Politics as Horror, Horror as Art: Part 4
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After over thirty years of being reduced to commercial cartoons of their former selves, the horror classics of the sixties and seventies that resonated with psychologically, politically, and socially-relevant themes have become something of a joke. Trying to point out the artistic merit and social significance of these films today is virtually impossible.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), dismissed by Freddy purists and relatively unknown in the mainstream, was a metaphorical expression of this de -evolution from art to generic genre. In preparation for this “final” say on his mythos franchise (in the same way Friday the 13th, Part 4 was the “final” chapter), Craven watched the entire series run of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. By the end of this viewing, even the creator confessed confusion at the lack of cohesion. The stories just didn't make sense.

  
 
The same can be said of course for the plot lines run amuck in any of the slasher franchise:

John Carpenter’s Halloween and Halloween 2 bear no resemblance to Season of the Witch. While Season holds its own as a well-crafted, well-executed creepy tale with a catchy jingle—and while it was part of Carpenter’s original vision to release unrelated horror stories with the Halloween heading—it failed to pay off. The studio then rehashed Michael Myers for a fourth installment shortly after. At some point, as the plot rolled toward reintroducing Jamie Lee Curtis in part seven, Halloween H2O (1998), it picked up evil druids and an ancient curse along the way—but abandoned them completely by the time Laurie Strode returned.

Friday the 13th started with Mommy Dearest seeking revenge for her drowned sonny boy—and by Part Two had the mama’s boy seeking revenge for his slain Mommy Dearest. In the third installment, he picked up his signature hockey mask, which he wore when he hit Manhattan, went to hell, and was rocketed into outer space. Along the way, he acquired the ability to body hop—but only for a brief period of time.

By New Nightmare, Craven had found a way to comment on what had been done to the masterful horror concepts that had started with psychological, social, and political merit and were derailed on a commercial course into cartoon camp with a Metafictional, pre-Scream, self-referential style.

Initially a literary professor, Craven has always straddled the fence between artistic visionary and mercenary. To call him a sell-out isn’t exactly accurate—he had never set out to be a horror director, and his first movie was basically a porn flick. Discovering a passion for film by heading up a student project as faculty advisor after burning out in his role as educator (it was a period when flunking a student meant sending him off to Vietnam), he was eager for something new. The first job he landed was a “grind house” skin flick called Together (1971), written and co-directed by Sean Cunningham, who would go on to do Friday the 13th and featuring Marilyn Chambers, who would go on to become a porn legend. A year later, Craven would be asked to write and direct a horror film, Last House on the Left—a demented, taboo-riddled horror thriller that predated and, in many ways, was more unsettling than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Just as with TCM, the film would clash with the MPAA, reform obscenity standards, and similarly be banned throughout Europe. Last House, an updated remake of the Ingmar Bergman classic, The Virgin Suicide / Jungfrukallan (1960) (gesundheit), plied a faux-documentary style later popularized by TCM. And just as with TCM, it examined the nuclear family in the context of societal violence—but unlike TCM it was not a feel good family film.

Last House centers on a savagely sadistic gang of murdering rapists who ply psychological torment even more viciously than psychical torture. Krug (David Hess), Weasel (Fred Lincoln), Sadie (Jeramie Rain), and Junior (Marc Sheffler) kidnap Mari (Sandra Cassel) and Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), a couple of teenage girls on their way to a concert, then brutalize, rape, torture, and kill them. The gang then attempts to hide out with a family, who also happen to be Mari’s parents and who exact an extremely brutal revenge for the murders. In the end, the horrendous vengeance committed against Krug and his boys is unfulfilling and empty to the family, delivering an ironic anti-violence statement to the bloodbath of a film. It holds its own as commentary against capital punishment and societal violence at large.

To be honest, the film is difficult to watch—even painful to view in parts. Unlike slasher films that follow, the violence in Last House is stomach twistingly realistic. Craven would go on to do The Hills Have Eyes (1977), considered the definitive challenge to the American nuclear family mythos. Loosely based on a deranged Scottish “feral” family in the 1400s, symbolically representative of impoverished, oppressed, and downtrodden “tribal” people throughout the world (specifically the North Vietnamese, given its historical context), Hills played out a sweeping drama of clashing values.

When an all-Americana middle class family cuts across an abandoned, post-apocalyptic military facility in the center of the desert, they’re confronted by a mutant-led cannibalistic clan of scavengers. On a nightmarish Cold-War-at-its-bitter-extreme landscape (a nuclear testing range), the White Bread nuclear family is confronted by the radioactively exposed “tribal” family. Where Last House delivers a strong thematic punch, Hills is somewhat messy with its message, showing the American family with a hypocritically false value system and the symbolic outcasts fulfilling all the barbarism of the propagandized perceptions of the other. In short, Craven never takes a firm stand on either side of the ideological battlefield.

Last House and Hills just primed Craven for his most recognizable legacy, bringing his legendarily ruthless villain into a new incarnation with a couple of vowels and some additional consonants in the mix—Krug of Last House would become Krueger of Elm Street. This mythical postmodern nightmare walking would have an unusual origin of his own, which Craven would take to surreal ends before loosing the battle entirely.


Be sure to check out the fifth and final installment of this series on August 25—and if you’ve missed Josh’s previous installments, be sure to read:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 5


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