I have a theory that you can divide most horror geeks of a certain age into three separate camps. Those who love NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, those who love the HALLOWEEN films and those who are fans of the FRIDAY THE 13TH films. Of course there can be overlap, but I think most people gravitate towards one of the of big three series.
Whilst I have room in my heart for Jason Voorhees and I kind of like the first Halloween film, the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films have always been my #1 Horror Crush. With the recent release of NEVER SLEEP AGAIN, a massive retrospective documentary on the series as a whole, I decided to work my way through the series from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET to FREDDY vs. JASON. So sit back and prepare to scan some hastily written and utterly conflicting reports on a series I love and loathe in equal measure.
I’ve split these into three parts, as I went a little overboard with each. Part 1 will deal with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 1 and 2. Part 2 will deal with films 3 to 5 which create their own weird little continuity and Part 3 will deal with FREDDY’S DEAD, THE NEW NIGHTMARE and FREDDY vs. JASON.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
To most fans the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is the best of the Elm Street films, whilst I’m not going to disagree with the consensus for me personally it’s a middling entry in the series. In terms of tone Wes Craven’s original film is one of the few legitimately scary Nightmare films. There’s a brutality and viciousness to Freddy’s attacks which is still legitimately unnerving and it’s interesting because this is the only film in the series that divorces Freddy’s dream attacks from their consequences in the real world.
Latter films will show Freddy dispatching someone in their dreams and then cutting to the victim spasming into death in the real world. In A Nightmare on Elm Street two of the major kills are shown completely subjectively and it makes them genuinely horrific. Tina being lifted from her bed and being dissected in mid air is terrifying and visceral because it’s so disconnected from reality. Glen being dragged into a vortex in the bed, despite it showing a little more of the cause and effect of his death, is similarly terrifying. In both cases our minds are left to do the leg work in regards to what horrible thing Freddy is doing to them in the dream world and it’s amazingly effective.
Also effective is Robert Englund as Freddy Kruger. Over the course of the season Freddy slowly starts to dominate proceedings, becoming almost an avenging jester by his fifth and sixth appearances, but in this film he is just utterly repellently evil. There’s an innate rapeyness to the character in his first appearances and it helps to create this truly loathsome character. With his grubby clothes, lecherous tongue and lustful eyes there’s a level of threat to the female victims that’s not really there in the later films. Simply put Freddy is scary and despite some shoddy effects he’s amazingly effective as a villain.
There’s an interesting thing going on with Freddy in this film in that there’s an element of masochism to the character, ostensibly he damages himself to show Tina and Nancy how powerful he is but there’s something that feels almost fetish about him slicing his body.
Faring less well are Freddy’s victims. The ELM STREET films are interesting because they never have the massive body counts that the FRIDAY and HALLOWEEN accrue in their later entries. At his most deadly Freddy kills six people, on camera, in one film. As such the ELM STREET films tend to focus on the ‘victims’ more than it’s stablemates. Because Freddy operates in such an operatic/theatric capacity we need to know a little bit about the characters for their dream sequences to work and as such there’s a genuine demand for the kids playing the victims to be interesting on screen.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET lays the groundwork for a trick that Wes Craven will play again in SCREAM in that he sets up a ‘fake survivor girl’. Tina is the first person we see on screen and is given a fair amount of attention until she’s ripped to shreds fifteen minutes into the movie. The problem is that the film only has four central victims and her death eliminates her from proceedings AND her boyfriend who largely disappears from the file until he’s killed half an hour later. As such the bulk of the films narrative falls on the characters of Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp) and Glen Lantz (played by a debuting Johnny Depp). As such we’re left with a horror film that feels like it’s been rendered inert because we know that nothing can happen to these two leads until towards the end. There’s a lot of familial strife for Nancy (terrible parents is something of a meta-theme for the ELM STREET films) and occasional agitation from Kruger but it feels poorly paced at times.
Langenkamp does an admirable job as Nancy and she seems to get way more comfortable in the role as it progresses, but there’s a certain stiffness to her which takes some getting used to. Depp does okay in his role, it’s more interesting seeing Depp playing a straight-man rather than lathering himself in quirk.
