‘The name’s Krueger. Freddy Krueger‘ runs the ad campaign for Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, in a parody of the Bond movies that continues the strange elevation of this psychotic mass murderer to bona fide superhero status. This fourth instalment ofsuburban mayhem has been the most successful of the Elm Street series so far, with US box office receipts ofover $50 million making it the most profitable independent film ever made, so Freddy‘s popularity with America’s 18—255 has made him licensed to kill, again and again. Nightmare5 is, of course. already in production.
Wes Craven’s clever and genuinely disturbing first instalment detailed Freddy’s history, a former child murderer who was burned alive by a lynch mob ofangry parents, his horribly scarred physog returned to haunt the recurring dreams of a number of Elm Street teens. The catch was simply that the nightmare violence perpetrated by the razor-sharp blades of his killer glove affected his victims in a very real way, ie they woke up dead. Part three of the series was to attempt a further character analysis by revealing that Freddy’s deranged
nature was hereditary, his conception coming after a night when his mother had been locked up alone in an asylum for the criminally insane. And so, one of the cinema’s most enduring lines ofdialogue proclaimed dearest Freddy ‘the bastard son of a thousand maniacsl’.
Exactly the kind ofguy you want as a hero for young kids, right? Yet, The marketing of the movies focuses entirely upon Freddy himself, because his winning way with a wisecrack as he dispatches another blonde poppet to the swelling Elm St cemetery has undoubtedly endeared him to a generation ofyoung fans. As the kids‘ favourite anti-hero, hell, he’s tougher than the Karate Kid any day of the week. And to express their admiration, they can rush out and buy a bedroom-full ofpromotional tack: Freddy masks to reproduce his suppurating charred ﬂesh, scale models of Freddy complete with ‘evil brain’, authentic Freddy striped jerseys, and even Freddy alarm clocks that tick so loudly they stop you going to sleep in the first place. Most disturbingly perhaps, there are reproduction ‘play-safe’ Freddy gloves, which warn the young wearer ‘Do not wave, poke or jab this glove
. at anybody’s face, eyes, ears or nose!’. One supposes a little Freddy-style stomach slashing is out of the question.
The whole Elm Street phenomenon does however draw together a couple of threads that have been consistent factors in the history of the horror genre. Parental concern that the cynical marketing campaign is being directed at an audience several years younger than those actually allowed in to see the movies, brings to mind the early Eighties‘ video nasties debate about the alleged harm caused to children
by the kind of graphic screen violence available on the then unregulated video market. The eventual legislation creating tighter censorship controls in itself mirrored the old ‘H’ (for horror) certificate of the 19305, or the removal of gruesome EC comics from the shelves in the 19505, as expressions of authoritarian scorn.
Secondly, despite the critical snook that is so often cocked at the genre, as the Elm Street movies demonstrate, public reaction is often enthusiastic. While horror movies rarely, if ever, pick up awards for anything other than make-up effects, the genre still maintains a reputation for profitability that helps to explain the ﬂood of cheapo tack that crams American drive-ins and is sanitised for Britian’s video racks. If Friday the 13th Part 7: The New Blood can make money, then just about anything can. But the amount of depressing trash perpetrated in the name of horror means that out of all the movie genres, it’s surely the blackest of sheep, the deformed brother in the cellar that the rest of the family try not to talk about. Even Esther Williams movies have a higher acceptibility factor.
So what does justify the bloodletting, the grave-robbing, the vampirism, the lycanthropy, the zombie flesh-eating, and the inventive use of a number of everyday garden implements, all of which have characterised the seventy years of celluloid horror since 1919’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari unleashed Conrad Veidt’s psychotic somnambulist upon an unsuspecting world? Who will speak up for Freddy and his imaginitively sick excesses?
Well, the imagination is, of course the key. Horror movies have always been the most subversive of the genres because the landscape of fantasy allows for the confrontation of our most primal fears, or ideological tensions in an environment that’s made safe by its contained and inherent unreality. It is, after all, only a tacky horror movie, but for all that it’s also the
paradigm of film-as-dream.
This central idea follows through from the earliest Universal classics to the laff-laden splatterfests of today. English eccentric James Whale brought Frankenstein to the screen in 1931 and, as the dead walked, our fear of mortality was given an airing, while the same year the Dracula character created by Bela Lugosi paraded an attractive but ultimately destructive model of sexuality. Anxiety at unmonitored scientiﬁc progress is the subtext between the none-too-credible lines of techno-wafﬂe that have been mouthed in a thousand mad doctor movies, an anxiety that gained a new relevance in the post-Hiroshima radiation/mutation cycle of the Fifties (Them.”s giant ants for example). The same decade also saw America’s McCarthyite political paranoia given expression through a slew of alien invasion epics. Invasion of The Body Snatchers amongst them.
Seventies horror, on the other hand, paid witness to the power of
evil, the loss of religious faith, and the decay of the nuclear family in big box office mainstream-ish demonic possession f arragos like The Exorcist and The Omen. Advances in effects technology and censorship relaxation also allowed George Romero to have his zombies hungry for ﬂesh in his Living Dead trilogy, which has probed military misdemeanours, social stagnation and the nuclear threat over three of the post-68 genre’s most intelligent exercises. The question ‘what’s out there?’ has been explored by backwoods terror like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, while ‘what’s in there?’ has been a consistent obsession of David Cronenberg’s disturbing internal horrors.
Where Freddy Krueger comes in is probably after 1978, and the success of John Carpenter’s Hallowe’en, which, in the guise of mad killer Michael Meyers, brought back the bogeyman of our childhood fears. Very soon the insatiable Jason Voorhees, the veritable slaying
’machine from the interminable and
largely inept Friday the 13th series was to further emphasise the commercial viability of the battle with and eventual victory over the unstoppable It that stalks the most
pn'mal areas of our unconscious. The downside of all this was a barrage of tawdry slasher movies where fat people had axes through their heads because they were fat, or nubile couples got pierced by harpoons after they had sex. Very sad.
Yet both Michael and Jason illustrated how American teens could take to an anti-hero in their droves, and the story of the Nightmare on Elm Street series has seen receipts escalating as the movies become even more of an .excuse for Freddy to strut his stuff. However, with a strand of black
’ ___comedy lying somewhere between
Sam Raini and Ian Fleming, and the surefire Spielbergian grasp of effects-as-spectacle, an effort like the current Dream Master extravaganza has become nothing more than an unsatisfying fairground ' ride. Popcorn might well be munched by the bucketful, but the essential seriousness that has marked the most genuinely disturbing horror pictures is missing. Nightmare 4’s assimilation into the mainstream takes it yet further away from Wes Craven’s original study of the dark past haunting sweet US suburbia. Freddy as James Bond is simply a vacuous trivialisation which, paradoxically, at the moment of the genre’s zenith of success places its future as a playground for genuine psychological subversion in the severest of peril. A Nightmare on Elm St 4: The Dream Master plays across central Scotland from Friday May 5. See ﬁlm listings for full programme details.
Further reading: “Nightmare Movies’ by Kim Newman, published by Bloomsbury (£12. 95).
The List 5 -18 May 1989 9