Ginger Nuts of Horror
I have a confession to make. I scare very, very easily. Mostly from films - though there is the occasional book or story that'll do it - but it has to be a certain kind of film. It generally tends to be something that values atmosphere over spectacle, a slow-building sense of dread over cheap 'jump scares'. I tend to prefer films that make you, as a viewer, work a bit to get the most from the film. Films that prey on your sense of anticipation and expectation to draw you in. Films that rely on your imagination as much as what you're seeing unfold on screen. And boy, do I have an overactive imagination...
When I was pretty young - no older than seven, I'd say - we got kept in at lunch break on rainy days. The practice at my school was to get some of the older kids in to monitor us. And there was one kid who loved to tell us stories. He may have told us lots of different kinds, but I only remember him telling us horror stories and I can only really remember one of these; it wasn't until years later that I found out it was a very loose rip-off of the film When A Stranger Calls - this guy's version had the babysitter getting a phone call at three different times through the night, a creepy voice saying, "Check the children..." (I might be embellishing but I'm convinced he did it in a slow, gravelly voice) and she does so; first couple of times, all is well; third time, all three kids are chopped to bits, blood and gore all over the place. Now, that might sound kind of derivative - it was a rip-off of a film, after all - but to my tender and delicate sensibilities - and overactive imagination, remember that - at age six, seven, it fucking terrified me. I had nightmares for...well, for a long time. I even told my mum, whose wonderful advice was, "Don't listen when he tells them." Thanks, mum...
Anyway, the point is that I was not a kid who was drawn to horror as such (though I have wonderful memories of watching the old Universal black & white monster films at a cousin's house; my brother, the cousin and me all tucked up in bunk beds and such, with an old TV under the window. I was also fascinated with pictures on the back of horror video tape cases, though these also gave me nightmares), but for some reason, at that time, we seemed to be exposed to these kinds of films and images all the time. Jesus, I even recall seeing a feature in one of the Sunday magazines showing stills from An American Werewolf In London (and incidentally, that film led partly to my complete dislike of fish from fish and chip shops; don't ask) - imagine that happening now. As a consequence, it was almost inevitable that I got to see some pretty visceral - to me - stuff early on; Evil Dead 2, The Terminator, Day Of The Dead, Critters, Ghoulies, Return Of The Living Dead, Escape From New York, Halloween, The Omen, Jaws and loads more, films that have left an indelible and wonderful impression on me, even years later. Ah, the 80s; such a wonderful time for me to be alive and watching films. For some reason, the 80s seemed to be a place where there were no restrictions on what you could watch or know about, certainly as far as horror films were concerned; in the south east of Ireland, where I grew up, we didn't seem to get hit with the whole 'video nasty' thing and its hysteria, and these films co-existed alongside such fare as Ghostbusters, The Goonies, Trading Places, Explorers, The Breakfast Club and so on. I think, also - eventually - part of me was trying to face up to my fears by inuring myself to them; I find that if I watch something often enough, its power diminishes in this respect. Of course, this isn't always the rule...
Riding high above all of these films was, of course, A Nightmare On Elm Street. More than any other, at least before I hit high school and Freddy became a kind of anti-hero figure - to me and others - that film terrified the utter shit out of me. I think I only saw it at first as a series of partial scenes, at different times; I know I tried to watch it one morning after it had been rented from the video store and couldn't. For some reason, the image of dream-Tina and the centipede coming out of her mouth is the one that sticks in my mind of this failed attempt; equally, it might have been one of the images on the back of the video case - they really didn't fuck around back then with coddling folk. But I must have sat down at one point and saw the entire thing because it's so imprinted on my mind. Since then, I've watched it many, many times and it still manages to creep me out. I actually avoided it for a few years because it loomed so large in my mind. Having watched it now, in the sad wake of Wes Craven's death, I think I can say why it affects me so.
Mere minutes after the credits have rolled and the menu music is repeating and repeating - in fact, I'm going to have to turn that off in a minute - I'm still feeling the after-effects. A sense of dread in my gut, like liquid lead; a sensation that's a bit like heavy nausea. The fading suspicion that nothing is quite what it appears to be. What is at once interesting to note is just how different the Freddy in the first film is to what he became later on.
Unfairly - in my opinion - labelled as a 'mere' slasher, ANOES is far more than that
In fact, I'd argue that it isn't really a slasher at all. I mean sure, it has a bunch of good-looking teens (okay, they're playing teens) being stalked by a horrific and seemingly unstoppable figure, intent on killing them. But it's more than just a group of folk waiting to be bumped off (perhaps that's where the sequels went, but even the third one isn't quite like that; I think a lot of the negative accusations thrown at the Nightmare series really can only be applied to a few of the later films); in fact, after the first, brutal murder, no one else dies for quite some time. If it's a slasher, it's really failing on the body count score.
