Tom Jolliffe looks back at three milestones in Wes Craven’s career, A Nightmare on Elm Street, New Nightmare and Scream…
In cinema there are plenty of great films. There are examples of exceptional filmmaking and populist films which become a cultural phenomenon. Some directors might be fortunate enough to create a groundbreaking film. These could reinvent a genre or set a blueprint that others will invariably follow. In sci-fi you might look at cornerstone films like Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner. A film-maker like Alfred Hitchcock was a trailblazer across several genres and in utilising a number of film-making techniques which went from revolutionary to eventually becoming cinema language 101. In horror, Hitchcock laid the groundwork for the modern slasher with Psycho, and indeed trumping conventions in character and narrative. How to pull the rug from under the feet of your audience? How about killing your star and protagonist early on.
Later, John Carpenter would take what Psycho had done as far as the slasher aspects, combined with the faceless killing popularised by Italian Giallo, and reinvent the slasher with his near bloodless classic, Halloween. As a genre director Carpenter was exceptional, doing a number of films which were ahead of their time or masterfully delivered. There’s another name in horror who vies with Carpenter as a maestro of genre revolution/reinvention: Wes Craven.
Craven began in earnest, creating a name for himself with controversial low budget horror like The Last House on The Left and The Hills Have Eyes. The legacy of those respective, if rough, films is enough that they’ve both been remade in recent cinema history and have a certain iconic genre status. However, the first real game changer from Craven came with the story of a serial killer of children, burned alive by the residents of a small town that is then covered up. This malicious killer, Fred Krueger then returns as a malignant spirit who haunts the dreams of his victims, killing them in their sleep. It’s the literal stuff of nightmares, an epic example of tapping into an audiences fear and vulnerability as we lay down to sleep. What this low budget horror classic did was open up the genre at the time to more surreal imagery. From the stalking killers like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees (almost supernatural killers in a very real world setting), to this creature who could emerge from the water in someone’s bath, through their wall, pull you into a bed and more. Suddenly, at least in American horror cinema, horror was fusing with fantasy. In the series which followed the original (which with its dashes of comedy and fantasy was also unsettling), Krueger’s exploits would become increasingly more fantastical.
Craven’s original Nightmare would effectively lay much of the groundwork for a more visually striking approach to horror through the 80’s and into the early 90’s. An array of directors were creating films with vibrant, strong and striking colours. It was the MTV era, none more prevalent in the Freddy canon that in A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Renny Harlin). This fantastical approach to horror, delving beyond the mortal realm into netherworlds, dream worlds, alien worlds etc, was increasingly popular throughout the decade following Craven’s first, as surrealism was starting to pip logic. Hellraiser 2: Hellbound as an example, took the hellish S&M infused grimy world of its predecessor and doubled down, taking the follow up right into the labyrinthine mazes of hell itself. Again, all thanks to Wes Craven’s cerebral nightmare figure who could fracture the logic of reality.
Craven’s following decade was mixed with an eclectic range of films including some enjoyable gems like The People Under The Stairs. His next groundbreaking work would be a razor sharp, ahead of the curb Meta horror reboot of his own most iconic film. New Nightmare was hip. It was cool. It was fiendishly clever, as his Elm Street creation and the horror icon who became a franchise figurehead, would suddenly become a referential part of this new film. Robert Englund starred as himself, as well as reprising a demonic manifestation of the character he made legendary. Heather Langenkamp returned as herself, the first scream queen of this franchise, who would become the real world victim of the antagonist who plagued her character, Nancy.
Horror tearing down the fourth wall, delving into the tropes, or even in referencing its own particular legacy has become more normalised now. If New Nightmare didn’t quite attain the pop culture status of a future Craven film, it certainly picked up cult fandom in the years since and a continued appreciation for getting in ahead of the curve. Craven, after perhaps some indifferent critical response for his early 90’s output, suddenly become fresh, daring and relevant again. He showed a wry ability to wink and nod at not only the genre that became his modus operandi, but also his own work, and legacy. Freddy taking on life beyond film pays direct homage to the characters innate popularity, which transcended many of the genres contemporaries into the range of merch, spinoffs and surprising popularity among kids.
Still, if Craven might have felt like New Nightmare had spewed forth from him a decade earlier than might have been more beneficial, Scream had no such problems. An almost instant cultural phenomenon. There are certain milestones within an audience members life as far as key cinema moments. There are favourites of course, but there are also times where you get swept up in the hysteria of something, riding the same populist wave that the rest are, with a film that becomes synonymous with a point in your life. There are films, and then there are films that define a big part of you, that resonated so deeply as much for the time than anything. If Jurassic Park was the defining and obsessive big screen blockbuster first for me, in 96, for a good year, it was all about Scream. For fans it was the talk of the genre. It was hip, cool, clever, surprising, funny and quotable. Craven’s film, from Kevin Williamson’s razor sharp script, dissects the tropes of a genre that lacks respect but attains perhaps the most feverish adoration. Jamie Kennedy’s character goes so far as to famously list the ‘rules’ of the horror film.
Scream peppered its film with knowing nods, (always respectfully wry) to so many films, re-inventing the wheel but like Elm Street and New Nightmare (less so perhaps), paving the way for an array of followers to come. Beneath pulling a Psycho moment with the pictures biggest star (Drew Barrymore), having an iconic horror image (ghost face), and being deliciously funny, Scream was also effectively tense. The opening sequence feels almost stylistically different to the very 90’s, and distinctly more ironic film which follows (lots of dialled up performances and a very of its time style and soundtrack). That opening gambit in fact is so spectacularly good that it’s not really been matched in the genre since. That’s not to say the rest of Scream can’t keep up, it’s still great. As everyone plays distinct exaggerations on trope characters, Neve Campbell remains a grounded example of the final girl. Once again though, Craven tapped into something that just clicked with audiences. It felt fresh and exciting. Although it rested on things that were old and pre-established, it melded the elements nicely into something that was witty and fresh. Scream breathed new life into the slasher genre by effectively doing an ironic version of the archetypal slasher film. In doing so it then breathed life back into a dormant genre which saw masses of new wave slashers hitting the cinemas (and laid a base for a stream of remakes in the new century).
What is your favourite Wes Craven film? Which has been his most important movie? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/