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Tabula Rasa

New Nightmares

Lie Back and Think of Englund

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#7, 1995

Go to timeline entry


One, two, Freddy's coming for you

The dreamscape is a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which the unconscious -- a nice safe term that will do for now -- paints its pictures. And dreaming is linked intimately to fiction writing itself, not only with various historical and contemporary examples, but via the process. Surely only the most formulistic and uninteresting of plotting and characterisation is not born in that area, reality only later coming forward to polish and tighten.

Fiction, of course, is aired before a larger audience (we can but hope), and to be successful it has to appeal to the masses, or at least a large enough portion of them so that a message is conveyed from the artist to the world outside. In that sense the dream must be common to some degree, because just as people don't write using the scientific method, they don't read that way either. So now we've got to Jung and the collective unconscious, which is making our nice safe term a little more complicated.

Perhaps film is the closest medium to dreaming, simply because the two are generally continuous and visual. Certainly film is the form in which most money and effort is spent trying to develop a product that will appeal to the literal masses. Does this mean that film as a whole, from the most basic archetypes of the blockbuster to the weirdest byways of the 'alternative' cinema, not to mention the porn at the back of the shop and the cannibal movies under the counter, is some sort of reflection of the group unconscious? In theory, of course, but does it turn out that way?

Maybe a quick look at a series like A Nightmare of Elm Street, to pluck an example from the air, will help answer the question. Probably not but, hey, it's worth a try.

Three, four, better lock your door

Freddy Krueger is one of the most recognisable and popular of the modern monsters -- and monster is what he is. As Dr Loomis says of Michael Myers, he is not human, a force of evil. This is meant quite literally of course, and not just because of his deceased state. There is never a moment in all the seven Nightmare movies where Fred Krueger displays any human characteristic bar shape. He is either strong or weak, cunning or out-foxed, but he is only malevolent. Certainly he was abused by his father, teased mercilessly by his 'peers', but even this is was only a consequence, the natural order of things that started with the rape upon rape of a young woman in a lunatic asylum. And even that act, this bastard son of a hundred maniacs, seems a distillation of a pretty scary looking building -- or at least the abandoned wing that seems several time-zones removed from the rest of the hospital where Nancy Thompson tries to defend her patients.

And that's an important point in itself, because the monster of Elm Street is not just Freddy, but the terrain, the dreamscape itself. When Nancy (at a younger age) walks down into the boiler room of her school, discovering a vast labyrinth of half-working machinery, swinging lights and dead-ends, the transition makes as much sense as the abyss inside her bathtub. It's those holes, the spaces that we visit in dreams, that are the traps of their murderous occupant.

In Freddy's Dead, the whole town of Springwood has become the dreamscape, 'ten years from now' [1]. When I was counting dream sequences (see the index) the town counted as one big one -- with a number of sub-dreams for the personal torment of the kids. Freddy is trapped there, just as in The Dream Master he is trapped by the last remaining child of those that killed him, and needs Kirsten to draw Alice into the dream for fresh meat.

More than that, Freddy is the reflection of the kids that he haunts. It is one of the most obvious points about the character that he tailors the dream for the dreamer -- the girl obsessed with fitness and grossed out by bugs is broken whilst lifting weights, then turns into a cockroach and caught in a big roach motel. The boy with the 'need for speed' turns into a self-mutilating motorcycle, and for the junkie Freddy's claws become syringes, the trackmarks up her arm crying for more. But Freddy is the dream and the dream is Freddy, and the kids tailor the way in which Freddy kills them.

But it wasn't always like that -- this whole Dantean irony thing was only really introduced during the third movie, Dream Warriors. Even after that The Dream Child payed only lip service to the idea (and of course New Nightmare is not about that Freddy at all). Whilst one monster, or at least having one name, Freddy Krueger can't be analysed quite as easy as the archetypes of the vampire and werewolf -- because he is such a specific example. The movies were directed by six different people, written by six different groups, each sequel trying to build on what those individuals perceived as being Wes Craven's original idea and the previous movie's resolution, not to mention bringing their own ideas into it and attempting to do something different.

So we'll first try to define Freddy as a whole, find the archetype under the specifics, and then see how each of the movies handled the idea. Note that I'm not going to go into the TV show here, let alone the comics and such, for a couple of reasons. In Freddy's Nightmares Krueger is relegated to the host, and whilst it shares a similar rationale with the movies of reality-fucking, it had a markedly different format (which we looked at back in issue 3). Also, it's pretty awful and I'd rather not.

Five, six, grab your crucifix

Actually, the movies do their darnedest to find their own archetypes, and while the myth has its own specific elements (here comes that bastard son of a hundred maniacs line again), it very quickly refers back to older myths. Freddy Krueger is a demon no less, in one religion or another.

