Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Lazy Blogger Repost: Freddy Kreuger and Postmodernism -- Thoughts on Wes Craven's New Nightmare

This re-post of an essay I wrote last year is an attempt to release content that some of you may not have read. It's also a way for me to continue to refine my poor writing and find ways to post content in my as-of-right-now hectic life of juggling work, grad school, and wedding stuff. So in the next month or so (the wedding is in August) I will sprinkle old material (with some touch-ups) with some new (I still have two more "forgotten gems" of 1999 to do, then it's onto the top 10). So look for the usual output of material on here, some of it may be re-done older stuff, and some may be fresh thoughts, but my hope is that it will all be new to you (read: I have a lot more readers now than I did a year ago). I hope you enjoy my laziness.

Wes Craven has always been one of the most influential, and sometimes creative, forces working within the horror genre. His films The Last House on the Left (which coined the popular phrase “just keep repeating, it’s only a movie” in its trailer) and the equally-revered cult classic The Hills Have Eyes have both created the blueprint for the barrage of torture porn films released within the last five years (The Hills Have Eyes was remade with little inspiration or panache). I don’t much care for either film – although the latter is far superior to the overrated Last House on the Left). He resuscitated the near-dead genre in the 90’s (an altogether forgettable decade for horror films, save a few films) with his 1996 hit Scream (a lot of his previous films were dead on arrival themselves, so he was a culprit just as much as he was responsible for giving it new life), but in 1984 he created a town, a character, and a famous street that would change the landscape of 1980’s American horror films and would cement Craven as one of the premier American horror filmmakers.

Craven’s contributions to the genre are surprisingly lost on new horror fans. He made the aforementioned cult classics in the late 70’s and early 80’s and then made some not so great career moves when he directed films like Swamp Thing, The Hills Have Eyes II, The Serpent and the Rainbow (his attempt at Cannibal Feroux, perhaps), Shocker, the completely forgettable A Vampire in Brooklyn, Cursed, and in one of the oddest career choices I've seen (almost as weird as Sam Raimi directing For Love of the Game or David Lynch directing The Straight Story) he completely stepped outside of the genre to make a PG rated drama starring Meryl Streep. There is an interesting film that lies in between his clunkers like Shocker and A Vampire in Brooklyn, and is a good indicator of where he was heading with Scream. This film is his postmodern re-imagining of Freddy Kreuger simply titles New Nightmare. Breathing new life into a stale character – much in the same way Craven breathed new life into a stale genre – Craven stripped away all of the signifiers his most famous character was recognized by and returned Kreuger to what he was originally mean to be: a signifier of evil. Best summed up: Craven goes back to the boogeyman approach with Krueger; he is like the ‘bad guy’ in every fairy-tale we read growing up. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a direct result of what New Line Cinema did to Freddy Kreuger, transforming him from an evil child killer into a wise-cracking pop culture icon; a caricature of what Craven intended for him to be.

It had been a long time since I had last seen New Nightmare, and not only does the film still hold up as one of the benchmark horror films, I actually find it more clever and creepier than the original film. The original Nightmare film was great because it blurred the lines of reality and dream; it was unsettling, and you were never quite comfortable watching the film because you knew the second something looked askew bad things were going to happen. The original film is patient, not a slice and dice slasher film, but rather it revels in its creepy ambience (the school, the boiler room, the Thompson’s house, the fog on Elm Street, etc) and takes its time with the scares, which come off as genuine instead of the usual contrived scare moments of 80’s slasher films. It was also one of the first horror films to use state of the art (for the time) special effects, creating some iconic horror imagery like Freddy and the latex wall, and the rotating room that was used to create one of the more eerie scenes of the film when Tina is brutally murdered. Craven had a great idea for a film, and in fact he never wanted the film to have so many sequels; however, New Line couldn’t resist as the fans turned Freddy into a pop culture icon – so five sequels followed with only the second sequel entitled Dream Warriors having Craven’s name on it (he co-wrote it), and starring both John Saxon (!) and Heather Langenkamp from the original (also it was directed by Chuck Russell of The Mask fame and was co-written by Frank Darabont who did Shawshank and The Mist, so the film had talent working on it).

