Fright Spread Fred: A Craven 'Nightmare' reconsidered
By Steve Palopoli
'AS I MADE IT, believe it or not, I was studying this Russian philosopher, Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who writes a lot about levels of consciousness," Wes Craven told me in 2000 about A Nightmare on Elm Street. "The farther up you went toward consciousness, the more painful it was, until the few and far between broke through into the clear conscious, where they were no longer involved egotistically and it was just beauty everywhere. That, he called 'complete awakeness.'So the whole idea of Nightmare was built on that assumption that we all have this sense that we're half asleep as to what's really going on."
At the heart of this quote is what makes Craven, to my mind, the most effective horror filmmaker of the modern era. His best scary movies spin off from fascinating ideas, and yet you don't have to read the 1,200 pages of Gurdjieff's Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson to "get" A Nightmare on Elm Street. You don't have to have seen Bergman's The Virgin Spring to be sucked into the visceral undertow of The Last House on the Left. And you don't have to understand Bertolt Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt to enjoy Scream.
Craven's art entertains at the same time that it uses the horror genre to bring intellectual curiosity to mainstream moviemaking. It's unfortunate that he's been in some ways the victim of his own success—Last House is remembered as more exploitative than it actually was, while horror fans often mistakenly write off Scream as "kid's stuff," forgetting that beneath that glossy pop shell it was one of the edgiest and grittiest horror films of the '90s.
Nightmare gets the worst of these misremembrances, which is why it's worth it to catch its two-day rerelease Sept. 20-21. It'll be shown in 124 theaters around the country; go to www.BigScreenBoxOffice.com to find the location closest to you.
The thing about the first Nightmare is that it's remembered as a "Freddy movie," which in most people's minds means cheeky one-liners and silly dream set pieces. But that vibe actually developed in the sequels, which moved Freddy further and further into self-parody.
If you haven't seen it in a while, you may not remember how dark, dark, dark the original Elm Street is. It's moody and sinister and is appropriately one of the only horror films I would call truly nightmarish in tone. The character of Fred Krueger as articulated here is a psychosexual ghoul, a true "male monster from the Id," as the Chills once put it. Upon repeat viewings, the complexity of his character comes out. He's not only a sadist, but a masochist, mutilating his own body on two occasions in front of his intended victim. He's a vile child killer, yet the movie seems to find some degree of injustice in his murder, being killed as he was by a vigilante mob and for some reason granted the opportunity to avenge his own death by haunting the dreams of his killers' children.
That's not the only fairly radical message in this movie. Every one of Craven's horror films is political in some way; here he not only gives philosophy claws, he suggests that what parents don't tell their children can kill them. Remember, this was the age of "Just Say No," when kids were expected to unquestioningly accept abstinence without crucial information about AIDS or other STDs, and believe that drugs were bad simply because the nice policeman who came to our classes said so. In that way, Craven's film bridges the gap between '70s paranoia epics and '80s teen-oriented fare. It is perhaps the quintessential suburban paranoia film (Arlington Road is another worthy contender for that honor).
Critics have always had trouble with Nightmare's structure because it's basically impossible to tell by the end if the whole movie is just a dream—the fact that the "phone scene" happens when Nancy is awake would suggest that it is. Supposedly, that's a cheat. But what's the problem? Doesn't that explanation fit all the better into Craven's intended message? A Nightmare on Elm Street is our collective dream, because we are all asleep. And, in the Reagan years at least, weren't we?
Tickets to the A Nightmare on Elm Street rerelease are $10; go to www.BigScreenBoxOffice.com for locations. Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite Freddy moment here.
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