Sunday, April 27, 2014

Beat It, Essay: W Is For Wes

Today's Blogging From A to Z Challenge post is the one I've been leading up to all month, my essay on the illustrious Nightmare on Elm Street franchise!

The Prompt
A) Compare and contrast A Nightmare on Elm Street and Wes Craven's New Nightmare, the two films that Wes Craven wrote and directed, with the seven that he didn't direct or solely write. Which films work better and why?
B) Why is Freddy such an iconic figure? 

Wes Craven is a director who I hold in such high esteem, I immediately jumped on the chance to write this essay even though I wrote an analysis of his earlier works just one semester ago. Wes Craven is one of the most important living horror filmmakers and the Nightmare franchise is perhaps his greatest legacy.

It all started in 1984 with the release of the immediate classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, a film that took the moribund slasher genre and turned it on its ear, transforming an anemic and formulaic film style into something beautiful and ethereal. This film introduced the villainous Freddy Krueger, a notorious child killer given the power to haunt dreams who seeks revenge on the children of the lynch mob that burned him to death.

As reflected in its title, A Nightmare on Elm Street is about the dark side of suburbia and the family secrets that are hidden away behind closed doors. The children receive comeuppance for the sins of their fathers until one bright and intrepid young woman learns to face her fears head on and address them, taking away their power.

The film was a massive success both because of its elegantly conceived and cunning scare sequences that crossed the line between reality and fantasy and the storyline that resonated with disillusioned teens across the country. There comes a time in every young person's life where they begin to see through the lies that their parents tell them and realize that the world, even the safe, intimate world inside their own home, is not what it seems to be.

The suspicion that develops from this realization is similarly displayed in the film, which derives its horror from the idea that the secret your family is hiding could be potentially dangerous. The traumatic rupturing of that feeling of intimacy inside one's own home is likewise escalated in Nightmare because the teens aren't even protected in the most vulnerable and intimate location - their own heads.

The impact of the original film was enormous as was the box office revenue, so the natural next step was to rush a sequel into production, something New Line did with gusto. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge was a haphazard production, needlessly reshuffling the Freddy mythology with a confusing mixture of winking homoerotic licentiousness and unintentional humor.

Craven returned to course correct the franchise with Dream Warriors, the film that marked the beginning of Nightmare's descent into self parody, the only obvious route for avoiding the sequel pitfall of endlessly repeating the same basic plot line to diminishing returns. Although a different director and screenwriter watered down the material, Freddy attacks his victims using their biggest weakness, forcing them to find the internal strength to overcome them, something which again resonated with the teen audiences and sent the film's profits skyrocketing.

The Dream Master was more of the same, although Freddy had at that point fully converted from shadowy menace to a chuckling prankster. That film survived on the strength of an impressive visual vocabulary and another strong heroine in Lisa Wilcox's Alice Johnson, but its followup, The Dream Child, was an absurd mess that contented itself with sending a slate of paper-thin characters (one of whom is, at one point, literally made of paper) through a series of garish nightmare setpieces while Freddy spouts bland puns like a forlorn James Bond.

After the abject failure of the fifth film, New Line went all in on one final entry, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, which was slightly improved but equally useless and meaningless. After realizing that they had sent their biggest cash cow six feet under, New Line begged Craven to return to the franchise he created. He agreed, but couldn't manage to find a through line to pick up a sequel from, so he was forced to get creative with Wes Craven's New Nightmare.

Although two films would follow New Nightmare, Freddy vs. Jason in 2003 and the remake in 2010, both were too modernized and uniform, the sanitization of the time buffing out the inherent qualities of the franchise into a dull sheen and as such have no impact on the analysis and discussion of A Nightmare on Elm Street as a whole.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare is the only sequel to equal and perhaps even surpass the intelligence and artistry of the original film with its unique discussion of the nature of modern horror movies and the fact that it's set in reality, with the Freddy menace seeking to break from fiction into our dimension. Just like the first film, the parent and child relationship is at the forefront, although this time it is the antithesis as Heather Langenkamp (the actress who played Nancy Thompson, the heroine of A Nightmare on Elm Street) seeks to protect her son from succumbing to the dream demon as he exerts his will on our reality.

A Nightmare on Elm Street and Wes Craven's New Nightmare are the two best films in the entire franchise, and it is no coincidence that they were both written and directed by Mr. Craven. Both want to tell us more about the world and ourselves instead of merely wowing us with outré special effects, and both are bone-chilling, a quality lacking in every single film not under his influence. This is largely due to his writing talent and his understanding of important themes that resonate with viewers of all ages.

But it also stems from his awareness that well-fleshed out characters are what drives horror. Parts 3 through 6 had one-dimensional characters that only had one (or less) character trait apiece, but Craven's heroes and victims are all multi-faceted and utterly real. They may not be all likable, but they are all recognizable as human beings and thus the horrific circumstances they find themselves under have greater impact.

Dylan's attempt to reach God in New Nightmare by jumping off the top of a playground structure could easily have been shallow and silly if included in any of the other films in the franchise, but because Craven is behind the camera, the scene has a real impact because the audience cares deeply for the boy and understands his plight from both Dylan and his mother's perspective. Every character in both films has a recognizable relationship with every other character, making the universe of the films complete and settling the audience into the reality that will soon be rent apart.

These films ultimately work better than their brethren because of this fact as well as Craven's intimate understanding of the abject terror of nightmares. The anemic slate of sequels that bridges the gap between his two masterpieces don't all fare poorly in comparison, but none of them can reach the level of genius achieved by a master working his craft and pushing the boundaries of the genre.

