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Craven's 'Nightmare' Finally Gets Respect : Movies: Horror film was a surprise hit of the Toronto fest last month, showing there is quality in the genre.

October 22, 1994|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All is not dark at the Wes Craven manse.

Sure, there's the Poe-esque faux owl on the terrace peering icily over Craven's sweeping view of Nichols Canyon. And a very stuffed Rex greeting you at the door, in memory of his deadly canine performance in "The People Under the Stairs." Not to mention such rarefied coffee-table fare as "The History of Hell."

But at the fairly adult age of 55, Wes Craven is finding a certain sunniness to this horror movie business, which has consumed him since he stumbled onto it nearly 30 years ago. It has to do with the fact that after lo these many years, Craven has finally given up bloodying his toes, as he puts it, "kicking against the pricks, as Saint Paul said. I think it means, literally kicking against the thorns. It's hard to kick against something that's obviously not meant to be kicked against. You should accept it.

"And the fact that I make horror films, there's always been a part of me that has always agreed with the worst of my critics, that this is a terrible thing to be doing. At a certain point, it's like, why? You speak to an audience. You express a legitimate part of yourself and of humanity. Why look down on it yourself? Just love it."

Indeed, his latest film, "Wes Craven's New Nightmare," is something of a horror movie manifesto, declaring that yes, Virginia, there is quality in the genre, distinct from the masses of exploitation films and sequels that give scary movies a creepy name. Paradoxically, it's also a sequel of sorts itself, as the seventh vehicle for Craven's creation, Freddy Krueger, the monster behind the half-a-billion-dollar phenomenon known as "Nightmare on Elm Street."

But the latest $11-million movie doesn't just resurrect Freddy, who met his maker a sequel ago in "Freddy's Dead: The Last Nightmare" (1991). It redefines him--he's bigger, darker and more ancient--and it reinvents the Freddy genre, busting it out of its largely adolescent prison into sophisticated adult fare that toys with various levels of reality. The result was the surprise hit of the Toronto Film Festival last month and winner of a Golden Scroll of Outstanding Achievement from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.

"I'm so glad people are loving this movie," says actor Robert Englund, the man behind Freddy's claw. "I don't feel I have to defend the genre anymore. He's taken it to this whole other place. It's almost like 'Nightmare on Elm Street' has been crossed with Robert Altman's 'The Player.' It's a movie within a movie within a dream."

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The premise is that the ancient evil that Freddy represents has vaulted the fourth wall, crossing over from film into the reality of the filmmakers' lives. There and in the realms of nightmare and film--society's collective dreams--the uber Freddy wreaks havoc that jibes with Craven's own nightmares.

In a scene with Freddy's first nemesis, actress Heather Langenkamp of the first and third "Nightmare" movies, Craven, playing himself, explains that Freddy was able to invade their lives because the story has passed away in sequel-land, becoming too familiar and watered down: "When the story dies, the evil is set free."

Death may be Craven's handmaiden, but not dead scripts.

"It's always annoyed me that many newspapers have called me the Guru of Gore, the Sultan of Slash and Slashmeister," he says in a soft voice, seated in the airy living room the twice-divorced filmmaker shares with two cats and a dog.

"I've always tried to put a great deal of thought into my films. . . . I think most genres have 90% crap and 10% where people put their hearts into it. But in genre films, it hits you over the head--no pun intended--if they're really bad. Also, different criteria come into play in horror films. There's an area they get into that's almost unrecognizable as art to most people, where they're dealing with things almost Dionysian. And sometimes it's not a rational statement at all that's being made . . . about energy and rage.

"Sometimes I think you have to bring a whole different set of criteria to genre films, and most people aren't willing to do that. They're different critters many times. It deals with the painful. It deals with the verboten, the unspeakable. The insides of our bodies are released in ways that we're not prepared to contemplate. Our own mortality is depicted mostly simply by blood and guts. It's offensive to be reminded of the fragility of the human shell."

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