Monday, April 26, 2010

Freddy Krueger: Origin Story

I have a confession to make. The first time I encountered Freddy Krueger, it wasn’t in the film A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. It was in a chintzy novelization. I couldn’t have been older than 10, and I wasn’t yet allowed to watch R-rated movies. (This was back in the pre-Internet days when a kid in a rural town found it difficult to sneak R-rated movies… I had to rely on friends with more liberal-minded parents.) For some reason, my parents decided to protect me from horror movie imagery… but were less concerned about the written word. So I turned to the novelization.

I remember that I read the whole story in one sitting (it was a lean 70 pages). The novelization ends the same way as the movie – with Nancy and her friends being taken hostage by the Freddy-car and poor Marge Thompson getting violently sucked through the front door of her house on an otherwise peaceful, sunny day. “Perhaps it wasn’t going to be such a wonderful day on Elm Street after all,” the writer glibly concludes. I put down the book and went outside, just in time to see a set of dark storm clouds moving in over my neighborhood. (This was also back in the days when I lived in a neighborhood that actually had weather.) I remember this real-life detail because it was a much more fitting visual for the end of the story: darkness instead of light.

There has been much discussion of the muddled ending of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Wes Craven says he wanted a "Twilight Zone ending" – the monster is defeated; the kids drive away into a bright, spectral fog. The fog, he says, was meant to suggest that our waking reality is just as mysterious as our dreams... but not necessarily in a bad way. New Line exec Sarah Risher has counter-argued that Craven’s original ending was mostly ominous: “The sky turned black. Lots of birds came out. It was very apocalyptic.” Perhaps she is remembering an early version of the compromised ending, after New Line producer Robert Shaye demanded a CARRIE-style ending that promised audiences that Freddy wasn’t really dead. In the final version of the film, the last scene remains beautiful and bright, but Freddy does make his undying presence known. There is a faint sound of thunder after Marge is yanked through the window, suggesting storm clouds on an imagined horizon. Although this ending undermines the writer/director’s philosophy – that evil can be overcome by a person who faces their fears - it perfectly captures the unstoppable menace of Freddy Krueger.

For Craven, Freddy was always meant to represent the most primal human fears – the kind of existential fears that have their deepest roots in early childhood. Craven constructed his monster accordingly, from memories of his own childhood. The name “Fred Krueger” comes from a bully in the filmmaker’s Cleveland neighborhood. The spirit of Freddy comes from Craven’s memory of a bum who took delight in scaring him as a little kid - he is a symbol of all adult authority figures who resents youth and corrupt innocence. The ultimate “bad dad.” The novelization, and thus presumably the original script, proposed that Freddy was actually a child molester… a label so unsettling that it was wisely dropped from the ELM STREET films.

The genius of Craven’s film is that it presents Freddy not as a real-life sociopath but as a mythic monster. The burn-scars on his face, and the legend that goes with them, act as a mask. He is clearly NOT one of us. The killer’s finger-knives align him with wild creatures that have hunted man by tooth and claw since prehistoric times. The idea that Freddy hunts us in our dreams makes him even more unreal, but not less threatening… because, while we can run from the beast in the jungle, how can we run from our own dreams? How can we escape the monster if the monster resides in our own minds?

Craven has an answer, but despite his intentions to show that we can beat evil by facing our fears, Freddy ultimately prevails. The ending of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is, if not apocalyptic, at least anarchic. And maybe that’s as it should be. It’s easy to dismiss the trick ending as greedy gimmicky, but perhaps audiences in 1985 - and ever since - found this to be a more honest conclusion: the monster wins. As American horror films have become increasingly tuned in to the political and popular culture, those tales have become less and less reassuring. In my documentary NIGHTMARES IN RED WHITE AND BLUE, film critic John Kenneth Muir proposes a parallel between Freddy and another popular (and wildly charismatic) authority figure of the 1980s – Ronald Reagan. In all fairness to Mr. Muir, I’ll quote directly from the unedited interview tape:

“The reason that I compare Freddy and Ronald Reagan – and I’ve taken some heat for it, people say it’s not fair – is that they both essentially pursued the same policy… which was that they were going to, through their actions, visit the sins of the fathers on their children. And what that was with Freddy was that he was going after the children of the people who killed him. He came back from the grave and was haunting the children of his murderers in their nightmares. And what Reagan did was to put this country so badly into debt, so badly into deficit with the buildup of the arms race, by lowering taxes for the extremely rich… by doing that, what he was doing was he was building up all of this future debt for the children of America. Of course Reagan wasn’t slashing children, I’m not saying that… he wasn’t killing people, but it was the very same idea, just morphed into a movie. And certainly Wes Craven was aware of that – this Biblical notion of the sins of the father passed on to the kids.”

For those who argue that this is a misreading of Craven’s intentions, I note what Wes Craven told Christopher Sharrett in a 1985 interview: Reagan “is the most antiseptic sort of person who in his own way is nudging us toward the abyss. These are the people who really worry me.” I might also add the following quote from the recent autobiography of Robert Englund (the actor who played Freddy): “I believe that Freddy represented what looked to be a bad future for the postboomer generation. It’s possible that Wes believed the youth of America were about to fall into a pile of shit – virtually all the parents in the Nightmares movies were flawed, so how could these kids turn out safe and sane? – and he might have created Freddy to represent a less than-bright-future.” I could also add another quote from Stephen King, comparing Ronald Reagan to a vampire… but I digress.

I note all of this not because I’m eager to slam Ronald Reagan, but because the ideas remain relevant. Subsequent presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, have followed similar fiscal policies, and America's financial future is grimmer than ever. Bush II and Obama may spend our tax dollars in different ways based on different priorities, but the results are the same: mountains of debt passed on to future generations. Is it any wonder that Freddy Krueger is still around?

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