The Cathode Ray Mission: A Nightmare on Elm Street and Where the Sidewalk Ends
A Nightmare on Elm Street, the 1984 horror classic from Wes Craven, has grown from humble beginnings to become a staple of the genre and a near-ubiquitous franchise, with six main entries, a spin-off film also directed by Craven (New Nightmare fascinates me to no end and will more than likely end up in these digital pages before long), a terrible remake, and an endless stream of merchandise and branding built off of its potent iconography, namely in the form of its dream-stalking villain, Freddy Kreuger. It stands now as one of the pillars of the 1980’s slasher cycle that was so prolific and game-changing with its explicit violence and sex and psychotic killers, alongside other such behemoths as Halloween, Friday the 13th, and, to a lesser extent, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that all bear some responsibility on the shape of the current horror and franchise-film landscape — the endlessly iterating franchises that dominate box offices this century would have little precedent were it not for the likes of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers being transplanted from context to context as the entry numbers approached double digits. The reception of many of these films was extremely poor and oftentimes not even given space in mainstream critical outlets, relegated to genre focused magazines like Fangoria or to specialized reviews like Joe Bob Briggs’ “drive-in movie” column for the Dallas Times Herald. (Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre being the paradigms of the genre are exceptions to this rule however, as they have been given an elevated status compared to many of their descendants, though it should be noted that this status has been largely granted retroactively; outside of Roger Ebert’s praise, Halloween was mostly ignored or treated rather indifferently, while TCM was met with scattered praise amid much shock and disgust, Stephen Koch writing for Harper’s famously called it a “vile little piece of sick crap”. You can read what I wrote about Texas Chainsaw Massacre here.)
By the time Nightmare entered theaters in 1984, the novelty of the slasher had long since worn off and the subgenre had become a transparently formulaic, bottom-of-the-barrel cinematic offering, big with teenagers and young adults but viciously buried by critics when they gave them any attention at all; Carol J. Clover in “Her Body, Himself” assesses the slasher at the peg just above pornography as far as the levels of taste go (Clover’s essay is going to be a big point of reference for this piece, as she was one of the first serious critics to examine slasher movies, and her breakdown of the subgenre into its constituent parts is highly intuitive). Nightmare is a shot in the arm for the subgenre that on its surface appears to reiterate the established formulas, but does so by virtue of radically altered narrative mechanics that preserve the horror built into the formulas while expanding the creative possibilities of those formulas and taking the thematic implications to new territory.
Even if you’ve never seen a slasher movie you know how they work. A group of people, most often teenagers of mixed gender, are stuck in some location, a “Terrible Place” in Clover’s words, be it a house, a neighborhood, a camp, the countryside locale, an apartment complex, etc., while a psychotic killer is on the loose and takes issue with them for whatever reason. Sex and violence ensue, usually in that order, until everyone has been dispatched except for one, who Clover calls the Final Girl. The Final Girl’s suffering at the hands of the killer is the most extensive, but she is also the most well-rounded of the characters and finds a way to either outlast the killer until help arrives or defeat the killer herself; there are a plentitude of implications you can draw out of the formula with regards to gender performance and audience identification, which is Clover’s main focus, but not mine here, although it is a highly interesting angle of study. This formula existed from the very beginning — TCM and Black Christmas, both released in 1974 less than two months apart, display every constituent part listed above, and even Psycho in 1960 has the bones in place, to say nothing of the Italian giallo films of the 60s and 70s that are close cousins of the American slasher — and it was very rarely innovated upon, as the films were cheap enough and commercially successful enough that there wasn’t any visible need for innovation. They were a low-risk investment, and much of the audience pleasure came from familiarity with the formula, generating an interactive back-and-forth between spectator and character, first yelling out warnings at the screen to not run off alone, to screams of delight and disgust at the inevitable slaughter, to cheering on the Final Girl as she struggles to survive.