In 1994 I have no doubt that Craven saw his career was floundering with some of the films he was making, so he wisely decided to go back to his most famous film and his most famous character to try and resurrect his career. The result was one of the first (Tenebre also did this…and oddly enough, also starred John Saxon) postmodern horror films that was not only self reflexive, but a clear indicator that Craven wasn’t about to let the horror genre die (which it was doing); by recreating the creepy atmosphere from the 1984 film, and again bluring the lines of what Jean Baudrillard called “hyper reality”, Craven constructed a film that was smart and clever and really quite original for the horror genre. Craven also showed that the film should be taken seriously as a horror film by removing the tongue from inside Freddy’s cheek; which made the audience fear him like they did ten years earlier. There is even a clever jab at New Line for what they turned Freddy into when Heather Langenkamp is doing an interview for a television show, and Robert Englund comes out in his Freddy outfit and the studio audience, donned with Freddy masks and signs extolling the character, goes crazy, showering him with love and adoration.

The film takes place in Los Angeles primarily at the home of Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played Nancy Thompson, and on the studio lot where the iconic glove of claws Freddy wielded is being revamped and updated to look more nineties. The opening of the film is an allusion to the opening of the original, and right away Craven is using this self reflexive language to make a clear distinction that the film recognizes that these are effects and characters, but it doesn’t lessen the horror, because they are still going to protrude your senses and create images that stick with you. This Nightmare film is not so much about Freddy Kreuger, but a commentary about how horror affects those who work within the genre, and the fans who love it so much (so much that they allow their children to watch it, a theme that is explicated by Craven as we see Heather’s reluctance to usher her son into the films world).

There are a lot of earthquakes in Los Angeles, and Heather is starting to have some unsettling nightmares about Freddy Kreuger. These of course are dismissed by her friends and co-stars as nothing more than stress from work and the earthquakes, and a stalker who is making obscene phone calls (Craven even brings back the famous phone scene where the receiver turns into Freddy’s mouth and he ‘tongues’ Heather). Of course none of these issues compare to the fact that her son Dylan is having horrifying night terrors and sleep walking while speaking in a weird Freddy-esque voice. From this point on the film assumes the role of fairy-tale as the motif of the bread crumbs and finding their way back home is established…and away we go into the weird world of Wes Craven. The Hansel and Gretel motif is taken one step further as the end of the film takes place in a furnace and Freddy proclaims to Dylan that he's going to eat him up.

When Heather reports to Wes Craven and Robert Englund about these weird dreams, she gets a strange response from Robert (who later flees L.A.) and Wes tells her that its time to make another film because he’s been having “those dreams again.” Craven’s dreams are the inspiration for his films, so we are told, and Heather wants to know what happens. It is in this scene that Craven explains the theory that perhaps because they killed Freddy, he is like the genie in the bottle, and what was keeping him occupied and trapped is no longer around (i.e. they stopped making the films) therefore he has been released and broken the fourth wall; he is now a part of their reality until they can find a way to trap him again. The otherworldliness (read: postmodern themes) of the film really escalates at this point as Heather slowly transforms into her character Nancy, and in a truly inspired scene asks for the help of co-star John Saxon to help with Dylan (who just had an episode). When they walk outside to talk things over he begins to call her Nancy, at this point Heather realizes what is happening and by not calling him John, but Dad, she makes the necessary leap across the threshold of reality into the realm of fairy-tale. The way Craven handles the seamless ping-ponging of reality and dream is a masterful stroke that really adds an original element to a film series that had been watered down by five sequels.

