Horror was creeping into the safest places we know and detonating. The time between 1956 and 1984 was filled with massive change in American culture at large and Hollywood filmmaking in particular, but two films made in those years bridge the gap in an unexpected way. They are Invasion of the Body Snatchers and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Their shared premise: you’ll be safe as long as you can stay awake. This horror bypassed external threats and went straight for the human mind — alien invaders who seize your mind while you sleep in order to replace you with a double, and a demonic serial killer who attacks you in your dreams. Your body isn’t safe either; when your mind goes, so does the rest of you.
The concept is chilling in two distinct ways. First, there’s something cruel about our ability or inability to sleep. I might struggle to keep my eyes open while watching a movie late at night, yet when my head hits the pillow I toss and turn. As soon as your will is set on remaining conscious, your body seems to double down on its demand for rest. The characters in these films try their best, but it’s a Sisyphean task. The longer they struggle, the more tempting it becomes to doze off, anywhere, just to get some relief. Second, like good horror so often does, the premise inverts zones of safety and zones of danger. When we sleep, we return to the cradle, to the womb, but in doing so we suppress an awareness of total vulnerability. Any good scare can make you want to keep the light on in your room at night. These films go a step further.
It begins with a group of close friends, two male and two female. They begin to notice something strange going on, but it makes so little sense that they dismiss it at first. Local authorities suggest that it’s all in their heads, and they submit to that assessment. Then physical evidence starts accumulating — first a little, then a lot. The danger is real, and it’s spreading quickly. But it’s too late for them to stop it before the group is cut in half. The surviving couple tries to stay awake, get help, destroy the threat, but eventually only one of them is left — heartbroken, exhausted, and perhaps insane, but also armed with full knowledge of the situation and what needs to be done.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is often described as a paranoid allegory about Communist brainwashing, but it works equally well as a satire of plastic suburban conformity. It’s politically flexible, in other words. If you want to interpret the “pod people” as the insidious infiltration of Reds (or terrorists, to update the metaphor), the film is definitely about a collective society wiping out individuality. On the other hand, you might note the film’s sick joke that the featureless suburban town of the story welcomes conformity anyway, with only a few intuitive people noticing at first that their loved ones are being replaced with identical impostors. There’s also the irony that the rather bland hero of the film, played by Kevin McCarthy, only really becomes interesting when he’s the only human left (sort of like Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey) and he loses his wits. This film paved the way for George Romero’s zombie allegories. It might be the first example of a “zombie apocalypse.”
And it’s a pretty fantastic little film, the 50s “B-picture” par excellence. With a small budget and no stars in the cast, it used disreputable genres (science fiction and horror) to thrill its audience. The budget, and the fact it was made in the 50s, forced the film to rely on suggestion and explanation instead of graphic depiction of the nudity and violence. This isn’t a drawback. Director Don Siegel kept the picture moving even with all the exposition (it tells a complete story in only eighty minutes). I find one line of dialogue more squirm-inducing than a lot of actual violence I’ve seen in film: “You can kill a man by shoving an ice pick into the base of his brain, leaving a puncture so small the naked eye can’t see.” (Never mind that it’s a psychiatrist explaining this fact to a medical doctor.) The use of editing, camera angles, and depth of field to build suspense is terrific throughout.
A Nightmare on Elm Street, to put it mildly, is bloodier. But director Wes Craven was using all the tricks available to him, not just the easiest ones. We experience slowly building anxiety and sudden shocks to go along with the gore. It’s the graphic stuff that sticks with you, of course, particularly the violence Freddy Krueger visits upon himself. Freddy is a remarkable creation, with his charbroiled face, razor gloves, and a disturbingly protean voice. The movie blurs the lines between dreaming and reality, destroying any concept of safety and — seventeen years before Waking Life, twenty-six years before Inception — daring to wonder whether its characters are ever awake at all. The film shares a lack of polish with Body Snatchers, but its effects remain compelling.
It isn’t a straight-up allegory like the earlier film (one that was perhaps on-the-nose with its suggestion that a failure of vigilance was the cause of the problem), but there are interesting themes nonetheless. As is often the case with horror, the film follows a strict moral code. Vigilante justice is unacceptable; it only reaps escalation by turning a child murderer into an incubus. Typical of the slasher subgenre, the film punishes promiscuous teens with swift and violent death. Like Heathers, the film descends to a hellish boiler room — subterranean filth that allows the surface of suburbia to remain pristine. The heroine of the story goes there, taking the bull by the horns (almost literally) with the audacious plan to drag Freddy off his home turf and into the real world. This adolescent is coming of age and reckoning with her parents’ failures.
Both of these stories feature doctors testifying to the inscrutability of the human mind. Science is always getting better at explaining how our brains work, so it might be wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers to simply throw their hands up in the face of the Unknown, from whence horror derives its power. But imagine. Sinister forces, either supernatural or extra-terrestrial, invade our world to take command of our minds. They seem to know their way around in there even better than we do. Only self-torture can save us, the kind that we can keep up for no more than a few days anyway. Stubbornly holding on to consciousness may seem like the only thing to do at first, but before long the urge to surrender becomes too strong. Sleep, and let them take you where they will — either hell or oblivion. Which will it be?