Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Census Bloodbath: Night Terrors

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Year: 1984
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

This entry was due to come up much later in my Census Bloodbath series, but I've been cravin' some Craven. Also I'm writing an essay in my horror class about him (!!!) so I've been screening his movies all week.

So before we get into this film, let me take this opportunity gush for a little bit, please. Wes Craven is my favorite director of all time, not just of horror. The man started off as an English teacher, made the wildly depraved The Last House on the Left (Could you even imagine? I want you to picture your high school English teacher directing a grindhouse flick where a criminal gets his penis bitten off. Things just got very un-Pride and Prejudice.), reinvented the slasher genre twice with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, and is the only 74-year-old alive who is actually good at Instagram.

He even made a Game of Thrones reference! I can't even with this guy...

But you'll get more and more Wes Craven history as we go along. For now, our concern is his first foray in changing an entire film genre as we knew it. Slashers, which had been going strong since Friday the 13th opened the floodgates in 1980, had begun to run out of steam. The well of ideas had already run dry by the first whispers of "Part 2" and increasing opposition by the MPAA (and the horrors of diminishing returns) meant that the slice-and-dicers were considering closing up shop permanently.

In fact, Paramount had already put a stake in their tentpole franchise, announcing that the next Friday the 13th film would be their last (it was not). But just after Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street blew in like a hurricane, sweeping up the desiccated husks of slasher cinema (Splatter University and Murder Rock: Dancing Death also came out that year) into its whirlwind of dazzling imagery and twisted,  quasi-European sensibilities.

Craven's first masterpiece, A Nightmare on Elm Street is an aggregate of influences as far and wide as the cinema of Dario Argento, newspaper articles about a mysterious dream disease, a study on primal fears, Val Lewton, and a childhood experience with a menacing vagrant. With his literary background and vast intelligence, Craven did what others could not: create Freddy Krueger, arguably the single most iconic villain in horror history.

The rush of creativity and the introduction of paranormal elements to the slasher formula initiated the second wave. Suddenly the supernatural was in vogue, and cheapie filmmakers traded in their machetes for high concept brain-throbbers. Late-to-the-game sequels like Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II and The Slumber Party Massacre II saw massive restructuring and even Jason and Michael got in on the fun, the former by becoming an undead behemoth resurrected by lighting and the latter by something something druid curse.

But let's not think too hard about that, here's a sheep.

People remember Freddy as the cackling prankster of the later films, but most forget what a menacing presence he has in the original. He might get more hoots than hollers these days, but the first Nightmare is still utterly terrifying.

The story goes like this: Plucky teen Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp, who'll return to Census Bloodbath in several other Wes Craven flicks) and her three friends - jock boyfriend Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp, in his first ever film role), best friend Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss), and her juviebait boyfriend Rod Lane (Nick Corri). 

The fact that there are so few characters - and that each of them have last names - reveals the essence of Nightmare's horror: Nobody is disposable. Each of these characters has a distinct personality, worldview, set of life goals, and relationship with each other member of the group. This is not merely a body count movie where the only draw is watching teens get killed in outrĂ© manners. Yes, the kills are exceptionally awesome in this film, but each one of them packs a punch.

These are characters we don't want to see die, and I don't know why more filmmakers haven't realized how scary that concept is.

Anyway, these four have all been having the same nightmare - being stalked through a boiler room by a man with a burned face, a battered fedora, a dirty red and green sweater, and a glove with razor blades for fingers. It doesn't take Nancy long to realize that they're in danger. Unfortunately she realizes this too late to save Tina, who is sliced open during her postcoital slumber in her parents' bed (Why do teenagers in 80's movies have such a fascination with the parents' bedrooms? If I were trying to sneak around and boink my dreamboat boyfriend, I couldn't think of a worse place.).

Tina's death scene is, in a word, glorious. It encapsulates everything Nightmare is about as the wounds she receives in her dream manifest themselves in reality. She is clawed open, dragged up her bedroom wall, and pulled onto the ceiling in a crescendo of blood, shrieks, and despair. It is brutal and affecting no matter how many times you watch it, visceral and powerful yet at the same time ethereally beautiful.

I could talk about Italian influence here but come on, just look how cool this is.

The lines between dream and reality begin to blur as Nancy attempts to discover the secret behind Freddy's rampage and save her friends - and herself - from a rendezvous with the business end of a manicure gone bad. What follows is a surreal phantasmagoria in which it is never absolutely clear what is or isn't a dream. 

Craven's masterfully delicate handling of imagery keeps one immersed in the dreamworld better than Inception ever could (I went there). With scenes pulled directly from the audience's own nightmares, centipedes and snakes pour out of a corpse, the staircase turns to gelatin, and claws stretch through a plaster ceiling. The longer Nancy goes without sleeping, the more danger she puts herself in, both in the real world and the dream world.