Enter the late Wes Craven. Craven was a filmmaker born and bred in the language of sleaze, starting out pseudonymously making pornographic films before graduating to exploitation and horror with 1972’s The Last House on the Left and 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, a movie I have mixed feelings on but is an undeniably powerful and thought-provoking exercise in terror. What separated Craven from many of his contemporaries was not only the creativity with which he would approach horror but the intelligence. Hills, for all its technical jaggedness, is an unbelievably potent metaphor for how easily civilization can turn into savagery, developed through sophisticated parallels and striking imagery. He was also a director that didn’t just make movies but also clearly read theory as well, most evident in 1996’s Scream, which takes Clover’s schematic analysis and incorporates it into the film plot, becoming intertextual as much as metatextual by using an understanding of slashers as a point of reference for how it works itself, most apparent through explicit homages to Black Christmas and Halloween. He knew what made horror movies tick, and as a result, he knew how to evolve the genre.
In Nightmare, Craven introduced the boldest wrinkle to the slasher formula yet: a killer that doesn’t exist in the real world, but invades his victims dreams. For the Halloween lineage of slashers, the main engine of horror was a result of conflicting amounts of information between audience and character, a very Hitchcock kind of approach to suspense. John Carpenter lets us see Michael Myers standing in the shadows menacingly, but he doesn’t let the other characters see that, usually until it’s too late. In this fashion there’s a sort of stability to these kinds of slashers — even as perspective shifts from killer to victim, both perspectives are grounded in the same reality, and the spectator position is often privileged to be granted an awareness of both perspectives simultaneously, leading us to have a general feel for where the necessary characters are located at any given time. What Nightmare does as a result of its basic premise is pull the rug out from our expectations of the filmic reality leaving us suspended in much the same state of terror and ignorance as the characters are. When we see Michael Myers is standing behind some hedges, we know where he is and we know his possibilities of approach, we know that it is possible to run away from him; when we see Freddy at the end of an alleyway, you can make the attempt to run away from where he is but there’s no guarantee that he won’t just be in front of you when you turn around. Freddy is more in control of the filmic space than even we are, his perspective is totally encompassing, and he can bypass the limitations of space and time to pursue his victims. Rather than this omnipotence feeling frustrating or arbitrary, the dreamworld nature of it provides a reasonable justification that allows us to buy in on what Craven is selling with Freddy, and creates a stronger alignment between spectator and victims. The oscillating identification between killer and victim of other slashers is mostly absent here, there are no tracking POV shots of kills or other identificatory filmmaking techniques employed often in the genre, and there is an asymmetrical conjunction between the genuinely likable teenagers being terrorized and Freddy, who is a truly repellant and evil entity in the original film. (This is the requisite part of the essay where I make mention of Robert Englund’s performance as Freddy, one of the truly great movie monster depictions. A lot of people deride Freddy’s goofier turn in the later entries of the franchise, but I think he works when taken as a campier, more cartoonish villain compared to the menace of his original incarnation, and Englund is the main reason why the character continues to be so compelling and entertaining throughout the series, so shout out to him)
If the instability of the film’s reality creates a feeling of dread around every cut and camera movement, then it’s the visuals that explode that dread into full-blown terror. Craven crafts some of the most viscerally terrifying images ever put into a horror film, many of which have saturated into mainstream pop culture consciousness, but still manage to have an incredible power in their original contexts. Tina writhing across the walls and ceiling, Freddy jumping through the mirror, the glove coming out of the bathtub, Glen’s geyser of blood, the body bag dragged through the school halls; I could go on, but the point is obvious. There’s little cohesion as far as the dream imagery goes, but that makes it feel all the more authentic and more compelling, it has a feverish quality, a series of lightning strikes of inspiration over and over again that creates a jaw-dropping feeling that these images shouldn’t be possible and yet there they are. The irrational logic of dreams has been captured on film since the days of Un Chien Andalou, and there are filmmakers better equipped at articulating that logic and translating it into form and narrative (David Lynch and Federico Fellini come to mind), but I struggle to think of any director that has captured the violent, rupturing quality of nightmares better than Craven has here.
