Craven Images

I’ve been slowly working my way through Wes Craven’s oeuvre of films because I thought he would be a good example to teach with of a horror auteur. And whilst so far there have been a fair number of stinking moments, there are a lot of interesting signatures that I’ve been picking up. There was a moment where I pondered that with showing Wes Craven’s New Nightmare as my auteur exemplar and Last House on the Left as controversy film, I should add Vampire in Brooklyn as the vampire film and maybe The People Under the Stairs to explore what horror is.

But you can get too much Craven.

I have to be careful about the original Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream tetralogy, because I’m teaching slasher films on my Popular Genres and Popular Culture module and there’s potentially student overlap next year. But in going through the material on slasher as feminist genre, I pondered if something needed updating (and ironically, I was teaching this the same day as materials on the monstrous-feminine in the horror module).

I don’t really buy slasher as feminist. I think there’s too much pleasure to be taken in the sexualised sadism against the female characters. The Final Girl is subjected to an extended ordeal. On the other hand, I can see the appeal of a screen character being more than just a victim. In the monstrous-feminine class I showed the softporn opening sequence of the original Carrie, and again I’ve heard arguments about this film’s feminist potential. But when there’s a male director filming a male scriptwriter’s adaptation of a male author’s novel,  I’m not sure how the female perspective can get into it in any entirely convincing way. (Some of the students seem not to be able to acknowledge that the full frontal nudity of the young women in the sequence might be sexualising and objectifying — even as the centra lingers in sift focus and Carrie soaps her body… Or see that this is problematic.)

So somewhere I came across the idea where the slasher  was an index of male anxieties about the role of women. I suspect I read this – but you might want to see Halloween as a response to second wave feminism. I suspect we can then trace the subgenre through reactions to new men and new lads and the antifeminist backlash and Scream is somehow in a conversation with third wave feminism. I’ve yet to sit down and trace this in any detail. Given who the victims of the slasher are, the ostensible villain is acting as the avatar of surplus repression.

Meanwhile, I rewatched Cursed and watched My Soul to Take. The former I suspect is an attempt to do for the werewolf subgenre what Scream did for the slasher. Whilst it has its moments, it obeys the first rule of virtually all werewolf movies I’ve seen: the werewolf will be a dog’s breakfast. The latter film  is a cousin to the slasher — sixteen years before the main plot some guy killed his wife and his psychiatrist and a cop or two and tried to kill the people in the ambulance and may or may not have died himself. It’s a series of set pieces and they barely make sense. He might be barking (but not in a werewolf way); he might be possessed. In the present day, the seven kids born on the same day as he died hold a ritual to face the monster, and one of them dies. 

The teenager of colour, obviously.

Although there’s also visually impaired African American.

Indeed, the teens are killed off one by one, with the twist that it may well be cute little malcontent shy geek Bug who is responsible. Who you think wouldn’t kill a fly. Or it might be his best friend Alex, who is bullied by a stepfather in a one-off scene that might well have been added late on for all I know.

My initial reaction is that it’s largely mindless by the numbers pap, although it passes ninety minutes or so.

It’s perhaps a bit early to think about this film in terms of fourth wave feminism, but I suspect here we have an example of the geek male as hero and a way of tracing the shifting patterns of hegemonic masculinity. Intriguing though Max Thieriot’s performance is — and he has to ventriloquise other characters — I think we’ve already seen the geek hero in a purer form in Jessie Eisenberg in Cursed. And whilst I need to rewatch the film at some point to focus on what Emily Meade’s character is up to, Cursed reminds me of what an interesting actor Christina Ricci appears to be. At some point though, I will need to go and look (again) at the late slasher films to see what they get up to in terms of masculinity and the flatter your audience ploy of putting the geek centre stage. 

Although, of course, in the slasher the most interesting male character tends to be the slasher “him”self.

Alice Doesn’t Sleep Here Anymore

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Stephen Hopkins, 1989)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher – the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… By now we’re onto a new generation of teens — Alice (Lisa Wilcox) has been handed the baton — and since the opening sequence is a blue-tinted* sex scene with Dan (Dan Hassel) you can do your own double entendres. You’d think this would mark her for death and when she jumps in the shower that seems to be her fate, only she becomes part of a more complicated dream sequence.

There’s this thing in Jacques Lacan about being between two deaths and the impossibility of the second death. It’s a variant on what is called the death drive, although the death instinct is a better translation. Nature, according to Sade according to Lacan, demands a total anihilation. Everything must return to dust. Lacan discusses Antigone, who is bricked up alive for the crime of burying her dead brother when this was expressly forbidden (and also she’s being made to carry the can for her dad Oedipus’ shenanigans). Bro had not had the proper rites read and thus his soul cannot rest — he needs the right rites. Antigone is a kind of Schrödinger’s heroine.

