On Sunday, 30 August, director Wes Craven passed away after a lengthy battle with brain cancer. Through some form of sick irony or, more appropriately, art bleeding into reality, two parts of that first line stick out. The first, considering his strict, fundamentalist Baptist upbringing, brings to mind how Craven invested a number of his films with religious iconography (from A Nightmare on Elm Street: “5, 6, grab your crucifix”) — and passing on a Sunday is strange synchronicity. More relevant, however, is the method of departure.
While Craven has a number of claims to fame, whether it be his explicit, shock-fest The Last House on the Left (1972), or his revival of the slasher genre (not once, but twice) the director will always be associated with dreams and that denizen of our nightmares, Freddy Krueger. Coincidentally, both reside in our brains. So, in a way, there’s a bit of bittersweet poetry to Craven’s passing, this imaginative director done in by the fount of his own genius.
The blurring of boundaries between fantasy and reality is a cornerstone of Craven’s work, especially in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and, when he returned to Krueger after a series of lesser talents took over the franchise, 1994’s New Nightmare. Perhaps these two films, bookending Craven’s involvement with the iconic character, can provide a guide to how important this director was, what he had to say, and why his passing — though he lived a long and fruitful life — is sorely felt.
A Nightmare on Elm Street, though remembered overwhelmingly for villain Freddy Krueger, who, over a number of sequels, would change from demonic ur-boogeyman to wisecracking trickster, almost like a Shakespearian fool with a bad sweater and hat, is its most creepy in how, as writer John Kenneth Muir’s phrases it, reality becomes rubber. For the uninitiated, the film is about a vengeful child murderer, Fred Krueger (Robert Englund) who strikes back from the grave at neighborhood teens in the one place their parents can’t protect them: their dreams. To stay alive, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Glen (Johnny Depp), and their friends must stay awake.
Needless to say, the movie lent itself to some shocking imagery, stuff justified by the open horizons of dream logic. But the stretchy arms, the phone receiver-cum-tongue, and maggots oozing from green goo were only part of the horror. What still unnerves, though the effects hold up pretty well, is when and if a character is dreaming — or not. Craven captured the contours of dreamtime exceptionally by not clearly delineating when the characters are sleeping and when they’re awake. Much like how we experience dreams, we don’t quite know if we’re in one or not, nor do we really remember how they begin.
Though the “is it a dream or isn’t it” trope is something milked as a plot point in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Craven uses it to fragment the narrative and unsettle the audience, and therefore ruptures the unity of place. At any moment, through a quick nod or edit, a character can be whisked away to a dream, a reality within a reality.
A key scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street comes when Nancy drifts off in English class. The scene continues on with a student droning on to a vaguely attentive class. But that “awareness” slowly unravels and reveals itself to be within her head. Her descent into hell isn’t all that different from easing into a warm bath, the relative safety of being awake mingles with the clear and present danger of Nancy’s dreams dancing within her skull. Reality becomes the dream and, when Nancy sears her arm on a steam pipe in the dream, awakening with a nasty burn, it alters reality.
As the story builds towards its climax, the conscious world continues to warp and buckle, as dreams begin to manifest physically, first when Nancy pulls Krueger’s hat into the real world, followed, later, by the killer himself. After a confrontation, the heroine turns the table on her tormentor, acknowledging that Krueger is a dream, a figment of her imagination, nothing more. She turns her back on him, robbing him of his power, and waking up to a bright, beautiful morning, not quite sure how she ended up fully dressed, outside.
Craven noted in a 1987 NPR Fresh Air interview that his career had an overriding ethos: “It’s time to stop dreaming… it’s time to wake up.” While the ending implies Nancy never woke up, A Nightmare on Elm Street is an excellent example of the power, and danger, of dreams. These things that don’t exist anywhere, except in our head, can change the world. Or break it, depending on who’s doing the dreaming.
On its own, the film is a haunting one that also meditates on the nature of reality, the power of the mind, and the internalizing of teenage fears. Yet, Craven, after stepping away from a series of sequels, returned ten years later with a follow-up, one in direct conversation with his prior film. Through this dialogue, both are elevated, and Craven shows himself to be a consummate filmmaker, one with concerns deep and rare in commercial entertainment.
New Nightmare begins almost identically to A Nightmare on Elm Street with a man fashioning the iconic glove of knives. However, instead of a dank dungeon with a hapless teen caught in its web of corridors, this scene is revealed to be nothing more than a soundstage. Filming is in progress, a new entry in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series is in production. Heather Langenkamp (playing herself) is even on set as a prop Krueger claw comes to life and slaughters the crew. Craven makes a brief cameo, urging the effects staff to shut down the animatronic hand.
