Many were deeply saddened to hear of iconic horror director Wes Craven”s passing yesterday. Each of us here at Hitfix has our own connection with his work, or in one case, with him personally.
When I was growing up, my friends and I were rabid horror lovers. We”d spend our nights and weekends consuming every chiller we could sneak into our parent”s darkened living rooms. So of course Wes Craven”s work was to be revered as far as we were concerned.
I imagine that many of us will be looking back on Craven”s films in the coming days and weeks. I know that I”ve already got several queued up. When I think about the ideal way to celebrate his legacy, or introduce the uninitiated, a very specific three-part marathon springs to mind. Now, this isn't to say that these are Craven's three best or even scariest films, necessarily. Though two would likely land on most lists. As an exploration of a theme, though, these films work together beautifully. Credit where credit is due, Caleb Schneider pitched this very Craven trilogy to me some time ago, and it strikes me as perfect for this time of remembrance. Each film leads organically to the the next and all represent particular facets of Craven”s creative genius. Though, one is his most underrated offering.
Take a look as Chris Eggertsen and I discuss this trilogy and the work of Wes Craven in the video above or below.
“A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984)
We begin with the now classic “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” One might argue that “Halloween” (1978) beget “Friday the 13th” (1980), which beget “Elm Street” (1984). Certainly, all are representative of the slasher-era of horror. Which isn”t to say that slasher films have entirely gone away. These three franchises have withstood the test of time, however, and have become emblematic of that particular sub-genre. “Halloween” is perhaps my favorite horror film of all time and near-perfect in its simplicity. Yet, we can see where Craven picked up the mantle and re-worked the formula with “Elm Street.”
Yes, there are teens in peril, but their deaths aren”t random. Nor are they, in essence, bloody character assassinations (yep) with the sexing and drugging in the bunch meeting their gruesome ends first. Nor is Freddy motivated by familial ties. No, it”s revenge he wants, to punish the children for the sins of their parents, and to finish the murderous business he began while living. Craven took the notion of the un-killable supernatural force of evil that Jason and Michael became and began his film there.
With “Elm Street,” the director plays on multiple terrors at once: the notion that if you die in your sleep you will truly perish, a parent”s fear that they”re unable safeguard their children and, conversely, that as a child you can”t be shielded from harm by those meant to protect you. Freddy strikes at the innocent (and not so innocent) where they are most vulnerable. He tortures even as he stalks, using his victims” deepest phobias against them. Blending reality with fantasy. Haunting their every moment and causing relentless pain. There”s no escape from it, no respite. Even in the character”s waking hours they suffer with the pain of sleeplessness; a dangerous, even deadly state unto itself. If you don”t sleep – you die. If you dream – you die. In the end, Freddy”s always coming for you. These are primal fears that Craven is dancing with.
Part of Michael Myers” appeal is that he is “evil, pure evil!” incarnate. There”s no rational for his cruelty, he”s merely a container for malevolence. It calls into question the nature and existence of undiluted violence, a force that wants nothing more than to destroy you for no other reason than you exist. It”s enough to turn one”s blood to ice. Freddy Krueger, conversely, is arresting because he maintains some essence of his humanity. He”s not a faceless entity. He”s the distorted image of man. He”s us at our most dark, twisted, and unforgivable. Yes, he was soulless at the start, but he”s also our sins come back to haunt us. In that way and more, Freddy is a richly drawn villain.
He”s a child killer, a demon, a betrayer of innocence, our worst and most intimate nightmares made manifest — and yet he”s outrageously entertaining. Now, Craven had always envisioned Freddy as a more of an insidious force and less comical than he became. Yet there can be no doubt that there is – by design – more to Freddy”s personality than there is to either Jason or Michael. For her part, Nancy is arguably the most complex and nuanced “final girl” of any of these franchises. (That”s an article unto itself, though, and one that Chris will likely write.) The point is that as a writer and a director, Craven never allowed himself to default to stock characters. These were fully formed beings in heightened circumstances, which made the events all the more engaging and harrowing to behold.
“A Nightmare on Elm Street” demonstrates not only Craven”s unique vision and understanding of human nature, but his remarkable skill and ability to execute.
He”s a creative thinker and an innovator, which brings us to:
“New Nightmare” (1994)
I contend that “New Nightmare” is Wes Craven”s most underrated film. He was playing for form, here, which is always as exciting as a viewer as it is dangerous for a filmmaker. It”s a film that was perhaps too far ahead of its time — and arguably too inside baseball — to have been a great success. In any event, it wasn”t. It was the lowest grossing film of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise. However, it does represent a kind of remarkable bridge between where horror had been and where it was going.
For those who are unfamiliar, “New Nightmare” stars actress Heather Langenkamp (Nancy Thompson from “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) as herself, and creates a world in which the character Freddy Krueger comes to life to torment the creators and stars of his movies – including Craven himself. It”s a meta look at horror that was speaking directly to both Hollywood and the “Elm Street” fanbase. Where “Elm Street” played with reality via a killer who was able to enter dreams, “New Nightmare” brought a fictional character to life. In this way, it reflected Craven”s inability to escape his own invention and introduced a new layer of terror to his created universe.
The film didn”t speak to a wide audience, but it was thrilling for those of us it did reach. It was as if Craven, after breathing life into all of our nightmares on screen, was sharing his own. It”s stunningly imaginative, ground-breaking, and of course, is arguably what Craven needed to do in order to fine-tune his formula for “Scream.”
“New Nightmare” came out in 1994, just two-years prior to the mega-hit “Scream.” Craven didn”t write the film, Kevin Williamson did. Yet, “Scream” is fascinating in that it is captures so many aspects of the horror genre in general, and Craven”s work in particular. It”s truly gruesome, particularly that opening sequence, and in that way is cohesive with the director”s early films: “The Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes,” in particular. Casting Drew Barrymore only to immediately and ruthlessly slaughter her character was thrilling in its audacity. It threw the audience entirely off balance and kept us with the film, ready for whatever shocks were in store for the rest of the ride. Perhaps most notably, while “New Nightmare” spoke to the “Elm Street” aficionados, “Scream” gave horror fans a voice – quite literally. It was meta before meta was the order of the day. It watched itself even as we watched it. The “rules” of the genre were outed, which meant that filmmakers could no longer blindly follow them. Nor could they ask the audience to blindly follow along. It refreshed what had become stale by acknowledging the predictability. It broke through and demanded more of the genre, even while it toyed with its created expectations.
What”s fascinating is that “Scream” is also representative of so much of what the “Elm Street” franchise became when Craven was no longer at the helm. It was silly, and playful, and comical in many moments. It had us laughing just before it undercut our sense of delight with an act of pure savagery. It was terrifying, outlandish, and filled with over-the-top psychological motivations, which nearly always include vengeance – which brings us back to Freddy.
These films may or may not represent your favorite Wes Craven movies, but this trilogy is a clear example of the workings of a man nestled comfortably within his zone of genius.