Wes Craven doesn't say that explicitly, but he comes close. In about his only assertive moment during the entire movie, Johnny Depp's character explains the Balinese system of dreaming, the dream skills with which a nightmare can be transformed into a magical place, or a monster combated. The trick is to turn your back, drain the monster's power by denying its existence, the very trick Nancy uses once her more practical solutions to the problem have come to naught (Johnny Depp meanwhile goes about with a puzzled expression on, right up to being mix-mastered). In Dream Master we have our heroine using martial arts, and the mental discipline that goes with them, to help her prevail. In Freddy's Dead we get the 'real' explanation -- somewhat generically entitled 'Ancient Dream Demons' who roam the dreams of humanity looking for particularly twisted types to grant their power to, in this case Fred Krueger, mechanic cum child-murderer. No culture is specified [2], but the picture of them is certainly Roman in style. In New Nightmare the dream demons are there again, in a less contrived form. It's more of a narrative demon, really, the monster who inhabits our own worlds -- but those we consciously rather than unconsciously create.

It's all very non-Western, isn't it? The idea that images and stories -- and thus words -- can have literal power is magic, pure and simple, and whilst magic forms a large part of our mythology, it is very much treated as the domain of ancients, primitives or the 'Mystical East'. It certainly has no place in the two dominant philosophies of Western society, Christianity and rationalism.

Perhaps that is why several of the movies, Dream Warriors and Dream Child in particular, have a distinct fantasy flavour about them. I'm not talking about the actual supernatural elements, but the use of motifs from the Fantasy genre: the maiden trapped in the tower, the sword-wielding skeleton, not to mention the D&D player (who is, incidentally, named after one of my favourite protagonists of children's fantasy, Will Stanton from The Dark is Rising) and the scene nicked from Labyrinth at the end of number five. And because the fantasy is closer to home, it's no surprise these are the two movies with the disappearing nun in them (or was that Howling 4?). In number three, Freddy must be buried in hallowed ground, and is finally destroyed with holy water -- and Nancy goes the way of all epic heroes -- six feet straight down.

But the Nightmare on Elm Street movies are also more than just slick fantasy tales with a bit of sex and neat special effects added for fun. They are, of course, tailored to the teenagers that make up the audience.

When he was still alive, Fred Krueger preferred his victims young, those kids now trapped in purgatory and soft-focus as they continually offer a warning that comes too late. But Freddy never really torments any children during the movies at all, and the earlier victims are almost as stylised innocence as Freddy is evil (and even then they are only in four of the movies, though the rhyme turns up in all of them). It comes close on occasion: in Freddy's Revenge Jesse finding himself above his sleeping younger sister, glove on hand. Jacob and Dylan both have more personal confrontations with the demon, but perhaps the most frightening aspect in each, as presented on screen, is the chance that Freddy is working through the child. And all three examples show the threat from the protective point of view of the mother/guardian. That threat is the focus because what Freddy, and the movies, do relish in is the torture of teenagers.

But then, the movies are about those teenagers, they are the protagonists who must fight to survive, and Freddy is the focus because he is a danger scary enough to be worth surviving against. There is even a lot less of an emphasis on 'revenge' against more successful peers that makes up a lot of teen movies. It is the parents who caused the problem that the teenagers must cope with, which wasn't exactly their fault, but it is also the parents who refuse to accept what is happening now, taking instead to the bottle or caught up in moulding their little boys or girls to their hollow ideals. And rebellion against that is on pretty much every teenager's mind.

Well, if that's the theory behind the movies, what is the actual practice? If you sit down and watch them, is all that supposed subtext going to make itself obvious, or what?

Seven, eight, better stay up late

As I've said, it is only with Dream Warriors that the style of the series as a whole begins to emerge. The first two movies are quite separate entities, the first because it is obviously not trying to be like anything else, and the second because the ideas it develops from number one are promptly ignored.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is actually a very good film. It's a lot more disorientating than the remaining series because Wes Craven is really trying to capture the sense of nightmare, with its half-understood symbolism, fool's logic and growling, mostly unseen fiend. Its also more brutal -- the death of the girl who is dragged up the wall spraying blood is a lot closer to home than a boy trapped in a comic-book being cut up by Super-Freddy. Even the ridiculous volume of blood that is the remains of Johnny Depp is scary because it is so well filmed -- Craven has a great deal of control over the pacing and the whole look of the film, and unexpected choices like the suddenly incongruous meeting on the bridge with the palm tree in the background keep you on your toes. Well-made and well-written, it also has the advantage of having a great protagonist in Heather Langenkamp's Nancy. Rising to every challenge, spiritual, emotional and physical, she carries the movie, and the actress, with her stocky figure, gorgeous hair and deep dark eyes, looks and acts the role -- a heroine to match Ashley Laurence's Kirsty at the start of another increasingly mainstream horror series.

