A Nightmare On Elm Street: A Retrospective

Originally posted on 31st October 2014.

I will never forget what my father said to me right after watching A Nightmare on Elm Street for the first time: “Go to bed.” Having just watched a film where a maniac can murder you in your sleep, the irony was not lost on me.

I remember the night well: It was a chilly October evening, I was eleven years old, and my two younger sisters were away at a friend’s house, so it was just me and my dad. We had the brilliant idea to rent both the original Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street films and stay up later than any responsible parent would let their child do to watch them (it’s okay dad, I forgive you). While I thought both films lived up to the horror I had been promised, I actually found that evening to be an enlightening experience, as I had discovered a world I had not been able to venture into previously: the world of R-Rated Horror Movies. Horror movies nowadays are a dime a dozen, but we will always have our classics.

Each year, around Halloween, I like to seek out new horror films as well as revisit some old favorites. This year, I thought I should do a bit of both. I have seen and loved the original Nightmare on Elm Street, but had not seen any if the sequels, so I thought: "Why not watch them all?" After completing this daunting task over a 48 hour period, I will say this: the Nightmare on Elm Street series might be the most well-rounded horror movie series ever produced. Now let me clarify: I don’t think EVERY film in this series is good. There are a couple that are truly horrible (and we will get to those), but as far as sequels go, the Nightmare on Elm Street series (hereafter NOES) stands taller than the rest. The original Halloween film is probably the better the film than the original NOES film (and when I was eleven, I certainly thought so), but the Halloween series quickly loses itself after Part One, bottoming out with Part Three (Season of the Witch) and never recovering. I mean seriously, whose bright idea was it to exclude Michael Myers from a Halloween movie!

The other most popular series, Friday the 13th, was bad pretty much from the get go, with only a couple entertaining installments (Parts Four and Six if you are wondering) standing out in an otherwise abysmal franchise. So what makes A Nightmare on Elm Street so different? The answer is actually a variety of reasons.

The premise to Wes Craven’s film (a filmmaker had previously made his mark in the horror genre with the raw and nasty films "The Hills Have Eyes” and “The Last House on the Left”), in which a madman can enter your dreams and kill you while you sleep, is genuinely terrifying. If you couple that with the iconic visage of Freddy Krueger, you have enough nightmare fuel to last you nine movies. Okay, maybe only the first film can be declared scary, but you cannot deny the impressiveness of the character of Freddy Krueger.

While Jason Voorhees and Michael Meyers are interchangeable as two silent, unstoppable, slow-moving killing machines (often played by anonymous stuntmen), Freddy Krueger, as embodied by Robert Englund, is an entirely different breed of villain. Born from fire and known for orchestrating mass amounts of carnage, Krueger is a satisfyingly realized creation, wielding a glove with razors for fingers as he manipulates the subconscious of his victims, digging into their deepest fears before slaughtering them like sheep. Sure the character becomes a cartoon by the fourth installment, but Englund’s performance thoroughly gifts Krueger with a personality that shines brighter than any other horror movie character I can think of. In a word, he's just awesome.

So, without further ado, I watched all nine NOES films over the course of one weekend, and in the spirit of Halloween I thought this would be a great opportunity to sit down and reevaluate the series from start to finish, noting the highs and lows along the way. So grab your coffee and speed pills and let’s take a trip into dreamland, shall we?

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Where it all began. The claw, the red & green sweater, the burned flesh, the boiler room, the children’s nursery rhyme, the geyser of blood shooting form Johnny Depp’s bed, it’s all iconic and rightfully so: Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is a masterpiece of low budget terror, atmospheric chills and inventive genre filmmaking. Sure the 80's hair, music and clothing may seem silly now, but just take a look at Tina's death, the first murder sequence in the film. Using a practical moving set, Tina is attacked by Freddy in her dreams as her body in the real world literally floats above her bed and is slashed apart before being dragged across the ceiling and dropping dead into a bloody mess of sheets and pillows, all while her helpless boyfriend Rod looks on, horrified at the sight of it all. It's a thrilling, visceral experience that sets the bar high for the remainder of the series, and I can't think of a scene in a recent thorror movie that matches it. The film then follows Nancy Thompson, played by Heather Langenkamp, and her boyfriend, Glen (Johnny Depp in his film debut), as they figure out who this boogeyman is that haunts them in their sleep. Nancy’s mother is a helplesss, boozy housewife, always within arm’s reach of a bottle, and her father (John Saxon) is the town’s sheriff, who may or may not know more than he let’s on about Freddy. The wonder of NOES is the sense of discovery, with Langenkamp delivering a totally realistic and enjoyable performance as a teenager, fighting for her life. In fact, most of real world stuff is good, but the absolute best is the time spent in the dream world, and this is where the film truly shines. Freddy Krueger is actually scary in this film, able to manipulate the surroundings to his will and often taunting the slumbering teens, usually with grotesque bits of bodily harm. Truly, this is a remarkable horror movie.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