The real star of the film is the style and art direction. As the series progresses it gets more and more overt in its stylisation practically becoming a day-glo cartoon by it’s fourth outing, but this first film is filmed fairly naturalistically and it gives the dream sequences and murders a real unearthly vibe. In particular Nancy’s dream in class, scored to distorted reading of a Shakespeare package and focused around the horrific image of Tina’s bloody corpse being dragged through the school in a polythene bag, is one of the most striking elements of the film. Craven talks at lengths about his interest in nightmares and how he used his own nightmares for inspiration and you can really see that in this film, there’s a dreamy, off kilter, quality to the nightmares in the film which mark it in stark contrast to the latter films and their zany, comic booky, dream sequences. In this film the dream world is a terrifying place even before Freddy Kruger shows up to perpetrate massive harm on your psyche.
What I find interesting is that despite being the ‘first’ of the ELM STREET films it doesn’t really set up the formula for the proceeding films. Freddy undergoes massive changes over the next two movies, the tone of the series changes, the focus on the dream world and the real world shifts to favour the former. NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET feels like a skeleton of an idea which the third film builds upon and establishes the thematics and conventions of the series.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE
Mention the second ELM STREET film to a movie geek and they’ll probably look ponderous before exclaiming ‘oh yeah, the gay one!”. The reputation is totally deserved as well, but that doesn’t make it a bad film.
A failure to provide a reasonable rationale for the actions of your main antagonist however does a good job of making it a bad film. Every horror franchise seems to have a film which breaks away from the norm and uses the thematics of the series to tell a unique, non-connected, story.
HALLOWEEN 3 completely breaks away from the story of Michael Myers, FRIDAY THE 13TH:A NEW BEGINNING has a fake Jason rampage, every HELLRAISER film after the 4th uses the Cenobites as a background element of the story. In the same way FREDDY’S REVENGE turns the series, albeit briefly, into an attempt at body horror. Freddy as a villain is kind of staggeringly inert throughout the film, slowly taking over the body of main character Jesse throughout the course of the film.
This slow transformation means that if you’re not that interested in Jesse as a character then you’re going to be mightily bored. I’m personally of the opinion that Jesse and his ‘friends’ are an interesting, engaging bunch of kids. Jesse’s relationship with his girlfriend Lisa and the antagonistic friendship he has with Ron Grady actually feel really well realised and Jesse is a diverting, if slightly whiny and creepy, lead. The problem with the film is that it focuses too much on the teenage life of these three characters. Also it’s a horror film with THREE characters. Of these three characters only one of them is actually a victim. Whilst I’m not advocating mass murder it seems odd that the film seems to actually seek to be reductive in terms of establishing characters.
The subtext to the film is interesting, particularly with the casting of Mark Patton (who had outed himself prior to starring in the film), as it’s easy to interpret the possession by Freddy as being a metaphor for Jesse’s latent homosexuality. Scenes in the film like Jesse being confronted by his kinky Gym Teacher, in full leather gear, at a gay bar and the fact the final act of the film is kicked off by Jesse being unable to make love to his girlfriend and rushing to his male friend Ron for solace seem to accentuate the problem. It’s a troublesome reading because it implies that Jesse’s latent homosexuality is destructive and that the ‘good’ ending is Lisa convincing him to abandon it for her.
Getting away from subtext Freddy is handled very oddly in the film. In terms of tone he’s perhaps nastier and seedier than he was in the original and there’s a certain inconsistency to his powers and abilities. Kruger now has power over fire, can possess places even when people aren’t awake and has organic finger knives. It’s all fan boy bullshit, but it’s so wildly inconsistent from his other appearances that it feels like Freddy has been shoehorned into another story. Kruger’s motivation also seems odd, there’s no reason for him to use Jesse as an avatar unless he doesn’t have the ability to enter dreams anymore. It feels like either this is an early draft of an ELM STREET film where Kruger has murdered all of the Elm Street kids or it’s a script for another movie retrofitted for canon. It doesn’t stop Freddy being vicious and his rampage at the end of the film (whilst kind of clumsy looking) is utterly brutal and oddly iconic, Freddy addressing the teenagers with a wall of flames behind is striking to say the least.
In terms of visual design the film is very flat looking, but it’s horror elements are really well done. Jesse’s transformation sequences are amazingly effective and certain throwaway elements (like a couple of dogs with child faces guarding Kruger at the end) are utterly nightmarish. However the fact the other films seemingly overlook the very existence of this movie seems to suggest that it’s not really viewed as being part of the overall series. When you consider that films 1,3,4, and 5 all follow the same continuity it seems odd that no mention is ever made to the film again.
As it is the film feels confused as an Elm Street film but has some great central performances, fine work from Englund, and is genuinely horrific.