Saturday, October 29, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #6 - Freddy Krueger

I dressed as Freddy Krueger for my preschool class' Halloween party; it remains my favorite costume. My mom, from whom I inherited my love of horror, decided scar tissue makeup would be inappropriate for a four-year-old, but she found an appropriate hat and sweater and did wonders with a ski glove, drinking straws, tape and tinfoil. My teachers and some of the other parents were concerned about my interest in Freddy; ironically, my awareness of the character, besides having caught a few scenes of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, was based largely on Robert Englund's appearance on Nickelodeon to promote A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (the highest-grossing film in the series until Freddy vs. Jason). A lot of kids my age were into Freddy, who was already as iconic to us as Frankenstein or Dracula. It's kind of amazing that at a character who began a vicious, terrifying supernatural killer in the low-budget original had, in the course of a few increasingly tongue-in-cheek movies, become an icon for an entire generation of kids.

And make no mistake - in Wes Craven's original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy is a truly terrifying character, with one of the great backstories of any movie monster. A child murderer acquitted on a technicality (damn those movie bureaucrats and their inability to sign warrants!), Freddy is executed by a vengeful mob of local parents, only to return several years later to get his revenge by scaring their now-teenage children to death through their dreams. The character plays into our real and imagined fears - Craven has always been excellent at distilling our collective anxieties into a basic form, and Freddy is his greatest creation. As played by Englund in the original, he's a grotesque phantom, almost always concealed by shadows that show us just enough of his scarred, fearful visage. Freddy is terrifying for the surreal and creative ways he stalks his victims through the dream world, brutally illustrating that, as Night of the Hunter put it, it's a hard world for little things.

Yes, the wisecracking Freddy we see in the sequels dilutes the character's power, save for the thorny subtext of Freddy's Revenge and the just plain awesome Dream Warriors. But in his original conception, whether he's carving up a teenage girl or sucking Johnny Depp into his bed, Freddy is perverse, angry and completely monstrous. He's brought to life brilliantly by Englund, who - even in the sillier sequels - invests the character with a terribly distinctive physical presence worth of the silent horror greats. And while the series would eventually take it too far, Freddy's dark wisecracks make sense at first, as they're not meant as schtick so much as an extension of Freddy's toying with his victims. I met Englund a few weeks ago at the Rock and Shock horror convention in Worcester; he recognized my Let the Right One In shirt, exclaimed "Isn't that movie fantastic?!" and we proceded to talk about the movie and book for a few minutes. At the Nightmare on Elm Street Q&A panel, he revealed a vast knowledge of classic and obscure films, filmmakers and actors worthy of Quentin Tarantino. It was wonderful to discover that the most iconic boogeyman of my lifetime is as passionate a cinephile as I or any of us, and I think that love of film and performance shines through every moment Freddy is onscreen.

Incidentally, my daughter's preschool class' Halloween party is on Monday. She'll be going dressed as Cinderella.

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