Wes Craven’s 5 Career-Defining Movies

Wes Craven, the “Master of Horror”, has died at the age of 76, leaving behind an envious body of work that has both defined and re-shaped the horror genre.

Having made his directorial debut in 1976 with The Last House on the Left, Craven became best known for his work on slasher horror films such as The Nightmare on Elm Street before redefining the horror genre with his wildly successful Scream series, which has since spawned several sequels and a spinoff TV series executive produced by Craven.

Here are just five of the most defining films from Wes Craven’s extraordinary career.

the-last-house-on-the-left-1972-large-picture

The Last House on the Left

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, itself based on the Swedish ballad Töres Döttrar i Wänge, Wes Craven’s directorial debut is a tough and bitter exploitation-horror that follows two suburban girls who are taken into the woods and tortured by a gang of sadistic escaped convicts.

Despite receiving heavy censure for its use of confrontational violence, the film was major box office success in America, with Stephen Chapin’s score, which juxtaposed nightmarish scenes with upbeat tunes in a suitably jarring fashion, a particular highlight.

the_hills_have_eyes_rivers_of_grue-7

The Hills Have Eyes

An eventual cult classic, which spawned a panned sequel that Craven himself later disowned and a 2007 reboot featuring a more supernatural bent, Craven’s first major film once again targets middle-American families as a suburban clan are set upon by a family of savages after their car breaks down in the Nevada desert.

Set against the harsh backdrop of Nevada’s unforgiving desert terrain, the film is both stylish and inventive, but is perhaps most notable for kicking off a game of intertextual references between Craven and Evil Dead-director Sam Raimi that lasted well into the late ‘80s.

6

Swamp Thing

Based on the DC Comics character of the same name, Craven’s first real foray into the world of science fiction tells the story of a pioneering scientist who is transformed into the titular reptilian monster when his lab is sabotaged by an evil paramilitary doctor.

Often seen as a failed attempt by Craven to show Hollywood studios that he could handle big budget movies, Swamp Thing eschews the director’s usual focus on the problems of family and society in favour of pulpy entertainment. It may not be perfect, but there’s a lot of fun to be found if you know where to look.

A-Nightmare-on-Elm-Street

Nightmare on Elm Street

The film that introduced the world to one of its most iconic, terrifying monsters – no, not Johnny Depp – this truly nightmarish slasher horror serves as the perfect allegory for the trauma of adolescence in American society, pitting a group of socially anxious teens against Freddy Krueger, a horrifically scarred child murder who stalks his victims in their dreams.

This highly imaginative film is undoubtedly the best example of Craven toying with the boundaries between the imaginary and real, whilst also providing the requisite shocks to keep fans of the genre more than entertained.

Unknown

Scream

The most meta horror film of all time? The first of Craven’s still-kicking Scream franchise is credited with reviving a horror genre that had been left, if not dead, then gasping for its last breaths by a string of direct-to-video duds by openly subverting the cliches the genre had become so reliant upon.

Starring Neve Campbell as a high school student who is targeted by a mysterious killer known as Ghostface, this fiendishly clever horror flick deftly mixes wry self-reference and ‘whodunnit’ mystery with gruesome chills and spills, resulting in Wes Craven’s most defining moment in an outstanding career of filmmaking.

Advertisements

Narcos – TV Review

Netflix takes on the infamous Medellín drug cartel in Narcos, a big, meaty, explosive crime drama that charts the rise and fall of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar and the DEA agents tasked with bringing him down.

Like Martin Scorsese’s breathless masterpiece Goodfellas, which is an indelible influence throughout, the series takes the true-life story of a brutal, bloody conflict between rapidly expanding cartels and the law enforcement officers attempting to stem the tide, and transforms it into a magnificent examination of greed, corruption and the American Dream.

Though events often seem too strange to be true, Narcos, shot through with a verve and stylish intensity from Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, proves reality really can be far more gripping than fiction.

The story is primarily told from the viewpoints of Wagner Moura’s Escobar, who rises from peddling stolen car stereos across the border to controlling the richest drugs empire the world has ever known, and honourable DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook).

