Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Back on Elm Street: The Kids Are Alright

Wes Craven has said that his earliest filmmaking influences were not horror movies but European art-house cinema: Antonioni, Bergman, Bunuel, Cocteau, Fellini, Polanski, Truffaut. These are the influences, I think, that make the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET stand apart from other contemporary horror films – because, like those filmmakers, Craven doesn’t use surrealistic imagery simply for visual impact. He uses it philosophically, to craft a worldview that is more complex than traditional good vs. evil.

One of the reasons that I like the first sequel, FREDDY’S REVENGE (1986), is because it has the same influences and ambitions. Director Jack Sholder cites Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST as one of his biggest influences, and in fact FREDDY’S REVENGE can be viewed as a struggle between Lisa Webber (Jesse’s girlfriend) and the beast (Freddy). They are the strongest characters. The male lead Jesse is simply stuck in the middle, while these two play tug of war over him.

Of course, Jesse also has his own internal struggle – over whether or not to consummate his relationship with Lisa, or pursue his (male) friend Grady instead. The filmmakers have said that they never intended a subplot about homosexual panic… but come on. The guy dreams about torturing his high school gym teacher in a dingy S&M bar. And where does he go in the middle of the night after “Freddy” prevents him from making out with his girlfriend? Straight to Grady’s bedroom. Nuff said. When I first saw FREDDY’S REVENGE as a teenager, I didn’t consciously pick up on any of this… but I hated the movie because the main character whines and screams like a girl. Now I can’t help thinking that the storytelling is incredibly bold, and much more genuinely disturbing than the later sequels. Jesse’s sexual urges are not only turning him into a “monster”... his fearful response to his “monstrosity” is turning him into a schizophrenic serial killer.

I’d argue that FREDDY’S REVENGE also has some of the most interesting visuals of the series. Whereas the later sequels generally resort to comic book imagery, this one is a bit more impressionistic. Who could forget that introductory sequence in which a school bus inexplicably turns a corner in suburbia and winds up in a desert during a thunderstorm? Moments later, the earth opens up and the bus is hovering over the fiery pit of hell. Unfortunately, much of the dream imagery in this film lacks dramatic tension. Whereas A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET integrated the unexpected into seemingly normal settings and scenarios (think of the way that Nancy’s staircase suddenly turned into glue, proving that she was dreaming rather than awake), FREDDY’S REVENGE fails to establish clear-cut rules about what’s real and what’s a dream (Remember the scene with the exploding parakeet? What the hell was that about? Everyone was awake…).

On an unrelated note, I also really like Freddy’s burn makeup in this movie. He looks darker and scarier than he would again until WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994).

FREDDY’S REVENGE was a huge commercial success, but it’s never been a fan favorite. The producers at New Line seem to have sensed that the film was a creative misstep, since they brought Wes Craven back in for DREAM WARRIORS (1987). Of course, what we see onscreen isn’t really Wes Craven’s DREAM WARRIORS – his ideas were simply integrated into a “movie by committee.” I think the closest we can get to Craven’s vision is actually the novelization, which was adapted from an older draft of the screenplay. This version of the story does a better job of humanizing the characters of Nancy and Kristen, and the Springwood kids in general. We get a glimpse of adult Nancy at her most fearful: “The only reason I haven’t killed myself already is that I have no guarantee he’d leave me alone, even if I were dead.” This statement illustrates her kinship with the allegedly suicidal teenagers – she knows they’re not suicidal because she too has faced their nightmare man, and so she becomes a kind of mentor. Craven says, “That was one of the points of the film. We were aware of teenage suicide, and the notion was to show that it’s not just some drug or something that’s making them do it, it’s a real perception of evil. A real teenager committing suicide doesn’t want to do it, he wants somebody to know what’s going on inside of him, so he can be understood and not seen as sick.”

Not too long ago I read a book about “dream tending.” It proposed that we can consciously control our dreams by recognizing them as such. The monster isn’t necessarily evil – he’s an opportunity for us to fight or flee. When we face our fears and fight, the monster loses its power over us and we regain control of our dreams (and by extension, our lives). Of course, this isn’t quite how it works in DREAM WARRIORS. The individual characters discover their “dream powers,” but Freddy still kicks their asses because HE doesn’t “believe in fairy tales.” In the end, Freddy can only be put to rest by John Saxon… because John Saxon is fucking awesome. Actually, it’s because John Saxon knows where Freddy’s bones are hiding, and he helps to bury them in consecrated ground (on the advice of the undead serial killer’s mother, who happens to be a dead nun). This is a rare introduction of traditional religion into the series mythology, and I can’t help wondering whether the idea came from Craven or not. It’s no secret that Craven was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist church, but he rarely talks about religion in conventional terms. In the DREAM WARRIORS novelization, Kristen says that she has never considered herself “especially religious,” but adds that she instinctively believes that all religions are one.

In the DREAM WARRIORS film, it’s the rites and rituals of the Church that put Freddy to rest… but obviously that’s just another temporary solution, since Freddy returns in THE DREAM MASTER. The only way the Springwood kids can overcome their “true perception of evil” is by facing it… again and again and again.

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