Cravenous: A Nightmare on Elm Street

If ever the hashtag #SorryNotSorry were applicable to anything I have done here at the lair, this is the time. I stated in my initial Cravenous post that I wanted to examine Wes Craven’s lesser-acknowledged films…the ones that didn’t include “Nightmare” or “Scream” in their titles. However, I simply couldn’t skip this film, denizens. My horror-loving heart is so full with joy and exuberance for this particular movie that the thought of not taking full advantage to re-watch and re-examine it filled me with an aching sadness. Besides, I’ve actually never written specifically about the film. I’ve done a Poster Pick examination of the film’s poster (ah, Poster Picks, I miss you so). I’ve also written about Nancy Thompson as a Lady of Horror May-hem.

Now is the time on Sprockets when I finally write about the actual film, and the most significant solo contribution that Wes Craven made to the horror genre: A Nightmare on Elm Street.

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Die-hard horror fans will already know how Craven found real-world inspiration for this script within several news articles that detailed the mysterious sleep-induced deaths of Laotian refugees who had recently immigrated to the United States. They claimed that something was trying to kill them in their dreams. No one believed them; in one instance, a young Laotian man struggled to stay awake for several days before his family finally got him to sleep. I’m sure you know what fate he met.

Craven, of course, being fascinated already by the historical terror and power of dreams (he had trained himself since college to dream lucidly and to keep a dream journal), instantly knew that he wanted to come up with a movie that centered on a powerful dream demon who would take out his victims when they were most vulnerable. He also knew, thanks to his daughter Jessica’s influence, that he wanted a strong heroine to lead his story. Remember how I wrote in my review of Swamp Thing that Jessica was disappointed in her father’s use of the cliched “Tripping Heroine” trope? With Nancy Thompson, Craven set out to undo that disappointment tenfold.

What Craven did was create one of the most significant (though ultimately too revisited) villains of modern horror as well as one of the fiercest horror heroines. We’ll get back to Nancy in a moment, though. Now, rather than simply regurgitating to you all the fun factoids that I have learned about this film throughout the years of my obsession, I’m instead going to encourage you to seek out the InfiniFilm version of the movie. It’s chock-full of special features, including two full-length “commentaries” (I feel as though one of the commentaries was more of a pieced together selection of interview bits from various players in the film and crew rather than a legitimate commentary session). Pay special attention during the commentary with Craven, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin to hear mention to how this was for the laser disc release of the movie. Good times.

A couple of intriguing moments from the commentaries that I would like to focus on came from two of the lovely ladies to star in this film. First was from Amanda Wyss, who played Tina Gray. She referred to the teens in this film as “shelterless.” I think is a brutally beautiful way to describe Freddy’s teen victims. They had no consistently protective force in their lives (with possibly the exception of Glen). Even Nancy with her stalwart police officer father couldn’t completely depend on him. Having divorced parents meant that she only had access to him in a limited capacity. Instead, she was living with her mother, who chose to deal with the secret that the Elm Street parents were keeping from their children by disappearing into alcoholic fugues as often as possible. That takes us to the deeper truth of this “shelterless” existence. Nancy and her friends were being taken out by this dream demon because of the sin of their parents. What began as these parents taking the hard-line final choice when it came to protecting their children from the neighborhood child molester and murderer ultimately led not only to their inability to protect their children but their culpability in their children’s murders at the hands of the man they killed. It’s quite the perverse circle jerk, if you think about it.

Conversely, I suppose that you could argue that the parents provided the wrong sheltering. Nancy’s mother sheltered her from the truth of who Fred Krueger had been. All the parents sheltered their children from this truth, and that cost them all dearly.

The second moment was hearing Wes Craven and Heather Langenkamp refer the character of Nancy Thompson as a “warrior woman.” It really struck a chord with me and made me re-evaluate my use of a more accepted term when it comes to the surviving females in horror movies: the Final Girl.

I’ve always taken issue with the use of “girl” in the comics world. Whereas the use of “boy” for the male superheroes is rare (and usually refers to an actual young character), there are several instances of “girl” in the names of female superheroes, including those who are clearly not les petites filles. I can’t help but wonder whether the absence of “boy” isn’t in part because of the negative connotations this term carries in reference to a grown man. One need only look to segregation-era America to understand the dismissive, offensive implications of using a child identifier for an adult man. While not on the same derogatory level as “boy” is in this context, I would argue that “girl” in reference to a grown woman, or even a woman on the precipice of adulthood, is similarly dismissive. Additionally, it’s infantilizing the character in question—locking her in at a certain age and never allowing her to reach full maturity. The implication is that this character must look eternally young (a brutally pervasive mindset that drives far too many women into the mutilating “care” of plastic surgeons) and be in constant need of supervisory assistance, care, or rescue.

