Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Wes Craven: Master of Reinvention, Reimaginings and Remakes (Sort Of)

by Heather Wixson
While no easy feat, Wes Craven was a director who was able to reinvent the horror genre on two different occasions during his career – the first time with A Nightmare on Elm Street and then again in 1996 with Scream.

While he was always an innovator of horror, I also think that when you look back at Craven’s filmography, I always thought it was really interesting that he was a director who was willing to try and reimagine some of his own watershed moments in the genre, by way of New Nightmare and Scream 4. And while I recognize that neither of these films are what I would consider a traditional remake, Craven certainly finds new ways to re-explore the themes that made the original Nightmare and Scream films so iconic in these two sequels, which just proves that Craven was a storyteller who was always willing to push himself in ways most of the other great genre directors that helped shape the landscape of modern horror never did.

Because A Nightmare on Elm Street came first, that feels like a logical starting point for this, so that’s where I’m diving in. Back in 1984, Craven changed the rules about what a slasher movie could be during the heyday of the subgenre, by introducing us to a killer named Freddy Krueger who preyed on teens in their dreams. The impossibility of the rules Craven introduced us to in the original Nightmare – essentially, if you sleep, you die – is what made Freddy such a dominant force, because universally, we all have to sleep. We can skip heading to a cabin in the woods, or visiting a campground where a bunch of teens have been slaughtered, and we can even stay away from the mean streets of '80s New York, but we all have to sleep, which is why A Nightmare on Elm Street terrified me as much as it did back when I was a kid.
While Wes had been involved with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors from a script standpoint, New Nightmare marked Craven’s directorial return to the franchise he birthed for the ultimate, final Nightmare. At a time when studio-backed genre movies weren’t exactly pushing ingenuity (save for John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, which also happened to be a New Line project), New Nightmare came along at a time when the genre was in desperate need for the proverbial shot in the arm, even if wasn’t necessarily a huge commercial success when it hit theaters in October 1994. And sure, the story is technically a different story than Nightmare OG, but with Heather Langenkamp front and center once again, it’s hard not to draw some parallels between the first film and New Nightmare.

There are, of course, the homages to some key moments from NOES, like when Heather answers the phone and she gets licked by the Freddy phone after Dylan assembles all of the weird pages sent to her by her stalker, or when Heather blurts out to a nurse “Screw Your Pass,” as she desperately makes her way through the hospital halls in a desperate attempt to see her son after Dylan’s been moved out of his room. But there are some other ways where Craven revisits some of the concepts and scenes from A Nightmare on Elm Street in New Nightmare and finds a way to turn them on their head where they feel like something that isn’t just simply an homage, but more like a filmmaker who is looking to explore some of those original ideas a decade later, with a fresh perspective and under a new lens.
For example, in the original Nightmare, Freddy was a character with a mythology that was very specifically tied into the residents of Springwood, as he’d been burned alive for his attacks on the children in the community, returning as a supernatural dream stalker who could kill his victims in their sleep. With New Nightmare, Wes reinvents Freddy as this force of pure evil that has been resurrected after he began having nightmares again, and decided to dive back into horror after taking some time away (while he did Nightmare CafĂ© for NBC in '92, Craven’s last feature prior to NN was 1991’s The People Under the Stairs). So now, Freddy was no longer a fictional character dreamt up for a movie, he’d become the embodiment of actual evil, and with Craven’s stirring the pot by writing his script that incorporated aspects of Langenkamp’s not-quite-reality, it’s given this new version of Krueger all the power it needed to start killing again.

It was such an interesting way to resurrect an entity who had been officially killed off (so said Freddy’s Dead) in a way that wasn’t a retread of how other horror franchises would bring back their villains, and I don’t think we’ve seen a horror series in the last 24 years even come close to being able to resurrect a genre icon quite like NN did, either. And while I have seen plenty of folks harping on the slick redesign of Krueger for New Nightmare over the years, it only makes sense that this version wouldn’t necessarily look like Robert Englund’s character from the either films – after all, this is evil’s interpretation of Freddy, not really Freddy, and if evil wants to rock calf-high Doc Martens, then I’m all for it (I mean, this was the 1990s after all).

