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Ask any horror fan what's been the worst decade for horror, and the answer will probably be the 1990s; the entire first half of the decade was a wasteland of failed attempts at new franchises (Brainscan, Dr. Giggles) and laughable CGI-driven nonsense like Hideaway and Ghost in the Machine. There were some commercial successes, and even a few well-regarded films, but when Fangoria was forced to cover stuff like Judge Dredd, you knew the genre was in trouble.
And then, a miracle! Just before Christmas in 1996, Dimension released Scream, which only earned a paltry $6 million on its opening weekend. However, word of mouth was good - so good that it eventually made over $100 million, launching a (still-going?) franchise and providing Kevin Williamson with a thriving career. Most importantly, it relaunched two mainstays in horror; after a few years of flops, Wes Craven's career was back on track, and it also gave a huge boost to the slasher sub-genre, which had been hit hardest by audiences' waning interest in horror. But here's the funny thing: Craven had already revitalized his own career and the slasher genre once, when his film A Nightmare On Elm Street did the same damn thing.
See, in 1984 Wes Craven and the slasher film were in pretty much the same state as in 1996. Craven had been trying to get Nightmare made for some time and was having no luck, which is why he took a job directing the awful The Hills Have Eyes Part 2, just to pay his bills (the lengthy flashbacks in the film are the result of the production running out of money before a feature's worth of footage could be shot). And the slasher boom, which hit its peak in 1981, had all but completely died - a quick scan of Boxofficemojo for 1983 shows only a single qualifying entry (House on Sorority Row) hitting the charts for the entire year - and it made less than a third of what the previous Friday the 13th sequel had brought in the year before. Newer attempts were relegated to drive-ins and cable (or even direct to VHS, such as Honeymoon Horror - allegedly one of the first to do so), and the existing franchises were on their way out: Friday's then-"Final Chapter" was set to end that series, and Halloween had already been temporarily killed off by Season of the Witch's poor reception.
So what happened? Why did this sub-genre, one of the most profitable in Hollywood, suddenly lose its muster? It's easy to joke that producers had simply run out of holidays to use, but the reality is that audiences had just grown tired of seeing the same movie over and over. Grab a mask, six or seven college-aged kids headed to a party (or to summer camp, or the hospital, or whatever) and hope the MPAA lets you keep some of the bloodiest gore effects, and that's pretty much the MO for every one of these movies. And while I and other people my age might love them today, it's important to remember we found them at our own pace, years after the fact - we weren't being barraged by them the way theatre-going audiences were in the early '80s. Even today, I still haven't gotten around to seeing all of them. Watching these slashers over a twenty-year period is a different experience than getting another one thrown in your face every other week. Plus, they lacked any real creativity - it was almost always a guy in a mask (or at least played by one, if it was a whodunit with a female killer) and, except for the sheer idiocy displayed by their characters, fairly realistic: no one was trying to add any major supernatural elements to the mix.
Well, that's exactly what Wes Craven did. He had read an article about people dying in their sleep due to nightmares, and used it as a jumping point for the creation of Freddy Krueger (named after a bully he knew in school), who would have stuck out from the pack even without the supernatural element. His burned face, razor bladed glove, fedora and red and green sweater gave him an iconic, highly unique look that would forever distinguish him from his peers. A white mask and dark outfit could describe any number of slasher icons (Ghostface, Jason, Michael Myers...), but Freddy has his own look - and anything that even came close to resembling him (like The Trickster) never stood a chance.
But it was the dream angle that really elevated the movie; rather than go off to the woods or an uncle's cabin, our heroes were stalked not only in their own homes, but from the relative comfort of their beds with their parents in the next room. A key part of a successful slasher is using something anyone can identify with as its backdrop - babysitting (Halloween) and camping (Friday the 13th) are things anyone can relate to, unlike, say, being in a sorority. Well who CAN'T relate to going to bed and dreaming? Like the shower in Psycho, it tapped into a fear you never knew you had, and made the movie not only a popular draw at the box office ($25 million, or just under $61 million today) but a staple at sleepovers and all-night horror marathons forevermore. It also launched a career or two (hey there, Johnny Depp) and a lucrative franchise - most of the sequels outgrossed the film's take, something Halloween and Friday the 13th can't claim.
It didn't hurt that the movie was pretty damn good, either. It's got some pacing issues, but it hooks you in pretty early, making it forgivable. Even today, thirty years later, Tina's death is an incredible special effect (pulled off before advanced CGI made such things a cinch), and Freddy's makeup design still impresses - the sequels kept changing it for one reason or another, but as far as I'm concerned, it was never scarier than it was here. Also, the dreams felt like real dreams, something the sequels often neglected in favor of (admittedly creative) set-pieces that were more like fantasies than traditional nightmares. There are a number of weird things that make no sense (like snakes pooling around Tina's feet in Nancy's dream), but that's how dreams really are - things just come and go with no rhyme or reason. Craven dove right into his psychology background (he has a bachelor's degree in the field, as well as a masters degree in philosophy) for several of the film's concepts; even Freddy's sweater wasn't just a "looks good" design choice - he chose the design because the retina finds red and green to be the most contrasting. This, whether audiences were consciously aware of it or not, is one of many reasons the film stands out.
As a result, the slasher era was given a stay of execution, one filled with more creativity and imagination than the two or three years' previous had provided. Nightmare's success came at a perfect time - it was also the golden era of monster makeup FX, and so our killers took on more inspired guises than a cool mask. Even Jason was stripped of his big bald guy look; the post-Freddy entries turned him into a zombie with an exposed rib cage and a face more monstrous than ever. And it gave filmmakers license to play with the genre's rules and have a little more fun: good or bad, movies like Trick Or Treat and Bad Dreams were blatant attempts to cash in on the Freddy-style of slasher, just as The Burning and Just Before Dawn were aping Friday the 13th, taking basic premises and coming up with their own otherworldly, franchise-ready villains.
And it wasn't all junk, either. The success of Child's Play is owed more to Freddy than anyone else; it had a similarly ridiculous-sounding plot and managed to make it scary (and its sequels copied Freddy in that it turned the killer into more of a comedian than a killer), and I doubt a big studio like MGM would have spent as much as they did on a killer doll movie if they hadn't been keeping an eye on the ever-expanding grosses of a guy who killed people in their dreams. Suddenly everyone wanted their own Freddy Krueger, a huge change from the last slasher cycle where most films made no attempt to give their killer much of an iconic look (Final Exam being the most laughable example - he's just a guy. No mask or anything). The focus switched from having a good location or holiday to having a guy they could easily build into sequels and merchandise - hence why they started naming the films after their killers (Shocker, Dr. Giggles etc) instead of the holiday (New Year's Evil, My Bloody Valentine and so on). And it went full circle: the sixth film in the series was named Freddy's Dead, not "Nightmare on Elm Street 6."
You never know what film will catch on and change the horror landscape for a few years. I doubt anyone thought Saw would make much of a splash, let alone launch a huge franchise and make hardcore horror an easy sell for Hollywood for most of the 2000s, and the same goes for the no-budget Paranormal Activity - it seems there's a new ripoff hitting Netflix every other week now. So the fact that Wes Craven has done it twice - in the same sub-genre no less - is nothing short of miraculous, and as long as he's still kicking, I think he's got what it takes to do it again.