I have a huge video collection, thousands of DVDs and, let’s be honest, there isn’t enough time to watch them all. Oh, I do my best to see them all at least once, but there are a few on my shelves that have been sitting there for years unwatched. A couple of years ago, my wife gave me the complete original Nightmare on Elm Street collection, but since she and my youngest daughter adamantly refuse to watch horror films and my oldest daughter is too busy to sit through 7 movies with me, they just sat, unwatched and unopened on the shelf.
Until now. I’ve recently started trying to work through movies I either hadn’t seen or wanted to rewatch. This week’s mission was the entire Nightmare series, in order. I had seen the first four films before and parts of the fifth on TV, but six and seven were new. Then I sat down and watched the 4-hour documentary “Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy”. I figured since it was all fresh in my mind, I ought to give my impressions of the series.
Of the classic 80s teen slasher franchises, I always liked NOES best. Jason was just a mindless killing machine, a force of nature, there was never any real reason he did what he did, he just did it. Michael Myers was a damaged kid that somehow developed the magical ability to never die from injuries that would kill any normal human. Freddy is, for lack of a better word, a cerebral killer. He became, as the series progressed, a wise-cracking sociopath that fed on souls and gained a pretty interesting backstory in the process. Jason and Michael were mute killers that just killed because that’s what they were on screen to do. I’m not going to go into depth on most of the plots, I figure most people who are interested have seen them already. That doesn’t mean there might not be spoilers, there will be. I’ll also give a quick rating for each film, entirely my own opinion but I’d like to hear what other people think.
A Nightmare on Elm Street: The original and my favorite. It had everything going for it, as most first movies do, there was a lot of mystery to what was going on that you just can’t match in sequels. It was the first theatrical role for Johnny Depp as Glenn, Nancy’s boyfriend. It introduced something that really didn’t exist in the other slasher franchises, the idea of an intelligent heroine who didn’t exist just to run around and scream a lot. Oh sure, she screamed, but she didn’t just run away, she made a conscious decision to fight against Freddy and even though in the end, she didn’t have the ability to save anyone but herself, she still took control of the situation. Wes Craven had originally wanted the movie to end with Freddy irrevocably dead and I can make arguments both for and against that idea. Yes, I do think that the “villains never really die, they always come back at the end” trope has been seriously overdone, that most of these films never have a satisfying conclusion because they’re constantly setting up for the next sequel. I think the idea of Freddy Krueger is too good to just have a single movie, but the end of the film really did take away from the idea that Nancy simply took away the power that she had given to resurrect Freddy in the first place.
Nightmare 2: Freddy’s Revenge: Then the series had a hiccup. Wes Craven wasn’t interested in continuing so they brought in another director who really had no clue what was going on. He didn’t understand Freddy Krueger. He didn’t understand that he lives in dreams. This led to his poolside rampage that was, really, ridiculous. It led to casting a male lead and creating what has got to be the most homoerotic horror film in history. Naked guys tied up in the shower getting whipped, anyone? Impassioned pleas that “there’s something inside of me!” to your best friend in his bedroom at night? Scriptwriter David Chaskin did it on purpose but nobody on the crew caught it during filming. Really? It’s painfully obvious, even the director admits it in retrospect. Does that mean there’s nothing worthwhile here? Wait, I’m thinking… Anyhow, the bad first, I guess. The exploding lovebird scene was pointless and Clu Gulagher as Jesse’s father was a complete moron throughout. Okay, there were some funny moments, like Jesse’s sister eating “Fu Man Chews” cereal and digging in the box for Fu Man Fingers, but those were few and far between. I also caught a continuity error with the first film, where they were saying that Nancy’s mother committed suicide in the living room. No she didn’t. She was sucked through the front door by Freddy. I hate movies that try to rewrite history because they’re lazy. The worst part was Freddy terrorizing a pool party while everyone was wide awake, something that ought to be entirely impossible. Freddy can never exist in the real world, only in people’s dreams. Really bad writing, passable acting, something best forgotten, just like the Halloween sequel, Halloween 3: Season of the Witch. 1/2
Nightmare 3: Dream Warriors: This is where the series took a turn for the better and the reason why, of course, is the return of Wes Craven, at least as the initial scriptwriter. Of sure, it has it’s problems, some of the scenes are pretty campy and there’s a lot of phallic imagery, but conceptually, it was a great idea. Nancy returns as a counselor to children with sleep disorders in a hospital that houses the last of the Elm Street children. They band together to fight against Freddy as a team, something that hadn’t been done before. This was the first theatrical appearance of Patricia Arquette as Lisa who lead the team due to her ability to bring other people into her dreams. It ended up being a combination of fighting Freddy in the dream-world and Nancy’s father and doctor friend destroying Freddy’s bones in the real world that took him down, a novel approach to the problem. Certainly, both have been done separately but putting them in tandem worked. Craven, who had never wanted the original film to become a franchise, killed Nancy off and wanted to ensure that Kruger was dead forever, but we know that never really happens in these films. Plus, it’s got a bitchin’ song by Dokken!
Nightmare 4: Dream Master: Another movie, another resurrection, this time Freddy is brought back by dog pee. Yes, I’m serious. It’s not a bad movie by any means, it’s just not as good as Dream Warriors was. Here, we bring back Lisa and the two surviving team members from 3, but Patricia Arquette wasn’t available or they couldn’t afford her, nobody is really saying which, so Tuesday Knight is brought in to fill her shoes and it really doesn’t work so well. However, it doesn’t really matter since the three holdovers are killed off in the first 15 minutes of the film and the reins are turned over to Alice, played by Lisa Wilcox, who inherits Lisa’s dream-pulling powers. I found that a very interesting concept, that as her friends are killed off by Freddy, she absorbs their abilities and gets stronger and more self-confident as time goes on. We see Freddy become more wise-cracking in this film, a trend that has been increasing since the second movie, and usually Robert England can pull off the jokes and still remain creepy. This film has some really great effects, particularly the one where Alice falls into the movie screen to become part of the movie.
