Nostalgic for nightmares

It’s been a while since I did anything bloggy here, so I thought I’d let you know what I’ve been watching recently.  Sort of a review, sort of a nostalgic rambling down memory lane.  A lane by the name of Elm Street.

1. A Nightmare on Elm Street

I bought the Nightmare on Elm Street series the other day, one of those bargains it would have been rude to resist – all 7 films for a fiver.  Whilst I had only vague recollections of most of them regarding story specifics, I remembered having fun when I first watched them.  In fact, I remembered being terrified by the first one.  I think it was one of my first ever scary movies (maybe Poltergeist got in there first when I was younger, but A Nightmare on Elm Street was certainly my first 18 certificate).  I must have been 13 years old or thereabouts.  Partly I was attracted to its reputation, the word of mouth in the playground, and partly there was the thrill of watching something I shouldn’t, but there was also the concept of dreams that were not only scary but dangerous (dreams have always fascinated me, and from around that age I’ve been keeping a dream journal to record the weird ones).  Anyway, what I got when I watched Elm Street was a scary guy with a hat, dirty jumper, and “knives for fingernails”.  And lots of blood.  It was awesome.

Flash forward to twenty years later and what I get this time is a film I still enjoy, mostly for the memories but also on its own terms.  It’s clearly very dated, with the effects laughable in places (I’m thinking of that tongue from the phone, and the mannequin mum yanked through the front door window) but it still carries a strange residual fear and the story is still a fine one.  I was able to appreciate the effective blurrings between dreams and reality, the villain was delightful in his wickedness (he wasn’t his own caricature yet), and I still had a bit of a crush on Nancy.  The opening dream sequence is unnerving, the first kill particularly dramatic, and there are some moments of brilliance such as the bathtub (not just because of my crush) and running up some stairs that turn to squishy marshmallow.  The score is subtle and chilling, and those kids chanting ‘one…two…Freddy’s coming for you…’ are still creepy (in this first one – they get a bit tiresome later).  All in all it was a great night in, and it built high hopes for the sequels…

2. Freddy’s Revenge

What I remembered of this one was not liking it much.  I barely remembered Freddy at all, but there was something about a school bus.  That was it.

What I got second time around was a pretty clever psychological story, one that seems to play with anxieties of homosexuality.  I still don’t like it much, though.  Freddy becomes a metaphor for the ‘other’ that dwells within Jesse (a deliberately feminine name?) who is our new lead teenager, but it seems more than a bit dodgy to me to be equating homosexual desire with the kind of bloody penetrative murder Freddy perpetrates.  You’ve got a not so subtle shower room scene, various close-ups of men’s crotches and bottoms, and even when Jesse is kissing his close female friend he stops himself in horror (Freddy’s tongue is in his mouth) and flees to his other close friend, a young man he soon kills.  Well, Freddy kills him, clambering out of Jesse’s skin and sticking it to the guy up against the closed door of his bedroom.  What saves Jesse from Freddy / from himself / from his dark desires (from a life of sequels)?  The love of a woman.  Phew, he can be ‘normal’ again.

3.  Dream Warriors

I remembered much more of this one.  This time there’s Patricia Arquette as the main girl, only she’s got a power that allows her to bring others into her dreams, providing an ensemble of good guys and girls – the Dream Warriors – to fight Freddy.  My cousin freaked me out with this one long before I had a chance to see it, detailing each of the nightmare scenes in all their grisly glory.  They’re still pretty good, imaginative sections of narrative you can skip to in the special features.  One guy likes to make puppets – Freddy slices his arms and legs open and uses his veins as strings to walk him off a roof.  One girl wants to be on telly – Freddy goes a step further and pulls her into one; “Welcome to prime time, bitch”.  It’s getting a little bit funny now, though, Freddy the guy with the hat, dirty jumper, knives for finger nails…and witty one-liners.  Arguably, it’s what made him so popular, but he loses a lot of his fear factor with it.  Nancy’s back for this third instalment– hurray! – but she dies.  I’m older now, though, and my crush focuses on that nurse from Joey’s nightmare.  I’ve become shallow with age.

4. The Dream Master

Hmm.  More of the same, and very diluted.  Arquette’s character is back, but not Arquette, so better kill her off quick.  The story?  I couldn’t remember it before this trip down memory lane and now, only a week or two later, I’ve forgotten it again.  I think Freddy is killing teenagers.  There’s a pretty good moment where a scene repeats, keeping the characters from where they’re trying to get to, but the rest of the repetition here is a lazy retelling of the Freddy formula, although we get a bit more back story for this “son of a hundred maniacs”.  It’s really the only option when your franchise relies on the popularity of the bad guy.

5. The Dream Child

The silliest yet.  Over at his blog, Peter Tennant described the Freddy films as horror cartoons and it’s impossible to disagree by the time you get to this instalment.  Hell, one of the characters even becomes a cartoon superhero (in a way that A-ha did much better in their music video for Take On Me).  Somehow, Freddy is getting to the new kids of Elm Street through the main character’s unborn baby (?!) or is the unborn baby or something, and it’s all a bit daft.

