Freddy’s Follies: The Entire ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ Franchise Review

mutal-pandi-a-nightmare-on-elm-street-wallpaper-1Freddie Krueger is a brilliant creation. A deeply scarred man who dresses like a gay homeless person who refuses to let go of his ‘look’. Freddy lives in the dimly boiler rooms of teenager’s dreams, awaiting his chance. Sharpening his elaborate and largely symbolic finger knives and readying a dopey quip for the next kill.

In life Freddy was a heinous child murderer, himself killed by a group of the vengeful parents of his victims. In death, Freddy targets his killer’s children, choosing to wait until they sleep, where he can infiltrate their dreams and wreak havoc.

Again, genius.

Dreams are where our imaginations run wild. People can interpret dreams but for the most part they are weird and largely incomprehensible slabs of our downtime, where our deepest misgivings, fears and lust find an outlet. By living in dreams Freddy has full license to go crazy and strange.have you ever woken from an especially vivid dream and thought to tell someone, then realised just how stupid and ridiculous it all sounds? That’s where Freddy lives.

And if you somehow manage to kill Freddy, it only takes one more dream from one more kid to give him life once more…

It was a recipe for forever, but somehow director and franchise creator Wes Craven never thought Freddy worthy of repeat efforts, opting instead for the momentarily interesting but rapidly diminishing returns of the Choose Your Own Murderer series Scream, which were all the same except for a different killer each time.

Freddy has been unfairly maligned as a relic of a non creative era – including by me – but as this marathon review proves, myself and others overlooked Freddy’s ugly beauty…

nightmare_on_elm_street 84A Nightmare on Elm Street 1984

Elm Street was once a quiet street full of young families in humble homes fronted by lush leafy trees. Not much happened here beyond the ordinary, kids went to school, parents went to work, all growing older in the circle of suburban life.

Then came the dreams. Or more accurately dream singular. Several teens discuss a shared dream of a ratty old man wearing a colour blind Ernie jumper. But with razor fingers and a grotesque appearance, this man is more disturbing than your standard creepy old guy ogling kids.

As becomes common knowledge this man is Freddy Krueger, a once local embarrassment who was bloodily dispatched himself to dreamland in one rage fuelled act of group violence.

Freddy’s intent seems obvious, but his motives are initially sketchy. In any case though, his anger and single minded intent allows Freddy to force his way into dreams, where he relies on the fear of those he torments to enable his attacks.

While Freddy kills dozens of teens over the next half dozen films, this first kill sets a tone and announces a franchise, such is the creativity and ferocity of the set piece, which leaves an entire bedroom bloodied and a formerly horny male babbling and nearly catatonic.

More kills come, all while these teens sleep. This leads to an understandable dread of dozing. This might be the scariest aspect of the series, as Teen Me loved nothing more than a lengthy unnecessary sleep-in.

In dreams all things happen, logic is abandoned and the impossible is irrelevant. Latter editions of Nightmare possibly go further into dreamland and maximise the opportunity for silliness, but this first Nightmare has three distinctly crafted sequences, all extremely effective in their own the way (perhaps more admirable given the lowest of low budgets here).

A Nightmare on Elm Street ultimately succumbs to a derivative and somewhat lazy finale, but it builds a framework of endless scares that will know no boundary beyond imagination.

Most lazy horror films use the dream for cheap scares, Wes Craven found a way to require them.

Best Dream Sequence / Kill: The first isn’t always the best, but it’s still unsettling watching a young girl fly around a room, blood spraying from her body, petrified, but still asleep. All as you wonder just wtf is going on.
Best Quip: Freddy isn’t especially chatty yet, but “I’m your boyfriend now Nancy” as a disembodied tongue emerges from a photo to lick Nancy, will do nicely.
Freddy’s Mood: Malevolent.

 nightmare_on_elm_street_twoA Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge 1985

It is said Wes Craven didn’t want one sequel, let alone many. That said Nightmare 2 arrived only a year after the original. Money talks Mr Craven.