Often seen as the dark horse of the series and frequently lumped near the bottom of NOES lists, Freddy’s Revenge is certainly an odd beast of a motion picture, but it is certainly not without its fair share of amusement. Wes Craven had never intended his first film to become a franchise, and it’s clear from the outset that the producers were unsure how to handle the continuation of the story. Here, they’ve elected to go with a haunted house tale, with the idea being that if you live in Nancy’s house, Freddy will haunt you. Our hero here is Jesse, an angsty teenager who becomes possessed by Freddy and is forced to kill his friends. The film is loaded with homoerotic tension, and I was surprised to find that this was the original intention of the writer (and was hilariously overlooked by the director). This includes a wild, extended sequence in which Jesse going to a gay S&M bar to pick up his high school gym coach and brings him back to the high school’s shower room before stripping him nude and whipping him to death, all as Freddy Krueger. Seriously? Seriously. It’s not really any good when stacked up against the original, but there are a few decent Freddy moments, including a scene plucked out of An American Werewolf in London, in which Freddy emerges from the skin of Jesse to claim his next victim, the aforementioned gym teacher sequence or a pool party massacre that completely defies the rules of Freddy’s powers that were introduced in the first film. As far as sequels go, you could do a lot worse than Freddy’s Revenge.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Dream Warriors could probably stand comfortably alongside the original as the best in the series. It doesn’t quite have the novelty of the first film, but it takes the franchise in the best possible direction: what if Freddy’s children learned how to fight back? The film brings back Nancy, now grown up and an intern at a psych ward for teens who have sleeping disorders. They start dropping like flies, and clearly Freddy is responsible, but of course the administration won’t believe them and the deaths are treated like suicides. Enter Patricia Arquette, a young woman who has the power to bring people into her dreams, and with the help of Nancy and the others they actually stand a fighting chance against Freddy. The interplay between the kids is enjoyable, the special effects are wonderful, the Freddy sequences are outstanding (a marionette sequence that finds a teen hung by the veins in his hands and feet is a personal favorite), and the performances are great as well (standouts include John Saxon returning as Nancy’s father, and Laurence Fishburne as a tough, but fair, hospital orderly). It all just works really. Dream Warriors feels more like a direct sequel to NOES than Freddy’s Revenge, and it’s clear to see why fans rank it towards the top. Will the good times continue with Dream Master? Let’s find out.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

Here’s where things start to get silly. What I noticed immediately about The Dream Master is that Robert Englund finally gets top billing in a NOES film. Yes, New Line Cinema has finally realized who the star of the series is. The film is directed by Renny Harlin, the future action movie director of Cliffhanger and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, and here his go to style is the 80’s music montage. Seriously, Dream Master is almost set up like it could be a rock ballad, straight down to the rap music featuring Freddy Krueger that plays over the end credits. The first 40 minutes of the film ties up loose ends, finding Freddy resurrected and picking off the remaining teenagers from Dream Warriors. We are introduced to Alice, a red-head who is honestly just a low-rent Nancy. The draw here is the dream sequences, and this is where Freddy becomes the wisecracking troublemaker (with a penchant for death, of course), that everyone knows him as. At one point his razor claw is seen as a shark fin as it swims onto a beach, right before Freddy don’s a pair of sunglasses, blows up a sandcastle and drowns a girl in sand. I half expected him to say “Surf’s up!” after all of this. There is a spectacular murder sequence in which a character is lifting weights and has her arms snapped off by Freddy, before sprouting new insect-like appendages and morphing into a fly before being squashed by Freddy. Dream Master was not as good as I was hoping, but I pressed on to the next feature.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child

Up until this point it’s been pretty smooth sailing for the NOES series, and while Dream Child isn’t necessarily bad, it’s incredible dull, offering the least interesting plot the series has had yet to offer. While I may have dismissed Dream Master earlier, Dream Child could have used some of its manic energy to make the viewing experience less wearisome. The character of Alice returns from The Dream Master, except now she’s blonde, and pregnant, and that pesky Freddy is utilizing her unborn baby’s dreams to attack her from the inside. There’s also more backstory with Freddy’s mom, this time opening with a dream sequence in which we see her locked in a room and raped by one hundred crazy inmates in an insane asylum (don’t worry, it’s not as graphic as it sounds). This actually plays into the story, and what I noticed about Dream Child (and the series itself) is that it usually introduces a trope that becomes the key to defeating Freddy. Part One had bringing Freddy in the real world, Dream Warriors had to lay Krueger’s real-life remains to rest, Dream Master had to show Freddy his reflection to finally stop him, and now, in Dream Child, they had to free the soul of Freddy’s mom, trapped in the purgatory of his mind. I mean c’mon! How much more punishment could this guy take? Dream Child was the lowest the series had hit, but little did I know, the worst was yet to come…

