice and finding enough money to pay for his mother’s bills.
Craven is never afraid to inject doses of humor throughout his movies, but The People Under The Stairs often descends into pure horror comedy. Coming hot on the heels of Home Alone, the movie almost feels like a grotesque parody of that beloved family classic, with Fool tricking the Robesons into suffering the pains of their homemade traps. In fact, despite its eerie trappings, the movie plays best as a harrowing adolescent adventure, complete with hidden treasure and daring escapes. Of course, it’s surprisingly thoughtful too, with a darkly cutting satire of American class and race relations at the dawn of the 90s. Those expecting an experience in terror will be disappointed, but The People Under The Stairs has its own different, quirky strengths.
WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994)
Heather Langenkamp, star of the original A Nightmare On Elm Street, may not be the toast of Hollywood but she’s happy with a loving husband and a young son at her side. Unfortunately, the obsessive nature of horror means she never truly escapes Nightmare. Stymied fans make threatening phone calls, executives make pushy offers for her to return to the Elm Street series, and cracks in the walls after an earthquake remind her of Freddy’s slashing claws. When the people around her begin to die, though, and her son begins to have disturbing nightmares about a strange man walking around their house at night, it may not just be memories of a movie.
That synopsis barely scrapes the iceberg of the plot because the plot is almost indescribable. It is haunting, twisting, mind-bending, and while the fourth wall never breaks it is warped and distorted in a way far more shocking and original. I promise you, it isn’t just “Freddy enters the real world”, because what the “real world” is becomes a very subjective question in New Nightmare. Fans of the other Freddy Krueger movies will have their love paid off in spades, but even those only casually familiar with A Nightmare On Elm Street will be fascinated. Heather Langenkamp and Wes Craven are required to go to such personal and exposing depths as artists that you can’t look away. It’s a thinking person’s horror movie, and its horrors just bore deeper the more you study them.
RED EYE (2005)
Rachel McAdams and Cilian Murphy meet by chance at an airport, charm each other, and just happen to be sitting next to each other on their flight back to Miami. No, it’s not quite an adorable setup for a romantic comedy (as the above trailer cleverly exploits). Cilian is playing an ice cold terrorist operative (Jackson) who wants to exploit Rachel’s character (Lisa), manager of a hotel that his assassination target is staying at. He needs her to make a crucial room change for the victim, or he’ll send word for her father to be killed by a patiently waiting gunman. Lisa needs to make a decision before landing, or one will be made for her.
From then on, Red Eye is an absolutely breath-stealing chiller, as Lisa desperately tries to escape from the ever-tightening vice Jackson closes around her. Rachel and Cilian make for a fantastic duel, her unshakeable determination contrasting with his manipulative unpredictability. The script is lacking some of the mind-screwing twistiness of Craven’s usual stories, but it makes up for it with its pressure-cooker tension. Simple it may be, but vicious and smart too.
Featured image credit: Miramax
What are your favorite Wes Craven movies and memories? Share them in the comments, we’d love to hear them!