A long overdue ode to the maestro of horror…
by: Michael Shields
“If I have to do the rest of the films in the [horror] genre, no problem. If I’m going to be a caged bird, I’ll sing the best song I can.” – Wes Craven
I have become soft. As pudding. As a cotton ball or the skin of a newborn baby. Something, at some point, changed in me and although a hint of that reckless and unintimidated young man I once was lingers, I now tread through the world with much more care than in days yore. And nowhere is this shift in composure more evident than in my diminishing appreciation of horror films.
I scoff at the horror genre now. I turn away in disgust. I label the current trickle of films as “Torture Porn.” I mock the jump-coaxing scare tactics employed, where so often a child (usually) in drab clothing and drippy posture materializes in a darkened hallway or in the mirror of a tattered old home rife with ominous secrets. But you know what? The real truth is, I’m scared. To the core. As the years sweep by, and the everyday “horrors” of life become more plentiful and real, on screen terror unsettles me increasingly. The Babadook, It Follows, Insidious, Mama, The Conjuring – even just the trailers rattle me wholly. But there was a time when horror films invigorated my spirit and made me feel altogether alive. A period of time where the demonic Freddy Krueger roguishly intruded upon the dreams of teenagers, and when Wes Craven was the man behind the monstrosities, masterminding unforgettable tales whose imprint still endures unto today.
There is something so fascinating about Freddy Krueger, the iconic villain of Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street. Beyond the bi-color, frayed sweater. Beyond the leather, virulent glove, and beyond the burnt disfigured face and the menacing grin, the intrigue with Wes Craven’s most famous character was far-reaching. Freddy was so compelling due not only to the uncommon venue in which he stalked his victims, but because of his backstory, the ghastly and decidedly heartbreaking tale of how he descended into darkness.
Amanda Krueger, the story goes, worked in a facility called the Hathaway House that acted as an asylum for the criminally insane. In December of 1941 Amanda was accidentally locked in a room where scores of psychopaths were housed. They attacked her and raped her repeatedly, and she was later found clinging to her life, a child of one of her tormentors growing inside her. The baby conceived through these ghastly attacks was Freddy, born Frederick Charles Krueger in the Fall of 1942. Rather hastily, the unwanted child was placed with an abusive alcoholic named Mr. Underwood. And things didn’t get much better from there…
In elementary school Freddy was picked on incessantly by his classmates for being the “son of a hundred maniacs.” It was at this time where Freddy began to lash out against a world that never gave him a chance and in his first act of blatant perversity, he callously killed the class hamster. As he grew in age, Freddy would cut himself with a shaving razor in search of some measure of catharsis, and then moved on to cutting others, using that same razor to rid the world of his longtime abuser, Mr. Underwood. In time, Freddy’s thirst for blood multiplied, and his ire turned upon the children that populated the neighborhood in which he lived. He would kidnap children, slash and torture them. Labeled The Springwood Slasher, he was soon caught and jailed and put on trial for his horrendous crimes. But due to a technicality, he was released and set free to prey on the powerless once again. Infuriated, the parents of his victims hunted Freddy down, chasing him into the power plant where he was once employed to douse him with gasoline and burn him alive.
Freddy’s horrific upbringing is surely no excuse for heinous acts, but in the understanding of where he came from emerged a unique empathy. Robert Englund, who portrayed Freddy Krueger, has said many times that he feels the character represents neglect, particularly that suffered by children. Freddy Krueger was far from a hero, but he was a representation of the authentic suffering that occurs from simply being dealt a shitty hand in the game of life. And it was in this complexity, this dualism of unfairness, where Nightmare on Elm Street proved so compelling. Freddy was a child robbed swiftly of his innocence, bore into this world via disturbing circumstances. And although there isn’t a happy ending to his tragic tale, it sure as hell was engrossing to watch him slash back at the world, taking his indignation out on Elm Street’s youth.
I can still remember so many of Freddy’s kills vividly, beginning with his first, Tina. Clawed through the chest with Freddy’s iconic razor-glove in both the dream and real world, Tina was dragged about her room as blood spewed-forth like a fountain. There were countless others: Glenn (Johnny Depp), clawed and absorbed through the mattress like water into a paper towel. Jennifer, lured towards a static-soaked television set that materialized arms to haul her head-first through its flickering screen.1 Joey, drowned in a waterbed, popular at the time. (“How’s this for a wet dream?”) Gretta, force-fed her own body parts until she choked to death. (“You are what you eat!”) Debbie, whose arms were snapped like twigs while weightlifting (“No pain, no gain”) and from the open wounds sprouted legs, eventually transforming her into a cockroach caught inside a roach motel that Freddy stomps upon with merriment. (“You can check in, but you can’t check out!”) And Phillip, my all time favorite, whose arms and legs were sliced open and whose veins were employed as puppet strings, a human marionette, that Freddy walks atop a hospital, only to sever the strings provoking poor Phillip to fall helplessly to his death.
Wes Craven’s legacy is far more than Freddy Kreuger and A Nightmare on Elm Street2. Beyond re-inventing the horror genre with that 1984 classic, creating a villain for the ages, and launching the independent film studio New Line Cinema3, Wes made a triumphant comeback in the mid-1990s, helming the Scream franchise, spanning four films that became huge box office successes. The franchise was cunning and engaging with its ability to impart slasher films with a post-modern, self-aware edge. Like the Nightmare franchise before it and his other successful films such as The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and The People Under The Stairs, Scream was hair-raising, enchanting, and fun; an exceptional blend that isn’t as easy to pull off as Wes Craven made it look.
Between Scream 2 and Scream 3, Wes Craven steered his directorial prowess outside the horror genre, spearheading Music of the Heart (1999), and earning Meryl Streep an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in the inspiring drama about a teacher in Harlem. Craven continued to write, direct, and produce well into the 2000s, garnering another hit with the crime thriller Red Eye starring Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy before returning to his roots with 2011’s Scream 4. All the while Craven displayed an adept eye for talent, discovering Johnny Depp (A Nightmare on Elm Street), casting Sharon Stone in her first starring role (Deadly Blessing), and awarding Bruce Willis his first featured role in an episode of the 1980s version of The Twilight Zone. For over four decades Wes Craven’s fingerprints could be found all over Hollywood, and even following his recent passing, his influence will continue to endure.
While my tastes have changed, my affinity for Wes’s creations remains unaltered. Nightmare on Elm Street remains to me the embodiment of what the horror genre can be at its best. There were layers of depth fused with boisterous campiness, over-the top and gruesome bloodshed, and a truly unforgettable antihero. Wes Craven and his wondrous imagination will be sorely missed, but Freddy and the razor glove will forever live on in our dreams. One, two….
- In a Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors, penned by Wes Craven. [↩]
- A Nightmare on Elm Street was shot on a budget of less than 2 million dollars, and grossed more than 25 million at the box office. [↩]
- In a statement following Wes Craven’s death a represent from New Line described the studio as “The House That Freddy Built.” [↩]