I’ve never really been much of a fan of the series of films that started with A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I also recognize that it’s been years and years since I’d watched any of them. Although I wasn’t about to go to the same kind of effort to be either surprised or disappointed all over again that I did for the Hellraiser series, I thought it might be worth getting the big picture on the (ugh) franchise and maybe reconsidering them as a body of work, if not as individual films. I was never a fan (as with so much 80s horror of the loosely-construed slasher genre), but, like with The Exorcist, to the extent that the Elm Street films are a pretty big part of popular culture, it didn’t feel right to completely neglect them.
So I ended up taking more than a few hours one afternoon to watch Never Sleep Again, the extensive documentary covering the making of the first four films in the series. What I ended up getting was a pretty good look into some of the earliest days of horror franchising, and thus in many ways ground zero for so many of the systematic shortcomings of commercial horror film in the United States today. The Elm Street films are the epitome of a cautionary tale.
When Wes Craven made Last House on the Left, he captured lightning in a bottle - an unhinged, discordant burst of galvanic rage that channeled so much national discontent and disillusionment into a deeply unsparing and maybe slightly dangerous film. And for that, and some of his later accomplishments, he’ll always be (rightly, I think) one of the most well-respected directors in American horror. But A Nightmare on Elm Street, perhaps his most well-known contribution to the genre?
Sorry, but, it isn’t great.
Part of it is that A Nightmare on Elm Street really hasn’t aged well, but that’s not entirely fair to the film. It feels cheap to me to criticize films for being a product of their times, in terms of their aesthetic and technical shortcomings. But I’d argue that even for the time, it wasn’t especially good. The dialogue is terrible. No teenagers ever talked the way they talk in this film, even in the 80s. And I know, because I was there. “Up yours with a twirling lawnmower”? “I’ll punch out your ugly lights”? Who the fuck wrote this? It’s all incredibly wooden and stilted and there’s not much the actors can do with it. And no, people do not generally go to horror films for the dialogue, though I think that’s a mistake - there’s no reason, I think, to expect any less from horror film than drama in terms of dialogue and characterization. Film is film. But I’ll allow that the point of a horror film is not usually the dialogue. Even by those standards - standards where otherwise unremarkable, workmanlike dialogue would be sufficient, this is still just fucking crummy writing, and it’s actively distracting. The characters become less believable, the situation becomes less believable, and so our investment in the characters and what is about to happen to them diminishes.
The film is also tonally inconsistent - Krueger starts off as a mostly silent antagonist, and this is, I think, when he is at his scariest, because he’s just this force that doesn’t have to obey the laws of time and space, and even when he starts talking, it’s mostly violent threats which, used sparingly, would probably be okay. If the only information you get is “this creature has no aim but to torture and kill you,” that’s direct and effective. But then, as the film proceeds, you get hints of the wisecracking pop culture figure he’d become, and that works less well. Some of the setpieces aren’t especially convincing, and their cheapness makes them look more silly than scary even for the time and given the state of effects technology. But, again, I have to give the film credit here for trying something new with the resources they had, even if they didn’t quite stick the landing.
In terms of its conceit, what Craven was basically trying to do was take the masked-killer idea in some interesting new directions, and the basic premise could still be viable today. There’s a great kernel of an idea in having to weight sleep deprivation against making yourself vulnerable to a killer who cannot be stopped because he is out of reach of the physical world, and a modern treatment that uses hallucinations and cognitive impairment stemming from sleep deprivation as an explanation for the deaths and as a framing for Krueger (half-glimpsed things, or things seen plainly even though nobody else sees them) could be scary as fuck - basically, Mike Flanagan should be tapped to direct a Nightmare on Elm Street film, because based on his work in Absentia and Oculus, he could rock that shit right.
But, really, that’s not what happened. Attempts to take the then-new genre in a slightly different direction aside, this is still a slasher movie at its heart, with all the puritan morality and focus on violence that implies - note that even here, the first to die is the girl who had sex with her lunkhead boyfriend. Ultimately, it still comes down to teenagers being mowed down, adults refusing to take the problem seriously, and only the virginal Final Girl escaping the slaughter. Were Krueger another mortal in a mask with some kind of gimmick, A Nightmare on Elm Street would be absolutely nothing special. The unreal/surreal settings of his murders - the new thing the film brought to the table - were instrumental in elevating it, at least theoretically, above schlock, but would also end up being the series’ undoing, as they pushed subsequent stories further into fantasy and comedy territory, and gimmick replaced mood.
Of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t a slasher-film also-ran. It was a very successful film, and, as detailed in Never Sleep Again, it struck me how once the first film did well, two things happened immediately - first, the producers said “how can we make more of these now and strike while the iron’s hot,” and pretty much everyone who got tapped for one of the sequels said something along the lines of “we should do something different, you know, change it up” without seeming to have any idea of what made the first one successful in the first place.
