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.


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.


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…


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.

The Man of My Dreams

It would have to take something big to finally pull me out of the morass of work in which I’ve been trapped all summer. Something bigger than book reviews or navel gazing or even the insanity of the current political landscape (a landscape I’m already tired of looking at, and we’ve still got more than a year to go).

No, it had to be larger than that. It had to be something personally moving…something so important to me that, no matter how many evenings and stolen moments throughout the days that I have stockpile to write this, it will be done. It’s the least I can do for the man who played such an integral role in my conversion to the tried-and-true horror apostle I am today.

True, I credit Poltergeist as being the first modern horror film I ever saw all the way through. That was my gateway film, so to speak. But if I were credit one genre director as being most responsible for completely converting me to the Church of Horror, it would have to be Wes Craven.

I give John Carpenter full dues for the brilliance that is Halloween. And I attribute the state of the horror genre as I knew and loved it growing up to a particular set of directors/writers who ruled the horror landscape throughout the 80s: Craven, Carpenter, Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper, and Sean Cunningham (with honorable mention to Clive Barker for the glory that is Pinhead).

These men understood the visceral nature of fear and they harnessed that to full unadulterated effect through some of the genre’s most unsettling movies. They were the fathers of evisceration and unrest, pushing the boundaries of, at the time, a mostly staid genre into territories that even they found too disturbing to explore…which is what pushed them to explore them in the first place. Craven himself stated that The Last House on the Left was one of his movies that he could never go back and re-watch because of how horrific it was to him.

And then came Freddy Krueger. As much as I love Michael Myers and Pinhead and Jason, Freddy was my first horror villain. I actually first met him through the fourth Elm Street movie The Dream Master, which was not one of Craven’s films. However, I loved Freddy from the very first flick of his silver-knived hand right down to his inimitably painful puns. He was horror kitsch of the killer variety, compelling and charismatic and amusingly unique even among the high-caliber villainous company he was keeping at the time. I needed to know everything about him.

I was not anticipating the Freddy Krueger I met in the first film. Craven’s original 1984 movie was disturbing in the ugliest of realistic ways (strange to say of a killer who is himself dead and offs his victims in their nightmares). This character came from the mind of someone who understood that true fear resided in the deepest, darkest, most depraved corners of ourselves. We create the worst fears, whether through our own thoughts or our own deeds. No matter how much I love the campy, “lovable” Freddy of later films, my allegiance will always rest in the gloved hand of that original Krueger. He was only on screen for 7 minutes that first movie…less time than even the Wicked Witch of the West got in The Wizard of Oz…but oh, those 7 minutes.

Thankfully, Craven did return for The New Nightmare, one of my other favorite Freddy films. Additionally, New Nightmare was one of the earliest examples, that I can remember, of that meta take on film-making that blurs reality and fiction into a tasty melange of horror savoriness that I clearly find addictive.

And then there’s Scream. True, Craven didn’t write it and he almost didn’t direct it. But thank the horror deities that he did. Talk about meta savoriness. I have written about this film and franchise many times here at the lair. Two of my Ladies of Horror May-hem come from this film (two other Ladies come from Elm Street). The original film works so well in part because of its clear respect for and indebtedness to the time during which Craven and that previously mentioned collection of amazingly demented directors ruled the horror genre. And while the series holistically was never as solid as the first film, Craven did his best to make it as solidly scary as he could with what Williamson gave him.

Of course, these are only the movies that often rise to the top of any discussion of Craven’s contributions to the horror genre. Let’s not forget, he also gave us The Hills Have Eyes; Deadly Friend, which includes one of my all-time favorite character deaths ever; Shocker (I still refer to Mitch Pileggi as “Horace Pinker”); The People Under the Stairs, which gave me a whole new outlook on Twin Peaks and turned so many traditional horror tropes upside down and inside out in ways that I don’t think many appreciated at the time; Red Eye (sure, I’d like to find flying even more traumatizing!); and The Serpent and the Rainbow, which ranks still as one of my favorite “zombie” movies.

Craven was sharp, well-read, curious, creative, kind, and witty, and he made my horror-loving adolescence ironically brighter from all the darkness he brought to the genre. I have mourned his death every day since I learned he was with us no more. He left behind a brilliant legacy, but his time with us was still far too short.


Ladies of Horror May-hem: Alice Johnson


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.