Yet the tale is not as simple as two men entwined to drag each other down in oblivion, at least not in the first episode. There’s a sprawling ambition to Narcos’ scope as it follows the drug battle from its very beginnings, when the biggest offenders were “hippies in flip-flops” caught carrying a kilo of marijuana, to the point where cartel members and US drug agents are engaging in violent shootouts on Miami streets, a struggle that envelopes everyone from the penniless pregnant women Escobar used as drug mules all the way up to US President Ronald Regan.

With its gaudy depiction of excess (stacks of illicit cash, sweaty nightclubs, eye-gauging fashion choices), Narcos is clearly aiming to expose how greed, ego and corruption will invariably conspire against those who seek to embrace it.

Escobar’s early partner, the aptly named Cockroach, is the first to pay the price, having attempted to cheat his associate out of the business, he winds up abandoned in the desert with a bullet in his head, while Escobar himself is surely playing with fire by inviting his notoriously trigger-happy peers to join his nascent venture.

Writer Chris Brancato also makes it abundantly clear that the ‘good guys’ will not be left unscathed by this dark business as Murphy is repeatedly seen to be unsettled by the escalating violence of the criminals he hunts and Colombian officers are subjected to chilling threats against their families. With the first episode littered with allusions to good men breaking bad, don’t be surprised if more than a few of our heroes are destroyed by the maelstrom by the time the series’ 10-part run concludes.

Brancato is determined to steer as close to the truth as he possibly can, meaning we’re often bombarded by facts detailing the production of cocaine and the sheer numbers involved in such a business. Yet the drama never feels like it’s becoming a history lesson, partly because the exposition is entertainingly delivered in Holbrook’s lazy drawl, but mostly due to the pulsating rhythm of Padilha’s direction.

Padilha delights in the technical possibilities of filmmaking. There are freeze frames, fast cuts, montages and the occasional long tracking shot, all vibrating with an outlaw energy that keeps the dense plot on its toes as it barrels along in absorbing fashion.

Attention must also be drawn to the performances, all of which are first rate. The series is beautifully cast with Moura’s dedication to the role of Escobar – he gained 40 pounds and learned Spanish to play the part – paying off with a charming, intense and utterly beguiling performance, while Holbrook also impresses as Murphy, a down-to-earth, patriotic agent who struggles to cope with being thrown onto the front lines of a war he didn’t even know had begun.

If there is to be one complaint after the first episode it’s that the sprawling story lacks a focal point, meaning, beyond the two leads, the rest of the cast fail to register.

Even then, there are already signs of improvement as the episode closes with Escobar placing a bounty on the head of a circling Murphy, suggesting subsequent episodes will focus more on how these two characters, and the people closest to them, are affected by the growing conflict.

Otherwise, Narcos is a triumph of a series, combining perfect editing, camerawork and cast into a virtuoso spectacle that can genuinely stand toe-to-toe with The Godfather and Goodfellas as one of the greatest gangster stories ever told.

Click here to watch a trailer for Narcos

The Strain, BK, NY – TV Review

Despite a lacklustre beginning, characterised by a wayward tone and insipid pacing, The Strain, Guillermo Del Toro’s gory vampire yarn based on his own novel, gradually found its bearings during a hugely enjoyable first season.

With the dour contagion theme thankfully ditched in favour of a move towards its schlock horror roots and a core set of intriguing characters now firmly established, the series feels primed and ready to hit the ground running in its sophomore season.

Which is just as well: those grotesque, parasitic blood suckers have been growing more numerous by the day.

Lest your mind has been wiped by an infectious translucent worm, New York City has been invaded by a viral outbreak of vampire-like creatures – whose design eschews the pale hunks of Twilight for squelching beasts whose mouths rip apart to reveal a slimy tentacle – controlled by Robert Maillet’s the Master.

The ancient monster’s re-emergence draws his old foe Abraham Setrakian (a superbly cantankerous David Bradley) out of hiding to foil his plot to create an immortal master race. With such a dangerous mission to undertake, Setrakian wisely recruits a merry band of vampire hunters – led by a be-wigged Corey Stoll – to watch his back.