Savage Steve Holland teen comedy, only people die in really gory ways periodically before we go back to the wackiness. There’s all the well-documented homoerotic subtext (or, let’s face it, text), but that’s not a liability, that’s actually interesting. No, the second film takes all the tone problems with with the first film and redlines them. This is an actively goofy film when people are not dying. Everyone is a caricature, and though Freddy is less quippy in this one, a lot of the potential menace is undercut by just how ridiculous the entire enterprise is. The death scenes feel even more like setpieces here than they did in the first one. The director, interviewed in Never Sleep Again, talks about how he wanted to take the franchise in a fresh new direction, which is the sort of thing you expect from someone directing the fourth or fifth film, not the second film. And this film really feels like it was made by people with no sense of the first film’s strengths at all - which, given that it was a decision driven primarily by financial interests (Wes Craven wasn’t even consulted), makes sense. One film in, and the next iteration is already just product.
And here is where we see the problems of franchising taking hold - the more films get made, the further away they get from whatever made the first one good, and the more they are abstracted into elements that are repeatable and quantifiable, that can be rearranged and permutated over multiple sequels. What made the first film good was, I think, its aggressive weirdness - deaths completely detached from conventional causality. Like, anything could happen and be gory as fuck while doing so. Though I’m not much of a fan of any of the films in this series, I have to admit that the scene in the first film where a young man gets sucked into a bed and sprayed out as a fountain of blood has a certain power to it. But if you think about it, the focus of the first film isn’t really Freddy - it’s these kids trying to get adults to understand that something is killing them and the adults being completely ineffectual for a variety of reasons. That’s actually a nightmarish thing right there - the feeling that you are trying to do something to no effect. You scream but people don’t react, you run but you don’t go anywhere, you hit someone but the blow lands with the weight of feathers. Waking life in the first film was oddly dreamlike at times, and that’s kind of cool.
Monsters, in my opinion, shouldn’t be pop cultural figures. They lose their teeth the more we know of them. The more they stand in the light, the less frightening they become. Nightmares, once confronted and understood, have no power, and that’s exactly what happened here.
Yep. That is exactly as silly as I expected it to be. And given that it featured cameos by Roseanne Barr, Tom Arnold, and Alice Cooper, the transformation of the story from one of horror to one of comedy appeared to be complete. Which is the only possible outcome, really. The more you elaborate, the more you add, the more you iterate, the further away from the primal power of the original you get, until what started as horror becomes comedy or shitty fantasy or science fiction. And this happens because the creation of these films is not in the hands of filmmakers. It’s in the hands of producers and studio executives whose only concern is profit, with no eye toward what made the original good or sense to get out of the way when someone’s managed to do something that works. That the immediate reaction to this film was “let’s make a lot more of them and give them to people who had nothing to do with the first one” makes this devolution inevitable.
And then, three years later, Wes Craven comes back with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the seventh Elm Street film, and only the second with him directing. And I have to admit, it starts with an interesting premise - the whole thing is a self-reflexive examination of the Nightmare on Elm Street films that posits Freddy having a life of his own outside the films, a film in which Wes Craven and others from the first film are both themselves and characters in the film - but, sadly, in the end it reverts to type, too bound to commercial considerations to really commit to its premise.
New Nightmare opens on what appears to be a scene from a new Nightmare on Elm Street film - Freddy has created a new robotic glove, and he’s about to sever his own hand to attach it, and just as he does we pull back to see that it’s a film set, on which Heather Langenkamp’s husband is working as an effects technician. But then something goes wrong with the glove effect and it goes berserk, attacking her, her husband, her husband’s coworkers, and her son. Then Heather wakes up - it was all a nightmare.
Luckily, I don’t think Wes Craven’s legacy as a filmmaker will be wholly defined by the Elm Street films, as closely as he’s associated with them. (Unfairly so, given how quickly he was shoved aside in favor of directors willing to work cheaper and make fewer demands in service of a profit.) His early work also include The Hills Have Eyes, which, though not as transgressive as Last House on the Left, was plenty gonzo in its own right, The Serpent and the Rainbow, which, although not supernatural, is still a solid foreigner-way-out-of-his-depth film, the unapologetically weird The People Under The Stairs, and Scream, which I think is a much, much stronger take on some of what he was trying to do with New Nightmare, a slasher film set in a world where slasher films exist, a film aware of its own mythology, and most importantly, tense and scary as shit. Sure, Scream went on to spawn three unnecessary sequels, but it never turned into quite the joke that the Elm Street films did. Killers - supernatural or otherwise - will eventually be laid to rest, but the profit motive won’t.
And that’s why A Nightmare on Elm Street got a “reboot” in 2010, and yet another remake is being bandied about now as well.