Last semester, I went to a midnight screening of Wes Craven's Scream (1996). I then went to a talk with Wes Craven hosted by my school. Finally, last night I watched A Nightmare on Elmstreet. This double review will therefore include ideas from that talk and my thoughts on Wes Craven in general.
The first thing to know about Wes Craven is he did not plan on a film career. He read profusely as a child, a act that allowed him to escape the narrow thought of his Fundamentalist Baptist upbringing (an upbringing that forbid movies!). Made his way to college and continued to read and study literature. He got a job teaching history of Western Civilization at some small college in the North East. Western Civilization, that's the key. I notice that Wes Craven's horror includes an understanding of the most elemental components of Western narrative. A Nightmare on Elmestreet, as he explained, deals with the fundamental human experience of dreams. If your English class ever read Macbeth, your mind should be buzzing with the half memories of lectures about Macbeth upsetting the natural sanctity of sleep when he kills Duncan. Its no accident that during Nancy's nightmare at school, the teacher is also teaching Shakespeare. Wes Craven bursts with Western Canon.
In the talk, Craven mentioned his fascination with nightmares. What is the evolutionary purpose of the nightmare. He answer: we need the mental stage to cope with our fear. A place to explore our fears of death and our concern about evil that lurks at the fringes of rationality. Stories of evil are necessary in our society.
This brings us the evil core of Nightmare, Freddy Kruger. His creation in an amalgam of several ideas. His method of attack, through dreams, came from an article on a Cambodian child afraid of sleeping because of his war-torn nightmares. The dream is a space where we have no protection, no one can help us. He implement: a glove of knives, combines the primordial weapon of the knife with the dextrous hand. His costume: a sweater whose two colors cause the most amount of retinal stress. No need to hide in the shadows in a dream. With his ability to teleport, Freddy can be equally garish and nightmarish. The most important component though is that ultimately evil intention of wanting to hurt children. Wes Craven told us about his terror as a child looking out his window seeing a man, presumably drunk, staring back at him from the street. Young Wes pulled back from view, hid in his room. After an indescribable amount of time, he returned to the window, the man was still there. That is a man who wanted to terrorize an innocent child. That is evil.
Returning to the Craven's narrative structure. I've noticed the theme of sins. Sins of the parents in Last House on the Left to avenge the sins against their child. Sins of the parents being paid by the child for Nightmare. The parents killed a man, and that man will in turn kill their own children. Scream also has a similar narrative seed. The killer, Billy, wanted to make Sidney Prescott's mother pay for sleeping with his dad. That's my favorite part about Scream, cut through all the jokes, meta jokes, and meta-meta-jokes (nothing beats bugging the TV room with a camera and putting the couch of horror viewing onto the screen to then be watched by the audience) and there is still a damn good mystery and damn good characters.
Wes Craven's characters rock. Most horror, even some of my favorites, does not flesh out any characters, some will only invest in the protagonist. Craven makes everyone interesting. The mother of Nightmare has an amazing amount of suffering and problems that are tangent to the main story about her daughter but such character development is relevant to increasing the stakes by showing that these are all real people being terrorized by the supernatural.
Returning to the power of this terror, I love the frustration integral to horror. This frustration is more than just screaming at the idiots on the screen, "don't go in there!". The best employment of such frustration evokes a dread at our own helplessness. That moment when our muscles tense, "Oh shit", and yet we can't do anything. Fight or flight fails. We are biologically helpless, yet the evil is still going to get us. Nightmare is full of such dreaded helpless moments: bars on Nancy's house locking her inside with a killer ghoul, the boyfriend falling asleep... twice, and seeing the sheets tie themselves in a noose while the police doubt Nancy's warnings. The greatest emerges from the very nature of dreams. The lack of an explanation about the beginning of a dream, so beautifully described by DiCaprio in the link, is a genius way to begin a horror sequence. When I heard Nancy's phone ring after she unplugged it... goose bumps, heart rate, trembling shaking anxiety. Shit, we're already in a dream. Shit, shit, shit. He's going to get us.
That is horror.
I conclude with a beautiful quote from the Wes Craven talk. This should be every horror fans response to those who pompously say there is no reason to pay to be scared.
"We don't pay to be scared. We are already afraid before we go to the theater."