With the Elm Street supply of teens severely diminished, the sequel finds Freddy facing all new teens. Already the undisputed star of proceedings, this isn’t an issue. The important thing is old fillet-fingers is back, and kids are still dreaming.

With Nancy and co all dead or relegated to the asylum, Freddy is stirred when a new family moves into her former home, where she discovers Nancy’s diary and learns of the horrors committed here.

It seems all of this delay between bloodshed has tested Freddy’s patience, with not enough teens dreaming to enable his reaming and their subsequent screaming, Freddy opts to make house calls, which culminates in a ‘so awkward it’s hilarious’ sequence where Freddy lays waste to a debaucherous teen house party as the yet to be dead kill about awaiting their turn to taste the finger knives. It’s a ridiculous scene that betrays a lack of planning, and it may have been a large enough shark-jump to kill a lesser franchise.

With the formula still being fine tuned Nightmare 2 is a mixed bag. Strong opening and closing sequences are betrayed by a saggy and disappointing middle sequence lacking both a strong teen character and memorable kills.  Still, it doesn’t so much show the limitations of the premise as much as confirm that Freddy does his best work in dreamland.

Best Dream Sequence / Kill: Torn. The dog’s with doll’s faces image was weird, but it wasn’t a kill. I’ll go with the school bus trip to nightmare world that opens the film.
Best Quip: “You are all my children now.”
Freddy’s Mood: Bold and defiant.

nightmare_on_elm_street_threeA Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors 1987

Half-witted teens might carve up real nice and leave good looking corpses but any dream killer worth his salt needs a prime target, someone to work towards as you eviscerate the also-rans…

…welcome back Nancy. Of course three years have elapsed since the initial Elm Street slaughter, so teenage Nancy is now a child psychiatrist, because that’s apparently how long it takes to become one of those.

Ahhh, but Freddy has smartened up. He has realised that mass murder even in dreams brings attention, so now he is making his murders look like teen suicides, and when his new hunting ground is a mental facility specialising in treating teens, suicides are all too readily written off.

Nancy however has seen this all before. Where other professionals and adults are quick to write off the kid’s claims as the fanciful work of the deranged, Nancy convinces the children that she is not only on their side, but has a plan to beat Freddy at his own game…

Nightmare 3 fleshes out the Freddy backstory, it also better defines his attitude and demeanour, bringing to life smart arse Freddy and the introduction of thematic kills. This is the film that perfects the recipe, by embracing the lunacy and utilising the implausible nature of dreams, it unleashes Freddy’s full potential and puts in the groundwork for an endless stream of horror comedy to follow.

Best Dream Sequence / Kill: Freddy materialises in a wall mounted TV, where he assists the ‘suicide’ of a young girl by slamming her headfirst through the screen, leading to…
Best Quip: …”Welcome to prime time bitch!”
Freddy’s Mood: Focussed.

OK Time Out. By now the series formula is set in stone…

fkThe Freddy Formula

You could split screen any two of the films 1 through 6 and it would be eerily similar.

  • 0-1 minutes: A quote from a learned individual about dreams that tries to distract us from the fact we are about to watch a hack’n’slash film featuring a guy wearing a cardigan…
  • 1-5 minutes: Introductory dream sequence set piece. No-one dies in this one, but Freddy’s back y’all.
  • 6-25 minutes: Introduction to the (almost always) four primary teens and the adult figure. We learn what each kid fears most (for use later) and get to pick the one that lives.
  • 26-40 minutes: Thematic set piece kill 1. Usually has Freddy’s best quip.
  • 41-55 minutes: Thematic set piece kill 2.
  • 56-65 minutes: Thematic set piece kill 3. Hot on the heels of the other two this is usually a quick ‘clearing up loose ends’ exercise.
  • 66-72 minutes: The Dig-In. The surviving teen and the adult gather, summon inner strength, and work out a plan to kill Freddy once and for all. Coincidentally the same plan across almost every film.
  • 72-84 minutes: The finale. Starts with Freddy toying with the teen and often killing the adult, before the teen grits their teeth, utters a loud proclamation of hatred, and Freddy bugs his eyes in the stark realisation that, yes, this is happening again.
  • 85-88 minutes: Credits. Featuring an awful Nightmare on Elm Street themed song by a mediocre group.