In NOES, it was Marge who brought Nancy into a sleep clinic to deal with her dreams, but in New Nightmare, now Langenkamp within the context of “real life” has to take her son to the hospital after Dylan suffers a string of seizure-like attacks, which Freddy, but not exactly Freddy, is behind. NN also does its own take on the unforgettable rotating room scene from the original Nightmare, but this time it’s Dylan’s babysitter Julie who ends up getting sliced and diced by Krueger at the hospital, while the traumatized tot watches on in sheer terror. Probably my favorite “twist” that New Nightmare does is that it takes on the Freddy bed scene from Craven’s first Nightmare. In the original, we watch on as Nancy strips the supernaturally-driven Freddy of his power by taking away her fear of him, and he digitally disintegrates right before our very eyes.
With New Nightmare, though, as Langenkamp struggles with accepting that this new iteration of Krueger is part of her reality, once she fully embraces it (by referencing actor John Saxon as her dad), Freddy comes through Dylan’s bed triumphantly, fully empowered and ready to destroy everything in his path. There is a lot of things I love about New Nightmare, but that sequence in particular has always been one of my favorite moments because of just how visually powerful it truly is within the context of what the entire Nightmare franchise has always been about. Here’s a character that can only really exist in our dreams, and now, evil has been unleashed and can run amok wherever it pleases, which is a terrifying premise altogether, and an incredible way to bring the Nightmare franchise full circle after 10 years.
Now, let’s move onto Scream and Scream 4, which feels a bit more traditionally remake-y in comparison to what Craven did in the Nightmare series, especially because the idea of remakes is tossed around in the Scream 4’s movie logic-driven script on several occasions. Plus, we had gone through this monumental wave of remakes throughout the 2000s, so it was only natural that Craven would do a soft reboot of the Scream franchise with his efforts on part 4 as his own commentary on the state of modern horror.

Of course, the logical place to start when you’re talking about these two installments in particular is the latter’s brilliant opening, which beautifully twisted all of our expectations when it comes to the Scream franchise. Both Scream 2 and Scream 3 pretty much did their opening scenes by the book in comparison to the Drew Barrymore scene from the first Scream, but Scream 4 decides to go the scene-within-a-scene (within-a-scene) route, and I don’t care how you feel about the sequel as a whole, you cannot deny just how damn clever Wes was by giving audiences a few fake outs before honing in on creating a killer kick-off to his latest sequel.
As we’re told in the Cinema Club scene in Scream 4 (as well as the film’s marketing campaign), Craven was playing by a whole new set of rules, and where he was able to establish the new playing field for viewers in New Nightmare, in Scream 4, Wes and returning screenwriter Kevin Williamson let movie geeks Robbie Mercer (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie Walker (Rory Culkin) guide us through their intentions with the film, declaring that we were dealing with “less of a Shriek-quel, and more of a Scream-ake” for Scream 4. Both Charlie and Robbie also fill us in on what the rules of a remake are: the kills have to be more extreme, the reverse has become the new standard, and because the killer is technically patterning themselves after the Stab movies (not the actual Scream series), the killer is most likely making his own movie to boot.

One of the more interesting aspects to the Scream series, particularly the first and the fourth installments, is how Craven leaned into the concepts of emerging technologies – cell phones in Scream (yes, kids, there was a time where most people didn’t have a cell phone – the horror!) and the idea of streaming/vlogging in Scream 4 – and it’s pretty damn intriguing when you take a moment to realize just how much these films can act as cautionary tales about how technology can affect society as a whole. One character that ties into this new technology is Gale (Courteney Cox), who much like in the original Scream, utilizes cameras to record at the Stab-A-Thon party in Scream 4. But rather than rely on just one camera, she sets up multiple cams throughout the party barn, proving she is still willing to go to great lengths in order to capture a newsworthy moment, despite not being an active member of the press any longer.

