As I mentioned here a long time ago, I was not a fan of horror movies growing up. My parents didn’t watch them and didn’t let me watch them either, which was probably for the best, as I was a child with a terribly overactive imagination and a recurring nightmare involving Sweetums from the Muppets. When a friend of mine finally got me to start watching horror movies with him in college, he didn’t start me off with a classic Universal monster, or the demons of The Exorcist, or even the slashers of our 80s childhood. He started me with what was, at the time, the hottest horror movie going. The first horror movie I ever watched all the way through was Wes Craven’s Scream
One of the reasons I’d resisted horror, even after I was old enough to make my own movie choices, was because of the well-known, well-trod tropes of the genre. The idea of the girl running up the stairs when she should have been running for the back door, of the jump scares, the fact that committing certain sins was pretty much a death sentence, the fact that there was always a damned root for them to trip over when they finally did start to run… it was just so… stupid. And Scream, from what I could tell in the trailers, was just more of the same.
Then I saw it.
Yes, it was full of the same tropes as the movies I’d berated, but unlike those other movies, Scream actually recognized it. It used those tropes to its advantage, it reveled in them. Now this was 1996, people didn’t throw around the word “meta” like they do nowadays, but the Scream movies are, in large part, responsible for the popularity of self-aware fiction today. Much of the credit, of course, must go to screenwriter Kevin Williamson. But a lot of it must also be given over to the late Wes Craven, who died this weekend.
Even in my embryonic movie awareness, I knew who Wes Craven was – the Nightmare on Elm Street guy, right? But that meant that, in Scream, he was making fun of many of the same movie tropes he helped to create.
Could he do that?
So I went back and started watching the classic slashers – Jason, Michael, and of course, Freddy, and I saw how much fun they could actually be. A Nightmare on Elm Street in particular was a great experience, because Freddy Krueger was not simply another horror slasher. You could, in theory, escape the likes of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers – just don’t go to Crystal Lake, or turn around and run the hell out of Haddonfield. Those guys were slooooooow. But despite the title of his movie, Freddy’s realm wasn’t as locked in as those of his contemporaries. Freddy’s stomping ground was your dreams. The one place where you should be the most safe, the most secure… and where you are the most vulnerable… your own bed was where Freddy Krueger attacked you. How do you run from sleep?
I also started to notice how the tropes in the early slashers started to evolve and change – how those things I considered silly had once been terrifying, and only were less so due to years of use, overuse, deconstruction, and inversion. I started to understand how different stories could react and respond to one another, not just in horror, but in all genres. I saw Shakespeare in science fiction, Sherlock Holmes in superheroes, Oz and Wonderland in Ender’s Battle School, and I realized everything was connected to everything else, and I loved that. In a very real way, Wes Craven is responsible for everything I’ve written since that realization, whether it’s my own fiction or my analysis of somebody else’s.
Whether he should be thanked or condemned for that, I leave up to history to decide, but it meant a hell of a lot to me.
This is not to say he was a perfect filmmaker. The Last House on the Left, his debut, is a film whose intensity is hard to take, and made even harder when he tries to break it up with a goofy scene straight out of the Keystone Cops. And I know this is sacrilege in some circles, but I’ve always found The Serpent and the Rainbow to be kind of…well… dull. Still, it’s no coincidence that when I did my very first movie study, I counted not one, but three of his films among the most significant horror movies ever made, more than any other director.
He’s also responsible for what I consider one of the most underrated horror movies of all time, one that breathed new life into a franchise thought dead. So to cap off my little tribute, let me tell you what was so damn good about Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
A Nightmare on Elm Street was effectively dead. The first movie – written and directed by Craven – was great. The second one – which he had no involvement with – was terrible. They brought him back to write the third film and it was really good again. From there, the law of diminishing returns set in, and each installment was a little weaker than the last, until 1991’s mediocre Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare seemed to put a pin in the iconic boogeyman once and for all.
Then, in 1994, Craven hit us with New Nightmare, and he turned the entire legend of Freddy Kruger on its ear. Set in the “real world,” the world in which A Nightmare on Elm Street is a film franchise and Freddy Kruger its blade-wielding star – the movie reveals an ancient evil given its power and form through human dreams and imagination. The Nightmare movies trapped it in the form of Freddy Kruger and kept it from preying on the real world. But with the movies over, the demon was getting free, and a far nastier version of Freddy was being unleashed onto reality.
Like Scream two years later, New Nightmare was meta before meta was cool. But it tackled the idea of metafiction in a much more direct way than Scream, giving us a darker tale that not only reflected the line between fiction and reality, but blurred it entirely. Robert Englund plays Movie Freddy, “Real” Freddy, and himself in this film. Heather Langencamp, star of the original, came back one more time to show us why she was the greatest Final Girl this side of Jamie Lee Curtis. And Craven himself wrote, directed, and acted in the movie, all to create this odd sense that the division between truth and fantasy was not so clear.
It’s easy to scare someone for a moment. A loud noise, a flash of a blade when you aren’t expecting it, a well-placed musical sting… they all provide a visceral jolt of terror that can be fun. But that sort of terror fades, and quickly. To create something that clings to a person and haunts their very dreams is far more difficult. That’s what New Nightmare was about. It wasn’t just another slasher film, it was a meditation on fear and how we give our fears life. It is, in my opinion, Craven’s greatest movie… and when you consider how many great movies he made, that’s saying a lot.
The amazing thing about Wes Craven, appropriately, is how good he was at keeping you awake at night. I don’t think anyone who loves horror would want it any other way.
Goodnight, Mr. Craven. Sweet dreams.