Season two picks up in the immediate aftermath of Setrakian’s failed attempt to kill the Master, as the crusty crusader follows a trail of vampire blood that leads to an intriguing encounter with Vaun and his strigoi squad. Meanwhile, Stoll’s epistemologist Ephraim has turned his attention to creating a bio weapon that will wipe out the contagion for good (that is, when he’s not peering down the bottom of an empty vodka bottle).

As for the Master, flashbacks reveal more about his backstory, while the ancient giant recruits Ephraim’s ex-wife (Natalie Brown) to play mother to his fresh horde of blind zombie children. Yeah, it’s that kind of show.

It’s immediately clear the series has eradicated its pacing issues as the extended season opener rampages by in an hour of gripping television. Forgoing the usual first-episode-back set up, BK, NY tears straight into the action, flitting confidently between storylines to ensure we never get a chance to steady our nerves. The effect is positively exhilarating.

Even with such relentless plotting, writers Carlton Cuse and Chuck Hogan somehow still find time to develop their characters further, opening the episode with a prologue (guest-directed by Del Toro in the Mexican filmmaker’s trademark gothic fairytale style) that provides a much-needed expansion of the show’s vampire mythology.

Of course, the main focus is rightly on eliminating parasitic bloodsuckers via the most gruesome, inventive methods possible; and in that regard, this episode delivers by the bucket load.

Director Gregory Hoblit invents chaotic action sequences with an almost child-like glee, first with a cringe-making demonstration of the strigoi’s ruthlessness that makes great use of the ancients’ twitching and cracking limbs to rattle the nerves; and then closing with a breathless chase sequence that plays like a classic arcade game as Setrakian and his team flee a vampire horde whilst locked inside a dark storage facility where the only light is provided by sparks of gunfire.

Some of The Strain’s issues still persist – namely a disjointed story and a tendency towards cliché when it comes to its characters’ personalities (see Ephraim’s sudden relapse into alcoholism); but at a time when fantasy series are frequently geared towards grim introspection (we’re looking at you, Penny Dreadful), it’s refreshing to watch a cult show that’s perfectly content to have gory, gratuitous fun. Even when the fate of humanity is at stake.

Click here to watch a trailer for The Strain – Season Two

Trainwreck – Film Review

Judd Apatow sure knows how to pick ‘em. Having guided the likes of Seth Rogen and Lena Dunham to the peak of the comedy pile, the Knocked Up-director has lined up Amy Schumer as his latest pet project.

Already a rising star across the pond thanks to the success of her subversive sketch show Inside Amy Schumer, Trainwreck will surely fire Schumer into the stratosphere as she uses her trademark sharp, spiky wit to put an empowering spin on romantic comedy cliches.

Schumer is Amy, an irresponsible New Yorker who, having been warned by her absentee father about the pitfalls of monogamy as a child, has adopted “love ‘em and leave ‘em” as her credo, substituting real relationships for a string of awkward one night stands with muscle-bound lunks.

That all looks sets to change, you’ll be (un)surprised to hear, when she is assigned to interview handsome sports doctor Aaron Conners (an understated Bill Hader) for vapid men’s rag S’nuff and finds herself actually falling for his hopelessly earnest charms.

Schumer is nothing short of a revelation in the lead role. Having written the screenplay as an amplified version of her own experiences, the tone is perfectly geared towards her comedic style, so it’s no surprise that the movie’s best scenes are when her sardonic take on sex and gender stereotypes are allowed to take centre stage.

What’s more unexpected, though, is just how well Schumer handles the more dramatic moments of her role. Despite her self-sabotaging defence mechanisms (Amy has a finely tuned exit strategy to ensure her casual liaisons never become something more), Amy is deeply insecure about her potential failings and Schumer enlivens her complex, layered character with exceptional nuance.

The movie is at its funniest during the first half when Amy unapologetically cuts loose. Blending cringey encounters, gross-out gags and acute observations, Schumer deftly skewers existing genre tropes by casting herself as the promiscuous slacker while her male counterparts play the endearing romantics (namely, John Cena’s big hearted meathead).

This move simultaneously freshens up the typical premise of unlucky-in-love 30-something finally finds the one whilst also shinning a light on the ridiculousness of these unrealistic gender generalisations.

