Monday, May 29, 2017

One Long Nightmare: The Problems Of The Elm Street Franchise

(This post was originally intended for publication a couple of days after Wes Craven died, and it didn’t feel right to put it up so close to his passing. )

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.

This is too bad, because it’s a really compelling idea: The ghost of Freddy Krueger - a reviled neighborhood child molester/murderer, burned to death in an act of mob justice - strikes back at the children of the people who lynched him through their nightmares. The film came on the heels of Halloween, arguably the first slasher film, and presented a similar adversary - implacable, unstoppable, revisiting the place of their antagonistic birth to take revenge on the descendants of the people who wronged them. Krueger was more explicitly supernatural than Halloween’s Michael Myers (who would eventually be reconfigured into a far less interesting supernatural threat over multiple sequels and reboots), and so where Myers was minimalist and austere, Krueger could be baroque and beyond conventional logic. Dreams are the place anything can happen, where the laws of physics and causality are suspended. Myers communicated that small-town America was no longer safe, Krueger communicated that your own mind was no longer safe. All bets were off. Again, that was the idea, but even given the rapidity with which the conceit turned into hokey, non-threatening pop culture, the original film wasn’t an especially strong case for it to start.

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.

So the “let’s put out another one now” mentality is a problem, and we see how it’s a problem with the second film right away - A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge is almost like a C-grade imitation of a 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.

But the subsequent films did neither jack nor shit with that, choosing instead to focus increasingly on Freddy as the central character, turning him into almost like a foulmouthed Warner Bros. cartoon character, with the new group of kids really there as set dressing for increasingly cartoonish setpieces. By the fourth film, Freddy is less an object of fear and more a cartoon bad guy - like an evil wizard or scheming Scooby-Doo villain, and you know the good guys, with their newfound secret powers, are going to defeat him, because at that point these aren’t even horror films anymore - they’re oddly gory fantasy films. And with every film we find out more and more about Freddy and as is always the case, the more we know, the less frightening he is. The more we know, the more internal mythology is constructed around the character, the more bound the character is to the rules and logic of that mythology, and considering that one of the big strengths of the first film - you know, the one that made all the others possible - was the anarchic nature of the antagonist (he did not even recognize the laws of physics, you know?), that’s a bad thing to have happen. Then it’s not scary, it’s just an exercise in watching the protagonists discover whatever piece of this mythology will let them defeat the bad guy.

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.

And so after six increasingly sillier films, the franchise was ostensibly laid to rest in 1991 with Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, about which Wikipedia says: “Doc discovers Freddy's power comes from the ‘dream demons’ who continually revive him, and that Freddy can be killed if he is pulled into the real world. Maggie decides that she will be the one to enter Freddy's mind and pull him into the real world. Once in the dream world, she puts on a pair of 3-D glasses and enters Freddy's mind. There, she discovers that Freddy was teased as a child, abused by his foster father, inflicted self-abuse as a teenager, and murdered his wife. Freddy was given the power to become immortal from fiery demons. After some struggling, Maggie pulls Freddy into the real world.”

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.

So we open on a scene from a movie about nightmares, which just turns out to be a movie about a movie about nightmares, which turns out to be a nightmare of a movie of a movie about nightmares. This is awesomely labyrinthian, and at least at first the commitment to the idea is great - bringing in the actual producer and director/writer and cast members, all playing themselves, with this idea that this phenomenon has affected all their lives in different ways - Heather has a husband and son and isn’t so into doing horror anymore (plus she’s had stalker trouble) - and all of this actually mirrors Heather Langenkamp’s life outside the movie, no less. Wes Craven is writing a new script for a new Nightmare film - a script that begins at the same time as a series of earthquakes, and people start having nightmares again, almost like he’s conjuring this into reality like Sutter Cane in In The Mouth of Madness, another art-becomes-life film that came out the year after this. Maybe there was something in the air with directors who made their bones in the 70s starting to think about their effect on the culture, I don’t know.

But, back to the Nightmare. At least at first, this nicely self-referential conceit is played straight enough that there’s an interesting story getting told about the blurring of art and life, and the idea that in the end everything is narrative. It could be the story of Craven’s creation taking on a life of its own in the collective unconscious, it could be the Repulsion-style story of Heather’s emotional deterioration in the wake of a tragedy and the cost of being associated with such a prominent piece of popular culture. It could have done some really interesting work around art and celebrity and our relationship o our monsters while still being really scary and unnerving.

Instead it settles for being yet another Nightmare film, just with some self-reflexive trappings and a hokey rationalization for what’s happening (there’s an ancient spirit of evil that inhabits stories throughout history and it’s using the Nightmare franchise to break through to our world)  that ultimately makes it, especially in the third act, just as full of corny jokes from Freddy Krueger (who looks even more like a fantasy character than ever) and gratuitous effects work (plus fanservice) as any of the others. And maybe that’s metacommentary as well, that no matter how hard any of the people involved in starting this thing rolling try to escape or transcend or improve upon it, in the end everyone reverts to the same story, the same gimmicks, the same setting that’s worked all along. It’s not so much Freddy that is unstoppable and unkillable as it is his myth and the commercial value of that myth at the expense of art and interesting films. I don’t think that’s what they were going for, but, well, who says the author really knows what his story is about, anyway?

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.