Think of all those horror films when characters have been buried alive or put to death with some kind of curse or rite. Some idiot comes along and reads the rite and brings them back — the undead being then seeks revenge. The only way to sort things is out — having read the wrong rites — read the right rites, right? But you never know when someone else will come along and read them again.

So here, as the cast point out twice, Freddy Krueger has murdered children and been burnt alive, without a proper burial. His spirit cannot rest and seeks revenge until the rites are read — in Part III. Of course, Jason the dog comes along and pisses on the corpse — writing being much the same as pissing*** — and brings him back until the rites are read again in the form of the climax to Part IV. But that second death remains impossible. Freddy continues to go after Alice’s friends in baroque ways and has Dan in his sights.

Of course, he’s not the only one unshrived. Agnes Krueger, his nun mother, had been raped by lunatics at the asylum and sought peace through the end of her son in Part III. We see her haunting — even though we’ve also seen a gravestone. There is still unfinished business clearly. The mother — a distant relation of Mrs Vorhees, one assumes — is now the double to Alice as the latter finds herself pregnant with, presumably, Dan’s child. Paradoxically this makes her safer, as Freddy is using her foetus’s dreams to come back. Abortion is rejected as an option, however. Meanwhile, in dreams, Dan/Freddy seem to merge and the transformation of Freddy from bogeyman to father figure continues. (The following year, of course, Edward Scissorhands emerges as tragic hero.)

Theory aside, the film is visually impressive — with some of the dream sequences channelling M.C. Escher. The comic geek Mark Grey (Joe Seeley) seems to have reacted to nominative determinism by wearing rainbows — which one might assume was indexical of his sexuality, but for his desire for supposed potential supermodel Greta (Erika Anderson). Before we can say, “beard”, we can admire the transition from live action to comic books, but the duel rapidly turns silly. But then, of course, most of this is about the spectacle.

[I’ll paste in the Lacan reference later]

Notes

* Or white/gold.**

** This “joke” will make little sense sooner or later. It’s something about a dress and colour perception.

*** Especially when snow is involved. Cf. the excuse “I’m writing my name in Narnia.”

And What She Found There

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Renny Harlin, 1988)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher – the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… except here one of them notices that they’re dropping like flies.

Of course this begins with spoilers — three of the original children of the parents that killed Freddy survive from Part III — Kincaid (Ken Sagoes), Joey (Rodney Eastman) and Kirsten (Tuesday Knight — replacing Patricia Arquette, who has presumably gone off to solve the civil rights problem) — and these three have to be removed for the plot to develop. I wonder if this was an inspiration for David Fincher and Alien3? Meanwhile Robert Englund gets pushed to top of the bill and given more lines. Here he is on the turn from evil villain to Arnie-style quipping antihero. He’s brought back to (un)life by a dog pissing on his skeleton — there’s an allegory there if you look for it. The dog is called Jason, because we can do intertextuality.

This is more clearly a 1980s film — big hair, pounding rock soundtrack, rap interjected into the closing credits, ray bans, nods to Jaws and motorbikes, as well as calls backs to the 1950s and a diner with a jukebox and Reefer Madness on the neighbourhood cinema. In the scripting corner we have to blame William Kotzwinkle — a novelist who had done an ET novelisation and sequel — Brian Helgeland, who is showing none of the talent you’d imagine would produce LA Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997) and Scott Pierce (Jim and Ken Wheat, hiding under pseudonym). Apparently Helgelund wrote the script in a week. That long? They are clearly pushing the dream logic, as the characters’ deaths become more and more extreme. Kincaid is killed in the car graveyard where Krueger was buried, whereas Joey is drowned in his waterbed, seduced by a woman of his dreams, having not learnt from the seductive nurse monster of Part III.

There are plenty more teenagers Krueger can go after — an asthmatic moped rider, a sexy boy, a female weightlifter with big hair who turns into an insect… And then there’s Alice (Lisa Wilcox), Kirsten’s new best friend since she returned to the school from the asylum. Having watched or sensed her friends die, she finally fights back by breaking her way through the mirror; “Welcome to Wonderland!” cries Freddy, because by now we’re too brain dead to spot the reference. Having collected mementoes of her dead friends, she can imbibe all of their skills and fight back — and at last we have girl kicking demonic ass, in an anticipation of Buffy (whose filmic introduction was four years away). She (spoiler) wins…

… but the generic imperative wins out and we see a familiar reflection.

