Jamie Bircoll: Wes Craven, I'll see you in my nightmares

Tuesday, September 8, 2015 - 6:19pm

I should be upfront: I am not the biggest Wes Craven aficionado. So maybe I’m not the best person to write about him and the horror genre that he helped elevate into a unique combination of art and commercial filmmaking over a 20-year period. Still, in the few films of his I have seen, I’ve found something creative yet manipulative, self-deprecating but dead serious, terrifying and downright funny. Craven is a unique director for a unique genre, and sifting through the pools of blood and gore that smother his films, I have come to recognize just what it means to watch a horror film.

In my experience, filmgoers split down the middle in a love-it-or-hate-it sort of way in their appreciation of horror, but I have more of a hate-that-I-love-it mentality. I was exposed to horror films at a young age and they messed with my head, really badly. When I was eight or nine, after I saw “The Shining,” I thought every time I turned a  corner , some eerie twin girls would stop me in my tracks and stare me down. And after “The Sixth Sense,” I knew I would one day wake in the middle of the night to the creak of a floorboard and slowly open my eyes only to see a sickly pale ghost as she vomits on the floor. These thoughts haunted me, scarred me for years, but still I would watch and shiver and jump, then watch some more.

I realized I loved the thrill of it all, the sensation of my heart pounding heavier and faster with each passing second as the protagonist slowly walks down a darkened hallway, floors screeching as if warning him to turn away, the camera still, stalking the character. And I loved the jump scares that pumped me with energy, like John Travolta just stabbed me in the chest with an eight-inch needle of adrenaline.

But when the lights come up and the energy dies down, you leave the safety of the theater; it’s the real world now, a world with its own monsters and unexplained phenomenon. And sometimes you feel like you’re being watched, sometimes you feel like you’re being followed. “It’s just a movie,” you tell yourself, so why do you feel so disturbed?

At least, that’s how I felt — still feel — when I watch horror films. They infect my brain like a cancer, send terror down my spine — I’ll feel a hand brush against my shoulder, I’ll hear a faint sound, a whisper. I turn but nothing is there. They mess with my mind: it’s a pretty unique effect.

There’s an art to terror, to digging under the skin to tap into a primal fear. The director must take a seemingly ordinary event and twist and deform it into something physically or morally wrong, sometimes both at once, but make it at least somewhat believable. Sometimes that manifests itself in a zombie apocalypse, as in George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” Sometimes it’s a scientist’s experiment gone horribly wrong as in David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” or a chameleonic alien that invades a settlement on Antarctica like John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”

But with all of those aforementioned films, the protagonists happen upon these monsters and situations: an alien just happens to crash land on Antarctica, the characters just happen to be at the mall when the zombie apocalypse starts. These are all outside scenarios from which, theoretically, you could run. In “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” Wes Craven did something different — something twisted. He made the subconscious, dream itself, the battleground.

Think about it: the one safe place in this insane world, the one place where you can find solace and peace and absolute freedom becomes corrupted, cruel, evil. You can neither run nor hide from sleep. Craven turns it against you; every waking hour marks one step closer to sleep, to death.

In “Elm Street” the characters’ happiest dreams devolve, descend into Hell itself, Freddy Kreuger’s boiler room: we feel the heat burning off the screen, the screeching of metal on metal pierces our ears. And suddenly there is Freddy in the shadows, taking his sweet time, toying with his victims, torturing them. And then he tears them apart.

In his best films, Craven made the enemy not some unknown, foreign entity like an alien or a zombie. The enemy always lives close to the protagonist in some way: dreams in “Elm Street,” classmates and boyfriends in “Scream.” And that makes it personal, because the protagonist’s safety – our safety, becomes threatened. Those fears remain after the film ends — it’s the stuff nightmares are made on.

And though many of his films have lost much of their punch with the desensitization that naturally occurs with the passage of time and the improvement of new effects and techniques, there remains something profoundly disturbing in them. I know this because the night before I wrote this column, I watched “A Nightmare on Elm Street” immediately before sleep; it was not a particularly restful one. Maybe I just scare easily (though I’d like to think not), but maybe the film holds up, too.

For better or worse, Wes Craven made films that stuck with me, and that’s all I can really ask from a film. Sure there are days when I need to kill some time, so I watch a run-of-the-mill action or comedy movie, but in general, if I’m investing my time, I want to gain something from it. Wes Craven didn’t teach me any lessons; he didn’t help me learn anything about myself beyond a tolerance for spilled blood, but he did scare the shit out of me, a lot; those images of a young Johnny Depp being devoured by his mattress and regurgitated as a pool of blood or of a lifeless Drew Barrymore dangling from a tree will forever remain in my mind.

I think he would consider that a profound success. I know I do, because I can still hear it now: one, two Freddy’s coming for you …