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare

There are no two ways about this: Freddy’s Dead is terrible. Dream Child may have been dull, but Freddy’s Dead is maddeningly idiotic. Krueger, who has evolved from horrifying menace to wisecracking mischief-maker, is in full Bugs Bunny mode here, frequently breaking the 4th wall and winking at the audience before unleashing a flurry of bad puns and Looney Toons-inspired sight gags. The plot is also pretty dumb: set 10 years in the future (2001?), all the children and teenagers in Springwood, OH have been murdered by Freddy, except for one teen who loses his memory and thinks that Freddy won’t kill him because he’s Freddy’s child. Or something. The supporting cast features a young Breckin Meyer (in his motion picture debut), Tom and Roseanne Arnold, and Johnny Depp making a cameo on a TV set in an anti-drug PSA. This film also goes even deeper into the Krueger backstory, except here we see the reason he won’t ever die is because he sold his soul to three floating demon-head worms that live inside him. Or something. Also, the final 15 minutes of this picture were originally in 3D, and while I did not experience the film this way, it really would not have made any difference. The pacing of the film is bad, the characters all fall flat, Freddy’s nonsense reaches a campy high. The only praise I can give it is an extended sequence where Krueger murders a teen with hearing problems, utilizing a scarab-like earpiece and claws on a chalkboard sight gags to make his head explode. This stood about because as far as I can remember, this is the first time Freddy has exploited the disability of someone as a weapon against them. If only the rest of the film could be as half-way clever as these few moments. Oh well. Onward!

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

After watching a series spiral wildly out of control before being essentially killed off by the producers, who better than for Wes Craven to take the reins and steer the franchise back into a sensible direction? New Nightmare follows Heather Langenkamp (yes, the actress who played Nancy, not Nancy herself) as she is plagued with a new series of nightmares by a demon who has taken the form of Freddy Krueger to terrorize her. Heather now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, a special effects technician working on the new “NOES” film, and her son, who shows signs of possession and has visits from the new demon Freddy as well. She finds solace in her fellow NOES cast and crew members (Wes Craven, John Saxon, and yes, Robert Englund, all show up play themselves) before taking matters with this new nightmare into her own hands. Now while some of you might dismiss this as a meta, self-referential film in a series that was past its expiration date, I find the set-up to be brilliant, and under Craven’s steady hand he helps breathe new life into the NOES films, making what is the best sequel (next to Dream Warriors). The new demon Freddy is a delight, with the infernal monster sporting an updated razor claw and nifty overcoat. It’s said that this Freddy is actually the closest to Craven’s original interpretation of the original character, and just who knows how the series would have gone had Craven continued from Part One. All in all, a damn fine effort.

Freddy vs Jason

This was originally teased at the end of the ninth Friday the 13th film, entitled “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday” (which was the “Freddy’s Dead” equivalent of that series), where Jason goes to, well, hell, and Freddy’s claw reaches up from the earth and grabs the iconic hockey mask to drag down to hell with him. FvJ then spent over a decade in development hell before being finally being unleashed upon movie-goers. The plot here concerns Freddy, who is trapped in hell, upset that the children of Springwood have forgotten about him (thanks to a new sleeping pill that prevents dreaming), so he decides to resurrect Jason Voorhees to spread fear and gain his power back. Eventually Jason gets carried away with killing (as he usually does), so Freddy takes it into his own hands to put him down for good. The logistics of this plot literally make no sense (Springwood, OH and Camp Crystal Lake are apparently a town apart from each other), but there’s an undeniable energy here that is not present in some of the NOES sequels. The battle between both titans is actually pretty satisfying as they literally tear each other to pieces. It’s all the machete, razor claw, and blood spurting action you could hope for. Oh well, a guy can dream. Let’s wrap this up with the remake, I hope it’s good!

A Nightmare on Elm Street: The 2010 Remake

And here we are. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) may not be the best NOES movie, but it’s definitely the worst. You might remember this film came out during the tail-end of Platinum Dunes' "Remake Everything!" Phase, in which a series of classic horror movies were given a spit-shine polish and distributed by none other than Michael Bay. It happened to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher, and Friday the 13th, and now it happened to NOES. Completely stupid and thoroughly unenjoyable, NOES 2010 is a soulless, joyless and mindless feature that takes pleasure in seeing mouth-breathing, whiny, mumbling teenagers get killed by a mentally handicapped burn victim. The mystery behind Freddy is gone; there is not a scene in the film that takes its time to explain Freddy’s past or his beginnings. The original Freddy was truly a terrible person; this film nearly exonerates him. IMDb trivia indicates this was almost shot for shot to pay homage to the original film; I couldn’t help but keep being reminded how superior the original film is. What was once a creative and exciting horror film has been reduced to horrible CGI and jump scares. And as for Freddy himself, Jackie Earl Haley is disappointing in the role, overplaying the part with twitchy razor fingers and poor dubbing. The burn makeup also looks just plain awful, looking more like a realistic burn victim than the fantastical appearance of Freddy’s original look. I never thought I’d see a movie about people getting killed in their sleep that would put me to sleep.

In conclusion, the Nightmare on Elm Street series if a great, it a little uneven, horror movie series, delighting fans and depriving people of sleep 30 years later. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed watching these films. And in case you were wondering, here is my official ranking of the series:

1. A Nightmare on Elm Street
2. Wes Craven's New Nightmare
3. A Nightmare on Elm 3: Dream Warriors
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge
5. Freddy Vs Jason
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: Dream Master
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: Dream Child
8. Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare
9. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010 Remake, which should be dead last on everybody’s list)

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