Lots of the teens here smoke — marking them for death — and there’s plenty of gratuitous nudity and more swearing here than the other films put together. Teens sneak out of upstairs bedrooms as if the film is parodying the genre. I suspect it is — clearly well enough to gain the highest box office of the sequence until Freddy vs. Jason (Ronny Yu, 2003).

The Dream of Solidarity

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part III (Chuck Russell, 1987)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher – the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… A Nightmare on Elm Street Part III (Chuck Russell, 1987) sees Wes Craven’s return to the franchise, along with Nancy (Heather Lagenkamp) and Donald Thompson (John Saxon). Craven’s initial suggestion was for the film to be about a supernatural menace on the set of a slasher movie, but clearly that would never fly. Instead the scene shifts to an asylum.

As the first two films in the franchise show, the most significant ideological crucible of youth is the family home, followed closely by the school. For those who don’t conform there is a fate worse than death — the army, the police station (and cells), the prison, the hospital, the asylum. In the construction of the norm as sane, law-abiding, healthy, clean, heterosexual, there are heterotopias to which the abnormal may be exiled. Here we have a group of traumatised teens, all children of Krueger’s killers, fearful of sleeping lest he come after them. Nancy arrives to help them, suggesting they band together to fight back.

Each of the teens has their own secret identity, their ego ideal to fight against Freddy’s id, and at times it is unclear whether the film is laughing at or with them. Meanwhile a doctor (Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson)) and an ex-cop (Saxon) act as policing forces to give Krueger’s corpse a proper burial with what will pass for a proper rite.

There’s a moral here about collectivity and solidarity, although perhaps this can still be seen as trumped by patriarchy, whether in the form of the good doctor or the bad father who needs to be redeemed.

Heteronormativity Strikes Back

The politics of such films as Near Dark, The Silence of the Lambs, Hellraiser (I, II, and III), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula may be understood in part as emblematic of capital’s ongoing attempts at refurbishing its democratic facade by acknowledging the cynicism of the population while simultaneously emphasizing an ersatz liberalism, and by making use of a variety of progressive discourses current in academe that inevitably appear transmuted within the commercial entertainment industry.
Christopher Sharrett (1993) “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture”, Journal of Popular Film & Television,  21(3), p. 100.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part II: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher – the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) postdates the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises and adds a degree of the supernatural or fantastical which is not in the other franchises in the same way.*

Craven didn’t want to work on a sequel so we have a new director depicting a new family who have moved into the Thompsons’ house, including a teenaged boy, Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton). The slasher film tends to have a female protagonist — although it can take a while for her to act — on the one hand resisting the Mulveyan male gaze structures of identification, on the other hand feeding a male sadistic gaze for violent spectacle. But here — although we do sort of get a Final Girl — there’s a male protagonist who is a Jesse.

Coughs.

Freddy Krueger is clearly an equal opportunity sadist, as happy to play with Jesse as he was with Nancy; the temperature rises in the Walsh household, their pet birds pay homage to Hitchcock, a party catches fire and a swimming pool boils. Krueger increasingly seems to be an uncontrolled id, his sadism clearly sexualised. The worrying thing for Jesse is his increasing sense that he is Freddy, that he is causing the murders.

The big set piece of the film is a nocturnal wander or dream where Jesse ends up at the town’s gay bar (with a large lesbian clientele) and bumps into the bullying Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell). Schneider then forces him to run laps of the gym and take a shower; meanwhile the coach is attacked by a load of balls in his office, dragged to the shower by skipping ropes, strung up and slashed to death. Jesse finds Freddy’s glove on his hand. What is Jesse’s dark secret?

The whole is homoerotic, seasoned with BDSM and homosexual panic, with Jesse clearly as a confused teen. Frederik Dhaenens suggests that “the film deconstructs how heteronormativity
disciplines individuals who experience same-sex desires, [but] it depends upon its audiences to read this film in terms of queer resistance. Furthermore, by victimizing the potentially gay boy, it reinstates the heterosexual male as the real hero” (p. 110). Perhaps this is being over generous to the film — of the three non-normative characters one is a sadist who preys on boys, one is a serial killer and one is a teen who may be killing people or fantasising about doing so. Certainly the plot rescues the latter from the horrors of homosexuality — in the early years of the HIV crisis homosexuality is equated with death even more than usual.
Note

* As I watch/rewatch the rest, we’ll see how true this is.

Sources

Frederik Dhaenens (2013) “The Fantastic Queer: Reading Gay Representations in Torchwood and True Blood as Articulations of Queer Resistance”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 30(2).

Christopher Sharrett (1993) “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture”, Journal of Popular Film & Television, 21(3).