Similarly, the term “Final Girl” carries with it a pejorative air, especially when you take into consideration that: A) there is no male counterpart term—no “Final Boy”; and B) any male character who survives such a trial would most assuredly be viewed as a fully tested man by the end of said events.

So why not the same for the female characters?

With Nancy Thompson, the term “warrior woman” resonates so wonderfully and so vividly with her approach to defeating the dream demon she and her friends are encountering. At no point does Nancy ever view herself as Freddy’s victim. Instead, she goes about trying to figure out what’s happening to her friends and her; once she gets the full story, she goes into survival mode and begins planning how to defeat Krueger rather than sitting by, idly awaiting her turn as his next kill. Additionally, she must contend with the doubt of all the adults around her and the continued murder of her peer group. She accepts her fate and her need to complete this journey, with or without the benefit of external support. In her final showdown with Freddy is where Nancy proves her mettle most eloquently. She is in such control of that moment that never once have I doubted that her strength could have defeated this nightmarish stalker. It’s such a fantastically powerful moment and one of my all-time favorites from any genre.

I wish that Craven had gotten his wish to end this movie on a more final note. While I have often stated that I first discovered Freddy Krueger through the campier, sillier Elm Street sequels, once I learned the origin of this monster, I understood the dilution of his power that the sequels had upon him. It also made me appreciate all the more Craven’s efforts with New Nightmare.

In addition to getting an amazing script from Craven, we also get a top-notch technical crew who pull off some incredibly progressive practical work. Of course, there’s the rotating room that allows for the memorable deaths of Tina and Glenn (spoilers). Again, seek out the InfiniFilm version of the movie for some great stories from Craven about this room. There’s Haitkin’s gorgeously atmospheric cinematography and lighting. Speaking of lighting and ingenuity, I do want to touch upon one particular technical moment from this film for its simple yet highly effective brilliance. While there are many moments of technical merit throughout this film, I’ve chosen this one for how it reminds me of an equally effective simple trick from John Carpenter’s Halloween. In that film, we see the slow emergence of Michael Myers from the shadows with the use of a blue light bulb slowly illuminated beneath his iconic mask.

For this movie, we see the emergence of Freddy Krueger from the solid wall behind Nancy as she sleeps. As it goes in cinematic lore, they achieved this by stretching a panel of white spandex behind the bed and having special effects technician Jim Doyle push against the spandex while lit from underneath. The end result of Freddy hovering over Nancy’s prone form is visually stunning and disturbing.

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Add to all this an amazing cast, including Langenkamp, Saxon, Wyss, Johnny Depp in his first film appearance ever, Ronnie Blakely, Roger Rabbit as the sleep disorder researcher with the weirdest taste in posters…

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Seriously, what’s up with that poster next to Fleischer’s character? And who else has ever noticed it before?

Oh, and Robert Englund. I give Craven so much credit for the script and the directing, but choosing Englund to play Freddy Krueger was key. Had he not selected the right actor for this role, this could have just been another cheesy 80s slasher flick. The stars aligned so magically for this film, however, and we the horror faithful are that much better off for the fact.

Flashback Friday: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

I thought about doing this on the original 1984 movie, but I wanted to shake things up a bit and go instead with the movie that continued to show Wes Craven as an innovator of the horror genre as well as helped lay the groundwork for the franchise that would once again place his name at the top of the horror movie game. And so it goes with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

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Released in October 1994, New Nightmare marked Craven’s return to the franchise that he unwittingly launched 10 years earlier. Craven’s original intention was to make a one-off film. He never intended that first movie to receive sequels. In fact, the movie’s original ending was far less ambiguous than the one that producer Bob Shaye insisted be tacked on at the last minute. Just like any money-hungry producer, Shaye saw the potential of this film to spawn the one thing that producers crave: a franchise (isn’t that right, Spielberg? Could have had a great horror ending to Paranormal Activity, but, no, you had to ruin it with a franchise-friendly ending…just like you ruin most movies you have anything to do with).

