Sunday, December 1, 2013

Beat It, Essay: Wes Is More

This here is my final essay for my Horror Genre class! We had three weeks to watch four movies (each related to a movie we watched in class - we could choose between eight films) and draw our conclusions about horror and society, all without research.

It's really invigorating to have a class that wants you to think for yourself and draw your own conclusions, and thanks to this essay and the Blob one before it I not only feel more prepared to discuss the intricacies and artistry of horror, I feel more equipped to make and understand all cinema.

I've always argued that the horror genre is just as important as any other in the development of film and this class has opened my eyes to the vast scope of its influence. Which is why I'll never stop writing about them. Sorry, mom.

The Prompt
A) Compare and contrast The Last House on the Left (1972) with The Hills Have Eyes (1977), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), and The Last House on the Left (2009). Cite elements in common and discuss how they each are a product of their times.
B) Cite five elements that are used in a horror film that NEVER fail to frighten you. Why do they frighten you? Cite their usage in the films in Part A. 

Some people might say Martin Scorsese. Paul Thomas Anderson. Steven Spielberg. Alfred Hitchcock. Francis Ford Coppola. Perhaps even Michael Bay. But when I'm asked the question that is inevitably asked of all film majors, "Who is your favorite director?" my answer will always unironically and unambiguously be Wes Craven.

Craven's is a story of talent triumphing over obstacles and intellect being rewarded with success and recognition (and perhaps the most memorable horror icon of all time).

An auteur of the horror genre if there ever was one, his intelligence, creativity, and passion for storytelling have allowed him success in a genre not particularly well-known for respected works. This is a man who went from never seeing a movie until he was 18 years old to being an English professor to a porn editor to reinventing an entire genre of film twice in the span of twelve years (with A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984 and Scream in 1996).

Because of his background, Craven's films have always been more than mere shock pictures. From the very beginning of his career, even his most reviled films have had literary or classic influences and deeper themes lurking beneath the surface.

A favorite topic of his is the dark side of conservative suburbia. A perfectly normal vanilla whitebread family is pitted against an unspeakable evil (usually signified as such by a facial disfigurement or some other "abnormal" trait) and comes out on top, not through any morally superior means but by acting on their dark and dirty impulses, releasing the violent rage that has been pent up through years of strict buttoned-up living.

And although each film has a primary antagonist, the relationships between the family members take the forefront and are usually more poisonous and dangerous than the supposed villain at hand. Craven's films almost invariably have the family triumphing over the evil, bound together through their bloody release and mutual loss.

Because nobody can escape unscathed. Another prevalent quality of Craven's films is that every death hits like a sledgehammer. With fleshed out and human characters, the death scenes pack more of a punch and fuel the horror both for the audience and the protagonists.

The best example of his incredible genius in fusing these ideas is the fact that every one of his major characters has a last name. In your typical slasher film, the credits are full of characters like "Drew" or "Beth" or "Stacy." But with Craven we get "Mari Collingwood," "Nancy Thompson," and "Bobby Carter." This serves the dual purpose of fully humanizing the characters and linking them with their family, which is the thematic through line of most of his work.

It all began with his first film, The Last House on the Left in 1972. Two young girls are brutally raped and murdered by a gaggle of escaped convicts who are subsequently murdered after taking refuge in the home of one of their victims' parents. The intense violence of the film shocked and disgusted audiences of the time and many decried the film as worthless garbage.But we know by now that Craven can't ever be taken at face value. 

Although this film has less of an intellectual undercurrent than his later works, the plot is a riff on the esteemed Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (show me a hack director who's seen that film) and the underlying theme of how violence begets violence but ultimately destroys everything in its path is underscored by the repeating musical motif: "The road leads to nowhere." This film is the genesis of the ideas Craven would explore in detail throughout his career (facial disfigurement, poisonous family relationships, and the pent up violence of conservative suburban families). 

