Politics as Horror, Horror as Art: Part 5
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A haggard, ratty, looking man with a pocked face and haunting stare laces his fingers through a chain link fence, gazing hungrily at a young boy lost in a daydream out the window. When the little boy accidentally falls into this leer the old man snarls: “Yes, I’m looking at you,” crosses the walk, and enters the building. The boy sends his brother to fetch a baseball bat and stands waiting for the man, but a short while later, it appears that he has vanished.

The haggard, haunting figure returns, again and again, throughout the child’s life, if only in his nightmares. The figure would grow up to be Freddy Krueger, the little boy Wes Craven—and Nightmare on Elm Street would be the result.

Just as Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre had drawn from his own personal experiences and fears to manufacture his terrifying masterpiece, Craven tapped his own nightmares as fuel for a creature that would become synonymous with the word. In 1984, the slasher genre had stagnated, and Halloween had veered off in a new direction; Friday the 13th was at its first final chapter, and movie audiences had already seen it all. After reading a newspaper article about children dying in their sleep after complaining about weird nightmares, Craven began to pitch Nightmare on Elm Street, but most studios shot him down outright because “no audience would be afraid of anything that would happen in dreams.” (Oops)

Nightmare would breathe new life into the stale genre and resurrect the production company New Line Cinema from the brink of destruction, christening it “the house that Freddy built” from that point on. Its dream-stalking supernatural serial killer created an innovative vista for the genre.

The film is essentially standard genre fare with an added twist. Jason Voorhees had wrested the bogey mantle from Michael Myers for a time, but Freddy Krueger would slip into the genre and attack us at our most vulnerable—bedtime. Craven’s creation brought the bogeyman motif back to its origins, placing Krueger in the world of nightmares. He named his cult-caliber Krueger of Nightmare after his legendary cult villain Krug of Last House—the namesake for both drawn from nightmares of his own.

Again, just like Tobe Hooper, Craven would base his body of work on his own broken home memories (hence the serious attitude regarding the nuclear family) and name Krueger after a neighborhood bully (named Freddy, uh, Krueger) who terrorized him as a child. As with Hooper’s masterpiece, which created a public nightmare of personal fear, Craven manufactured three classics from his own horrifying experiences.

Immediately after the success of Nightmare, the studio made Freddy’s Revenge. Filmed only a year after the first but taking place five years in the future, it produced an instant cliché that immediately moved Freddy into the same cheesy realm as his serial-killing kindred.

Unfortunately, the director would suffer the same fate as his creation—like father, like son. He would plunge into overexposure, opting for commercial success that discredited many of his more powerful statements. While he didn’t involve himself in the second Nightmare project (he didn’t like the idea of Krueger taking possession of the film’s hero), he did focus his energy on destroying his other franchise with an equally deplorable sequel, Hills Have Eyes 2. This time, his sophisticated ideological confrontation between traditional American family values and a symbolically representative family of the impoverished “others” was left from the script completely. Instead, Hills 2 was a less than thrilling slaughterhouse thriller, pitting the mutant-family-Robinson against a motocross team (I only wish I was making this up).

In 1987, Craven tried to reclaim his character in the exceptional third Nightmare installment, Dream Warriors, the most creative of the sequels, adding a psychological element that played with metaphors for empowerment over mental illness. He opted out of helming the project, going on to do the adaptation of Serpent & the Rainbow (1988), an Indiana-Jones-and-the-Island-of-Zombies adventure released the same year the fourth Dream Master was released. Dream Master drew its plot straight out of the third and is pretty decent as far as the Freddy flicks are concerned.

This same year Freddy’s Nightmares, a Tales from the Crypt-ish series aired on television, featuring Krueger as Crypt Keeper with a corny repertoire of one-liners following each segment. About ten episodes of the two-season run featured Freddy as a character (including the premier, a botched retelling of the Freddy origin with Tobe Hooper himself in the director’s chair), but the majority were Twilight Zone-y vignettes.

Craven would take a shot at inspiring another franchise that thankfully fell flat, writing and directing the embarrassingly bad Shocker: No More Mr. Nice Guy (which ripped its name from the Freddy's Nightmares pilot but should have been subtitled No More Mr. New Plots). A supernatural serial killing TV repairman masters the powers of electricity, becoming an evil energy source that can navigate through electricity and take over other bodies to continue killing (think: a more menacing version of Jim Carrey’s Cable Guy meets Freddy Krueger with body hopping possession, compliments of The Hidden (1987)).

Freddy wore even thinner with his stint on late-night television, which sputtered to cancellation, ushering two additional sequels, Dream Child and Final Nightmare. Creator Craven pushed his way into the project to make his meta-movie, New Nightmare, a final-for-real (I mean it this time) final say on the mythos.

This final say, of course, preceded the franchise’s plummet to new depths of cheesiness. No, I’m not even talking about the spin-off franchise, Freddy Vs. Jason, but Real Nightmares, a reality television series expected to air this year, where guests will act out their own nightmares with segments hosted by Krueger (again, I really wish I were making this up).

Craven’s career is spotty at best. He’s created some of the most resonating images in modern horror with cinematic genius: The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream—all creatively original works, loaning themselves well to analytical dissection. Simultaneously, he’s succumbed to shamelessly commercial motivations: Shocker, People Under the Stairs, Vampire in Brooklyn, and mass B-grade sequels to the majority of his works. At his worst, he’s even sold his name as a commodity, slapping “Wes Craven Presents” as heading to some flicks that I was embarrassed to watch (Wes Craven Presents Dracula 2000 and Wes Craven Presents They).

Unfortunately, the biggest discredit to Wes Craven’s body of work has been his own body of work.

If you’ve missed Josh’s previous installments, be sure to read:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

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