The second half is far less satisfying, however, as Schumer’s solid work is almost completely undermined by Apatow’s clunky direction. True to form, the comedy kingpin is too indulgent with his characters and allows scenes to run on far longer than necessary.

This draws attention away from Schumer’s character and the film suffers as a result, becoming less scathing and more conventional as the story veers towards a happy ending that feels surprisingly false compared to the movie’s earlier tone.

With 20 minutes shaved off the running time, Trainwreck could have been one of the best romcoms since Bridesmaids. But while it’s rough around the edges, Schumer’s sharp humour and the cast’s engaging performances ensure it works as a light-hearted comedy more often than it doesn’t – and that’s more than enough.

Runtime: 125 mins; Genre: Romantic Comedy; Released: 14 August 2015;

Director: Judd Apatow; Writer: Amy Schumer;

Cast: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, John Cena

Click here to watch a trailer for Trainwreck

Top Coppers – TV Review

With its groovy sound effects, melodramatic close-ups of squinting faces and more shades of brown than is ever necessary, there’s an unmistakable whiff of the 70s and 80s about this police comedy spoof, which lovingly lampoons cop shows of the era with a deft and unashamedly daft wit.

Double Edinburgh award-winner John Keats and Steen Raskopoulos star as absurdly hapless detectives Mitch Rust and John Mahogany, a crack cop duo who must overcome their own reckless stupidity to protect the fictional Justice City from the deranged residents of its sinister underworld.

In this series opener, the duo take-on notorious wrong‘un Harry McCrane (an excellent Paul Ritter), who’s turned a successful ice cream business into a front for his drug empire (“Drugs or ice cream?”); meanwhile, Mahogany attempts to woo station newbie Pippa, albeit with about as much charm as a contestant on Young, Free & Single.

The entire cast has a ball going completely over the top with their characters. Paul Ritter is especially hilarious; chewing the scenery through perpetually gritted teeth as a fearsome cockney gangster, while Donovan Blackwood almost steals the show as the obligatory short-tempered station chief.

Unsurprisingly considering it stars a comedian whose style has been described as “erratic, eccentric absurdism”, the show is a mishmash of jokes that come thick and fast, evoking everything from Airplane! and Anchorman to Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace in its efforts to expose the silliness in shows like The Sweeney and Hawaii Five-O.

This scattershot silliness might not be to everyone’s tastes – nor does it make for the most consistent comedy in the world – but whether it’s a car chase featuring an ice cream van, a MacGyver-esque hamster on a zipline or a simple one-liner like “a lover of another brother’s mother” there’s bound to be at least a couple of gags to tickle your taste buds.

Click here to watch Top Coppers on BBC iPlayer

Aquarius – TV Review

Using the exploits of Charles Manson and his ragtag ‘family’ of hippie followers as a jumping off point to explore the Summer of Love counterculture, Aquarius is undeniably stylish with a vast array of sharp suits, slick cars and an exhilarating rock n roll soundtrack. Yet, for all its groovy trappings, there’s nothing that can be done to brighten up this dull, by-the-numbers period procedural.

David Duchovny plays Sam Hodiak, a blandly hardboiled LAPD cop, asked by a former flame (Michaela McManus) to help find her missing 16-year-old daughter, Emma (Emma Dumont). As it turns out, the girl has fallen under the spell of wannabe rockstar and mercurial cult leader Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony).

Needing help to crack the case, Hodiak recruits young undercover narcotics officer Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) as his partner, and together they set about uncovering all the shady goings-on that lurk just beneath the surface of the seemingly free-spirited Los Angeles.

An initial focus on this wispy missing-girl plot rapidly expands into a sprawling, cumbersome narrative that is sorely lacking in any sort of focal point. Writer John McNamara’s ambitious attempts to marry historical references with these many plot strands never quite gel, and as a result the show veers awkwardly between tones as it tries to encompass everything from seedy crime drama to psychological horror to buddy cop comedy.

And that’s to the show’s detriment because the scenes featuring Gethin Anthony’s chillingly charismatic Manson are among its very best. Perhaps that’s because, by comparison, the rest of the characters feel woefully underwritten.

