Wes Craven never set out to make horror movies. He just sort of fell into them — in 1972, as it were, with his cult classic “The Last House on the Left,” which he made because he was an unknown filmmaker and studios wanted something scary. Presumably, then, he never meant to rewrite genre history either, but that’s exactly he did — twice. First it was a merciless child killer with knives for fingers that haunted an entire generation’s dreams, and then it was a trilogy of macabre horror comedies that revitalized the pop slasher film that Craven himself helped create more than a decade earlier, one self-conscious in-joke at a time.

Film Reviews
Craven directs Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy on the set of “Red Eye.” (Courtesy of DreamWorks)

Now it’s still another decade later and Craven, 66 years old and a legend in the field, is tired. He’s proud of his legacy, but after 30 years of outrageously chested heroines and sliced entrails and butcher knives, it was time for a change — if only a small one. So here is “Red Eye,” a claustrophobic cat-and-mouse thriller with a timely political undertow that sets a large portion of its 85 minutes in an overcrowded late-night flight from Dallas to Miami.

“Because I just sort of fell into making scary movies, and I obviously made a lot of them … you just get a little bored. Obviously, you have a whole adult life — I’m not just a teenager somewhere in the back of my mind — so what about those other parts of my life?” Craven said.

The film, which opens Friday, follows a hotel manager (Rachel McAdams) on a flight with an operative (Cillian Murphy) who threatens to kill her father if she won’t help him facilitate a high-profile hit on a government official staying in her hotel. It finally gave Craven the chance to veer away from the hardcore horror he’s famous for and delve into more psychological suspense.

“It was much more grown up and complicated and really is about this powerful relationship between these two people. He tries to think it’s this military-type operation, but, clearly, by the end, it has these emotions all over it,” he said. “It’s a struggle of morality, it’s a struggle of world views, it’s a struggle of what is right and wrong … What do you do if your dad’s going to be killed if you don’t (help) kill another guy?”

Craven added that the film allowed him to dig deeper than the subdued social undercurrents in many horror films and more explicitly channel today’s political atmosphere. Namely, in addition to its airline setting, the target of the film’s assassination plot is a controversial Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security.

“It’s got the whole post-9/11 tone to it. I made it even a little bit more in the sense that (the Deputy) was (originally) just a businessman and (he never) was involved in the government,” he said. “(The Murphy character) kind of thinks like a terrorist would. Which is, there are struggles and we take part in them, but it doesn’t make any difference in the long run — so just do what you’re told and you can walk away. (Then there’s) a person that can’t walk away, because they still have a moral core. That kind of stuff you can’t do in a horror film too much.”

But though the movie gave Craven an uncommon creative freedom, he said it didn’t come without its own set of challenges.

“The whole second act is basically dialogue spoken by two sitting next to each other. … I mean, that’s a tough gig,” he said.

Then there was the ultra-tight production schedule that led to the rush casting of the lead roles, which, in its own way, actually turned out to Craven’s advantage.

“We were racing to get out before ‘Flight Plan’ … so we had to go very fast. So in both cases, Cillian and Rachel, the young people I sat down with … at the end of the meetings, I both asked them if they wanted to do it and (told them) that I wanted to do it with them. Part of that … just eliminated a lot of sort of studio wish-listing, because you first approach Tom Hanks and … he’s like ‘are you kidding?’ and you finally, finally get down to people that are realistic,” he said.

Now, with the finished film on the eve of release, Craven’s step away from his roots is nearly complete. For him, the dynamic between McAdams and Murphy is at the core of the film’s thematic impact.

“There’s almost a sexual or at least a gender struggle between them,” he said. “The fact that at one moment he can be really almost considerate, and then the next one he’s trying to kill her … He comes to admire her so much because she stands up to him.”

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