Of course, Heather is dreaming all of this. Not unlike A Nightmare on Elm Street, though, the boundaries between what’s real and what isn’t becomes elastic. The film proceeds in a deeply metafictional vein, focusing on the impending production of Craven’s latest film (the one the audience is watching) New Nightmare. Langenkamp navigates the hectic world of stardom with its clinging fans attired in Freddy masks and claws, meetings with executives at New Line Cinema and actors Robert Englund and John Saxon (who played her father in the first film), and a series of mysterious phone calls and earthquakes that coincide with a growing sense of dread that Krueger might not be constrained only to cinema.
When Langenkamp’s son, Dylan (Miko Hughes), begins exhibiting odd behavior, refusing to sleep, reminiscent of her performance as Nancy, the actress grows worried, especially after her husband mysteriously dies in a car wreck, sporting claw marks not unfamiliar to fans of the series. Sitting down in a park with Saxon, Langenkamp vocalizes her fear of mental illness, of how, as David Foster Wallace once said, “the mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master.” Much like dreams can turn into nightmares, the mind can also betray. She states that her family has a history of “it” (the exact condition is never said) and Dylan receives a diagnosis of schizophrenia after he’s brought to the hospital following a seizure.
Could this all be in Dylan’s head? Perhaps. Langenkamp, much like her parents in the first film, has a hard time believing her child. What makes New Nightmare as frightening, if not more so, is the specter of mental illness. Having nightmares is natural, after all. If a man is coming to kill you in one, it’s just a dream, nothing more. Having visions and seizures, however, is not so well-received, if you will. If the concerns of the teens in A Nightmare on Elm Street were soothed with a simple “it’s all in your head”, then that same balm feels very acerbic when, yes, “it is all in your head.”
New Nightmare becomes even scarier as Freddy intrudes on the “real” world, our world supposedly, within the film. Robert Englund, discussing a dream (over the phone, of course) with Langenkamp, is shown, ominously, painting a portrait of Krueger. Craven reenters the mix, attempting to coax Langenkamp into reprising her role as Nancy, giving her peeks at his script in progress, which he has written based off recent dreams, containing dialogue the pair had just spoken.
John Saxon, sympathetic and approachable the entire film, attempts to comfort a rattled Langenkamp but ends up transformed into his character from the first film, complete with patronizing dialogue, demeanor, and sheriff’s badge. Even the end confrontation between “Nancy”, complete in her pajamas from A Nightmare on Elm Street, ends with the script for New Nightmare sitting on Dylan’s bed. Mother and child, after their ordeal, sit down and read it together.
The audience knows Freddy isn’t real. Or is he? In an oft quoted anecdote, Craven credits reading a story of a Hmong refugee who refused to sleep after a series of terrible night terrors. The man was convinced that if he dreamed, he would die. Tests were performed, nothing was found. Again and again the man was treated and soothed, medicated, but he refused to fall asleep, even taking to smuggling a coffee pot into his room and brewing cup after cup, night after night. Finally, after many nights, the man couldn’t stay awake any longer and feel into a deep sleep. His family found him dead the next morning.
Though Craven is a director that can churn your gut with films like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, or quicken your pulse with his four Scream films, he’s really a manipulator of the head — not the stomach or heart. Submerged under the blood and viscera of his two Freddy films is a filmmaker deeply aware of the power of dreams and storytelling, both products of the brain. Indeed, there is great power in both, but it requires an awareness, a sense of consciousness to take stock of the world, to accept what it is and how best to live in it.
Of course, that can only be achieved if one is awake. The alternative is unconsciousness, sleepwalking, existing without intention or purpose — existing in the domain of Krueger. It’s no coincidence that A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s marketing is an image of a girl being faux-penetrated not through her heart or gut, but her head.
On a metaphorical level, the tug of war between dreaming and consciousness is ripe with psychoanalytic Easter eggs. On a more practical level, we know we all must sleep at some time, that dreaming is essential to good mental health. So, Craven’s insistence that it’s time to stop dreaming is both impossible and impractical. He knew this, of course. Hence, the copious screen time devoted to characters trying to stave off sleep and their inevitable failure to do so.
Yet, the striving for consciousness, despite the inevitable return to sleep, is a worthwhile struggle, Sisyphean, even. Perhaps this has deep roots in his fundamentalist upbringing, with its extreme Calvinist tendencies of inherent damnation, of the rejection of worldly things. We are all sinners, consigned to the fire except for an elect few, though we will never know who those are. What matters is to act well and glorify Him, to act as if one’s saved even if you’re not chaste, resourceful, and self-reliant.
Inferring too much from an artist’s background, that A necessarily leads to B, is the trap door of criticism. It’s also cruel and reductive, much like noting how a director concerned with dreams and the mind, and their interaction with the real world, passed away due to brain cancer. Which will linger in our minds? The means of his death, or the death itself?
Perhaps he’s where he wants to be, living on as a figment of our imagination, haunting our deepest sleeps, poking us, chanting, “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you.”