In the late ’70s and early ’80s, there was a glut of fantastical horror and slasher flicks. Some of the more successful of these begat entire series of sequels, which often elaborated on the mythology of the originals in strange, stupid, and sometimes staggeringly bizarre ways. As a young movie fanatic, I watched all of the original classics–The Exorcist, The Omen, Hellraiser–but I could never make it through the inferior Part IIs. However, this Halloween season, I forced myself to bear witness to one of the most popular and longest running of all 80’s slasher series: A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Written and directed by Wes Craven, the first film is a borderline masterpiece. I would put it at the very top of any list of best slasher films from this era (and yes, that includes Halloween). The idea of a group of teens all sharing the same deadly nightmare is a deliciously creepy conceit, and Freddy Krueger—the disfigured, blade-fingered boogieman inhabiting those dreams—was understandably a sensation upon arrival. Krueger represents an evil so terrible that it has infected an entire community from the inside out. The way the film colors the small town experience with an all encompassing evil foreshadowed David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, released two years later, and with its surreal, ritualistic murder sequences, it’s probably the closest thing we have, stylistically, to an American Dario Argento film.
The second movie of the series–subtitled, with a telling lack of creativity, Freddy’s Revenge–has Krueger attempting to enter the real world through the body of Jesse, a teen boy who just moved into the house where Krueger battled Nancy Thompson several years earlier. With its decent production values and staging, Nightmare 2 feels more like a real movie than any of the other sequels. But when Freddy finally appears, the weakness of the movie’s setup becomes apparent: after an admittedly impressive scene of Freddy obliterating the body of his host as he rips his way into reality, the other kills that take place in the real world lack the creepy creativity of those in the first film. He goes on to terrorize a group of teens at a pool party, using some kind of ill-defined magic that doesn’t make sense outside of a dream. But the movie’s greatest offense by far is the image of a sad-faced, morally conflicted Freddy, struggling internally with the spirit of the teen whose soul he has subsumed. An important part of what makes Krueger so appealing is the sick glee he gets from committing his murders; he’s an absolutely outlandish character, but playing it any other way just makes him ridiculous. The movie ends with the female love interest whimpering her way to Freddy’s boiler room hideout—which is inexplicably guarded by two baby-faced dogs—and defeating him with the power of love. I wish I was joking. Somehow, the boy whose body was destroyed is brought back to life, and the movie ends with a weaker version of the same fake-out finale as the first one.
Seemingly aware that Freddy’s Revenge went a bit off the rails, the creators of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 attempt to straighten out the mythology by looking back to the original film (bringing back the characters of Nancy and her father), returning to the concept of shared nightmares (hence the horribly lame subtitle The Dream Warriors), and giving Freddy a fittingly ludicrous origin as “the bastard son of 1,000 maniacs.” The plot concerns a small group of institutionalized teens (including a young Patricia Arquette) who believe that their nightmares—and the disfigured madman lurking within them—are real. No one believes them, even as they start dying one by one, until Dr. Nancy Thompson recognizes the details of their night terrors from her own traumatic past; now it’s up to her to empower the teens in order to take on Freddy in the dream realm. Grounding the story with some amount of narrative logic makes for a more watchable movie than Nightmare 2, though at times it feels a little more staid than either of the first films, and the dense mythology distracts from the more enjoyable elements: namely the tongue in cheek humor, and several outrageous special effects sequences. The film fully reaches the lameness of its subtitle, though, when one of the titular “Dream Warriors” exclaims giddily to another: “You found your dream power!” And every scene with the deadly dull Neil Gordon is pretty painful, too. Nightmare 3 is a more consistent film than 2, never reaching the same level of unwatchability, but it’s most successful as a blueprint of things to come.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master is a direct follow-up to 3, starring several of the same characters (though Patricia Arquette has unfortunately been replaced), and continuing the new tradition of terrible, New Age-y subtitles. Director Renny Harlin takes the tongue in cheekiness of 3 to a whole other level, reviving Freddy in flaming nightmare dog piss, and letting the character indulge his hammy side as he murders coeds in increasingly comedic ways. Harlin also brings a refreshingly taut directorial style to the film, with some impressive, flashy camera and editing techniques and an 80s pop rock soundtrack. You might call it derivative of the third movie, as it hews so close to that film’s general structure, but the fact is: it’s basically better in every way.