I don’t ever recall being that scared by the Nightmare films, they are creepy more so than anything else – especially the scene in New Nightmare where Heather sees Dylan being pulled into the coffin of her dead husband, Dylan's father, by Freddy – but what’s interesting about New Nightmare is that the film does everything that Scream does, only better. I can only assume that this film (which made a mere 18 million at the box office) was not that successful because either: fans wanted the sardonic Freddy Kreuger and got the evil one instead, or perhaps, because there were no smart ass jokes delivered by Jaime Kennedy and Matthew Lillard to ease the tension of the film. For whatever reason New Nightmare is often overlooked by fans of the genre who look at the film Craven made two years later as being responsible for the resurgence of the genre; however, Craven introduced the postmodern theme of self-reflexivity two years earlier in a much better film (and I thought Scream was pretty clever, but it’s nothing compared to New Nightmare). Now there are probably countless films that can be considered all of these things before New Nightmare was made, but I am speaking specifically about the horror genre here, and it has to be noted that what Craven did was deconstruct the genre and turn something that was stale, that had become a caricature, a parody of itself, and made it fresh and alive and even (gasp!) scary. New Nightmare is not only a funny inside joke for fans of the original film, it’s not only a clever meta-horror film, but I think it deserves to be in the conversation as one of the great horror films made in the last 30 years.

Craven has always tried to tie this cleverness and awareness into his films, and he was doing something with an old product that other horror directors wouldn’t dream of. While John Carpenter was essentially making the same movie over and over (ugh, Vampires and Ghosts of Mars anyone?), Craven decided to see what it would be like for the viewer to consider Freddy Kreuger as an evil and scary character like they did ten years ago. By dressing Kreuger in a black trench coat and black fedora, he is stripping this iconic character of his most famous signifier – and in the process, doing something very postmodern and intelligent for a horror film – Freddy no longer has his red and black striped sweater or dirty old hat, no this is a new imagining of Freddy Kreuger: a perverse evil that not only has intruded upon our dreams, but now is evident in real life. Kudos to Craven for thinking outside of the box and finding an intelligent and original way to reinvent his most profitable monster; and as if showing Robert Englund playing Freddy Kreuger as rock star (the television show scene) wasn’t enough proof that the fourth wall had been broken, Craven gets one last wink in as the film closes and the credits role and we see: Freddy Kreuger as Himself.

New Nightmare is undoubtedly one of the finest horror films Craven has made, and it’s proof that the genre, once again, desperately needs him. His recent thriller Red Eye was harmless enough, but the genre, although not suffering financially, is beginning to look a lot like the early 90’s these days. Every horror film released in the last 10 years looks the same (Damn you Michael Bay for producing the TCM remake), tries for the same thing (ugh torture porn…damn you Quentin Tarantino for producing Hostel), and has the same snarky, nihilistic attitude towards its audience (anyone remember Chaos or how about the recent The Strangers? The former indebted to Craven's Last House on the Left, and the latter owes much to The Hills Have Eyes). Unless your name is Neil Marshall (and even he’s not above being responsible as his follow up to The Descent, Doomsday, was bollocks) the future of the genre looks bleak. Sam Raimi gave us a guest appearance this year with the fabulous Drag Me to Hell – and in a way was doing today what Craven did with New Nightmare as Raimi’s film was essentially a re-working of his best ideas from The Evil Dead films. It’s apparent: the genre needs Wes Craven again (I'm assuming for now that this was a one-time deal for Raimi). I haven’t always liked what he’s done, but he’s proven each decade that he has the right formula for pumping new life into an almost-dead genre. New Nightmare is proof that Craven is the man for the job.


  1. kevin, like your love for 'the talented mr. ripley'. have you seen 'purple moon' (from the same source material) with alain delon? i think it's a pretty cool movie. delon is always cool, but he was perhaps never cooler then there.

    i'll return to comment more on 'new nightmare'... i gotta go to bed.

  2. Jamie:

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I'm glad you like The Talented Mr. Ripley, too. I'm assuming you're getting that from other posts about the year 1999 in film. I have seen Purple Noon and I think it's a great representation of Highsmith's character. Delon as Tom Ripley is, as you rightly assay, one of his smoothest performances. Although I think I prefer him in Le cercle rouge as Corey.

