Monday, January 6, 2014

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST (1984), A NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST 2 (1985)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*



SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Over the next week I plan to review all the Freddy Krueger films in order of appearance.  That is, assuming that I can hold out and the series doesn't kick the elm out of me...

ELM I, as I'll dub the first flick, is at once the more elemental and the most elementary-- elementary with regard to the special FX.  Given that the film deals with an evil ghost who can warp reality, both in the world of dreams and in the real world, the limitations of the effects sometimes undermine certain scenes.  Similarly, the first version of the evil Krueger is more primitive.  Thought this Freddy makes a couple of witty remarks, he's rather lowbrow and at times inarticulate.  Though it's arguable that later films in the series overdid the use of bon mots, the nasty quips would prove indispensable in establishing the iconic Freddy's persona of a super-sadist.  Similarly, though Robert Englund has some good moments here, his version of Freddy here is still a little too brutish, a little too like the "Jason" type of slasher-villain that Freddy would later battle.

Wikipedia notes that the first version of Freddy could have come off as more sexually oriented than the one in the film: "Initially, Fred Krueger was intended to be a child molester, but Craven eventually decided to characterize him as a child murderer to avoid being accused of exploiting a spate of highly publicized child molestation cases that occurred in California around the time of production of the film."  This alteration, though based in expedience, situated Krueger as a modern version of a child-stealing demon: a being that preys on children because they are weak rather than out of sexual urges (a motivation tediously put on display in the execrable 2010 remake).  The de-emphasis of sexual motives works better in terms of giving the Krueger character some  psychological consistency, as well.  If Krueger had been turned on by the deaths of little children, this would beg the question: why did his ghost not continue to prey on kids rather than teens?  But if his mortal self murdered children as a substitute for more nubile targets, it becomes a little more logical that as a powerful ghost Krueger goes after "older meat" than he would have pursued in life.

Similarly, in my re-watch of the first film I felt myself less compelled by writer-director Craven's plot-- which somewhat dissolves into inconsistency at the conclusion-- than by his interesting variation on the virgin/whore dichotomy suggested by HALLOWEEN.

In my essay on HALLOWEEN,  I said:

Criticism seems to focus on the idea that Laurie survives the assault of psychopathic Michael Myers because she's a "virtuous" teen, while Lynda and Annie are sluts who have slept around.  In actuality nothing in the Carpenter-Debra Hill script suggests that Annie and Lynda are killed because of their promiscuity, though the critics may have influenced many, many derivative films to use that very formula.

ELM 1 is indeed derivative of HALLOWEEN, but not in a slavish manner.  ELM I begins with four high-school teens-- Tina, Nancy, and their respective boyfriends Rod and Glen-- of whom three have had identical nightmares portending the arrival of Freddy.  One might assume that Craven was following "the formula" slavishly in that in the first half hour, Tina dies after having pre-marital sex with Rod-- whom Freddy will also kill later.  Meanwhile, Nancy refuses to give her boyfriend any nookie, so she survives the better part of the film-- though a confusing coda will eradicate her triumph. 

But on closer examination, Tina and Nancy are more alike than they are different, for they, like the other teens highlighted here, suffer from Parents Who Just Don't Get It.  The film opens with Tina's nightmare of being stalked by Freddy in a boiler room-- in reality, the site where he slaughtered his victims-- and this ends when Tina's screams awaken her mother. Though Tina's mom has no important scenes after this, it's significant that she is accompanied by a randy male lover-- implicitly, a sleazy pick-up-- who shows no compassion for Tina's terror but just wants the mom back in bed. 
This scene sets the stage for the notion that all the parents in the suburb around Elm Street are deficient in some manner, whether they sleep around or not.

Nancy, in contrast, lives alone with her mother Marge, who maintains a cordial relationship with Lt. Thompson, her ex and Nancy's father. Both parental figures will prove supremely inept in dealing with the threat to their daughter, even though both were involved in the execution of the child-killer and so are indirectly responsible for Krueger's undead recrudescence.  The viewer does not know why the Thompsons separated, but the failure of their marriage speaks to the failure of adulthood generally in Craven's world.  On a side-note, some deleted scenes did suggest that they separated from stress caused both by Krueger's having killed one of their children and guilt at having taken vengeance on him.  So in a sense Freddy Krueger "breaks up" the Thompson marriage, and in this sense he may be seen as homologous with the pick-up whom Tina's mother invites into Tina's home.  With this parallel in mind, then, one shouldn't leap to assume that Nancy Thompson survives her stalker simply because she keeps things cool with her boyfriend, any more than one should with Laurie Strode.