The final film in the “Dream” title sub-trilogy is A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. 4’s teen heroine is once again haunted by Freddy Krueger, who is using the dreams of her unborn son to infiltrate the nightmares of her closest friends. When she tries to tell them what’s happening, they think she’s losing it—even as the bodies pile up around her—and as a result, everyone in her life feels compelled to meddle. The parents of the baby’s father—who dies under mysterious circumstances—threaten legal action if she doesn’t let them adopt the baby. One friend who does believe her tells her to get an abortion. It’s an oddly heavy plot for a Freddy movie, but it actually manages to suck you in with its melodrama and gothic atmosphere. In certain moments it almost resembles a Grand Guignol version of Rosemary’s Baby. The dream sequences are outstanding: in one, a motorcycle and its rider merge into a horrifying, Geiger-esque creation. Later, the movie finds inspiration from MC Escher as the unborn “Dream Child” tries to evade Freddy in a gravity-defying maze of stairs. Despite the incredible, and in some cases deeply disturbing kill sequences, Nightmare 5 plays more like a fantasy than a horror film. It also gets a little wacky towards the end: at one point, the spirit of Freddy’s mother colludes with that of the unborn child–who appears in the dreamworld looking like he’s about 10, for some reason–to lure Freddy to his doom. The kid does this by somehow adopting Freddy’s freakish voice and appearance, in what is yet another low point for the series. Still, this might be the best Nightmare sequel up to this point.
While I feel like the sequels are getting better and better, most fans felt differently at the time, and the films had been making less and less money with each installment since number 3. This led to the studio drumming up some publicity for the next entry in the franchise by killing off the main character. Thus: Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Detailing the plot would be silly, as the movie completely ditches narrative cohesion in favor of pure pop culture celebration. There are cameos from Roseanne Barr and Alice Cooper, and references to everything from The Wizard of Oz to Twin Peaks. Freddy Krueger completes his transformation from the terrifyingly gleeful sadist of the first movie to the campy killer of the sequels to essentially Bugs Bunny with razor blades. The movie delights in the cartoonification of the character, and by putting him in the context of other timeless pop culture icons, it places him amongst their ranks. Like so many of the other films, this one loses steam by the end, as what little plot there is struggles to tie itself into a satisfying bow–which is made more difficult by a completely unnecessary (but fittingly campy) 3-D final sequence. This is still easily the most enjoyable film in the series since the first one. Maybe the only essential sequel.
…That is, unless you count Wes Craven’s deconstruction/meta-reboot of the series, New Nightmare. Meditating on the incredible success of his universally beloved/feared monster, Craven comes up with an intriguing, and appropriately Jungian, theory: he did not invent Freddy; instead, in the appearance and origin of Freddy Krueger, he tapped into powerful, timeless, universal human fears. The movie literalizes this concept by positing that the ghoul we recognize as Freddy Krueger is actually an immortal demon who has been given power and corporeality through the popularity of the films. Now that “Freddy’s dead,” he needs to slice his way into our reality or risk losing his power altogether. What could have been the thesis of some horror nerd’s blog post is, in Craven’s hands, a tense and terrifying fairy tale about the power of storytelling. His goal is to help us see the character of Freddy Krueger anew–and to permanently obliterate the memory of the wise crackin’ Freddy of the last several films. He does this, first and foremost, by sidelining Freddy for much of the movie, introducing him into the story slowly, finger blade by bloody finger blade, ratcheting up the anxiety and anticipation. The filmmakers also update Krueger’s look; he’s still recognizable at a glance, but lacking the comfortable familiarity of his original design. His sweater is more garish; his trench coat is darker and cloak-like; and bright red striations of muscle cover much of his skull, replacing the iconic melted hamburger pizza face look of the other movies. This is incredibly effective, with the exception of one scene: when Freddy finally enters our world, fully formed, he wears a pristine, pine green fedora, and for a moment, he looks more like a dermatologically-challenged cousin of Jim Carrey’s The Mask than the split-faced demon we are treated to for most of New Nightmare. It’s a momentary setback. For the greater part of the film, Wes Craven definitively answers the basic question of the series: as enjoyable as the sequels are, is Freddy Krueger scarier in the spotlight, or in the shadows?