What else would we talk about on the 13th of October?
Remember the discussion about Clive Barker, transgressive sexuality, and Horror’s knack for speaking in tongues and addressing topics otherwise considered taboo? Horror loves to sneak around its subject matter by using metaphor and symbolism to encode secret messages and themes. In Hellraiser, Clive Barker harnessed that energy to sneak a discussion of BDSM culture, infidelity and the outer limits of love into a thriller about demons from Hell. But he’s far from the only Horror director to come from a background in sex.
Did you know that Wes Craven – The Hills Have Eyes, Scream, and so many more – worked on Deep Throat? He helped produce and directed loads of pornographic films throughout the late 60’s – though exactly which ones and under what names he was unwilling to admit. And did you also know that the reason Freddie Krueger crosses over so often with Friday the 13th‘s Jason Voorhees is because they come from the same creative space?
Horror is full of surprises.
A Nightmare on Elm Street released in 1984, over a decade into Wes Craven’s directorial career. He’d debuted in ’72 with the profoundly violent Last House On The Left, produced by his creative partner Sean S. Cunningham. Craven put his background in porn to work, crafting a notoriously violent and sexual portrait of the human capacity for evil. Its reputation in Horror circles continues to this day. At the time, projectionists were apparently so offended by Last House that they’d chop the film-reel mid-screening – occasionally even stealing it themselves. The two young filmmakers had, effectively, sparked a moral panic: Craven and Cunningham’s Horror career was off to an auspicious start.
It was certainly one way to make an impression. And for Craven and Cunningham, it was totally unintentional. They’d expected that the film would be shown at local outdoor theatres as a cheap second-run; instead it went huge. Under the impression that basically no one would watch it, they’d filmed the most outrageous and shocking Horror movie they could – and the film’s sudden exposure made them pariahs in their own industry. Craven was mortified. He’d come from a strict Christian background and worked under the assumption that few would witness his shocking early work. Soon, everyone had, or had at least heard of it.
His career in Horror had begun.
Last House on the Left more or less decided Craven’s direction: he’d go on do direct two The Hills Have Eyes movies, Dark Blessing and Swamp Thing throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s. Cunningham, for his part, co-created, directed and produced Friday the 13th. He’s one of four folks credited with the creation of Jason Voorhees in 1980.
Four years later, Wes Craven released a Teen Slasher of his own.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is about sex too, though by 1980 Craven had mellowed out from 70’s ultra-violence to a straightforward commentary on teen promiscuity. That’s the least interesting thing about the movie. A Nightmare on Elm Street is also about the liminal space between waking and dreams, the widening of the generational gulf between parents and their children, and the concept of shared, hereditary guilt. Somehow it’s one-liner factory too, and the rare Horror film that, through sheer ingenuity and cleverness of writing, feels like it’s breaking the fourth wall, even when it’s not.
A Nightmare on Elm Street has lost none of its potency as a Horror film in the 36(!!) years since its release. Like Robert Englund himself, Freddy is forever young. Somehow.
It’s also the debut of a very young, sullen Jonny Depp. So there’s that.
Here’s a picture of a phone with a human mouth instead:
It might be the last time Depp really fails to chew the scenery: Elm Street is all about Freddy himself, a nightmare manifestation of the guilt and secrecy of every parent in town, who comes crawling after their children once they’ve fallen asleep. Freddy works because, ironically enough, he’s human: Robert Englund ad-libs and quips, screams and runs around. He’s immortal, of course, and can contort his body in horrible ways throughout the dreamscape, but there’s a person in there. He has a character, a recognizable face, and a singular focus on tormenting these kids and their parents forever. H has a face and we know what he wants: to be gross forever, and to murder kids in their dreams with elaborate props.
It’s an element of familiarity sorely lacking in many of Elm Street‘s peers, and it’s one of the magic ingredients to the film’s ongoing legacy. When he finally does appear, Freddy is so striking and unique that he’s a horror icon despite less than 7 minutes of screen-time in his own damn film.
However, being an icon comes with baggage.
There’s an issue with classic cinema where pop-culture, over the course of decades, will inevitably dilute the impact of iconic scenes through repetition, satire and simple common knowledge. No one is surprised at the final twist in Psycho anymore, and “Heeeeere’s Jonny!!” has been repeated so many times by so many cartoon characters that the strength of the original scene has a hard time sticking, especially with newer viewers. A Nightmare on Elm Street might be only horror film I’ve seen that ages along with its audience. There’s a number of reason why.
First of all, Freddy himself underwent a slow pop-culture transformation from terrifying ghoul to someone that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Animaniacs spoof. I’ve seen countless Freddy spoofs – everywhere from cartoons to the latter Jason vs. Freddy movies themselves. They take a character already known for his wisecracking and unstoppable, monstrous charisma and drop him into scenarios where the natural humour of a knife-handed weirdo can shine. Hell, even Rick and Morty did it.
The shift from horrible monster to ironic pop-culture mascot wasn’t confined to Freddy though – that’s been a shift in the entire industry as a whole. We love our ironic, subversive un-Horror, we have since Buffy and long before. Think of something like Cabin in the Woods or Leslie Vernon: we all know the ins and outs of Horror-movie mechanics by now, and self-aware millennial Horror capitalizes on that familiarity. A fourth-wall scraping, wisecracking villain in a horror movie doesn’t feel dated, even when that film is from 1984 – it scans as shockingly modern. In many ways, A Nightmare on Elm Street could be made today.
Of course, Wes Craven would know a thing or two about self-awareness and the fourth wall. He went on to make Scream.
Secondarily, it’s the kind of horror that makes Elm Street so unique. Freddy is the villain, yes, but he’s more mascot than force of nature. The terror in Craven’s best scenes comes from the atmosphere itself, which is a shifting, dream-like surrealism that only intensifies as the film goes on. Initially, you’re certain of when Freddy can and can’t attack. By the end of the film there’s no telling what’s a dream and what’s not – or even if ‘dream’ is the right term anymore. Freddy Krueger isn’t the scariest thing lurking in those dreamscapes, he’s only the punchline. The real horror lurks everywhere, in the moment you accidentally nod off. It’s the nightmare itself, and it makes for iconic scenes that not only refuse to obey the laws of Horror, they make new ones up as they go. Anything can happen, and nowhere is safe from dream-logic. Elm Street doesn’t obey tropes, it creates them.
You won’t even realize you’re asleep until it’s too late.
I won’t get into A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s story because I don’t have to. It’s best experienced by itself. Wes Craven’s most famous nightmare is also his most creative: there are scares in this movie that you won’t see coming, no matter how many spoofs you’ve sat through. I don’t even have time to get into the practical effects, the symbolism and the 500 gallons of fake blood. You’ll have to read about those on your own.
So go watch it. In 2020, Freddy isn’t just the villain, he’s the tour-guide to a shockingly modern Horror classic, from an accidental Horror legend. It’s a surprisingly fun watch, especially if you like 80’s camp.
Just don’t nod off.