Nightmare 5: Dream Child: And now, Alice and Dan are getting it on but Freddy is back and quickly kills Dan in a car accident. Alice can’t find out how Freddy got free when she was awake, until she learns she’s pregnant and Freddy is using the dreams of the fetus to come back to life. In fact, he’s feeding souls to little Jacob to make him into a newborn Freddy clone. Of course, Alice has a new group of friends, she has to because all the old ones are dead, that are happy to come to her aid and end up worm food. I really wasn’t impressed with the dream sequences in this movie and especially the dream powers. Ever since Nightmare 3, the kids who went into the dreams had pseudo-magical powers with which to fight Freddy, and most of these powers are pretty ridiculous. In 3, you had the guy who was a proto-Harry Potter and the chick with the giant mohawk and the switchblades. Here, you’ve got the comic artist who turns into a gun-slinging superhero. When it works, it works, but 5 is very inconsistent, some characters are depicted as having powers and some are not, or at least they never get to use them. I’d rather have seen better powers that weren’t quite so laughable, things that could be used to seriously fight against Freddy and not silly costumes.
Nightmare 6: Freddy’s Dead: The worst of the films, as much as I hate to say it, but it was totally pointless. Freddy, ten years down the road, has managed to kill all the children in Springwood and is now trying to branch out. In a nearby town, children are routinely thrown into shabby asylums with bad doctors and worse security. When a kid with amnesia shows up and thinks he might come from Springwood, she takes him back there, along with three other kids who stow away and the nightmare is unleashed once again. I know that director Rachel Talalay specifically wanted to make this a lighter film but she made it downright silly. From Freddy playing video games with his hapless victim to ridiculous cameos, like Alice Cooper showing up as Freddy’s father and Tom and Roseann Arnold appearing as obnoxious wannabe parents, to the addition or meaningless 3D at the end, it was just a laughable experience. What was the point of having the most depressing town fair in history? Why did all of the adults know about Freddy and do nothing about it? Continuity was pretty much non-existent here, they introduced entirely new elements, such as Freddy’s daughter, out of the blue, the writing was awful… I can’t recommend this at all to anyone. Even if it wasn’t billed as the final nightmare, it was so awful, it probably would have killed the franchise anyhow.
New Nightmare: Once Freddy was killed in the last movie, New Line decided to stop making movies for a while, at least until Wes Craven approached them with a new idea that broke through the fourth wall. In it, all of the actors played themselves as actors in a story about Freddy escaping the film world for the real one. While I thought it had some intriguing ideas and it certainly was a better movie than the couple that preceded it, I think it suffers from some problems. First off, and I’d have thought they’d have learned this in previous films, people go to see these movies to see Freddy hack people up in different and interesting ways. There was nothing new of different here. Not that many people died, I can only remember 4, and of them, it was all tame or redone stuff. The two FX guys get it at the beginning with the robot glove but it just jumps on them and stabs them. Heather’s husband dies in his truck, but it’s just the glove stabbing him in the chest. The most interesting was Julie in the hospital but it was a retread of Tina’s death from the first movie. There was really nothing we hadn’t seen before. The ending was silly as well. Supposedly, the evil essence that became trapped in the films the first time around could only become trapped again if they made another film. That’s why Wes Craven was writing the screenplay and had invited Heather to play Nancy again, forgetting that Nancy had died in the 3rd movie, but hey, continuity isn’t important! Anyhow, at the end, Heather defeats the Freddy-essence, comes back to the real world and finds the completed script with a note in it from Wes, thanking her for being Nancy again. That’s all well and good, except they never actually made the movie for the evil essence to be trapped in! It’s not a bad film, especially for a completest, but certainly should have been better.
Overall, I think the biggest problem that the series suffered from was it’s lack of singular vision. Nothing against New Line, but when you have a studio pushing hard to crank out movies, just to have movies come out, rather than because you have a good idea for a movie, quality is going to suffer. This became painfully clear, especially at the end of the classic series, where they were giving directors 5-6 months to write, cast, film and edit an entire movie to get it out by a pre-scheduled release date. A lot of the problems with later films could probably have been alleviated by simply giving them more time to write the movies and more time to make the movies. I’m convinced that the primary cause of the death of the franchise is New Line themselves and their desire to milk it for all they could.
Clearly, the Nightmare on Elm Street series had a significant impact on the landscape of horror films. Wes Craven was turned down by every studio in town for more than 3 years, convinced that nobody would find a monster that inhabited your dreams scary, yet once it was shown to be a success, those same studios started putting out a lot of low-budget dream-monster movies of their own. There are still a lot of good ideas in the Freddy concept, but unfortunately, when they remade the film in 2010, it didn’t capitalize on any of them and it failed in the box office. It shows quite clearly in it’s review on Rotten Tomatoes, where the original film scored a 73% fresh and the new one scored only 15%. It’s sad, although sort of predictable since it was made by Platinum Dunes, the same company that has tried and failed to reboot Friday the 13th, Amityville Horror and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Platinum Dunes was started by Michael Bay. Anyone surprised?
I’d really love to see more horror franchises like Nightmare on Elm Street, films that aren’t all about throwing blood at the screen or piling up a body count. Two of the movies only killed 3 people each, these were not high-gore, they were higher-concept. We need a little more of that in modern horror, it might actually get me watching more of it.