Fast-forward through the first sequel, with which Craven had nothing to do and which kind of hangs in this weird homoerotic netherworld among the rest of the franchise as not quite belonging but still being kind of awesome in its own weird right, and Shaye and New Line invite Craven back to pen the third movie (they had actually wanted him back to direct as well but he was still working on Deadly Friend). However, again, Craven doesn’t want Freddy to become a series. His original script for Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors was far more disturbing, dark, and demented than what Shaye finally greenlit. Craven returned as a way to try to take back control of his creation, to take Freddy to those darker places that he always thought Freddy should inhabit. Craven’s original Fred Krueger wasn’t just a child killer; he was a molester. He was so horrific in death because he was horrific in life. Craven’s original Fred Krueger was not in any way meant to be a hero of any kind. Shaye, however, wanted the camp, the lovable child murderer who smacks you down with zingers before gutting you in a haha gotcha kind of way that makes fans love him so. Guess who finally got their way? Craven’s Freddy was shelved…until he returned once more to the franchise to reclaim his monster and ultimately save him from what he had never wanted Freddy to become.

All that being said, was it such a terrible thing that Craven’s original creation became the franchise he became? I’m sure no one whose bank accounts grew from the series ever complained. And as I mentioned in my post yesterday, I discovered Freddy Krueger through one of those haha sequels. I had no idea how gruesome Krueger originally was. Also, because I first discovered him through the campier side of the character, I do hold a special place in my heart for that iteration. But from a more pure horror perspective, I think that Craven’s original monster is, by far, superior. But what about the new Krueger that Craven unleashed in 1994? Not only was this Krueger more in line with that original depraved character, but he also looked more in line with Craven’s original visual concept. Nothing but sinews and organic claws and hideous deformity.

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I know that Craven would later state that he regretted changing Freddy Krueger’s look for New Nightmare. I actually think that it was necessary to make this change for this particular story. Remember, we see the “original” Freddy—the version portrayed oh so many times by Robert Englund and the version that die-hard fans had come to have such a gloriously Pavlovian response to—early in the film. This was “Freddy.” This was the fantasy that fans made real through their devotion to the character and the actor portraying him. It was integral to the story, therefore, to somehow differentiate this Freddy from the darker, more elemental Freddy. This Freddy did not deal in witty bon mots and scenery chewing. This Freddy sprang from the most primal, most basic, most genetically programmed vein of fear within us all.

He had to look different. He was not who any of us had known before this movie. I always felt as though this was one of the concepts that Craven was trying to convey through this film—that Freddy Krueger had become far more than even his creator ever dreamed he would become. He lurked in the shadows of his fictional self, feeding upon the fear released by those films, biding his time until the lines between worlds could blur and recede and he could finally step forward at the franchise’s end to claim his rightful place and begin anew as king of infinite space and unceasing nightmares.

For this reason, it was imperative for Craven to convince Heather Langenkamp to return. Her Nancy was the character who both gave that original Krueger life and then snatched it back (one of the main reasons I chose Nancy as a bad-ass Lady of May-hem). Without Nancy, there would have been no Krueger. His focus on her, I believe, stemmed from his understanding that she was ultimately the only one who could take away his power and his life. Not even Craven could do that, because Craven granted this gift to Nancy in the first film. It’s why Craven tells Langenkamp in the film that stopping this nightmarish Krueger pretty much depended upon her willingness to be Nancy one more time.

Sounds deliciously meta, doesn’t it? While I’m sure that this metafictional approach to what had become a watered-down slash-o-rama was neither what franchise fans were hoping for nor what the horror genre at the time was looking to embrace, it planted the seed that, 2 years later would be ripe for the picking, in part by the man who planted it in the first place.

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Again, while Craven didn’t write the script to Scream, the power of his directorial influence cannot be denied. Neither can the influence of his metafictional approach to his heretofore most famous contribution to the genre. Kevin Williamson’s own metafictional script this time blurs the lines of fantasy and reality on the viewer’s level rather than the creators’ level. He demolishes the protection granted by the fourth wall and subsequently drops us all into the path of a monster we can understand because “we” are creating him. After all, “movies don’t make psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!”

That level of self-referential awareness is part of what makes Scream work so well. We are lulled in by the familiarity of what we think we understand, only to have the floor summarily drop out from beneath us. Nothing is as how it should be in the town of Woodsboro, just as nothing was as it should have been in the Hollywood horror machine of Craven’s New Nightmare. Craven thrived upon facing the ugliest fears within ourselves and by facing them, defeating them. His was the Litany Against Fear, embraced myriad times in myriad ways by characters who helped sculpt and ultimately save us from our worst nightmares:

I will not fear.
Fear is the mind killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Nancy Thompson

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Ah, Freddy Krueger. The man, the myth, the legend…who had his fire-scarred ass handed to him four times by two of the lovely ladies to grace this month of May-hem (five times if you count New Nightmare). While our intrepid Alice Johnson was able to defeat Freddy through the powers she gained each time he killed one of her friends and family, the original final girl of Elm Street did it all with nothing more than her wits and sheer determination to survive.