Nancy fights her way through Freddy's taunting, more beautiful and awe-inspiring murders, the supernova of heartburn she must have gotten from all that coffee she's been drinking, and the resistance of her policeman father (John Saxon) and her alcoholic mother (Ronee Blakley), who just don't understand why she refuses to even take a nap. What can she say? She's into survival.

Also featured: The medium from Insidious (Lin Shaye) as a schoolteacher.

and glorious glorious Johnny Depp midriff.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is beautiful because it is a slasher movie. It has everything - the (mostly) silent killer, teen victims, inept cops, a terrible 80's score, sex = death, the murders occuring as revenge for some long ago crime, and a virginal Final Girl. The fact that it manages to work within these well-established parameters and still be the elegant and surreal masterpiece of horror that it is is nothing less than a triumph.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is scary because it hits close to home. Our nightmares might all be different, but we have one thing in common: We all sleep. And in that sleep of death, what dreams may come must give us pause. 

Sleep is necessary for survival. We can only stay awake for so long before we expire. Just straight up death. And the longer we go without it, the easier it is to fall asleep. But with that sleep comes certain death. It's a lose-lose situation and the ticking of the clock makes for immense tension, even during the non-scary scenes. 

Not to mention that, during sleep, we are totally defenseless. That's bad enough in the physical world of violence and murder, but if the murderer is in your head? Chilling.

It's even worse when he's in your mouth.

I've already raved about the gorgeous savagery (call me a gorehound, but when you need over 50 gallons of blood onscreen for a single person's death scene, I am sold) that almost entirely holds up today despite a few effects that show their seams, but nearly every aspect of Nightmare works at full steam.

The sound design is superb, but it's altogether impossible to describe the immeasurable way that this enhances the film's dreamlike qualities. Just trust me on this one. Same with the production design. Yeah, all that stuff.

What I really want to talk about is the cast. For once the cast all look like actual teenagers, a rare accomplishment in a film like this. Although I'm still on the fence about whether Langenkamp's acting is charmingly incompetent or believable for her over-the-top predicament, the cast brings their characters to life in a totally believable way.

They're believable, they're likable, and they all have realistic reactions to the deaths of their friends. What is this? It's almost like we're watching a movie or something. One of the things I love the most is that Nancy isn't played by some teen starlet in a low cut top (cough cough Rooney Mara in the remake COUGH). She's just a kid, and that enhances the impact even more than everything else already had. 

I'd also like to do a dance of gratitude to the Casting Gods for picking an actual actor to play Freddy as opposed to an anonymous stuntman. Robert Englund is Freddy Krueger and without him at the wheel, this movie would have been nothing. That wicked glimmer in his eye as he hunts down his prey is as unsettling as his diminutive stature.

It's weirdly terrifying to watch a short man tear somebody apart.

Although the film does have flaws (it was created by a human man, after all), none of them are fatal or even mildly damaging. In fact most of my complaints are highly personal and miniscule, like the fact that I think the poster is weird or that I'm annoyed by how many fade-outs there are.

The two biggest flaws are the studio mandated ending, which is just plain peculiar and Ronne Blakley as Nancy's mother. With her caked-on pancake make-up and line delivery so stilted that it seems like she's reading off of a Russian teleprompter, she seems like she's a soap opera star who was on a break and just happened to wander into the Thompson household and get lost.

Aside from that, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a rousing success. And as if the whole concept wasn't showing off enough, Craven displays his intellectual vigor and filmmaking prowess in moments big and small, my favorites of which are the incorporation of a rose trellis to suggest an intermediate stage of Nancy waking up from a dream (you'll just have to watch it, but it's incredible), and the fact that at one point she hits Freddy in the face with a coffee pot, which is metaphorically what she's been doing the whole time - defending herself with caffeine.

OK, maybe those moments are just for me. But Nightmare is the work of an egregiously underappreciated auteur who would soon go on to become one of the most important figures in horror cinema. A showstopping practical effects extravaganza, this franchise starting film is one of the best slashers of the decade, one of the scariest horror films ever released, and one of the most creative American films on the market.

And that's good enough for me.

Killer: Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund)
Final Girl: Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp)
Best Kill: No contest: Fountain of Blood.

Sign of the Times: Johnny Depp is an itty bitty baby; the soundtrack would have been dismissed by Duran Duran as "too cheesy."
Scariest Moment: This. Nope Nope Nope.

Weirdest Moment: Nancy rejects the advances of Johnny Depp. I bet she regretted that later.
Champion Dialogue: "He's dead, honey, because mommy killed him."
Body Count: 4; proving you don't have to have a slew of corpses to be a great slasher film.
  1. Tina is slashed with the glove and pulled onto the ceiling.
  2. Rod is strangled and hanged by his bedsheets.
  3. Glen is dragged into his bed and explodes into a fountain of blood. 
  4. Mrs. Thompson is burned in her sleep. 
TL;DR: A Nightmare on Elm Street is an eerie masterpiece that teeters delicately on the precipice of reality and singlehandedly resurrected the moribund slasher genre.
Rating: 10/10
Word Count: 2074
Reviews In This Series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)

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