That defined, on to the rest of the series…

nightmare_on_elm_street_fourA Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master 1988

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master arrived a mere four years after the original film, but right in the midst of Freddy’s golden era. With a formula defined and a central figure sure to draw an audience, miscellaneous stuff like directors, cast and budget are largely irrelevant.

With Renny Harlin in the directing chair this was always going to be shiny and pretty at the very least, but while some claim this to be the pinnacle of the series I disagree. Yes, it looks fine and has a couple well conceived moments, but it lacks some of the nastiness of earlier efforts. This can be explained at least in part by the decision to have Freddy’s dream kills written off as accidents or suicides – kinda hard to do that when a teen is turned inside out with finger-knives. But Freddy Krueger needs to be a mix of evil and humorous in almost equal proportions, taking away his powers of eviceration force him to be a little happy go lucky for mine.

After the opening Kate Bush filmclip of a nightmare sequence, this film gathers the teens and proposes that with Freddy again banished to dreamland, he requires a living conduit to invite others into dreams where they are able to be sleep-slaughtered.

Like many creepy old disgusting men, Freddy needs a ‘groomer’…

Not only does Freddy want teens in dreams, he wants the Dream Warriors – see kids it is dangerous to be in a gang.

The thematic kills are in full force. While it might seem odd to spend time talking about such innocuous things, we learn that one teen hates bugs, another has asthma and a third loves karate. What strange things to point out. I wonder if they might become relevant later on in the film.

As a teen friendly horror film centring around a teen unfriendly killer, Nightmare 4 is competent and well produced stuff, but it seems lacking in some of the stay with you weirdness that punctuated some of the earlier films. Instead it comes across like an action director making his brand of horror, there is even an Arnie or Sly style ‘tooling up’ scene prior to the big finish.

This is a well made horror film, but it is lacking in the X factor needed to push it to the
very top of the Freddy tree.

Best Dream Sequence / Kill: Freddy sez “wanna suck face?” then literally drains a human being from the mouth orifice.
Best Quip: (Emerging from a water bed) “How’s this for a wet dream?”
Freddy’s Mood: Cocksure.

nightmare_on_elm_street_fiveA Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child 1989

 Apparently the thought process was as follows; the kids who grew up on Freddy are now old enough to have kids. That would be scary. Let’s involve a kid.

That’s an all too telling insight into the level of care that went into some of these films.

Nightmare 5 is a muddled effort. The first Freddy film in which I felt I was wasting time rather than killing time in a mildly pleasing way. It tries to tell Freddy’s origin story in Alice’s dreams, in between clumsy foreshadowing, synth music, flapping drapes and ominously backlit sets.

Alice is also pregnant, and the dreams begin suggesting that the child developing within her might have relevance to her ongoing struggle with her nocturnal tormentor.

The new teens accompanying Alice to her graduation are a surprisingly unattractive group lacking in charisma or memorable qualities of any kind. In fact beyond the single defining trait that each are given so that Freddy might mete out his ironic punishment later, they are quite the benign group. Were it not for the motorbike kill (touched on below) this would be wholly lacking in merit of any kind, a pale replica of a formerly can’t botch formula. As it is, this is just barely watchable. Freddy’s first genuine misstep.

Best Dream Sequence / Kill: Dan ride motorbike. Freddy meet motorbike. Dan become motorbike.
Best Quip: “Kids… Always a disappointment.”
Freddy’s Mood: Paternal. (A mid-life crisis?)

freddys_dead_ver2A Nightmare on Elm Street 6: Freddy’s Dead (The Final Nightmare) 1991

With almost a decade of death the town of Springwood is deemed to have fallen victim to a teen mass suicide – with the suicides apparently coming in batches of three or four taking place about a year apart. We adults might not understand teens, but that still seems an incredible stretch. Less a leap of logic than a chasm.

