When it comes to modern horror icons then supernatural dream demon Freddy Krueger must rank as perhaps the most iconic. Yes, there are cases to be made for Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees or Pinhead but it is Freddy – or perhaps the portrayal of him by Robert Englund in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street series – that has remained a perennial favourite with movie audiences for the last 30 years, and not just horror movie audiences as the series managed to break into the mainstream in a way that no other 18-rated movie villains managed during an era when there were plenty to choose from.
For the benefit of those not up on the backstory – and there must be somebody – A Nightmare on Elm Street was written and directed by Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes/Scream) and centres around a group of middle-American teenagers – Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Tina (Amanda Wyss) and their respective boyfriends Glen (Johnny Depp) and Rod (Jsu Garcia, credited as Nick Corri) – who are all having dreams where a horribly burnt man with knives for fingers stalks them through a boiler room. But in this nightmare, if you die in your dreams then you die for real and as the kids becomes increasingly desperate to stay awake, Nancy discovers who the man is and the secret that her parents have been keeping from her.
Released in 1984, by which time the slasher movie had reached its peak and the formula started to look a little stale, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a real shot in the arm for the flagging genre. Its production values may look a bit clunky by today’s standards but this movie still has the ability to scare more effectively than pretty much any teen horror movie released since the 1980s. Named after director Craven’s school bully, Freddy Krueger was a genuinely terrifying character and, although he isn’t on-screen that much and the iconic status and cheesy one-liners were a few movies away, he really is a massive presence throughout the movie, thanks mainly to Robert Englund’s masterful performance and over-the-top use of body language. The acting of the other main players varies from average to good; John Saxon portrays Nancy’s father Lieutenant Don Thompson and plays the role of a desperate man unable to protect his daughter with utter conviction, although Ronee Blakley is pretty flat and useless as Nancy’s alcoholic mother Marge. And yes, that is THE Johnny Depp as Glen. Not the biggest start to a successful career but he does display some naive charm as Nancy’s gormless boyfriend. Heather Langenkamp gives a fairly stiff performance as Nancy but it doesn’t really detract from the movie as she manages to pull off the action scenes with Robert Englund convincingly enough. A good story and a strong villain lift this movie head and shoulders above the rest of the films of the era and, even though the ending is a bit lame, overall the film still retains its shock value and edginess, which more than compensate.
Never ones to miss an opportunity, New Line Cinema released the sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge, a year later, and although it is inferior to the original it isn’t as bad as many make out. The story involves the Walsh family who have moved into the house on Elm Street previously occupied by Nancy. Since moving in the eldest son Jesse (Mark Patton) is having trouble sleeping and is plagued by nightmares about that pesky burnt man with the razor fingers. After a few odd incidents, mainly with the heating in the house (and an exploding budgie), Jesse comes face to face with Freddy, who wants to use Jesse’s body to bring himself back into the real world. So now, instead of the usual teenage angst and confusions (and there are plenty of confusions in this film), Jesse also has to worry about a psychopathic killer trying to claw his way out of his body – if it isn’t one thing, it’s another…
It may sound ridiculous, and parts of it are, but this movie does have a few merits in its favour. Robert Englund gives probably his best performance as Freddy, being more twisted and evil than in any other movie in the series – check out the barbeque massacre scene for some great Freddy action that sees him in full-on demented slasher mode. Englund’s over-the-top facial expressions and spastic body movements are at their most effective here and the moment when he declares “You are all my children now” (in the scene captured in the image at the top of this page) remains his most iconic. There is also good support from ’80s teenage movie mainstay Robert Rusler (whatever happened to him?) as Jesse’s friend Grady and Clu Gulager as Jesse’s irrational but slightly amusing father, and it is the scenes in which they are involved that are the most enjoyable (and memorable).
