Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Dream Within A Dream

Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

My local art house is running a series of classic (or "classic") horror movies for Halloween this year. The first in the series was Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which plays pretty well to an audience of young people even today. Most of the audience I was with was under thirty. A large part of it was under 20. Teenagers, it seems, never get tired of seeing other teenagers massacred on screen. It was a good time at the theater, though I admit that Nightmare is not a film of which I am overly fond. But, whatever. I don't get to make the canon and it's a film whose place is firmly established.

Craven conceived of Nightmare after reading about a number of refugees from Southeast Asia who had died in the throes of nightmare from unexplained causes, and formulated the character of Freddy Kruger after the model of the song, "Dream Weaver," by Gary Wright. Craven, a magpie for ideas, incorporated a number of other influences as well, but the idea that if you die in your sleep, you die in real life is the spark behind the film's ideas. The central theme of Nightmare is the tenuous boundary between reality and dreams. At its core, it's an epistemological film shaped in the form of a slasher film.

The story follows four teenagers--Nancy, Tina, Glen, and Rod--who are troubled in their dreams by a man in a hat and a striped sweater with knives at the end of his fingers. When all four of them realize that they are having the same dream, they gather to support each other as they take turns sleeping. This doesn't work out. Tina is assaulted in her dream while Rod sleeps next to her, and the force of her dreaming intrudes into the real world, where her wounds from some invisible assailant manifest on her body. Rod is blamed for her murder and taken into custody. Nancy begins researching dreams and mainlines coffee in order to stay awake, but starts to have nightmare visions of Tina in a body bag when she nods off. Her parents take her to a sleep clinic, where she has a nightmare encounter with the man in the sweater in which she burns her arm on a steam pipe. This, too, manifests itself on her body in the waking world. Nancy's description of the murderer greatly disturbs Marge, her mother, who is keeping a dark secret. She knows the identity of Nancy's dream demon: he's Freddy Kruger, a murderer of children who she and some of the other parents on Elm Street burned alive after the courts kicked him back into the world on a technicality. Freddy's ghost, it seems, is out for revenge. Paranoid that Nancy is endangering herself out in the world, Marge installs draconian security measures on their house, which prevents Nancy from supporting Glen and vice versa. Regardless, she formulates a plan to bring Freddy into her world where, she surmises, she can kill him again...

Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

When Craven articulated the "rules" of the slasher film in Scream, one of the best, if best-disguised meta-jokes in that film was that Craven himself was at least partially responsible for formulating those very rules. A first draft of them can be found in his first film, The Last House on the Left, in which girls who go off the path meet the big bad wolf. By the time Nightmare rolled around, the formula had been honed to a razor's edge (if you'll pardon the pun) by both the slasher film imitators of Halloween and by the zeitgeist of Reagan-era America with its abstinence-only sex education and its "Just Say No" solution to drug use. I like to think that the kids in slasher films are a middle finger to that new puritanism, and that those films are an allegory for the system itself being murderously indifferent to them much like the Reagan administration was murderously indifferent to, well, a lot of people who don't conform to Republican ideas of "niceness' (prominently, the gay community--it's not for nothing that the second Nightmare film has a deep well of coded queerness). Admittedly, this is probably giving most slasher films not made by John Carpenter or Wes Craven too much credit. Slashers are usually a sexual threat, too, representing a demonized other as a source of fear (though maybe that's of a piece with Republican politics, given the history of politics in the years since). This is explicit in Nightmare in the scene where Nancy falls asleep in the bathtub and Freddy's hand emerges from the water between her legs. In a broader political coding, Nancy's family is affluent on the evidence of their house, and her mother, Marge, is the very model of a Reagan-voting suburban housewife, crossed with a touch of Douglas Sirk. Clearly, her own conformity has driven her to drink. Moreover, Nancy's dad is a cop, and proves to be a largely impotent patriarchal figure in a film that is mostly feminine.

Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Nightmare's examination of the boundary of dreams and reality is one of Craven's central thematic preoccupations, and it can be argued that this is where his post-modern impulse toward reflexive storytelling first coalesces (although it's always been there, right from the start). Certainly, Craven has always viewed the cinema itself as a state of waking dreams, and as such, frames Nightmare as a dream within a dream. He has the good taste not to put too fine a point on it by quoting Poe, I guess, even though some of the film finds Craven engaging in the same sort of cutting contest that Romantic poets used to engage in when they would code criticism of their rivals into their work. Glen, for example, is seen watching The Evil Dead before his unfortunate demise. The Evil Dead's cabin in the woods has a poster for Craven's The Hills Have Eyes hanging on one of its walls. Glen's demise in a geyser of blood is Craven attempting to one-up Sam Raimi. In any event, somewhere in the third act, the film slips completely into Nancy's dream world and you can argue, based on how the film ends, that none of the film takes place in the waking world. That's the takeaway from the framing dream images of the little girls playing jump rope to a skipping rhyme about Freddy ("One, two, Freddy's coming for you").

I remember Ronnee Blakely being terrible in A Nightmare on Elm Street back when I first saw the film in 1984, but I can't say that anyone else in the film is actually good, which comes as a surprise to me. This is a film that is undone by terrible acting. In the film's defense, the performances in the second half of the film are better than in the first half--Blakely's recitation of Freddy Kruger's fiery end being an egregious exception. Blakely, it should be said, has the thankless task of simultaneously fleshing out the film's mythology while committing the fundamental mistake of the slasher film (it explains too damned much), so maybe I'm being hard on her. Some of this is out of her hands. Heather Langenkamp's performance as Nancy at least gets better as she gets a better character to play as the film progresses. The only actor who seems like they're at ease in the film is Johnny Depp, who you may have subsequently seen in other films; he had a bit of a career after this. I wonder a bit if this is a result of the hand that Craven was dealt or if it's a flaw in his ability to direct actors. I'm inclined toward the former, because his Twilight Zone episodes from roughly the same time period--particularly the one with Melinda Dillon as a woman who can stop time--have generally excellent performances. Plus there's the evidence of New Nightmare, in which this same batch of actors is not up to playing themselves as real-life people (the best performance in that film is from Craven himself; go figure). New Nightmare came after a couple of films in which the performances are generally very good (The Serpent and the Rainbow has superior acting, for instance, and sometimes feels like a revision of A Nightmare on Elm Street). Subsequent films as well, but there's a definite curve to the level of talent available to the director. Craven worked with Meryl Streep eventually, and that's a quantum leap in terms of acting chops.

Amanda Wyss in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

In any event, I'm not a fan of this film, really, and Craven has never been one of my favorite horror movie directors, but it was fun seeing this with an audience, particularly an audience composed of a lot of teenagers. The jokes mostly work in spite of the ham-fisted delivery and some of the imagery remains delightfully creepy (the girl in the body bag in particular). And, y'know, sometimes my younger self--particularly my teenage self--was dead wrong about movies. She didn't care for Nightmare when it was first in theaters. The adult version of me can enjoy it well enough, but, yeah, it's not a revelation after all these years.

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