In any case our reluctant teen hero is John, a boy placed in a home for troubled teens who finds three new friends with singular defining characteristics fast, and comes under the wing of a caring adult who just wants everyone to live full enjoyable lives.

Why then, would this caring woman take the four children on a field trip to Springwood, a desolate town that still holds a town fair even though there are no kids in the town to entertain? A depressing town in which Tom Arnold and Roseanne Barr unexpectedly jump out from nowhere to try to claim these visiting teens as their own. This seriously happened.

Again this film is more fairy tale than fatality. Freddy practically mimes a guy to death -something anyone who has been trapped in a mall could sympathise with – and another setpiece kill set in a video game world is just… plain… flaccid.

The only battle here is the one between largely I scary and patently unfunny.

Clumsy and all too long titles aside, Freddy’s Dead puts a full stop to a series only just past the used by date, with an ‘episode’ that owes more to films like Labyrinth than other horror movies.

Best Dream Sequence / Kill: None. The franchise highlights that run over the closing credits only rub that fact in.
Best Quip: “In dreams, I am forever.” (Got bad news for you Frederick.)
Freddy’s Mood: Pantomime slapstick.

freddy kIn Summation

With the franchise proper complete it seems a good time to cover over the first six film before dealing with the couple hangers on later.

The one defining trait of all six Freddy films is the production. Despite six different directors and consistently merger budgets the films all look great, with sumptuous dream sequence sets and for the most part special effects that at least seem in keeping with those available at the time.

With the look assured and the Freddy Formula gradually defined, the only differences between the films was the director’s flavour. Some films were more gory, more funny,  more scary than others – though they all grew increasingly less dark and daring once it was decided the deaths needed to look like suicides.

Which begs the question; When you’re a demon that exists in dreams capable of bending reality to your will, wtf do you care if people know you’re murdering people in their sleep? When the only thing keeping you alive is the public’s fear of you, surely it pays to advertise just a little?

But wait, he ain’t finished yet.

wes_cravens_new_nightmare_ver1Wes Craven’s New Nightmare 1994

Wes might not have felt that Freddy had franchise potential, but that didn’t stop him going back to the well to tell a story he obviously felt the first six films missed. His crucial mistake was thinking that the fanbase wanted a straightline bag guy and not a quip spitting scene stealer.

Foreshadowing the Scream films, Freddy’s return takes place on the sets and sound stages of studio backlots, where an effects team painstakingly builds an automated Freddy glove a la the Terminator 2 relic. That the hand becomes animated and goes bad is a surprise to all except anyone watching…

But it was all a dream. Again. Nancy’s dream. *ahem* Heather Langenkamp’s – the now adult actress who played Nancy in Nightmare 1 – dream.

Now all growns up and with a husband and young son of her own, Heather knows her career owes a debt to Elm street, but that does not mean she wants to go back there. She agrees to interviews and publicity opportunities, often with Robert Englund appearing in full Freddy makeup, but just wants to move on. When Wes Craven contacts her with news of one more ‘ultimate face off’ film where Freddy and Nancy resolve their differences once and for all, Nancy says a flat ‘no’.

But Wes Craven is already writing the script, and his belief in Freddy seems to have the same empowering nature as the fictional Elm Street teen’s.

This is a Freddy film all right, but different in many subtle but telling ways. It is far longer than the standard 85 minute sequel, with no keys, more solemn build ups and an absence of teens. In their place is Heather’s son, the “sip it slowly” kid from Mercury Rising – here he is more of a Damian from The Omen type, full of ominous comments and weird actions.

As the inevitable bodies build up the usual questions are asked. Is Freddy real? Is Heather nuts? What mortician would write four parallel razor scars down someone’s chest as part of a car accident injury?

While these questions are pertinent, the real question is why Wes Craven thought Freddy would work better as a singular malevolent menace, free of one liners and oddball dreamscapes. For mine this is an egregious error, we’ve seen a dull and driven Freddy before at various times across six films; we called this Freddy ‘the boring bits’.