But now to the not so favourable. The character of Jesse is probably the least interesting of all the characters here – and possibly even the series – and as he is supposed to be the main focus of Freddy’s attentions that is a major problem, as is his (lack of) chemistry with girlfriend Lisa (Kim Myers), which sort of leads into another area. It has been suggested over the years that there is a homosexual subtext to this movie, mainly because Mark Patton spends most of his screen time in his underwear in the company of other males, plus the very odd scene involving Jesse’s sadistic, S&M-loving P.E. teacher Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell) and his out-of-hours punishment technique (quite why we needed to see Freddy smacking his arse with a towel is certainly questionable). Like most of those sorts of things it’s there if you want to see it or you can just ignore it if you don’t, but the clues are all there nevertheless.
Overall, Freddy’s Revenge is a good movie and not really deserving of the backlash it has generated over the years. Indeed, the main gripe people have with it is that it doesn’t seem to have many connections to the whole Freddy mythology other than the fact that Jesse’s family live in the same house as Nancy from the first movie. The fact is that there was no major Freddy mythology at that point, apart from Marge Thompson recanting about Freddy’s arrest in the first movie, so it really is an empty arguement. As it stands, this is a lot better than people give it credit for and, up until the remake, the last time we really saw Freddy just lurking in the shadows, making him more frightening and effective.
Which brings us nicely to 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which is where we start to see where the franchise was heading. We are introduced to Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) who has been having some very real dreams involving our favourite boogieman. After what her mother thinks is a suicide attempt (but we know different), Kristin is admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she discovers she isn’t the only local teenager dreaming about the scarred killer, and she also learns that in her dreams she – and the other kids in the hospital – have the ability to fight Freddy with their dream powers. Helpfully, Nancy Thompson (a returning Heather Langenkamp) has just started working at the hospital and helps join in the fight against her old adversary.
So lets start with the good stuff. Wes Craven was back on board as a co-writer and it shows as this movie is probably the most inventive of the sequels. Bringing back Nancy and her father (again played by the ever-brilliant John Saxon) was a masterstroke, especially after the complaints about the previous film’s lack of character connections, and her interplay with Krueger was comparable to any hero/villain battle you can think of. The pacing of the movie is fantastic, as Freddy makes his first appearance within the first few minutes in what is probably his most effective opening shot, and barely lets up until the end. Freddy himself is given a bigger backstory, where we learn who his mother is, where he was born and how best to finally kill him, which is where John Saxon’s character comes in.
But there is a downside to all of this good work as this was the movie that turned Freddy from maniacal slasher into a wise-cracking conjurer. The dream skills idea is good on paper, as we’ve all had dreams where we have had special powers, but Freddy using what amounts to magic to kill just feels a bit much. Yes, there has always been a supernatural/fantasy element to these films, and admittedly, it isn’t as bad here as in the later installments, but when Freddy commits his first kill in the guise of a grotesque puppeteer you have to question where the writers thought they were going with it. You see, although the original premise of A Nightmare on Elm Street is totally fictitious and impossible there was always a sense of realism to the way it played out, like when Freddy killed he killed with a real, man-made weapon. Although he couldn’t be real, his methods were. In this film the fantastical elements have taken over and we’re left with characters like Will (Ira Heiden), a.k.a. The Wizard Master (try not to giggle when he has a go at Freddy in his wizard’s cape and with magical fingers), and the unintentionally amusing scene when Freddy’s finger-knives turn into syringes so he can easily attack an ex-junkie.
Robert Englund is obviously having a ball as Freddy here as he’s given a chance to do more with the character, but when he’s on-screen – which is quite a lot – he just isn’t as frightening as he was in the previous two movies. Whether it’s the make-up, which is good but slightly tweaked to be easier on the eye, or the lighting, which makes sure you can see everything more clearly, isn’t clear but it’s pretty obvious that this movie was designed to make the whole Freddy concept more marketable. Which is fine if you’re dealing with a dark character like, for instance, Batman or James Bond, but Freddy is an undead child-killer, something that seems have been forgotten along the path to mainstream success.
