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How Freddy Krueger changed horror movies

nightmare-on-elm-streetImage Credit: Everett CollectionAt some point in the 1980s, probably around the time of the fourth or fifth Friday the 13th sequel, I realized that horror movies had, in effect, become comedies. It was all part of a ritual. You went out to the multiplex with your buddies, or maybe on a date, to see the latest by-the-numbers blood feast in which a sick young man in a goalie mask devised creative new ways to gouge and dismember a series of good- looking and eminently dispensable bad actors. In theory, everyone in the audience was there to be scared, to be shocked into fear by the awesome savagery on display. Yet these movies, in the space of about five years, had grown so formulaic, so predictable in their extremity and slaughter, that their very “terror” had turned fatally campy.

And so the audience cowered, and trembled a bit, and jumped out of their seats – and laughed. We laughed at the giddy fun of being scared, but also at the sheer dumb corny roteness of those hulking, heavy-breathing faux-brute killers. The predictability of it all was funny, and maybe borderline insulting, a kind of shared in-joke. On some level, it was all about the comic high of feeling superior – to the victims on screen, and to your own anxieties. Don’t go in the attic! Oh, look, he’s going in the attic! Watch that friggin’ dumb-ass get what he deserves!

But until A Nightmare on Elm Street, in 1984, we were all laughing at these movies, not with them. Freddy Krueger changed all that. Apart from the fact that he was a ghost who slaughtered you not in the basement or some godforsaken cabin but in your dreams, he certainly did have plenty in common with Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, the two superstars of slasherdom. (Leatherface, the godather of them all, was a far greater screen character, but at that point The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was still a cult film, under the radar for most of the mass audience. Why, it hadn’t even spawned a sequel!) Yet Jason and Michael, in their angry, wordless, bruised-adolescent way, were straight men, lugs with machetes. Freddy, with his leer and his cackle and his slightly goofy scarecrow look, was a showman, a snarky demon clown, a burlesque master of ceremonies. In his first big scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street, he holds his arms out wide, like a wall-shadow parody of a boogeyman, then mockingly slices off two of his own fingers. A new kind of killer has arrived. He’s not just here to scare you – he’s here to have a good time doing it. Let’s party!

I should point out that there are many, many precedents to Freddy Krueger’s antic high comedy of evil-as-fun. Back in 1964, Herschell Gordon Lewis, the trash visionary who invented the splatter film, made his masterpiece of drive-in gore, Two Thousand Maniacs, and if you’ve never had a chance to see it, by all means get hold of a copy (it’s out on DVD). Set in a Southern small town whose residents take revenge on a pack of Yankee visitors by slaughtering them in gruesomely kooky ways, it’s an all-out funny monster-redneck bash. Texas Chainsaw was definitely influenced by it, and so, perhaps, was Sam Raimi when he made the Evil Dead films. The granddaddy of the slasher genre – and the greatest horror film ever made – is Psycho, which Pauline Kael (even though she never much cared for it) aptly described as “a gothic horror comedy.” The comedy is there in the movie’s shower-curtain-pulled-out-from-under-you slyness – but also, quite directly, in the character of Mrs. Bates, with her mockingly exaggerated scolding whine of a voice. Speaking of homicidal harridans, you can trace Freddy Krueger’s sinister, grinning gamesmanship right back to Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West, when she lights Ray Bolger’s arm and cackles, “How about a little fire, Scarecrow?”

All of these films know, on some basic level, that horror is comedy (or can be). What set Freddy Krueger apart is that, as played by Robert Englund (with madcap inspiration), he was at once the movie’s monster and its vaudeville host, standing outside the action, saying, in essence, “Get a load of this! Get a load of me!” (In that sense, the age of horror-as-one-liner snark probably started the moment that Jack Nicholson poked his head through the door in The Shining and said, with bug-house sarcasm, “Here’s Johnny!”) That stylized circus-ringmaster quality only grew as the Nightmare on Elm Street series went on. By the time of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), the best movie in the series apart from the first one, Freddy popped up as a kind of giant slime-snake, looking like nothing so much as a float in the homecoming parade. He couldn’t smash a girl’s face into a television set without rasping “This is it, Jennifer! Your big break in TV! Welcome to prime time, bitch!” At that point, the audience was definitely having fun – and, in effect, rooting for the killer. Like Freddy, we, too, were standing outside the action, watching ourselves watch Freddy scare us, and laughing at the whole fun-house charade.

Of course, it’s not as if horror movies after Freddy just became comedies. By and large, they went back to being played straight. Yet what had begun in the days of those junky and interchangeable slasher flicks, and what Freddy more or less officially locked into place, was the garish, low-comedy, eye-rolling disposability of the horror genre. It wasn’t so much that horror films could now be funny. (Many of the best ones, from Psycho to Night of the Living Dead to Chainsaw to Carrie, had always been funny.) It was that horror films were now almost defiantly movies not to take seriously. Freddy ushered in an era where you almost had to laugh at them, or the joke was on you.

So what’s your all-time favorite horror movie…that’s also funny as hell? And how about your favorite Freddy Krueger one-liner?

Originally posted April 30 2010 — 4:18 PM EDT

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