His cold-blooded villain Krug (whose name would come into play a couple films down the line) is marred by a scar on his cheek halfway through the film. Mari lives a superficially happy life but her rebellion against her doctor father leads her to the counterculture and a drug deal gone wrong leads her to Krug. And in the heat of revenge, the Collingwoods' bloodlust exceeds even that of the animalistic Sadie.

This is also the first of several of Craven's films that explore the concept of what I call the Mirror Family - a twisted reflection of the central characters. You see, Krug also has a child - a son, Junior, whom he mistreats and eventually leads to suicide. Their relationship is a more outwardly dark and warped reflection of the flaws in the Collingwoods.

This film, the most violent and brutal in his repertoire, is very much a product of its time. The nihilistic youth culture of the 70's saw the world as a dark and grubby place and cinema began to reflect that (as evidenced by the success of such films as A Clockwork Orange and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre).

But as the times changed, so did Craven's continued explorations of family. His 1977 The Hills Have Eyes is very much in the same exploitation grindhouse vein as The Last House on the Left, but was already showing signs of the shifting culture. The key elements and themes of his films would remain the same across time, but are utterly different as viewed through the lens of an country a mere five years later.

The nihilistic 70's weren't quite over at this point (As evidenced by the murder of the family dog, Beauty. Beauty is dead. A nice touch.), but this tale of a vacationing family getting stranded in the desert and besieged by a horde of roaming mutants is a lot less visceral and unwatchably misanthropic, although the major themes still stick fast.

Our facially disfigured villain here is Pluto, the son of Papa Jupiter - the patriarch of this film's Mirror Family. When the Carters break down in their territory, Jupiter's clan (the only major characters who don't have surnames) kill and cannibalize who they can, but are beat down through the combined efforts of the surviving family members. It is also noteworthy that both families have rebellious teen daughters (the Mirror Daughter is actually the catalyst for the Carters' victory - another example of family relationships taking the forefront).

This film has a lot more to say about the times (references to nuclear testing and economic downturn appear on the sidelines), but packs less of a punch than its predecessor, possibly due to the watered down popular values slowly shifting to the materialism of the 80's.

It was in 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street that Craven's pet topics and distinctive visual style truly coalesced in a film that, while working within the confines of the fashionable slasher genre, managed to be an utterly terrifying and compelling examination of the suburban environment. Nightmare is an ethereal masterpiece, effortlessly toeing the line between dreams and reality and bringing wit to the deflating slasher prestige with a spectacular high concept.

Our facially disfigured villain of the day is one Freddy Krueger, a demon who haunts the dreams of the children of the lynch mob that killed him. In an interesting reversal of Craven's earlier films, the violence inflicted on the villain by suburban parents is the catalyst of the horror rather than the response.

The conflict that lies at the center of the film is not the battle between Freddy and Nancy, but rather Nancy's attempts to convince her parents of Freddy's existence and enlist their help in combatting him. Although they're well-meaning, her parents' attempts to get her to go to sleep ultimately lead her to take on Freddy herself. If her parents had been more communicative and had a better relationship with their daughter, at least three lives could have been saved.

With trademark creativity and zeal, Craven updated his ideas for the modern age, allowing the changing times to provide a deeper exploration rather than render them outdated. Not for nothing is this the first film to feature a child of divorced parents. In an increasingly materialistic culture, spouses and children were forgotten and left behind - divorce and stubborn ignorance were the suburban poisons of the day rather than blind conservatism.

Jump to ten years later with Wes Craven's New Nightmare, the sixth Nightmare sequel, in which it was essential to visit the same themes and characters from an advanced perspective. Time had turned Freddy Krueger from a menacing shadow to a chuckling comedian and the gravity of Craven's original intentions had long since been lost.

In 1994, a lot had changed since his last excursion with Mr. Krueger. Pop culture, especially horror, was in an unprecedented state of doldrums and was starting to cannibalize itself. R&B songs started sampling older rhythms with increased verve and vigor. Genre pastiches were all the rage. Nostalgia was king. Craven took this recursion of pop culture and infused it into a massively unique (and disappointingly unprofitable) sequel.