There are plot holes here too. Like, if the kids in the hospital are, as Nancy puts it, “the last of the Elm Street children” then why have they only just started dreaming about Freddy? Why didn’t they have nightmares before? And if they all lived on Elm Street then why didn’t they all know each other? And can Freddy be in all of their dreams at the same time, or does he only appear to one person at a time? And why is Morpheus working as a hospital porter?
But nevertheless, this is a fairly decent attempt at giving the original movie a proper sequel. Many fans cite it as the best of the sequels and it probably is, given the basic story, the use of characters and the pacing, although the story does drop off in the second half as it seems none of the four writers involved knew how to finish it. There are some decent performances and some of the characters were good; maybe Dr. Gordon should have been brought back in later sequels as he got some intensive experience in dealing with dream demons, but at the end of it all it’s sort of like watching your best friend get drunk in a nightclub and starting to dance on the bar – you love them and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of mischief but you can see where it’s heading and it’s not pleasant.
And not pleasant is a pretty good way to describe 1988’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master as now we were into full-on, money-making, Hollywood franchise mode. Following on from Dream Warriors, The Dream Master picks up with Kristen Parker (this time played by the curiously named Tuesday Knight) starting to have weird dreams about boiler rooms again. Using her skill to pull others into her dreams, she brings in fellow warriors Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) and Joey (Rodney Eastman) who are pretty peeved at being dragged back into her nightmares. However, possibly not as peeved as her innocent friend Alice (Lisa Wilcox), who also gets dragged into the fight and before you know it Freddy has a new adversary and another group of kids to stalk, despite them not actually being from Elm Street.
With fate being the way it is, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master is still the most successful of the series (if you don’t count Freddy vs. Jason as canon) in terms of bums-on-seats ticket sales. To clarify – this isn’t because of the story, the acting, the special effects or even the then-growing trend of having a heavy metal soundtrack. It’s because New Line Cinema were marketing Freddy Krueger as basically a cartoon character, with his own line of merchandise, a pretty poor television series and his own stand-up slot at Jongleurs (alright, that last one wasn’t true but it probably wasn’t far off). In this film Freddy’s resurrection was baffling and stupid, the characters were just dull and/or horrible, the acting was pretty poor, the script painfully lame and the kills were dumb – a girl with a bug phobia turning into a bug and then being squashed by Freddy? Or how about Freddy turning into a karate master to tackle Alice’s martial arts fanatic brother? And what about the one where Freddy literally sucks the life out of an asthmatic? Not quite what Wes Craven had in mind back in 1984, one would think.
As far as good points go, it really does just come down to Robert Englund’s performance. Obviously by now he was doing it for laughs and a decent salary – he got top billing for the first time – but with Freddy being increasingly pushed to go down the path of pantomime villain and mass appeal, surely at some point somebody must have pointed out the irony of celebrating an admittedly fictional child killer with such relish. Add to all this the fact that it was directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2/Cliffhanger) – a director known for commercial hits rather than artistic vision – and it all adds up to a big disappointment. It may have seemed fun in 1988 but looking back now it’s just plain embarrassing.
With Freddy now as much a part of modern culture as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, in 1989 New Line brought us A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, where the pre-release blurb was promising a more evil Freddy and a story involving Freddy haunting the dreams of an unborn baby. Sounds pretty good, right? Hhmm…
Alice and her boyfriend Dan, having survived part four (spoiler) are now expecting a baby. As Freddy isn’t really dead (another spoiler) he tries to come back into the real world by infiltrating the dreams of Alice’s baby and hopefully getting reborn. Apparently the only person who can stop him is his mother, Amanda Krueger, who, unfortunately, is also dead but not dead in the real sense of being dead, because her spirit needs to be freed from eternal purgatory. After Dan gets whacked and Alice’s new friends all start to get killed in all sorts of wacky ways, Alice has to free the troubled spirit of Amanda so she can stop Freddy once and for all – or at least until the next movie.