No, what Nightmare is about is fear, and not necessarily the fear of being physically hurt or dying. It's the fear of losing control, of not being able to trust the world around you; in many ways, ANOES touches on one of the things I'm becoming increasingly affected by as I get older - the spectre of mental illness, dementia, that sort of thing. Besides this, the dream imagery is superb; the very slightly odd camera angles, the fucked up sounds (babies crying and goats bleating? *shudder*), even the scenes of people running very agonisingly slow or their feet sinking into soft steps. It all works, and works well. In fact, one thing I only noticed with this rewatching was that the film seems to subtly suggest about two thirds in that Nancy might not actually be awake when she thinks she is; Freddy seems to be breaking through into the 'real' world. I love this little slice of mind-fuckery and whether it was intentional or not, it all adds to my sense of disorientation. This is its power; that, and the fact that everybody dreams, everybody has nightmares. The very concept of being harmed or killed in your dreams - and having that event play out in reality - is absolutely terrifying; mostly because there's fuck all you can do about it (control, remember). Not to mention the little trivia snippet that the film was inspired by Craven reading a newspaper story about people having disturbing nightmares then soon after dying in their sleep. Everybody dreams. Everybody has nightmares.
There's also a coming of age theme, to me. Nancy starts out as a typically innocent teen, not really thinking too much about the world around her. By the end, she has become resourceful, independent and accepting that life is not as easy as her seemingly idyllic existence led her to believe. Her independence comes when she stops relying on the adults - adults who refuse to listen to her even in the face of overwhelming evidence, adults who keep making misguided decisions despite the fact that it is precisely their actions which have caused the whole fucked-up mess in the first place - and becomes one herself (and if you read this in the voice of Mel Brooks as Van Helsing, well done; I wrote it thinking of that fucking film), albeit one who has a better grasp on the situation than anyone else. This transition dovetails with Nancy realising she needs to deal with Kruger on her own terms, by bringing him into her world; a place she feels relatively secure in whilst awake and has more control. Again the theme of control comes into play. I absolutely love this bit; the clear indication that Kruger's power is diminished outside of the dream-world, as we witness him fall prey to Nancy's home-made, survivalist defences and traps (and predating Home Alone by six years...).
Finally, there's Fred Kruger himself. Far from the wise-cracking, comic book-like figure he eventually became, this Freddy is nasty, grimy and just downright vile. He looks the part of a burned child-killer (not molester, that wouldn't come until the awful remake and I feel adds nothing to the horror), with his face almost seeming to slough off in pieces, with a make-up effect that slowly became more rubbery as the films went on, but here is just the right side of grotesque. His voice, too, is different - put through some echoing effects that makes it sound wholly inhuman. And he is vicious. Truly unhinged and despicable. You just know there are no limits to what he will do and there are no guarantees that anyone will be safe. I think this is what sets him apart from all the other well-known horror villains (with the possible exception of Pinhead); despite the fact that we know (or at least, we're 90% sure) that Nancy will survive the end of the film as the archetypal 'final girl', it still manages to cut through that smug assurance and makes us fear - intensely - for her safety. It is this ability of ANOES to push aside our own feelings of safety, to make us look over our shoulders - yes, even while watching it on a bright (okay, slightly overcast) morning - that makes it such an effective movie. It's primal, visceral and reaches past all our logical and cognitive defences, and turns us back into frightened little children again, waking screaming from a nightmare and desperate for comfort and reassurance.
I'll admit it, I'm a huge fan of Wes Craven's output, even before I really knew who he was. After my initial terror at the first Elm Street film, I quickly came to love them and, as the sequels went on, Freddy became a bit of a 'hero' of mine. I saw and loved Deadly Friend, though I missed out on Shocker until only a few years ago and wasn't impressed; and for some reason, The Hills Have Eyes didn't really have a huge impact on me, while I saw Last House On The Left far too late in my horror viewing life for it to really affect me; I thought The People Under The Stairs was insane fun, and was a great fan of New Nightmare despite the fact that a lot of people - as I recall, anyway - slagged it off. Red Eye was a revelation, a mainstream thriller that allowed Craven to take the slasher movie template to an audience that would probably never watch a film like that - and I don't think many people actually realised (and sadly, it didn't seem to lead to any further mainstream films for Craven).
Even Cursed has its moments and is enjoyable despite the awful CGI, and as for the four Scream flicks; utterly adore them and watch them every year.
In fact, I could have copped out and talked about those films instead (and would have drawn references between the first Scream and the first Elm Street; I mean, you don't really think it's a coincidence that Skeet Ulrich resembles Johnny Depp...). But it was Freddy who had the biggest impact on my fragile little mind back then; it was Freddy who first gave me terrible nightmares and then subsequently became almost a beloved companion. Even through the dodgy effects - and isn't it mad how your child's mind and your memory embellishes these things, makes them more than they really were? - and occasional dodgy bit of acting/dialogue (and isn't that part of its charm, after all? It's grimy, low budget aesthetics), it still had - still has - an astonishing power to frighten and disturb. Almost every frame is designed to instil dread; the music is some of the most subtle and genuinely creepy I've ever heard; and even a couple of rather bizarre scenes with Nancy's mother at the end (a skeleton waving its hand as it descends into a bed?? Come on...) do little to affect the momentum of the film.
I think Craven was a very atypical film director and while he may have felt anger or disappointment at being forced to inhabit the label of 'horror director', it rarely stopped him from following his own vision, from making the best damned film he could. He always seemed to have something to say and was adept at using the medium to do so. I sincerely believe we've lost a great talent, certainly a talent that never seemed to quite get the recognition he deserved (and in many instances, was roundly criticised - I can still recall sneering dismissals of the Scream franchise, even as it continued to blaze its own, unique trail) and I, for one, am deeply, deeply saddened by this loss.
R.I.P. Wes Craven.
PAUL M. FEENEY