Saturday 1 May 2010

If Nancy doesn't wake up screaming...

In case you’ve been lucky enough not to notice, the Michael Bay-produced remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street is upon us. The stalking monster is on the prowl once more, seeking to drag unsuspecting teens into his dark and twisted world of more Transformers sequels. Luckily, this review will not face the horror of Michael Bay, only the more harmless knife-wielding maniac Freddy Krueger. The remake has already been thoroughly panned across the pond (it stands at a confidence-inspiring 15% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I’m still clinging to hope in the teeth of evidence until it is released in these parts in a week’s time. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to re-watch the 1984 original, a film now considered a minor classic.

In 1984 the slasher film had burned itself out. The formula arose in the seventies: a group of young, preferably attractive victims are murdered one by one by a single killer. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) is the first true North American slasher. Although the best entry in the genre remains John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the slasher craze of the early eighties was kicked off by Friday the 13th (1980), which made a ton of money and opened the floodgates to an unholy brood of even-worse sequels and a vast number of imitations that weren’t brilliant but, apparently being ‘classics’, have now mostly been remade. But by the mid-eighties, audiences had tired of hulking, silent murderers hacking interchangeable teenagers to pieces. Enter Wes Craven, director of The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and with him a new concept and an iconic villain.

The opening credits sequence shows us, in close-up, the infamous knife-glove being made by someone we never see. The action then switches to a teenage girl called Tina (Amanda Wyss), who is stalked in her nightmares by a scarred figure in a red-and-green jumper. Tina’s friends Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Nancy’s helpful but idiotic boyfriend Glen (‘introducing Johnny Depp’, who displays absolutely no signs of becoming the actor we know and love here), and Rod (Jsu Garcia, credited as Nick Corri), a deeply unpleasant person, have been experiencing similar dreams. During a sleep-over, Tina has sex with Rod (‘morality sucks’, Glen sighs petulantly at overhearing them) and is then brutally killed during the night. Rod is arrested for her murder, but is found hanged in his cell not long after. Nancy suspects that both have been killed in their dreams by the man with ‘knives for fingers’ – a theory her parents profess to disbelieve, but it’s quite clear they’re hiding something.

The central concept of a dream killer is of course a blank cheque for the filmmaker to let his imagination run wild, and Wes Craven does just that. The budget may have been limited, and you can often tell how a special effect was done, but they’re never less than effective. Tina hovers above her bed and is thrown against the ceiling, where she flails around, being slashed by Freddy. Glen, in an infamous scene, is sucked into his bed, from which a stupendous geyser of blood then emerges, spraying the ceiling with the red stuff. The most effective scares, however, are disturbingly psychosexual. Nancy falls asleep in the bathtub, and Freddy’s gloved hand rises out of the water between her thighs. Later, while Freddy is menacing Glen, Nancy receives a phone call. ‘I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy!’, Freddy growls, and his tongue emerges from the receiver, making his attempts to subjugate Nancy sexual as well as physical.

If all of this works, by and large, it’s owed in no small part to Heather Langenkamp, who makes for a thoroughly effective heroine. Far more feminine in both looks and behaviour than Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode in Halloween (compare their facial structures and hair-styles, for instance), Nancy is repeatedly willing to rely on men for her defence: first her clueless boyfriend Glen, then her father, a policeman. Both men fail in their tasks, however, and Nancy is shown to be resourceful: she reads about ‘booby-traps and improvised anti-personnel devices’ and develops methods to wake herself up. She is determined to face the danger and conquer (‘I’m into survival’, she tells Glen).

The world the American teenager of the slasher film inhabits is an uncertain one. Dangers lurk in suburbia, the environment his parents aspired to – parents who regularly fail in their role as protectors. But if they are simply absent in Black Christmas and Halloween, the older generation fails to help the teens of Elm Street despite their presence. Nancy’s parents are divorced; her mother (Ronee Blakley) is an alcoholic, while her father (John Saxon, who also played a policeman in another deed teenager movie, 1974’s Black Christmas) abandons her in her hour of need. More than that, it is the parents who have summoned the demon: ‘He’s dead, honey, because Mommy killed him’, Nancy’s mother assures her. Nancy must summon her own strength to fight the terror that attacks her when she is most vulnerable: in her dreams.

Robert Englund as ‘Fred Krueger’ does a great job of portraying that terror. Observe the weird way he runs, his anger and vengefulness. He’s not yet the killer-cum-prankster he was to become in later films; here, lines like ‘I’m gonna split you in two! I’ll kill you slow!’ underline his deadly seriousness. It’s a shame this serious take on the character was abandoned for bad horror-comedy by later iterations of the series; but in 1984, you could rest assured that if you didn’t wake up screaming, you wouldn’t wake up at all.

Random observations:
- The Nightmare on Elm Street theme is lovingly composed on synthesizers, which sounds odd now. But it's not the only slasher trying to scare us with disco tunes: witness Halloween II and Friday the 13th, Part 3.

- Craven pays homage to Halloween in a scene of Nancy walking to school through the suburbs, and in the following classroom scene. I'm all for this.

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