6. The Final Nightmare

Did I say number 5 was the silliest?  Well, no.  This one is.  I know this is supposed to be a nostalgic look at the nightmare series but I can’t face going through it again.  It’s a future in which all the kids of Elm Street are dead except one, who is sent to fetch others for Freddy, only now the kid has amnesia.  The film does weird things with an entire town of crazy people and it may have been 3D as there are some unnecessary effects and, er, the characters wear 3D glasses at one point for a reason I forget.  Oh, and Freddy had a kid after all, it seems, who is all grown up now and needs to kill daddy.

7. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Ahh.  Better.  Seems the final nightmare wasn’t really, but that’s okay because this one is perhaps the best of the bunch, though it needs the rest of the bunch to work as well as it does.  The story goes all post-modern here, you see.  The title suggests this with the director’s name right there as part of the narrative, and Mr Craven is in the film too, playing himself.  Nancy’s back, or rather Heather Langenkamp is, and so are many of the others, playing themselves as actors.  Robert Englund is sadly under-used, whereas Wes Craven shouldn’t write himself in very often if he needs to deliver lines, but it all makes for a wonderful re-imagining of the Freddy…mythos?  Too grand?  Anyway, Freddy is fictional this time around, at least to start with.  He’s only a representation of evil, a shape in which real evil is contained.  The problem is, now that the film franchise has finished, the evil is contained no longer and now ‘Freddy’ is back, free of his movie screen prison.

This one goes beyond the quirky novelty of having actors play themselves as actors; it blurs the line between dreams and reality, reality and fiction.  It talks about the power of stories.  It even addresses the potentially dangerous influence of horror films; Nancy’s Heather’s son is having ‘episodes’ (sleep-walking through waking nightmares) and she is admonished by one of the nurses with “Do you let your son watch your movies?”  But this is a movie that justifies horror films as a means of containing fears that can be a lot worse.  Craven is asking us here to imagine a world without horror films.  He wants us to wonder what we would do without such things, films as dreams that provide a safe kind of scary.  It’s a good finale that sort of redeems the last few films and is even a little bit successful as a wake-up call to critics of the genre.

…A little extra…

Raising Hell

Strangely, as one of the (brief) extras of this DVD set, there is a discussion with Clive Barker in which he compares Freddy Krueger to his own creations in the Hellraiser series.  It’s always good to hear the man talk about horror, but it does highlight a great many of the flaws of the Nightmare series in reminding me how much I liked the Hellraiser one (but then maybe I’m looking back at that with blood-tinted spectacles).  I never would have thought to compare the two, to be honest, other than to say they’re part of the horror genre, and Barker’s comments only emphasises that for me.  He makes a good comparison to theatre – Freddy the comedy element (Tennant’s horror cartoons again) and Hellraiser, the tragedy, with its tortured / torturing Cenobites – but the rest of what Barker has to say, and the analogy itself, highlights for me the more serious consideration he has given his stories in comparison.  Okay, A Nightmare on Elm Street does a good job of throwing a little scare (a nightmare) into an otherwise normal world (Elm Street) but the Hellraiser stories achieve so much more.  I wonder how much of that is because Barker is a writer and artist whereas Craven admits quite openly, and with emphasis, that he is in the movie business and that a franchise is a money-making venture.  Freddy did keep people coming back to the cinema for quite a while, and there was a TV series too if I remember rightly, providing a mix of humour with horror, but Barker explores is the complicated relationship between pleasure and pain and the lengths to which people will go in order to get one from the other in a way Craven’s creation never did.  Barker’s monsters are far more interesting than any nightmare, but then I was too young to know any better when I first met Freddy.  Maybe it’s about time I met again with the Cenobites.  I’ve just ordered another set of DVDs.  They come presented in a lovely puzzle box.  I’m hoping I don’t regret opening it…

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5 Responses to Nostalgic for nightmares

  1. petertennant says:

    Fascinating stuff Ray. Have to admit that, after the first one I thought the “Nightmare” series was diminishing returns, but redeemed somewhat by the metafictional elements of the last movie. I felt something similar with “Hellraiser” I’m afraid – by the time of the third one, the Cenobites were being ‘cartoonised’, or perhaps a more accurate assessment would be that they were projected into super-villains, each with a special power or ability. Not as naff as “Nightmare” became, but still felt like a step away from Barker’s initial vision.
    I think I’d like to watch the “Nightmare” movies again, having read your overview. And I’m now wondering if I have “Raising Hell” as an extra in my box set.

    • Ray Cluley says:

      Raising Hell isn’t the title of the extra – if you’ve got it, it will be part of the extras for Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, I think, just a very brief chat. It might be more insightful to listen to the commentary one day but unless I really really love the film I rarely find the time to do that.

      I was worried I might be fondly remembering the Hellraiser films instead of accurately remembering them. Or maybe I’ve muddled them in my mind with the original story. I’ll find out soon.

      • petertennant says:

        Just checked and no “Raising Hell”. Guess I don’t have the “Ultimate Nightmare Collection” after all. Interesting that “New Nightmare” is the only one without an 18 certificate.

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