[Loba Tangent: Spoilers ahoy, denizens.]

Nancy Thompson, as played by Heather Langenkamp, starts out in director Wes Craven’s slasher classic A Nightmare on Elm Street as the average all-American teen, with a best friend, a boyfriend who looks like Johnny Depp, and an idyllic suburban life with a broken home and an alcoholic mother. And the dreams in which she is haunted by a horribly scarred man with knives for fingers.

Soon she learns that she’s not the only one dreaming this hideous nightmare. Everyone in her little clique is dreaming the same guy, the same dream, every night. I’ve heard of group psychosis before, but group nightmares? Something’s rotten on Elm Street, Horatio.

All that was once, perhaps not perfect, but at least manageable…understandable leaps out the uppermost window as Nancy finds herself faced with a horrible truth about why this crazy striped-sweater freak is offing all the Elm Street kids and she starts losing everything. But once that happens, that’s when young Nancy proves herself to be a worthy final girl, as she takes into her own hands a one-woman rescue mission in which she’s either going to prove herself right about what’s been happening to her and her friends, or prove she’s gone completely around the bend.

What makes Nancy so remarkable is that she came across as believable. I believed that she was a confused high school student being faced with some incredibly unbelievable events. Her mother thought she was going crazy and her father was at a total loss as to how even as the sheriff of the town, he was failing to protect her from something he couldn’t even believe in.

Regardless, Nancy has faith in herself…and in the booby traps she learned to make thanks to a book she finds at the library. Come on, of course I’m going to love her! She’s a book nerd commando! And you know what? She gets her man. Literally. This is what makes Nancy the most bad-ass teen in town. She rips the villain right out of her dreams so that he has to face her in reality rather than where he is most powerful. And she then proceeds to make demands of him and tell him that she’s taking back all the power that he’s stolen from her and her friends. AND THEN SHE TURNS HER BACK ON HIM AND WALKS AWAY.

It doesn’t get much more bad-ass than that, denizens.

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Alice Johnson

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I was so excited about the thought of adding Alice Johnson to my list of horror heroines. See, most of the time, when people think horror heroine, especially in reference to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, they immediately (and rightly) think of Nancy Thompson. She was, after all, the first Elm Street kid to defeat Freddy Krueger.

(Sorry for that spoiler and for the few spoilers that I have to drop into this post…but I kind of have to reveal some stuff to reveal my reasoning…)

What a lot of people fail to remember is that, yes, Nancy defeated Freddy twice, but there’s only one bad-ass grrl who both defeated Krueger twice and lived to tell the tale.

Enter Alice Johnson.

We first meet Alice in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. She’s one of those “transformation girls,” quiet and shy and mousy and weak…but guess what? Let’s just say that she “masters” those issues like a baus. Honestly, it’s one of the best depictions of the transformation trope I can think of in slasher-level horror. Of course, I say that with the full confession that I have a huge soft spot in my horror heart for Freddy Krueger (the Robert Englund version…which, let’s face it, is the only version that matters at all in the history of ever).

Still, watching Alice Johnson metamorphose through this movie is a joy to behold, and nearly as much fun as watching Englund not just chew scenery but devour it, whole piece at a time as Krueger. When you’ve got someone like Englund playing your main villain, you need an actor who not only can convince viewers of her inherent weakness but also can be believable as a suitable counterpoint to Krueger when the time comes. Lisa Wilcox was quite a brilliant choice for these reasons. She pulls off timid, fearful Alice quite well. And bad-ass Alice? Oh, yeah. She could match the camp and slash of Freddy K.

When I saw that they’d brought Alice back for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, I was actually sad. I kind of figured, based on previous track records, that this meant that she wasn’t going to make it to the end. Again, I’m sorry for this spoiler, but this is ultimately one of the main reasons I chose Alice…she kicks Freddy’s ass one more time and lives to tell the tale.

For the final movie in the original series, the creators decided to go in a decidedly different direction from the previous movies, and then Wes Craven came back to reclaim Freddy with his New Nightmare (which ironically brought Heather Langenkamp back into the Krueger fold), so we never saw Alice again in the movies. I’m actually okay with that. I admit that I wanted to know what had happened to her after the fifth movie, but I also reminded myself that the third time could have been the charm…for Freddy.

No, I’d like to believe that Alice never encountered Freddy again and that she and her son found a nice little suburban neighborhood to live in. Somewhere green and quiet, where her biggest nightmare would be trying to pay bills or get her son to ball practice on time. I know, it doesn’t sound all that exciting…but she’d probably love every minute.