This week has started off on a somber note, with the death of film director Wes Craven. Passing at the age of 76 from brain cancer, Wes Craven is best known for his work in the horror genre. Alongside filmmakers like John Carpenter, Wes Craven helped to usher in and solidify modern forms of horror movies, such as the slasher subgenre starting in the ’70s and ’80s. Now, I confess that I am not a huge fan of Craven’s overall body of work. His early films like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes have punch and power to them, but their rougher, more exploitation-based styles aren’t my cup of tea. His later films can range from alright to bad, though Scream does serve as a popular stand-out from that period. However, I believe Wes Craven earned his spot among the classic weavers of horror with one film, one which he both wrote and directed: A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Released in 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street tells the tale of Nancy Thompson and her group of teenage friends, all of whom are preyed upon in their dreams by a burned murderer known as Freddy Krueger. The film is a classic in the slasher subgenre and it earns its status. Firstly, the writing is good, its story showcasing the distance between teenagers and adults. Our teens try to survive the threat of this supernatural evil, while their parents refuse to help and seem generally disengaged from facing the reality of the situation. You feel for these teenagers and want them to live, instead of most slasher films which opt to present an unlikable batch of characters made for the slaughter.
When it comes to the scares, the film also boasts it strengths in that department. Instead of just relying on jump scares or attempting to make you squirm with gore, the film focuses on the tension and dread as these teens try to find a way to survive while fighting off sleep. It also helps that the film has such as brilliantly-made horror villain in the form of Freddy Krueger. With his red and green sweater and his bladed glove, Krueger has a menace to him, fully aware of his command of the dreamscape and toying with his prey before the kill. Part of this monster’s strength lies in the design, the writing, and Robert Englund’s chilling performance. The other part lies in the inspired idea of a killer who can get you in your dreams. Horror stories can tackle numerous fears and anxieties, and sometimes a great point to strike fear is in offering the possibility of being struck when you are in a moment of vulnerability. The shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is proof of that. In the case of A Nightmare on Elm Street, what better place to offer the fear of vulnerability than when you are asleep, unable to fight back in the real world?
Now, this first film in the franchise is definitely a classic, but there is one sequel that Wes Craven both wrote and directed that serves as another example of his skill: New Nightmare. After several films that had reduced Freddy Krueger to a punchline-spewing figure, Wes Craven brought the terror back to the franchise in a fascinating exercise of self-reflexive horror. This film sets itself in our world, as Heather Langenkamp (the actress who had played Nancy Thompson in the original film) finds herself and her family terrorized by a being using the tactics and form of Freddy Krueger. For this film, it takes the approach of looking at the power of stories and their effect on reality, with a Freddy Krueger who is not some spirit of a murderer, but instead an ancient entity who draws its form and power from people’s beliefs and fears. The result is a more cerebral, more mature film that studies horror and its effect on people, a precursor to Scream (which Wes Craven directed, but didn’t write). It was also a much-needed dose of serious horror in a franchise that had grown comical and campy, far away from its chilling roots.
In short, Wes Craven gave the world not one of the classic example of a slash movie done right, it also gave us one of the modern monsters of horror in the form of Freddy Krueger. The impact of this alone is worth remembering him among the ranks of great horror directors.
If you want to see his craftsmanship with ’70s exploitation, then watch The Last House on the Left or The Hills Have Eyes.
If you want to check out some of his later work (some of which dabbles in satire or self-reflexive ideas), then I might point you towards examining New Nightmare, Scream, The People Under the Stairs, or The Serpent and the Rainbow (which is also an excellent book, but decidedly different from the film).
However, if you haven’t seen it yet (or already have and wouldn’t mind an excuse to revisit it), I highly recommend watching A Nightmare on Elm Street (the original, not the remake). It is a great example of its subgenre and what can be accomplished when you tell a story right. As for if you’ll have any nightmares from watching it…well, I suppose you’ll have to see for yourself, won’t you?