Saturday, December 8, 2007

SS: Whatever You Do, Don’t Fall Asleep!

I’m always trying to fill in gaps in my cinematic education, so last night it was time to view a modern horror classic, Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” I’ll admit that I’d previously written it off as “just another” cheesy slasher flick. I was pleasantly surprised with this movie. While it has some of the typical slasher-film tropes, I found it to be quite smart and thought-provoking.

The film’s now well-known plot involves a dead serial killer, Freddy Krueger, who returns from the grave to brutally kill a group of teenagers in their dreams. The line between reality and dreams is blurred by the fact that the victims killed in their dreams actually die in real life. After experiencing the deaths of her closest friends, the film’s protagonist, Nancy Thompson (played by a deceptively baby-faced Heather Langenkamp), sets out to vanquish Krueger.

Nancy is a fabulous female character – smart, brave and confident. Unlike many horror and adventure films of this era, you won’t see her running around in her skivvies or baring her breasts. Craven never “softens” his protagonist’s tough image by making her show skin. So the audience is forced to hone in on her as a person, not an object. There is a female character who meets her end shortly after having sex with her boyfriend – a common plot element in many 70s and 80s horror films – but her suitor also dies, so it doesn’t seem as though she is being “punished” for her sexuality.

The film’s major theme is the line between dreams and reality, and Craven constantly plays with the audience’s perceptions of the two. At first, there is a clear distinction between the two – represented by Nancy’s suburban bedroom and Krueger’s boiler-room lair, respectively – but as the film moves forward the distinction grows murky. In one scene, for example, it seems Nancy is awake, walking around her basement. But then she quickly turns a corner and you see a set of stairs, which lead to Krueger’s lair. In many ways, the film’s climax depends not only on Nancy’s successful navigation of the dream and waking worlds, but also on her willingness to accept and believe in her own sanity, even as others question it. I felt Craven depicted all of this quite masterfully – often with just good old shadows and lights and well-paced camera work.

The ignorance and powerlessness of authority figures is the theme that I found most intriguing, however. At virtually every turn in the film, the adult characters alternately deride, patronize or just plain ignore the teen characters. What’s interesting is that the adults’ efforts to protect their offspring backfire because of their inability to trust their children’s judgment. This is especially true in the case of Nancy’s relationship with her mother, who reacts to her daughter’s warnings about Krueger by assuming she is insane and thus installing security guards on all the windows to keep her locked in the house. Later in the film, the security guards play a part in a character’s death.

The figure of Krueger, who was a serial child-murderer when he was alive, plays heavily into the adult-versus-child dynamic. As the ultimate symbol of corrupted adult power over children, the idea that his destruction can only come by the hands of a child flips the traditional power dynamic between adult and child. And since in this case the child who may or may not destroy him is a teenager (so as not to spoil the plot, I won’t reveal whether or not he is destroyed), it’s fair to say that this could be read as a comment on the teenage struggle to shake off parental control and pass into adulthood.

All some heady ideas, I think. I’m glad I got to share in this moment of pop culture history. And speaking of history, I don’t think this film seems dated at all. Aside from the fashions and some of the special effects, it feels as relevant in 2007 as it was back in 1984. It’s definitely a classic. And the Johnny Depp-blood geyser is quite spectacular.

© Sarah Stanfield, December 8, 2007

1 comment:

The Write Bunch said...

Thanks, Sarah. I've never been interested in seeing this film but you made it sound very intriguing. I'll give it a try!