Sunday, October 25, 2015
REARVIEW: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
Franchising horror is dicey. On the one hand, it would seem to be good for the fan culture, with the expansion of mythology and expansion of merchandising giving Fangoria subscribers endless content to watch and buy. On the other, for a genre that's animated by the unseen and the unexpected, shedding too much light on something that operates best in the shadows would seem counterproductive. I mean, who likes walking through a haunted house when all the lights are on?
An 80s kid, I knew who Freddy Krueger was without having seen any of the Nightmare movies. His immolated face and knife hands, along with Jason Voorhees' hockey mask and machete, were as culturally recognizable as Mickey Mouse's big-eared silhouette. Freddy's origin story – a child murdering janitor who was burned alive by avenging parents – had certainly been overshadowed by his saucy quipping by the time the talking Freddy doll went to market. Parents sending their kids out trick-or-treating with their grandpa's old fedora and an approximately coloured striped sweater weren't thinking twice about the costume choice. When I did get around to seeing the movies at the odd birthday party or sleepover, they mostly seemed like a gore-veiled excuse to see boobs in the pre-Internet world. I don't think any of us eleven-year-olds were particularly frightened of or entertained by the movies. They were bad – but horror movies were supposed to be bad as far as we knew.
As with most franchised horror, A Nightmare on Elm Street was never meant to be a franchise. Producer Bob Shaye famously buffaloed Wes Craven into ending the movie with a question mark and, given that he'd given up his ownership of the Freddy character to help finance the initial movie, Craven had no say in the wise-talking glut that would follow. A return for the third movie was a high point in the series, but most of the integrity of the original premise and the original character was duly exhausted in just a few movies and a few music videos and one hotline later.
An academic who jumped ship to make a better living directing pornography, Craven eventually broke into the B movie mainstream with Last House on the Left, some pretty shocking, brutal fare that gained a lot of traction thanks to its It's only a movie campaign. A few years later, The Hills Have Eyes carried on in the capture-and-torture vein. Though A Nightmare on Elm Street is tame compared to Craven's first at-bats, the violent depravity of the director's early work thrums under its surface. While Jason Voorhees is a bluntly driven revenge monster, Fred Krueger – we find out halfway through Nightmare – grows out of specifically repugnant soil. Freddy's backstory comes off like a Craven film from the 70s: The murderer of over 20 kids (elements of molestation were dropped from Craven's original script due to a contemporary news story), Krueger was caught but loosed on account of a flubbed search warrant. The parents of the town took matters into their own hands and burned Krueger alive. While the later movies will get into some pretty laborious explanation of Freddy's whole history – that his mother raped by 100 maniacs and he made pacts with some dream demons or something – how Krueger went from evil janitor to boogeyman is not the concern of the original movie.
From a dramatic standpoint, the vagueness of Krueger's monster story gives the character a metaphorical freedom that gets lost in his subsequent outings. The germ of the idea comes from newspaper articles Craven read about South Asian youths in America who were going to great lengths to stay awake. They were terrified of their dreams and when their bodies eventually shut down and forced sleep on them, they died. It turned out that many of the afflicted youths were refugees of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge horrors, and some psychologists attributed the trauma to survivor's guilt. In Nightmare, the town's parents answered violence with violence and a dream killer is ostensibly the outcome, killing kids where their parents can't protect them. Krueger is inherited trauma, a sort of curse passed down through the generations. In Nightmare, trying to protect your kids is futile, even detrimental. Indeed, one mother's drastic attempt to protect her daughter by barring the windows and doors only serves to trap that endangered daughter. In the end – or at least in the end before the producer's open ending – Nightmare is a sort of fairy tale that promotes self-reliance and ownership of one's own fears.
Krueger only has about seven minutes of screen time, most of which is spent in the shadows, the rawness of his burns glinting. At first, his kills are such that it's not obvious a dream demon is responsible. The first – which makes for a Psycho-type switcheroo, where the character set up to be the main character is nixed early on – gets pinned on the victim's boyfriend. When Freddy kills the boyfriend, that death gets chalked up to a suicide. It's when a belly shirt-wearing Johnny Depp gets sucked into a bed that then eructates a Shining elevator's-worth of blood that we get some sense of the death spectacle that will go on to define the franchise. But on the whole, Nightmare is effective on account of what it holds back or obscures.
Freddy has become so prevalent that it's tricky to hermetically watch the first movie. If you haven't seen it since some long-ago sleepover, you might have lumped it in with the dreck it spawned – much of which is fun, but I wouldn't say good. 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street sits on that dividing line between when Wes Craven was a gritty exploitationist and when he became a "master of horror." A surefire way to cleanse your palate is to think of Nightmare not as a Freddy movie, but as a Wes Craven movie. The series itself makes a big – though inconsistent – deal about how Krueger's victims can either give or take energy away from him depending on how much they're willing to fear and take him seriously. If you can forget about all the Freddy merchandise, put him back in the shadows, you should be able to see what was so good about the original that made it worth ruining.