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Wes Craven slashes the 4th wall
N is a poet. R is a screenwriter. We watch a lot of movies. We also spend a lot of time talking about movies. But we don’t spend enough time writing about them. So we’ve created Double Shot to reflect on the latest movies we’ve seen in our respective mediums.
For our first Double Shot of 2016, we’re looking back on the films of Wes Craven, who passed away on August 30, 2015.
N: October was a while ago but I still vividly remember our Scream/New Nightmare double feature the day before Halloween. I think my favorite memory of the night was the guy who fell asleep behind us during New Nightmare.
R: I had a fantasy that the movie was going to literally break the 4th wall by having Freddy jump out of the screen and murder that snoring dude. I guess that’s a sign of how good Wes Craven was at bending the reality of horror films: for a brief moment in time, I was afraid I might actually be in the movie.
N: I think watching all those horror movies that month really helped me to get into the genre, because I always just watched them at home by myself before. And there’s something to being scared with 100 other people that makes it more of an experience than just a film.
R: Atmosphere is so important in horror movies and that atmosphere dissipates when you’re comfortably hidden in your own home. The unfamiliar crowds and eery walk home are what can make the difference between a cheap thrill and a lasting nightmare.
A blackout poem from Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover
The rise of the slasher film is not dissimilar from other Hollywood trends. Halloween, a successful independent film, carved out a unique niche for itself, opening up a new avenue of cinematic exploration. And like any unique piece of celluloid, it attracted it’s fair share of copy cats and imitators, all hoping to ride its coat tails into film history.
Some of these films (like Friday the 13th and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street) were able to reach those same heights, but among the wasteland of knock-offs, the genre became a parody of itself. Its themes and structures, which were never particularly subtle, were effectively broken down, ultimately resulting in a set of definitive characteristics and cliches that have become inseparable from the genre itself (Chief among them the “Final Girl”: the virginal female who survives the bloodbath because she abstains from the sinful acts of her costars).
A generation of filmgoers grew up on this shlock and developed an intimate knowledge of its mechanics. With the audience so self-aware, filmmakers couldn’t delude themselves into thinking the same old tricks were still working. That’s when Wes Craven, one of the most imaginative of the horror genre’s directors, made a subtle twist that changed our perspective on horror movies forever: his films became self-aware.
In Scream, our protagonists have been watching all the same horror movies we have, and when the killings start happening there’s no question that a slasher is on the loose. More than that, they’re so conscious of the genre’s cliches that they lull themselves into a false sense of security, just like we do when we laugh at the stupid co-eds mistakes before proclaiming “I’d never do anything that dumb if I was in a horror movie.”
This is why Scream succeeds where more recent spoofs like The Final Girls falter: It does more than acknowledge the cliches of the genre. They’re twisted, subverted, and even reaffirmed, all while recognizing the power those tropes give to the genre without ridiculing its fans.
Around the same time, Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was struggling with its own problems. In order to compete against the imitators, the “professional” horror series fought for legitimacy through a war of showmanship. This competition has been a part of the horror genre from the very beginning, when grind house trailers were declaring that “This movie is even scarier than the last one!”
But this was different. The strategy proved successful in producing a long running series, but it also hurt the genre by pushing them further into the realm of camp, science fiction, and fantasy. These series ended up becoming caricatures, their villains shouting catchphrases and “… in space” spin-offs that divorced the films from the very human fears that inspired them.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a direct attack against this diversion in the course of the genre. The 7th film in the franchise, it strips away the 4th wall and allows Freddy Kruger (who at this point had turned into a quipping cartoon character) to enter our real world and terrorize the actors who starred in the original film. The meta narrative removes the ironic distance that made slasher films “safe,” and helped the genre to course correct.
While it wasn’t totally successful at saving the series (it’s the last proper film in the franchise, followed by Freddy vs Jason, and then Michael Bay’s 2010 reboot), it did succeed in opening up a new avenue of horror filmmaking that didn’t shy away from its true nature. This new wave of meta horror films like Cabin In Woods and You’re Next follow in Wes Craven’s footsteps by filtering our reality through the frame of the horror genre, and remove the ability to distinguish fact from fiction.