Wednesday, October 15, 2014

31 Days of Horror: A Nightmare on Elm Street

Freddy's coming for you in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 15: A Nightmare on Elm Street

One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. Three, four, better lock your door. Five, six, grab your crucifix. Seven, eight, better stay up late. Nine, ten, never sleep again.

You will have to take my word for this, but I can still recite that poem from memory. I probably will be able to do that for the rest of my life. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street was formative for me. I was interested in horror and the macabre from a young age, but the Nightmare movies and Freddy Krueger blew the door wide open. This was my introduction to real horror, and for that reason, it will always have a special place in my heart.

A lot of horror filmmakers rightly believe the scariest villains are the faceless ciphers who lack even basic tenets of humanity, à la Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers from the previously discussed Friday the 13th and Halloween films, respectively. In many instances, they are right. But I will say that in childhood, I had nightmares about just three characters: the Cryptkeeper from Tales from the Crypt, embarrassingly the Chuckie doll from Child’s Play, and Freddy Krueger.

What the three villains who haunted my dreams have in common is personality, and for personality, Robert Englund’s performance as Freddy Krueger has no equals. Englund plays Freddy Krueger with the kind of smirking insolence usually reserved for the hero of the story, and for a lot of fans, he is the hero of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. In film after film, people tune in to see the villain chew the scenery, kill teenagers in inventive ways, and finally let his hubris get to him so he can be killed, only to be brought back to life in the next sequel.

We can be honest here. Most of the sequels leave something to be desired, and the overall mythology behind Freddy Krueger gets pretty muddled, but there is always Englund, and there is always Craven’s first film – the director having had nothing to do with the sequels until the masterful Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

The genius of a stalker who kills people in their dreams cannot be overstated. If we look at real-world solutions to horror-movie problems, they have some basis in logic. If you are haunted, you can move; if you are hunted by a giant shark, stay out of the water; and so on. But despite the poem, never sleeping again is not a viable option. Coffee, pills, noise, light, whatever usually keeps you awake will only work for so long. At some point, your eyes will close, and you will be forced to confront the demon in your dreams.

Freddy Krueger is that demon, and the delight he takes in confronting his victims may be the scariest aspect of his reign of terror. He has grudge against the parents of Elm Street. Their vigilante justice took his life but gave him the power to live forever in the dreams of their children. He promised the town it would never be safe, and try as it might, it seems it never will be.

Tomorrow, we let Wes Craven take us into the modern age of self-referential meta-horror.

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