It's certainly possible to see Krueger also as the standard sexual psycho, beleaguering high-school Nancy at a time when sexuality is still threatening to her psychological makeup-- something that the famous "claw in the bathtub" scene captures.  After Freddy kills Glen, he mocks Nancy by claiming that he's her boyfriend now.  Yet when Nancy manages to outmaneuver him-- even setting Krueger on fire in imitation of her parents' actions-- Freddy's last target is Marge, not Nancy. In ELM 1's oddest psychological scene, Nancy and her father burst into Marge's bedroom, looking for a still-on-fire Krueger.  They see Krueger attacking Marge in her bed.  Thompson tries to extinguish the flames with a bedcover, after which Krueger and his prey-- the only adult he attacks in this film, and possibly his true target all along-- sink into the bed and vanish.  After Thompson leaves, still confused at the reality of evil spirits, Nancy outdoes her parents once again and exposes herself to Freddy once more, only to banish him by refusing to give him her "energy."

This seems to be more or less where Craven would have liked the story to end, with Nancy's act of will restoring her mother, if not all of the teens who died.   Instead, the producers wanted a coda suggestive of Freddy's return.  Thus the film ends in a muddled diegesis, wherein Marge is once more Freddy's final direct victim and all the teens are put in peril once more-- with a visual device lifted from PLASTIC MAN comics, of all sources.



Despite all the rough spots in ELM 1, though, the strength of the idea shines through.  Not so much ELM 2, written by David Chaskin and directed by Jack Sholder with no input from Craven.  ELM 2 very nearly jettisons everything that made Freddy Krueger unique in favor of a rather dog-eared possession story.

To be sure, ELM 1's box-office success insured that more wallets would be opened for Number Two, resulting in a greater proliferation of the wild dream-scenarios most associated with the series (though IMDB claims the budget only went up about $400,000).  The Krueger persona is closer to the iconic version here, even though the claw-gloved ghost is saddled with the device of reincarnating himself in the body of teen boy Jesse. 

Possibly the scripter chose this route because there really wasn't a good way to follow up the actual ending of ELM 1, since one can't tell from it where reality begins or ends.  ELM 2 proceeds as if Nancy did succeed in banishing Freddy for a time-- specifically, five years before Jesse's family moves into the house owned by Nancy and Marge Thompson.  Chaskin's script quickly relegates Nancy to the nuthouse and rewrites Freddy's M.O. so that he becomes interested in Jesse simply because he moved into Nancy's old house.  The ELM 1 Freddy was of course not tied to any particular abode.  The script's move toward standard ghost-story tropes also takes the story's emphasis away from the topics of deficient adults and the consequences of their actions.  Indeed, most of the adults in Sholder's film are inoffensive types, none of whom were implicated in Krueger's death.  Even Schneider, the high-school coach whom Jesse somewhat dislikes, is not seen doing anything particularly nasty or irresponsible.

The key aspect ELM 1 takes from its predecessor is that element of juvenile uncertainty-- not so much about having sex, as about what kind of sex to have.  Chaskin later claimed that he intentionally loaded his script with homoerotic references, beginning with the unsubstantiated claim-- by Jesse's "friendly enemy" Grady-- that Coach Schneider is not just a homosexual, but a frequenter of gay S&M bars.  As noted, the script does not define Schneider's sexual nature.  But Grady's claim apparently functions to plant a seed in Jesse's mind-- a seed that will serve as the "gateway to Freddy," for Jesse dreams of being in a gay bar in the company of, if not precisely "with," the coach.  The real Schneider becomes Freddy's first victim in this film, as well as the first to be explicitly tormented in a sadistic manner before being killed.  Perhaps Sholder and Chaskin can be fairly credited with developing this aspect of Freddy's persona.

Chaskin also gets considerable mileage out of Jesse's "maybe-gayness" when he deserts his potential girlfriend Lisa-- during a make-out session, no less-- and flees to the room of his schoolmate Grady.  Not surprisingly, Grady's thinks that this is pretty gay of Jesse.  But if Jesse has any buried feelings for Grady, they can only be expressed through violence, and Grady too bites the dust.

This is about as far as the script goes into "gay-curious" waters, for the main arc throughout concerns Lisa's valiant attempt to save Jesse from the evil male influence upon him.  In this regard, ELM 2 might be viewed as less than "gay-friendly." Lisa does succeed in inspiring Jesse to cast out his demon.  This somehow causes yet another scene in which Freddy catches on fire.  Jesse, taking control of Krueger's powers and using them against him?  Perhaps it doesn't really matter.  After this temporary victory, ELM 2 ends like Number One, with a bunch of teens caught in another lethal dream-- though at least this sequence didn't claim it was bringing anyone back from the dead.

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