The law of sequels dictates that you have to throw more into the mix than the previous movie and do everything bigger, and that’s exactly what the filmmakers have done here, as it’s an even bigger mess than the previous film. Admittedly it is darker in tone but as for Freddy being more evil you may as well have had Jim Carrey playing his part. As always, Robert Englund was doing the best he could with what he was given but what he was given was pure comic book garbage. All the religious iconography that got shoehorned in was completely unnecessary, the matte painting backgrounds looked like something from Tim Burton’s Batman movies and the kills were getting more and more ludicrous (although a stick-thin girl getting force-fed her own guts made for a highlight), and yet again it’s Englund’s manic performance and comic timing that are the only thing to really shine – even his make-up looked cartoonish.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child is a pretty dire film and for many it is the worst in the series. Apparently there was a lot of material cut out to make the final cut shorter and flow more smoothly so maybe a full director’s cut might make a little bit of difference, but for Freddy, who was now a very long way from the maniac stalker of the first movie, it really did look like the end…
…until the next beginning! As the ’90s beckoned and a newer breed of horror was making its mark in the shape of more extreme fare such as Hellraiser, New Line sensibly decided to call a halt to the Freddy Krueger comedy show by making Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1991.
Seemingly ignoring the past few movies – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – this movie sees Freddy taking on Maggie Burroughs (Lisa Zane), a child psychologist who has been having recurring nightmares. Discovering that one her patients has been having similar dreams, Maggie sets about finding the source which leads her to a town called Springwood and a place called Elm Street. Not only does she find out where the dreams are coming from but she also finds out something about herself that she may wish she hadn’t…
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare isn’t really a great movie but what was the real likelihood of New Line churning out a series finale worthy of Wes Craven’s original vision? That said, lame plot aside, it isn’t as bad as it could have been and it’s an improvement on part five. The wisecracks are still there but not as prominent as before (the parody of The Wizard of Oz is silly but amusing; the ‘death by Nintendo’ scene is just plain daft) and Freddy himself is a bit less comedian and more villain than in recent movies; not as wicked as in Freddy’s Revenge but you can’t have everything. There are also some nice cameos, including Alice Cooper as Freddy’s father (seen during a flashback), Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold in a Twin Peaks-esque scene and, best of all if you’ve been with the series since the beginning, Johnny Depp, although he isn’t playing the same character as he did before and you have to keep an eye out for him.
Resurrecting the 3D gimmick for Freddy’s final demise was a good idea to bring people into the cinemas, although the transition to the small screen wasn’t so great, smacking slightly of too-little-too-late. But at least the filmmaker’s hearts were in the right place and with it being directed by longtime series collaborator Rachel Talalay, at least there was somebody at the helm who had a bit of knowledge and passion about the heritage.
And that was it for Freddy Krueger, until 1994 when New Line announced it was releasing Wes Craven’s New Nightmare to a fairly disinterested public. The sell this time was that it wasn’t a sequel like all the other movies where a new bunch of gorgeous teens would face Freddy and his limitless ways of killing; this movie told a story that was based more in reality. Celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Heather Langenkamp (or a version of her) starts to experience some weird goings on in her life, culminating in the death of her husband (not her real husband – that would be silly). After speaking to her friend and colleague Robert Englund (again, playing a version of himself), who starts to act a bit weird himself, she goes to see Wes Craven who, it turns out, has been having nightmares again and is planning a new Freddy movie. We then learn that the evil force that has kept Freddy coming back time and time again – and is the force behind Craven’s nightmares – is an ancient demon that is using the Freddy persona to try and break through into our world by attacking Heather and her son. The only way to stop it is for Heather to become Nancy one more time and face Freddy in the ultimate showdown.
All clear? Well, it is a pretty interesting, if slightly ostentatious, concept and an obvious attempt to add a little intellect into what could have been a real dumbing down of an already dumbed-down formula. Watching it today, in a climate where mainstream horror is visually more extreme and action-based, it does come across as, for use of a better word, dull. Good points? Freddy’s first proper appearance is quite startling, as he’s had a slight makeover to eliminate some of his more human traits, and the first 30 minutes is quite tense as you feel you’re building up to something great.