The non-Craven films focus on Freddy as the central figure, whereas his films find their strength in an identifiable and capable female protagonist. The reason they fail to be as effective stems from this mistake. Freddy works best as a villain because his backstory is too simple to make him an adequate protagonist, even as an anti-hero. With no real story to draw from other than "he was evil in life as in death," this forced him into compromising positions, eliciting the clownish behavior which was meant to accentuate his evil but turned him into a pale parody of his old self.

The nominal protagonists and side characters of these films became increasingly insubstantial and bland (even Alice, the great heroine from The Dream Master, became just another cookie-cutter teen in its inept followup), straying far from the original intention of creating characters that held a mirror up to the youth of the day and then put them through the ringer, forcing them to see the dark reality of their protected suburban lives. The franchise became vaudeville, passing the time and managing to be entertaining without the depth and impact of Craven's work, all through one ineffable miscalculation stemming from the fact that the villain was the most obvious character to keep consistent through the endless parade of sequels.

So how did this increasingly cartoonish villain make his way into the pop culture pantheon, becoming a long-lasting icon even today? One key element to his success and that of the franchise was Robert Englund. Aside from being a talented and menacing man, Englund played Krueger consistently, all the way to the end. Englund appeared in every film until the 2010 remake and even starred in the short-lived television show Freddy's Nightmares.

Having Freddy played by the same actor throughout the sequels provided him a leg up when compared to the anonymous herd of stuntmen who would end up playing Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers in rival slasher franchises. Audiences in the 80's wanted familiarity because the world around them was already so uncertain. With the looming threat of nuclear disaster poking a hole in the lives of idyllic suburbanites everywhere and the contradictions of then-president Ronald Reagan posing larger and larger problems, audiences felt a pleasant wave of nostalgia when seeing Freddy again and again, like visiting an old friend.

Also, thanks to those same societal issues, Nightmare's themes about dark secrets and hidden dangers in even the most perfect-seeming households were something that the teens of the day could relate to with great acuity. Having a horror film that truly understood their woes from a man with his fair share of family skeletons in the closet gave them relief like no other and the lessening of terror elements as the franchise went along helped comfort viewers even more as the nation entered its next period of transition.

Another enormous benefit to the popularity of Mr. Fred Krueger was his status as an inhabitant of the dream world. The concept that makes him most terrifying is that escape is an impossibility. If Jason is chasing you, you can possibly run faster than his loping gait and escape to Australia. If the Blob is coming, you can freeze it with fire extinguishers. But if Freddy wants to kill you, he doesn't have to move a muscle.

Our nightmares might all be different, but we have one thing in common - sleep. Sleep is where we are most vulnerable and the dream world is a mysterious realm over which we have no control. We all must enter that stage of life with defenses lowered.

Sleep is Freddy's domain, a mysterious dimension that your body forces you to return to no matter how hard you might try to fight it. If you stay awake too long, you die. If you fall asleep, you're murdered. And the longer you're awake, the less mental and physical agility you will have when it finally comes time to face your attacker.

Even more problematic are the adults in the film, the people who unwittingly released this monster into the nightmares of their offspring. Their skewed perceptions of the entire affair have them believe that sleep is the one thing their children need to take them out of the stress-filled and harrowing state they are in, and sometimes the measures they take in order to protect their children are exactly what lead them to their inevitable demise.

Freddy is no mere slasher villain. He is an anthropomorphic representation of our primal fears. First and foremost is the fear of where we go when we're asleep. The world of our dreams is something we will perhaps never understand, a phantasmagoria of shadows and half-glimpsed images from deep within our subconscious that preys on our innermost thoughts and fears.

Freddy has access to this closed off part of ourselves, something we barely even register is there. It is mysterious and lurking and for him to have access is for him to invade our most intimate structures, more intimate than our bedrooms or even our bodies. Freddy can manipulate the worlds inside of us that we can never understand, and as such he is the ultimate boogeyman. He is not merely a creature of the darkness, but a creature of the darkness within ourselves.

Freddy exposes the evil hiding behind every curtain not only by being an example of that evil in his life, but also by exploiting the evil of those we trust most and using it to gain access to our innermost fears. His use of claws represents the primal nature of his existence. Back at the dawn of humankind, one of the most basic and primal fears was death at the hands of a wild creature, its sharp claws tearing our soft flesh apart. Freddy and his claws come from this place deep within, the very essential foundation of fear itself.

The wicked glee with which he wields his blades comes from a place of pure evil, no matter how clownish he becomes. That is what makes him such an effective horror villain, and that is why he is permanently glued to modern pop culture, an entity that - like it or not - is driven by what we fear, whether it is in an attempt to escape it, embrace it, or empower ourselves against it.

Even in its darkest, most disappointing depths, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise exposes the fear and calamity that threatens to crumble our carefully structured and largely imaginary suburban society. Human history is full of darkness and our feeble attempts at hiding that fact to protect our children dooms them even further, something Freddy (and his creator, Wes Craven) knows all too well.
Word Count: 2339

1 comment:

  1. What a thoughtful essay, great job! It is difficult to pinpoint what makes Freddy is so scary. He differs from most iconic horror villains as he's one of the few who we get to see without a mask. While yes Freddy's face is largely obscured by his burns, he's still not hiding behind anything. With the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series, the unseen is not so much the villain's face but more the dream world (to which everyone can identify with). I think the one missed opportunity of the franchise is the lack of Freddy's backstory. We get flashbacks here-and-there, however the only time Freddy is adequately explored is in the 2010 re-make/re-imagining "A Nightmare on Elm Street." I didn't particularly like this movie, but I liked how it attempted to offer more an explanation of Freddy's origins.