Instead of shoving Freddy unceremoniously into another set of teenage lives, Craven brought Freddy into our world. Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy Thompson in the original film, returns and Wes Craven and New Line executive Bob Shaye cameo as a mysterious dream demon begins to escape the story he has been trapped in since the mid-80's.

The film was incredibly ahead of its time and paved the way for postmodern meta masterpieces like Craven's own Scream and later Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Knowing that he couldn't just rehash his old plot devices and create an interesting story, he applied another reversal. Instead of Nancy struggling to get her parents to believe her, she has become the parent.

Applying the lessons that she has learned from the story of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Heather has become a more conscientious and open-minded parent much more equipped to defend her son from the evil machinations of Freddy. Rather than reprimand her for living an artificial suburban life, he rewards her for not having done so.

The years have come and gone, but the driving force behind Wes' output has carried on as strong as ever as exemplified in 2009's remake of The Last House on the Left. Although Craven was only involved as a producer so the film lost a little bit of punch due to studio-mandated slick visuals and name brand stars, the heart that made the original such a rousing (if unappetizing) film still beats within it.

Sadie's cigarette burn scar is a pleasing reminder of Craven's marks of evil, and the film returns to the idea that Mari's poor relationship with her parents (she hasn't even been on vacation with them for 24 hours before she goes to hang out with her friend) is what gets her in trouble. Obviously the suburban violence plot remained the same although the rape scene is markedly more brutal and the house massacre markedly less so.

The only major change was the ending, in which both Justin (Krug's son) and Mari survive. Many would decry this as a violation of the original film's intent, but it is merely a reflection of the new era. In the three and a half decades between the original in the remake, a lot had changed. After Columbine and Virginia Tech, the murder of teenagers had become a completely different affair (and in the wake of the Aurora and Sandy Hook shootings even more so). A movie couldn't expect to off its entire teenage cast and get off scot-free.

Although this limits the thematic potential of the original intent, another tie-in with family is achieved through the idea that by saving the Collingwoods, Justin gained a mother. It's certainly a much more optimistic plot element than 1972 Craven would have liked, but the ending reflects the changes in the time period, movie making, and Craven himself.

Craven's clever approach to filmmaking changed the genre forever, endlessly adapting itself to the ebbs and flows of American culture. The changing times allowed him to reverse and manipulate his ideas into multifaceted combinations in a career that has explored the currents of suburbia more thoroughly than any textbook could have.

And all this is just within the confines of horror movies! Therein lies the genius of Wes Craven. In a genre that is typically depicted as cheap, tawdry, and, well, craven, his work is utterly cinematic and intelligent. Horror allowed him to illuminate the darkness in everyday life and his understanding of that is why he is not only a master filmmaker, but a master of fear.

That should never go unappreciated, because it's harder to scare audiences than one would expect. Other than comedy, no genre has been more divisive than horror due to the incalculable variations in tastes and preferences. Where a film like The Exorcist can terrify multitudes of Catholics (and acid-droppers), there are just as many atheists yawning in the wings.

The subtlety of fear is a weapon that Craven has honed throughout his career, and while his style of fear is certainly more universal than others, it seems to be especially attuned to my sensibilities. There are five elements in horror films that scare me above all else, and he manages to capture them all on celluloid, a feat for which I both thank and reproach him.

One such element is death within earshot of a potential savior. The most perfect example of which can be drawn from Craven's 1996 film Scream. Casey Becker has been stabbed by Ghostface in multiple areas, including the throat. With a last burst of effort, she manages to knock him off of her and runs for the porch where her parents are unlocking the door. She tries to call out to them but can only manage a wheeze before she is finished off by the hooded killer.

That feeling of utter helplessness is one I'll return to multiple times throughout this list because if there's one thing that scares me above all else, it's the inability to control what happens in my own life. The idea that getting help is so easy, but impossible in a certain situation terrifies me to the very core.