Of course, Scream 4’s intentions as a remake are more obviously laid out with the notion of turning Jill (Emma Roberts) into the new Sidney (Neve Campbell), as we see the somewhat estranged cousins traveling down similar paths in their respective films. But when it’s revealed that Jill is actually one of the Ghostface killers this time around, I just found that to be another great way that Craven was able to subvert fan expectations (and also giving us one of the best solo performances ever in a horror movie, when Jill physically prepares herself to go “full victim,” by stabbing herself, headbutting a framed picture and even tossing herself into a glass coffee table). And where Sidney’s mom had been murdered prior to the events of Scream, Jill has to orchestrate the death of her own mother in Scream 4, as Roberts even explains how the loss is yet another way Sidney’s cousin is preparing to step into the role of “final girl,” which is just a wickedly cruel touch to Jill’s character (I mean, she’s more concerned with fans then friends, so it makes total sense just how far she would be willing to go).
Since we’re talking about Jill as one of the villains at this point, it only makes sense to go ahead and dive into Scream 4’s finale at this point, which of takes place after the “false ending” at the Stab-A-Thon get-together – which Charlie and Robbie even take the time to point out during the aforementioned Cinema Club scene. It’s an intimate finale, where it’s just Jill and her friends at Kirby’s (Hayden Panettiere) house after Gale is attacked. Once the bloodshed begins, Scream 4 reimagines the Casey/Steve opening from Scream here, with Kirby forced to play movie trivia and Charlie ending up tied to a chair. This time though, movie buff Kirby actually “wins” as she rattles off literally every possible remake under the sun (LOVE this moment), but really, it’s all a ruse, as we see her free Charlie and he does the unthinkable by stabbing Kirby for her efforts (this is a total aside, but Kirby’s death is still the one from the Scream series that has always struck me as one of the most horrific, just because of its blunt brutality, and Charlie hushing her as the life seeps out of Kirby’s body).

And if you’re not wholly convinced at this point that Wes was remaking Scream with what would end up being his final film, just look at the way the characters are even color-coded with their wardrobe in the finale of Scream 4. It had stuck out to me the very first time I watched the film that Trevor is dressed exactly like Sid’s dad from the first Scream (which makes it perfect that he gets tucked away in the pantry, akin to Neil Prescott in Scream OG) and that Charlie was wearing the same lime green that we see Randy in during the first Scream finale. But someone on Twitter had also pointed out to me that, with the exception of Kirby, the rest of the players we see during the finale tie directly to the cast members from Scream – Jill donning a plaid shirt like Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), and Rory wearing a taupe-colored a la Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) as well, with Craven slyly telling us who the killers are but not in way that’s really obvious either – with Sidney still dressed in blue. Just pure genius.
For as much as I have always enjoyed Wes’s original films, I think the reason that both New Nightmare and Scream 4 have come to mean so much to me over the years is because it was Craven taking on concepts he introduced into the horror genre and finding new ways to make them relevant and scary again. It’s something we have seen time and time again, whether its through the multiple adaptations of classic horror literature, or even through filmic remakes, but Craven was one of the rare Masters of Horror who dared to tread territory he helped establish as a forward-thinking visionary working in the genre, and it’s just another reason why he was truly one of the most incredible filmmakers to ever step behind the camera.

1 comment:

  1. Oh man, you made me wanna rewatch them. It's been a long while since I even watch Scream 4, but I will always rest easy knowing I took my chance and went to see it in theaters as soon as it came out. I was 14 at the time but my love for horror and Wes was already quite strong.

    New Nightmare, on the other hand, I've watched several times, though it's been a couple of years since the last time I did. But just as I was reading your article, I had to stop for a second and looked up that scene you mention, where Heather plays Nancy and the NOES world ends up completely engulfing her real world. I get chills every time; Saxon and Langenkamp are bloody terrific together, and the parallelism of Freddy coming out of the bed (+ that shadow shot reminiscent of Nosferatu) is spot on. The NOES leit motiv by Bernstein at the end are the icing of the cake, as the camera pans towards the Elm Street house. God, I love it.

    How I miss Wes, man. Such an inspiration.

    Great article and I wholeheartedly agree with your statement. Wes always tried to reinvent the wheel, to put it one way. After NN, he and Kevin Williamson where a match made in heaven to reinvigorate the slasher genre with Scream. That first film is so, so classic. I watch it like at least once a year and always laugh out of my ass while doing it. It's just so much fun. I remember a while ago (maybe 4, 5 years) sitting with my brother and showing him the film. He loved it. We ended up watching the whole franchise, night after night. Ever since then we randomly speak quotes of the movie. Oh man, I just love it. Great movie. It really shows what a great understanding Williamson and Craven had of the genre.

    Anyways, thanks for the article. Lovely reading.