A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET could have been the only movie Wes Craven ever made and it would have been enough. Age, the numerous sequels and imitators, Freddy Krueger’s transformation into a pop culture icon have done nothing to diminish how original and legitimately terrifying the first movie was. From the opening moments, as we watch Krueger assembling his signature glove, we feel like we’re trapped. We’re in that boiler room with him, curled up in a corner, and he’s about to use that thing on us. It never lets up from there, dragging us into this dark fantasy about parents’ sins coming back around on their children in the worst way. Before he was reshaped into a wisecracking cartoon character, Krueger was the boogeyman through and through. When he corners his first victim in the original movie and she begs God for help, there are no wisecracks, no gimmicks. He just brandishes that damn glove at her and with a gleefully sadistic smile on his face, snarls “THIS is God!” For years afterward, late at night, as I’m lying in bed, trying to get to sleep, my subconscious would love to occasionally poke me with that moment. It’s only fitting.
Funny thing is, I didn’t get around to seeing to seeing the first NIGHTMARE until I was in college, renting it from Video Warehouse, one of those mom and pop places that don’t exist anymore. Y’know, where you could walk in with ten dollars and walk out with a big stack of VHS cassettes and still have enough left over to go grab a burger and a soda. My first NIGHTMARE movie was the third one, THE DREAM WARRIORS, which one of my sisters rented back when I was a sprout. Craven didn’t direct that one but he was involved as a producer and wrote the story, hoping to right the ship after New Line Cinema rushed out a cheap sequel, the amazingly inept FREDDY’S REVENGE. Even before that, though, little Bill Smiley knew who the hell Freddy Krueger was. If you did any growing up in the mid-to-late 80’s, you couldn’t escape him. He was at the theater, he was on TV, magazines, comics, he was showing up in commercials. To me and other like kids me, the man with hat and glove and certain hockey-mask wearing hulk were our Dracula and the Wolf Man. Our Godzilla and King Kong. They were the guys in those movies that your parents and the Helen Lovejoys of the world didn’t want you to see, which just made you more determined to get your hands on them. ALIEN may have been my first horror movie but it was the NIGHTMARE series that made me sit up and take notice of the genre.
Had NIGHTMARE been it, that would have been enough and Craven’s death yesterday from cancer would have hit fans of horror films every bit as hard. Thing is, Craven did more than give the world Freddy Krueger. I don’t know if I could unequivocally say that he had the most impact on the horror genre when compared to his contemporaries. That would have to be settled via a fight with John Carpenter while George Romero referees, but nobody did it in the way that Craven did. Most directors would give their good teeth to make a movie that had an impact on popular culture that something like HALLOWEEN or THE EXORCIST did. With LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, NIGHTMARE, and SCREAM, Craven did that three times across as many decades. Dig deeper than that and you’ll see how ahead of his time his output could be. The only NIGHTMARE sequel he directed, THE NEW NIGHTMARE, was doing meta-fictional horror years before every Inky, Blinky, and Clyde in the film industry was having their characters go “Wow, this totally like a horror movie!” THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS had an African-American kid and a young girl as its heroes back when that was something that didn’t happen. Heck, Craven was pretty big on giving memorable roles to women in his movies. Apologies to HALLOWEEN’S Laurie Strode, NIGHTMARE’S Nancy Thompson is the Ur Final Girl of slasher movies as far as I’m concerned, an ancestor of characters like Buffy Summers. Not surprising that the best NIGHTMARE movies not only have Craven’s heavy involvement but have Heather Langenkamp in the cast, too. (We at Psychoplasmics are all LANGENKAMP UBER ALLES up in here.)
Significant thing about this is that Craven managed to do it without really being the best of directors. Even his strongest works can be crude and messy in places. He certainly wasn’t a Carpenter-level craftsman or an extravagant stylist like Dario Argento. But remember the motto of this blog, “bad” or “not good” (there’s a difference!) doesn’t translate to not interesting or worth talking about and Craven was definitely an interesting director. He wasn’t the type of filmmaker that threw out a high concept and left things at that but drew heavily from his own experiences and ideas that he felt strongly about. When you have someone like that behind the camera, it doesn’t matter what the result is, something about it will stick with you. When you get a director like that material that they can get a good handle on? Look out. Need an example? Check his first two movies. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT isn’t a great movie by any stretch of the imagination but it has these moments that you can’t shake off no matter how hard you try. It’s an exploitation version of Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING, for crying out loud! What did he follow it up with? THE HILL HAVE EYES and you can take my word on it that that is a horror movie that will kick your butt all over the room. It’s also fashionable to kick the SCREAM franchise around but you won’t see me do it. Rather than the notion that “anybody could have directed Kevin Williamson’s script” I believe in the complete reverse: only Craven could have gotten as fun of a movie out of that screenplay. I mean, Good God, have you seen the other stuff Williamson has written? And even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of the series, I’d still come to its defense because it’s central to some of my favorite movie going memories. One was seeing the original on a free movie night at my future alma mater, Louisiana Tech, and I can’t tell you what a phenomenal experience, how much it adds, sitting in an auditorium full of people who are shrieking like little kids or laughing or applauding at all the moments the movie wants them too. I saw SCREAM 2 in theaters with my Dad. My Dad doesn’t like modern horror movies and especially doesn’t like slashers, but when we came out of the theater, he was telling me how much he enjoyed it and even said that there were parts that had him on the edge of his seat as bad as anything by Hitchcock. Considering my Dad regularly declares they haven’t made a good movie since insert Clint Eastwood title here, that’s saying a lot. Even SCREAM 4 had its moments.
Not only did I respect the movies he made but I respected the man. You listened to one of his commentary tracks or watched or read an interview he gave, you didn’t get the deviant that I’m sure the self-appointed moral guardians pictured. Instead, what you saw was a very well-spoken, thoughtful, and intelligent man. He looks like one of those fatherly teachers that inspires his students to greatness in a TV movie. You were always going to hear something worthwhile when you listened to the man, whether it was talking about his sheltered religious upbringing or working with Robert Englund or his understanding of horror itself. That was the other great thing about Craven. He got it. He knew that horror stories aren’t the cause of the world’s great evils, but that they’re the latest in one of the oldest tradtions, going back to the old myths and campire tales. They don’t create them but they arm us with what we need to confront them.
How much better off would the horror genre be if we had a dozen directors like him? Unfortunately, we only had the one, and now he has passed. With his passing, something big for me and lot of other people has come to an end.
Rest in peace, sir.