While the imagery and thematic concerns of Nightmare are more like a shotgun blast, a series of implications and gestures in different directions as opposed to a single, focused exploration, there is a simple, broadly unifying idea around which the movie orbits: the terror of growing up. Nightmare is a coming-of-age story at its core, in a way that not many slashers are despite their shared interests in the violent deaths of young people. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp in his movie debut), and their friends Tina and Rod (Amanda Wyss and Jsu Garcia) are normal teenagers with normal teenage concerns and behavior, and their characterization is far more genuine and likable than any of their genre counterparts, except for maybe Black Christmas, which makes it all the more horrifying when they are inevitably dispatched one by one, especially in the often sadistic and gruesome manner it occurs. Each loss is painful and deeply felt, particularly because for much of the film’s plot nobody knows what’s going on. There’s a senselessness to the slaughter of these kids that feels appropriately traumatizing to people of this age. Freddy is a boogeyman of sorts, a childhood monster born from fears of the dark and what’s under the bed, but the death he signifies is very real. I was 14, around the same age as these characters, when my grandpa died, the first real experience I had of someone who had been a semi-regular presence in my life dying, and it’s not fun. Death is a very abstract concept to grasp until it very suddenly isn’t. Experiencing death in a personal capacity, and thereby developing an understanding of your own mortality and the mortality of others, is one of the key steps of development from childhood to adulthood, although the degrees of experience differ from person to person. There was a pretty long lead-up to my grandpa’s death so it was luckily not the traumatizing experience that some people have to deal with, and I’m grateful for that, but it’s never going to be an easy part of growing up, and it will continue to hum in the background as part of life’s white noise for as long as I, and everyone else, will live. Death’s inevitability is interpolated in Nightmare through the inevitability of Freddy’s attacks. Sleep is the cousin of death, and both are inescapable parts of life, fused here into a horrifying time bomb destined to recur until either the dreamer’s demise or their unlikely victory over Freddy. Every slip into unconsciousness could be the last for Nancy. Only by confronting this truth and asserting her own subjective control over her subconsciousness, by refusing to capitulate to the fear of death that Freddy embodies and essentially choosing to grow up instead of die young, does Nancy achieve a temporary victory, but as the ending and the continuations of the franchise make clear, Freddy can never really die.
Another aspect of growing up that Nightmare enacts is the development of a worldview that is no longer exclusively informed by the authority of parents and teachers. In fact, what Nightmare actually depicts is that the impression of the world instilled by those authority figures is entirely a façade. The suburbs are a lie designed to ease any sense of discomfort that their existence implies; taken historically, this can of course come to refer to the racism, exploitation, and colonization that white picket fences are built on top of, but in Nightmare what is being obscured are two specific instances of violence that ruptured the suburban dream, first the child-killing spree of Freddy, then the retaliatory murder of Freddy by parents of the community. Both of these events are actively covered up by Nancy’s parents and other parents that took part in the lynching with the intention of hiding the ugliness of local history from the children, but what this hiding of history ends up being is a death sentence for the children that avoided Freddy’s claw the first time around. Repressed history returns with violence, and the truth finds a way to come out. Only after she understands who her enemy is can Nancy try to fight him. While more lowkey than the dream images, the change of Nancy’s house from welcoming suburban home to a fortress with bars across the windows and locked doors, loaded with deathtraps, is striking; the lies have become a prison, intended to protect her but putting her deeper into Freddy’s grasp. All throughout the film, the worldviews constructed by authority figures prove to be ineffectual at best and actively facilitate Freddy’s attacks at worst. The first shot after Tina’s credit sequence nightmare is her shooting up in bed, framed in close-up but with a crucifix situated strategically on the wall at the side of the frame. She takes hold of it before lying back down as a sort of security measure to protect her while sleeping, and throughout the rest of the film this crucifix and other religious symbols reappear, but they prove to be false comforts. Freddy even mocks the characters’ religious desperations, holding up his glove at one point and saying “This is God.” Nancy’s father is a police officer, but the metaphysical nature of Freddy’s attacks leave law enforcement completely incapable of meeting the threat, turning the cops into a glorified cleanup crew for the messes Freddy leaves behind. Glen’s parents, specifically his father’s regressive attitude towards mental illness and sex, directly precipitate Glen’s extremely bloody death.
Everywhere in this movie are parents failing to protect their children from the terrors of the world, the sex and death and ugliness that saturates it, and if a cogent argument can be drawn out of the movie, it’s that the world cannot be hidden from children forever. Every effort by authority figures to protect the children from that which is out there to hurt them only further endangers them. The world is a lot bigger and scarier than Elm St., and trying to separate the danger of the outside world from the security of the inside world invites danger of its own. The street may be well lit and bordered by trimmed lawns and friendly homes, but eventually the sidewalk runs out and you have to face the darkness. Nancy comes to understand this, and she is the one to live. Growing up is more than one kind of crucible, and failing to do so can lead to more than one kind of death.