    I hope you come back and share some of your thoughts on New Nightmare. Thanks again for stopping by.

  3. Great, great post. Congratulations.

  4. Thanks for reading and for the kind words Crowley.

  5. I always like NEW NIGHTMARE. It almost made up for all the crap sequels that came before it. In many respects, it echoes what Carpenter did with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, which also looks in on itself and comments on popular culture while still delivering the requisite scares. As with NEW NIGHTMARE, you are constantly questioning what you are seeing. Both Craven and Carpenter are messing with our notions of perception. Both are very underrated IMHO.

    And what, no love for THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW? I just watched a month ago and it has aged surprisingly well and there are some genuinely creepy moments. Wasn't it part of that whole mini-wave of voodoo-inspired films in the 1980s, along with THE BELIEVERS?

    Anyways, another great post. I had no idea you were a big fan of THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. I just watched it again a few nights ago and fell in love with it all over again. I'm thinking of maybe writing something about it.

  6. J.D.:

    I like the allusion to Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness as that may have been the last great horror movie he made. And you're right, it's equally self-reflexive in that regard. I just love the way Craven plays with the idea that the real horror is what happens to these people as they work on the sets, act in the movies, watch the dailies, etc. all with their kids around. I like that he posits the question: how does that affect children?

    It's also just a really good scary movie.

    And yes...I am a huge fan of The Talented Mr. Ripley and I would love for you to write something on it on your fine blog. I never get tired of reading about that movie. My whole "intro" into the Revisiting 1999 project I've been doing (it's the first link I always post at the beginning of the reviews for the Forgotten Films) I all but give away that The Talented Mr. Ripley still holds up as the best film of 1999. I think it's a masterpiece as it beats out some pretty good competition that year. I should be unveiling my top 10 for that series (thus wrapping it up) sometime towards the end of August.

    Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

  7. Oh, I forgot to add:

    The Serpent and the Rainbow is a horror movie I actually kind of like -- just not one of his best career moves. That was confusing because I grouped it in with a lot of his clunkers. But what I was getting at was that Craven, post-Nightmare, starting making a lot of horror movies that mass horror audiences didn't care for. So in essence New Nightmare not only resuscitated a dying genre, but his dying career, too.

  8. You write:

    "I just love the way Craven plays with the idea that the real horror is what happens to these people as they work on the sets, act in the movies, watch the dailies, etc. all with their kids around. I like that he posits the question: how does that affect children?"

    Yes, that is very cool. After you see this film, SCREAM really feels like a watered-down version. I mean, it is entertaining and all that but no where near as brilliant.

    As for RIPLEY... I just started reading Patricia Highsmith's novel for the first time. Very interesting to see the differences between it and the film. Minghella obviously went off and made it his own but I keep picturing the film in my mind when I read the book as many of it images are burned in my brain.

    I certainly agree with you assessment of SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. As you point out, not the best career move but those kinds of films were kinda en vogue for awhile but I guess people weren't ready for what Craven had in store.

    Anyways, I look forward to your top 10 in August...

  9. I was excited to stumble on this site just now and to find someone talking about postmodern Craven. I've never seen New Nightmare because I have a thing about watching the franchises in order and I just quit on this one before getting to New Nightmare so I'm glad you corrected my error. Anything credited as an thematic prelude to Scream, which I personally regard as one of my most important films, is worth seeing.

    I was also happy to see you mention Drag Me To Hell which I went to see by default and was happily impressed by. It was effectively frightening without the use of the torture porn. I have begun to think that although I find the torture stuff less enjoyable, I may be missing some pertinent social commentary because of my genre snobbery. There is a reason that they are popular and public popularity usually means some social pertinence when it comes to horror, correct?

    Also, what do you think of Rob Zombie's upcoming Halloween 2? My biggest complaint with his remake of the first was the lack of Carpenter's Halloween Theme. That music still gets my blood pumping. Otherwise I felt like Zombie did a fairly good job of making "The Shape" scary again.