While Duchovny’s Hodiak is forming a promising ying-and-yang partnership with Damon’s Shafe, as yet another hardened detective repressing a dark past and strained family relations, he’s barely distinguishable from all the other moody male leads you’ll find in a crime drama. Meanwhile, the rest of the supporting players are a who’s who of procedural types – the uncaring father, the corrupt government official, the seedy boyfriend. It’s just the same old, same old.

It is, of course, still early days for the series, and there’s plenty of potential in the characters’ relationships to keep viewers intrigued for a little while longer yet, but Aquarius needs to start thinking outside the box and settle on the story it wants to tell or it risks becoming lost in a crowded genre where there’s always a more enticing option just around the corner.

Click here to watch the trailer for Aquarius

Fantastic Four – Film Review

Nearly a decade after Tim Story’s goofy films failed to ignite fan interest, news that Josh Trank would be next to take a shot at a Fantastic Four movie appeared promising. Trank’s low-fi debut, Chronicle, was a dark, compelling take on the whole superhero thing, raising hopes that, with the help of X-Men creative mind Simon Kinberg and a quartet of super talented actors, he could be the one to finally carve out a big screen presence for Marvel’s longest-running superhero team.

Yet the project was almost immediately beset by whispers of creative tussles between Trank and 20th Century Fox, leaving many Marvel fans fearing yet another disappointment. They were right to be worried: Fantastic Four is comfortably the worst superhero movie to hit screens since The Green Lantern.

We may never know what really went on behind the scenes, but this certainly doesn’t feel like the movie Trank – or indeed anyone – intended to make. Narratively muddled, tonally awkward and structurally uneven, the whole thing feels like one long set-up for a movie that never happens, leaving the characters to flounder while the plot searches for a clear direction.

Events kick-off with a young Reed Richards, assisted by his unlikely best friend Ben Grimm, attempting to cobble together a teleporter in his parents’ garage, much to the derision of his peers and teachers. His haphazard experiments eventually attract the attention of pioneer scientist Professor Storm, who recruits a now-grown Reed to join his adoptive daughter Sue, wayward son Johnny and anti-social programmer Victor von Doom on a project to crack inter-dimensional travel.

Disappointed at being pushed aside in favour of government-approved astronauts, Reed and his new friends drunkenly decide to claim the glory for themselves, commandeering the teleporter for an unsanctioned voyage to an alternate world. When the mission inevitably ends in disaster, Reed, Sue Johnny and Ben are left with frightening superpowers they must learn to control to save the Earth from a former friend turned enemy.

The story works best when our heroes are left to tinker in their lab, with the central cast displaying an enjoyable chemistry as they bond over shared experiences of broken families. These scenes hint at a potentially engaging team dynamic, with Teller, Jordan, Mara and Bell all offering encouraging performances, yet this is never explored further as the undercooked script lumbers its characters with thin backstories and only surface-level relationships.

It’s Toby Kebbell’s big bad who suffers the effects of such weak characterisation most. We know from his brilliant turn as Koba in Rise of the Planet of the Apes that Kebbell can do conflicted intensity, but he barely registers here as Doom. Appearing fleetingly and with no semblance of motivation, it’s almost impossible to buy his transformation into a seemingly powerful threat.

With all the character development and actual action crammed into the final ten minutes, it’s inevitable that the climax feels rushed and ill considered. While Trank manages to pull off a couple of gripping and inventive sequences, because we’ve been given almost no reason to care about these characters or their actions, the finale lacks tension and suspense, feeling as dull and lacklustre as the 90 minutes that preceded it.

Where this leaves the already-announced sequel is anyone’s guess. There are flashes of potential here in the main cast’s excellent performances and the brief glimpses of Trank’s true vision that sneak through the mire, but Fantastic Four is so drab and unimaginative it’s unlikely to garner enough interest to warrant a a second outing – even if the director was willing to return.

Ultimately, what promised to be a bold, intelligent re-imagining has ended up as a woefully misguided experiment, totally lacking in vision, depth or even simple cohesion. A fantastic bore.

Runtime: 100 mins; Genre: Sci-fi/Superhero; Released: 6 August 2015;

Director: Josh Trank; Screenwriters: Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, Josh Trank;

Cast: Miles Teller, Michael B Jordan, Toby Kebbell, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell

Click here to watch the trailer for Fantastic Four