Wes went on to reuse the horror on a horror movie set premise in the latter Scream films. I would argue it didn’t work there, but it worked better than it does here.

Final Rating – 6 / 10. If this was Wes’ vision from the beginning, Nightmare would not have made film #4.

freddy_vs_jasonFreddy vs Jason 2003

Even when I was younger and devouring every horror film I could find, I must admit I didn’t go beyond either of the original Nightmare and Friday the 13th series. In fact, I am confident that the second film in either franchise that I saw was this one, a clumsy crossover trying to capitalise on the appeal of the respective franchise villains.

In a relatively clever but altogether contrived tactic the perpetually banished Freddy sends the hockey masked automaton Jason to Springwood, in the hope that his bloodletting will conjure up memories of Freddy, because it is in teen nightmares that he finds strength and ultimately, killing power.

This predictably does the trick, because if it didn’t we wouldn’t have a film. Astonishingly enough one of the gormless teens guesses the exact circumstances behind the appearance of two of cinema’s most lauded killers, just so there can be no doubt for us the viewers.

Freddy is indeed back. Again. But while Freddy has a couple moments and of course the lions share of the dialogue, Jason gets the films best moment in a lengthy cornfield rave slaughter.

The problem again is who to root for when you don’t have a dog in the race? It takes a special type of perversion to hope the bad guy wins, but in the case of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm street if the bad guy doesn’t win the franchises don’t exist. They rely on the gory deaths of the pretty and innocent (and often topless and dumb). But do we really ‘go for’ Freddy? Or Jason? Or the concept of horror villain Mortal Kombat itself?

Jason is practically indestructible and Freddy is fuelled by dreams. Neither seem to be susceptible to any substance of tactic beyond slowing them down or laying them up for a while. For mine this is akin to the issues created by all Terminator films after T2, of the Superman films, of Watchmen, of the last (and very likely all the future) Avengers film(s);

Who to back when both sides are essentially unkillable?

Underdogs exists to triumph against the odds. When the odds are the same regardless of the bet, who cares who wins?

Final Rating – 6.5 / 10. An occasionally entertaining curio that perhaps had no reason to exist in the first place beyond reinvigorating two tired franchises. The absence of subsequent true sequels tells you how that went…

nightmare_on_elm_streetA Nightmare on Elm Street 2010

The less I think about A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 the better. The teenagers in this Springwood are bland, forgettable and surly. The adults practically invisible. Freddy Kreuger (Jackie Earl Haley) has infinitely more makeup but looks like a lizard instead of a badly burned angry man.

The tone is dark, the execution deplorable. There is neither fun nor menace here. The film cherry picks the best kills and dreams and repeats them… Adequately, but nothing here could possibly impress anyone.

The box office takings of just over zero confirmed this, and the fact that a reboot of a multi-sequelised series couldn’t justify even a single follow up probably tells us all we need to know.

Final Rating – 5 / 10. Wes Craven famously thought the first Nightmare was not worthy of a sequel, it took a reboot a quarter century later to prove this beyond doubt.

In Summation… really

freddy-kruegerA Nightmare on Elm Street 1 might be a classic but it isn’t the best film in the franchise, that would be Nightmare 3. But swimming pool slaughter in Nightmare 2 aside, films 1-4 mark an especially worthwhile and creditable run of teen friendly horror.

Wes Craven might have gotten the kudos for the mediocre Scream trilogy (because he was by that time savvy enough to cast known actors), but it is A Nightmare on Elm Street that will be keeping kids awake for decades to come.

And as a rule of thumb, just consider everything since 1987 – a few moments in Freddy vs Jason aside – as if they do not exist. Your sanity will thank you.


About OGR

While I try to throw a joke or two into proceedings when I can all of the opinions presented in my reviews are genuine. I don't expect that all will agree with my thoughts at all times nor would it be any fun if you did, so don't be shy in telling me where you think I went wrong... and hopefully if you think I got it right for once. Don't be shy, half the fun is in the conversation after the movie.
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