H.P. Lovecraft—perhaps even more than Edgar Allen Poe—has been the guiding light of American literary weirdness for the better part of the past 100 years. It was Lovecraft who ladled a heavy dose of the supernatural into the realm of gothic fiction, creating a terrifying concoction that abjures rational explanation of the inexplicable.
Lovecraft’s protagonists don’t know the nature of what they’re fighting against, but his readers realize that heavy doses of rational thought or knowledge of physical reality are not sufficient tools with which to do battle against dark forces.
Great horror requires the suspension of belief that God is in His heaven and all is right with the world. As with some of Lovecraft’s best work and other works of horror, the reader willingly submits him- or herself to a cleansing of thousands of years of supposed understanding of the workings of the world and the consolations found in both science and religious faith. The most horrifying notion would be a world that teeters on the edge of an abyss with an antagonist who wills that it plummet for his or her sheer entertainment.
Lovecraft, a victim of chronic night terrors, knew that dreams were where the mind, untethered from the laws of physics, unleashed its most horrific scenarios. To sleep, perchance to dream, transformed into a realization of existential dread.
Pop culture borrowing from its betters is a longstanding tradition, and Wes Craven’s creation of Freddie Krueger derives directly from the canon that includes Lovecraft and Lovecraft’s more recent literary heir, Thomas Ligotti. Freddie—now featured in the remake of the 1984 original A Nightmare on Elm Street and its seven sequels—is a deformed degenerate who delights in the gory dispatching of young, impossibly attractive high school students.
This is frightening enough in itself, but Craven added to the horror by creating Freddie as a supernatural villain who preys upon his victims in their sleep, much like the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If Freddie succeeds in killing them in their respective dreams, his victims also die in real life.
The inevitability of sleep and therefore the inevitability of encountering Freddie make for a compelling horror fiction dynamic, perhaps explaining the enduring popularity of the film, television, and comic book franchise.
In the original film, Freddie is introduced as a child-murderer who is captured by the police and released by the court because the arresting officer failed to obtain a search warrant. Vigilantes, echoing the mob that hunts down Peter Lorre’s child murderer in Fritz Lang’s classic M, chase Freddie to a factory, where he is presumably burned to death. Then, in a notion reminiscent of Thomas Ligotti’s terrifying short story “The Frolic,” Craven resurrects Freddie as a supernatural entity who preys on children.
What makes Ligotti’s story more terrifying, however, is what isn’t revealed by the author as much as what is. The real horror exists in the imagination of the reader rather than the gallons of blood employed by directors in the slasher genre, including the “Nightmare” films.
The victims in “The Frolic” are pre-pubescent children and their grieving parents, whereas the victims in A Nightmare on Elm Street are teenagers played by actors in their 20s who are killed gruesomely by blades on Freddie’s fingers. As for the parents, once Freddie is left for dead in a burning factory, they hardly merit mentioning.
In both the original and the remake, Freddie is a disfigured degenerate who invades the dreams of the teenage children of his killers. In the remake, Freddie is a gardener at a preschool who is accused of pedophilia and marking his victims by leaving scratches from a garden claw or other implement on their bodies. The parents conclude Freddie is the culprit, and they circumvent the law in order to protect their children from having to testify about the sexual abuse in court. Freddie is chased to a factory and burned, much like in the original.
When he begins haunting dreams, it’s assumed by the characters that Freddie was innocent and killed by overzealously protective parents. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that this is a mere red herring in a ham-handed plot directed for the most part on cruise control, nor that the horrors perpetrated derive from a terrifying embodiment of evil as portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley, taking over the role defined by Robert Englund in eight previous films and a television series.
Haley, a fine actor who made his mark as a child actor and turned to directing television commercials before rebounding with a disturbing Academy Award-nominated role as a pedophile in Little Children and more recently played the morally challenged Rorschach in The Watchmen.
Haley’s portrayal of Freddie is a marriage of these previous two roles: the pedophile and masked man with superpowers. Haley hits his marks on ground previously covered in his career, but he fails to steer the innate creepiness, mask, and finger blades of Freddie into new and uncharted territory.
Say what you will about Englund’s characterization having devolved into campy sub-James Bond double entendres, but at least he knew how to scare. It’s a shame Englund is now relegated to parts in low-grade films such as Zombie Strippers.
The remainder of Nightmare is glossy in the rock-video fashion that substitutes for visual substance and subtlety. This is no surprise, since the film marks the feature directorial debut of Samuel Bayer, best known for directing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit” video. Bayer borrows freely from the 1984 film, but cannot capture the dreamy atmospherics or freshness of the original.
Despite all of these shortcomings, A Nightmare on Elm Street earned $32 million in its first weekend. Not bad for a dish of warmed-up leftovers.