Two years later, New Line tried it again, they being the production house that had finally agreed to fund Wes Craven's vision after it had been rejected by pretty much all the other studios. Once again more attention is being paid to dream logic, but in this one Freddy has a different agenda. For a start he is picking on Jesse simply because he lives in 1428 Elm St rather than being any child of those who killed the child-murderer [3], and interestingly, it's also the only movie with a mass-slaughter scene (my kill count got a bit confused at the party). It's not a bad looking movie, with an impressive opening, and it is well made and well-paced. It's also the only movie with a male as the main protagonist, which is by no means unwelcome in itself, but importantly, and perhaps fatally, the whole subtext is different from the remain series, and a lot less savoury as well. The death of the coach, tied up and naked, prefaced by his approaching Jesse in a gay bar is a little bit obvious, as is Jesse's running to Ron's bedroom after failing to make it with Lisa. This of course makes the ending, where Lisa does the heroine act and denies Freddy's power by showing her lack of fear, more akin to her saving Jesse from his own supposed pubescent homosexual/murderous impulses. And Fangoria itself pointed out, 'While the homophobic imagery is a perplexing, gratuitous addition, the film's elevation of Krueger from a loathsome child murderer to a witty antihero is reprehensible' [4].

To my mind they get away with the second point, perhaps with the hindsight of such an entrenched character who only goes on to ever more outrageous wisecracks, but I'm a lot less sure about the first. Certainly homophobia is a common teenage fear -- and beyond -- so refusing to acknowledge it is no solution at all.

Teenage suicide is another of those controversial subjects that raises lots of concern, particularly in the States, and I'm not going to complain about its inclusion in Dream Warriors, the third of the series, at all. This was the movie when Wes Craven returned for a certain amount of creative control, and the one where the dreams became less random and... dreamlike, more individual hells for the dreamer. Perhaps it's no coincidence that from this point forward the teenagers are fighting back by asserting their own control over the dreamscape.

With a host of writers and a fascinating cast and crew, perhaps this movie's fault is that it's over-written. It is certainly solidly-made, fast-paced entertainment, full of great special-effects, the occasional nasty bit (like the human puppet), not to mention another good performance from Heather.

If you want to talk about subtext and the positive message against suicide, however, you might ask why it was that only the most interesting and imaginative characters got to die this time round. Being a social cripple/ex-Magic-user freak myself [5] I'm not entirely sure it's to be encouraged, but the summary dismissal of Will by Freddy with the line 'I don't believe in fairy-tales' seems more than a little unfair, for what else are the skills needed in the dreamscape? But then, maybe that's the whole idea, and being unfair is just the way it is -- as I said, Freddy is the dream, and the dream is Freddy.

The next one up, The Dream Master, is perhaps the quintessential movie of the style people associate with the movies -- and it's also the most boring of the lot. It is the first movie where Robert Englund gets top billing, and interestingly, it is only here that Freddy becomes almost exclusively a dream-demon. While we can say that the internal logic of the previous movies isn't consistent, that ignores the simple fact that Freddy can influence matters, and even kill, in the real world -- witness the tongue in the telephone and the noose in the jail-cell from the original, and there are more examples in two and three. Here though, that control which was never really acknowledged is discarded. The trouble is that the writer, William Kotzwinkle (whom I always think of mainly as the guy who novelised ET), also discarded a decent plot. The formula of taking a kid and messing with his brain is repeated verbatim something like five times (the survivors of number three being, naturally enough, the first to go), until Alice, drawing on the skills of her friends, defeats the monster in another special effects showcase. It's not exactly ground-breaking. Perhaps the best bit is the cockroach scene I mentioned earlier, though Alice is a good protagonist -- she just doesn't have a lot to do.

Now for number five, somebody had a idea which I endorse completely: if you are creating a horror movie that exists because of the market rather than any personal vision, mightn't an actual horror writer be able to come up with a decent script? Not necessarily of course, but in this case the gestalt Skipp and Spector do the honours (with the usual bunch of re-writers of course -- in this case including uncredited David J Schow dialogue, and even Dennis Etchison was approached at one point) and deliver an idea that makes The Dream Child the best of the 'ordinary' sequels (that is, not including New Nightmare). Actually, perhaps the success of number five and number seven are related to the idea of turning the premise of the original series on its head, coming up with a completely different slant. Whilst the other movies are about the perils of childhood, DC and NN are about the peril's of parenthood.