But ultimately, you’re not. It just seems to lose momentum after that, going from one scene of Heather not being believed to another, until you get to the final battle which is all fairly predictable and, to be honest, painfully boring. Overall, the movie just comes across as half of an idea that wasn’t fleshed out properly before being shot, and that’s a shame as there really were the seeds of a good idea at the core. Points to Craven and New Line for trying to add a twist to a series that should have ended three movies ago but ultimately it ends up as being more of a curiosity than essential viewing, although the benefit of hindsight could interpret this movie as a trial run for the meta ideas that Craven would go on to use to better effect in Scream a couple of years later.
And it would be a few more years before we got to see Freddy Krueger again. As the 1990s rolled on franchise horror became less and less commercial, with the likes of Hellraiser, Candyman, Halloween and Wishmaster limping on to provide some direct-to-video thrills for the faithful, but the magic had gone. However, as the 21st century dawned there was something of a resurrection for horror in the mainstream, as the likes of Saw and Final Destination brought back some excitement to the genre and the trend for remaking the classics – for better or worse – kicked off. In 2001 New Line Cinema brought back Friday the 13th‘s masked psychopath Jason Voorhees for the sci-fi slasher Jason X, which was ushered into production pretty quickly as the proposed movie featuring both Jason and Freddy was stuck in development hell, and reignited interest in the masked killers. However, the big prize for slasher devotees came in 2003 in the form of Freddy vs. Jason, an idea that had been in development since Dream Warriors back in 1987.
In this film, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund, reprising the role after nine years) wants to get back to his old tricks of invading the dreams of the kids on Elm Street but over time his legend has disappeared from the town due to the adults not mentioning his name and the new generation of teenagers not knowing who he is, thus rendering him powerless. But being the resourceful chap he is he plucks Camp Crystal Lake killer Jason Voorhees (Ken Kirzinger) from the depths of Hell and, disguising himself as Jason’s mother Pamela, convinces him to go to Elm Street to pick off the innocent teens. The adults will blame Freddy, forcing the townsfolk to remember and thereby giving him the power to begin haunting the youngster’s dreams. However, Jason gets the taste for killing and as the bodies start to pile up Freddy finds he has to get rid of Jason before he can resume his own killing spree, forcing the two killers into a grudge match with an unfortunate group of teenagers caught in the middle.
So maybe not the most straightforward plot ever put forward, and there were some interesting ideas put forward for this film, including a story involving a cult of Freddy worshippers called Fred Heads looking to resurrect their idol, but Freddy vs. Jason is actually a blast. Helped along by some kinetic direction thanks to Ronny Yu (Bride of Chucky) and a gleefully wicked performance by Robert Englund in what would turn out to be his final on-screen appearance as Krueger, the film does play to slasher convention with a cast of fresh young faces – including Monica Keener (Devil’s Advocate), Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps), Chris Marquette (Infestation) and Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland – all getting picked off as they blunder their way through some less-than-inspired dialogue and indulging in the forbidden fruits of sex and drugs but anybody going into this film expecting a serious and groundbreaking horror movie was missing the point. As much fun as the mash-ups from the golden days of the Universal Monsters, Freddy vs. Jason tapped into the playful spirit of Dream Warriors without going too far down the absurdly silly route adopted by the later sequels (although the Jason pinball scene was a bit too close to the knuckle), making Freddy more demon-like in his appearance and giving Englund a chance to do his best pantomime villain routine without being campy.
Better than expected and certainly more entertaining than any Freddy film since Dream Warriors, Freddy vs. Jason did mange to reignite some interest in Freddy Krueger as a character, but by this point Robert Englund was in his late 50s and playing the character wasn’t getting any easier so by the time that the inevitable remake went into production in 2009 a new actor was to be cast in the role. Taking over the part of a popular character isn’t easy for any actor but when that role is such an iconic one that had only ever been played by one actor in 25 years of existence then the task would be an unenviable one, but production company Platinum Dunes, who had previously released the divisive Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes, found their man in Watchmen star Jackie Earle Hayley, who had impressed playing the role of a registered sex offender in the 2006 film Little Children.