Craven is no stranger to this idea, what with Mari Collingwood being dragged off into the woods after spotting her own mailbox in The Last House on the Left and Rod being strangled in his jail cell while Nancy unsuccessfully tries to warn the police in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

A similar element that always knocks me off kilter is when a well-meaning friend or family member tries to do what's best for a character but ultimately and completely unintentionally signs their death warrant. Think the doctors in the Nightmare films that try to give Nancy sleeping medication. This idea is explored many times throughout Craven's oeuvre because it is so intimately associated with his explorations of how an outwardly loving family relationship can harbor pain and despair.

The father in The Hills Have Eyes just wanted to take his family on the scenic route. Glen's dad in Nightmare took the phone of the hook because he just wanted his son to get some rest. The hospital workers that detain Heather in New Nightmare just want to address what seems to be a case of criminal child neglect. And poor Paige in The Last House on the Left remake just wants to show her friend Mari a good time.

The terror derives from the dramatic irony that the audience is fully aware of the dooming nature of their actions, but they are completely justified (from their perspectives) in making the decisions that they do. This all relates to something deeper and infinitely more alarming about the nature of our decisions and the effects they have on ourselves and others.

Another horror element that penetrates my soul is in the same neighborhood as that, a couple of doors to the left. I can't stand the idea of random, senseless evil. Evil that exists for no reason other than to be evil, that targets innocent and guilty people alike just because. This idea is why films like Halloween and The Birds are so scary.

Michael Myers and the Bodega Bay birds don't have a reason to massacre the way they do. They're driven by an unfathomable internal force. There's nothing you can do to stop it because there's nothing anyone did to start it. Your fate rests on the whims of pure, motiveless evil.

The Carters didn't do anything wrong. Papa Jupiter and his clan were just hungry. And the girls from The Last House on the Lefts were innocent, except for a penchant for smoking grass. Nancy Thompson did nothing to incur Freddy Krueger's wrath and New Nightmare expands that premise by making him into a demon who specializes in the slaughter of innocents.

Most of the time, the terror is provided some levity by cool gore effects. Although an appreciation of film violence is often viewed as a negative character trait, it's hard not to enjoy the movie magic of a geyser of blood or a severed head. So much care and attention is put into making these effects as realistic and alluring as possible, and a great gore technician like maestro of the craft Tom Savini is always appreciated.

But if there's one thing I can't stand, it's when the violence and gore gets intimate. Small moments of pain always give me Stage 3 Heebie Jeebies more than anything else. I can sit down and watch Jason plow through one hundred co-eds with a machete, but that part in Black Swan where Natalie Portman pulls open her hangnail will never be fully eradicated from my mind.

Craven is all about intimacy and time and time again his smaller moments (I'm thinking of a certain seduction scene in Last House) are powerhouses of skin-crawling fright. They don't even have to be outrĂ© violent setpieces to have impact, like the scene where Krug makes Mari Collingwood wet her pants at gunpoint. And it only gets worse from there. The Nightmare movies hit close to home because what's more intimate than your own head?

All of these fears can be incorporated under one umbrella. My fear of loss of control or the inability to save oneself is all tied in with the fear of being vulnerable. A Nightmare on Elm Street most captures this idea, because when are you more vulnerable than when you're asleep?  We all need to sleep, but when unconscious we are completely unable to protect ourselves. That is the reason we fear the monsters in the closet, the boogeyman under the bed.

And that is what makes Freddy Krueger such an incredible villain. Of course, vulnerability is present in the rest of his films (a family is stranded in the desert unable to save themselves, rape is a violation of one's sense of power and autonomy) but Nightmare most thoroughly captures that idea.

Wes Craven is a master storyteller and fright technician because he understands the power of all of these disparate elements and manages to combine them all, and more, in a single story with believable characters and a pulsating thematic undercurrent. His background and intellect equipped him for a long and successful career and his contributions to the horror genre are so staggeringly numerous as to be incomprehensible.

All we can do is sit back and enjoy. And scream.

UPDATE: I got an A! And an offer to be TA next semester! I think it went well.
Word Count: 3471


  1. Behind the Mask <3. And Wes Craven too, obviously.

  2. I don't give you enough credit for what a gifted writer you are. Everything you write is so well thought out and structured. Kudos!