Dream Child also manages to fit neatly into the continuing series, mainly by dint of actually using the characters -- and managing to get the actors -- of the previous movie rather than killing them off (okay, so the boyfriend dies first, but what else are boyfriends for?) And of course there is a new group of friends to be reduced one by one till the central character marshals her strength, the doubting medical authorities, the malevolent and sharp-witted monster, and of course the well-executed and impressive looking FX sequences. And yet the dreams are more than just loosely strung together, and the trap comes from a different direction this time. It's a pretty good movie.

Which is more than I can say for Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, a film perhaps best summed up by my co-editor during the closing credits: 'boy, was that stupid or what?'.

And it was, because the plot was not particularly inspiring before it petered out at the end, the Springwood scenes were just inexplicable (Roseanne Barr at her most saccharine and Twin Peaks do not match) and the actual dream-sequences... Freddy turns up a hearing aid and scratches his claws across a blackboard. Freddy turns a computer-game player into, get this right, a character in a computer-game. Ooo-ee sca-ry.

I haven't said much about Robert Englund and his portrayal of Freddy Krueger in all his different incarnations but, despite his using the role to land a number of parts eminently unsuitable for him, he really was a good choice to start with. Particularly so since the initial character -- masked, hardly seen and heard from, seems more suited to be played by stuntmen than actors. Mr Englund acquitted himself well throughout the rising prominence of the character, not hindered at all by a great design job (those claws on his right hand are very effective looking instruments, and are menacing enough by themselves). So it is to the actor's credit that any sense of dignity the character retains in number six seems to be his doing -- the writer just doesn't have any idea how to write for Freddy Krueger.

Which is a bit of a shame because there are a number of good aspects to the movie -- notably the characters which are almost to the last one well thought out and executed (Yaphet Kotto, who didn't make much of an impression in Alien, is a very good Van Helsing figure, and the tricky jobs of the main psychiatrist and the sexually-abused girl are both handled really well). Otherwise, well, forget it.

And that's it for the Freddy movies, a series with a number of highlights and an unfortunate end.

Except of course, it won't end, not while it's still got money-making potential, and since New Line have acquired the rights to the Friday the Thirteenth movies from Paramount, disquieting rumours have made the circuit about a Jason/Freddy team-up, hardly dampened by the appearance of Freddy's glove escorting Jason to Hell at the end of Jason Goes to Hell [6].

Nine, ten, never sleep again

And then there's Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which isn't really a Freddy movie at all.

This is where all the pop psychology we started with actually makes some sense, because the dreamscape is the fiction. Whilst of course hopelessly post-modern (and getting away with it brilliantly -- quite possibly because playing yourself in a movie is quite a different thing from playing yourself going through various stages of intense trauma in a movie. Heather Langenkamp and others really give some very brave performances), it is an idea that is present in the other movies, if less explicitly. It's certainly a valid interpretation of the whole Dream Master and Dream Warrior concept, though there are simpler alternatives.

I was always a little wary of the first Elm St because it is so different from the ambience that was the public perception of the movies. But after the recent release of New Nightmare, and watching the series as a whole, has really increased my admiration for it, and its director. It could be said that these two, along with the excellent Serpent and the Rainbow, form part of another, better series, Wes Craven's thoughts on perception and reality, standing out from his other work like The People Under the Stairs, and even fine examples like The Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left.

They are certainly better, and scarier, than any number of wise-cracking anti-heroes, burned or otherwise. But Freddy Krueger is the monster that attracts the attention, undoubtedly happier carving up the collective unconscious than living in it, but with a smile and a set of claws of universal appeal.

Notes

[1] And somehow ended up in Ohio. How? None of the other movies looked like they were on that side of the country. Admittedly our choice of California for the map in issue 5 was a guess -- but based on what we'd heard of the original newspaper reports that started the whole thing off, the occasional references to earthquakes, and the palm tree evident during number one.
[2] For which there's a very good reason.
[3] But then, why does that address become such a focus of the action later on, anyway, apart from its obvious identification as Nancy's house? I got the feeling Nancy's mum was somehow more involved then she revealed -- after all, she was the one who got to keep the claws.
[4] And this, reprinted in Fangoria Presents Best & Bloodiest Horror Video, and you'll never guess who is grimacing on the front cover... They know what sells, and they're also a much more measured 'zine than those wonderfully lurid photos and snappy captions might indicate.
[5] These days I play sociopathic vampires, I'm sure that's much more sensible.
[6] And I know I'm all aquiver with anticipation... not. The glove also turns up incidentally in Evil Dead 2, after Craven showed clips from ED1 in his original.

 

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