A trailer for this new version of A Nightmare on Elm Street was released during the last part of 2009 and showed lots of promise as it looked like Freddy Krueger’s full backstory was going be revealed in scenes that showed the still human Freddy being set alight by a mob of angry parents. Also heavily implied was the fact that this Freddy was going to a paedophile, a detail that Wes Craven had originally intended for the character 25 years previous but had toned it down to being a child murderer due to some unsavoury stories that were in the news headlines at the time; quite amusing when you consider the amount of Freddy-branded products bought by parents for their kids over the previous two decades.
But when the film was finally released in April 2010 all of the excitement that the trailer had built up was quickly dampened as the finished film failed to maintain any of the scares or terror of the 1984 original. Directed by music video director Samuel Bayer, the plot was basically the same as Wes Craven’s movie – a group of teenagers all dream about a disfigured killer with a clawed glove – but writers Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer had thrown in a few minor changes that left Krueger’s guilt ambiguous for most of the movie and some other small plot devices such as the idea of microsleeps. The trouble was that the things the film did the same as the original weren’t done any better than they were 25 years before – for instance, the shot of Freddy coming through the bedroom wall was shoehorned in for no reason and done using terrible CGI that looked like PlayStation 1 graphics – and the stuff that was new was underdeveloped and just plain uninteresting, as were the cast who seemed to get into character by sleepwalking through the whole mess. And why cast an actor with as much presence and menace as Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption) as the school principle and father of one of the main teenagers (who had clearly stopped being teenagers several years before) and give him a couple of minutes of screen time where he just gets to yell at his son?
Thankfully, Jackie Earle Hayley didn’t disappoint and brought the character of Freddy Krueger back to the shadows where he proved to be most effective, adding a few little quirks of his own – like the constant flicking of his finger knives – to make his mark. There were one or two quips delivered in Hayley’s dry-as-a-bone rasp to accompany the kills but the sense of fun from the original series had totally gone, along with the fantastical dreamscapes that all the movies from Dream Warriors onwards had wallowed in, sticking simply to the boiler room setting for most of the dreams. But despite Hayley’s noble attempts and some rich visuals A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 was, at best, a lacklustre film and one that doesn’t inspire confidence for any future Freddy adventures.
And at the time of writing it appears that there are no concrete plans for another Freddy film, although Platinum Dunes are returning to Camp Crystal Lake with a new Friday the 13th movie so perhaps there will be some interest in the twisted child killer coming back to our screens in the not-too-distant future. If, however, your appetite for Freddy hasn’t quite been satisfied with the movies in the series then you could always seek out some episodes of the Freddy’s Nightmares TV series that ran between 1988 and 1990. Starring Robert Englund as Freddy, who hosted the show and starred in some of the stories, Freddy’s Nightmares was only really notable for its pilot episode which was directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and gave us Freddy’s origin story. A Region 2 DVD is available that features three episodes – including the pilot – and an online search will probably reveal a few more scattered around the world wide web so if you fancy a bit of extra Krueger mischief then go fill your boots.
Another curio for the hardcore fan is the 2010 documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy. With a running time of four hours and featuring interviews with most of the major cast and crew from the series, including Wes Craven, Robert Englund, New Line Cinema head honcho Bob Shaye, Heather Langenkamp, Robert Rusler, Alice Cooper and heavy metal band Dokken, who provided the theme song to Dream Warriors, Never Sleep Again is as extensive a look at the series as you’re likely to get from those involved and there are some juicy tidbits to come out of the interviews, including writer David Chaskin’s confession about the homosexual subtext of Freddy’s Revenge and the rest of the crew’s apparent ignorance. It’s an impressive document of the series and regardless of your feelings on the quality of the later sequels it seems that there had been a genuine effort on the part of those involved to make the best films they could at the time, and perhaps that is the most fitting legacy of all for this inventive but inconsistent franchise.