So as we continue our little journey down Elm Street we reach the three films I’ve always viewed as being the closest the series ever got to a trilogy. They all concern the central character attempting to either take control of the dream world, or using their own abilities to combat Freddy. Of the Nightmare series the films which operate in the strictest continuity and even include crossover casts and plotlines. They’re also a perfect examination of how a concept can be done magnificently and how the same concept can become the height of tedium.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
Here’s a geeky question. Just how long after the original does this film take place? A Nightmare on Elm Street came out in 1984, it’s sequel the next year. However the sequel jumped forward five years, so is this movie set seven years after the original. As such are the Nightmare on Elm Street films actually set, by and large, in the 1990s?
Nancy’s hair says no, but my heart says yes.
Regardless of the time period something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and by Denmark I mean Patricia Arqutte’s psyche. Freddy Kruger has decided to give up his summer job as the personification of homosexual Id and get back to his first love, the brutal (and for some reason Ironic) butchery of teenagers. Whilst I wasn’t utterly scathing of Freddy’s Revenge, with the film’s reputation it’s akin to curb stomping a puppy to get all critical with it, it’s nice to see Freddy back as an actual threat to children. His comedic lunging in Part 2 whilst oddly vicious always felt like a party entertainer had gone a little method rather than a homicidal maniac had achieved corporeal form and was about to get his long awaited murder on.
Here is what is magical about Dream Warriors, it somehow manages to balance wisecracking, ironic, Freddy with scary, rapey, Freddy. This is perhaps the last film in the series in which Freddy has a sense of menace and power to him but it’s also one of the more whimsical entries in the series. Despite all of bloodletting, and tits, and tendon pup petering, the entire film is built on the kind of ‘believe in yourself and you can achieve anything’ and ‘the power of love and friendship will overcome all odds’ moralising you’d usually find in Captain Planet.
I like to think that part of the reason for this tonal tightrope actually working is Frank Darabront’s involvement at the script stage. Now I know Darabront’s no miracle worker, delude yourself all you want but his Indy 4 script wouldn’t have saved that film (then again the power of Christ couldn’t have said that film), but I think he is gifted with the kind of emotional intelligence that is really lacking in most of these films. Whilst the stuff with the dream group can get a little sappy and cheesy, it feels earned and the kids actually feel like they have three dimensions (I mean this figuratively, the kids don’t get literal three dimensions until Freddy’s Dead). As discussed earlier part of the appeal of these films, too me, is that they feel focused on actually creating likeable characters rather than just fodder. We’re given enough information and time so that we actually get to like Kristen, Kincaid, and Joey, and that kid in the wheelchair, and the junkie chick, and that smart ass who gets walked off a building. OK, so it looks bad that I don’t actually remember half of their names, but I’m pretty sure the kid in the wheelchair doesn’t even have a name. Names or not they’re still a likeable bunch, like the Breakfast Club with mental health issues, and it helps Freddy maintain a hint of a threat.
The next two films in the series will start to see the kids having their personalities scaled back (presumably for budgetary reasons) and their dream sequences becoming grand circus of ironic hilarity rather than something truly horrible. There’s elements of that mean-spiritedness here, the weird looking kid who gets smashed into a TV seems to be get way more abuse than anyone else, but in general you’re rooting for these kids and Nancy, whose now all PHD’d up and kind of looking like the Bride of Frankenstein.
Nancy’s an interesting part of the texture of the Elm Street films as she kick starts a precedent for the survivor girl appearing in the next movie, dying, and handing the reins over to the next survivor girl. As such as soon as Nancy sees Kristen you know she’s going to get all clawed up at some point.
This is the iconic Nightmare film in a lot of ways, simply because it introduces the elements people know and love about Freddy. You ask people what they think about Freddy Kruger and they’ll tell you he’s a burned dude who cracks wise whilst dragging people into crazy dream worlds. This is the film which introduces wise cracking Freddy, which introduces gauche personalised dream worlds and which subtly redesign the costume to what we know it today. Gone is the massive jumper, in is a svelte sweatshirt. Hell ,they even call him Freddy this time rather than the rather unassuming Fred of the first film.
“Fred Kruger mom! He came into my dream and advised me about my tax rebate”
In the original you dream and you go to Freddy’s weird little boiler room, it’s essentially the horror house from Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Last House on the Left transposed onto dream logic. With this film we start to see Freddy actively using dreams as something grand and almost operatic. Whilst the stuff with the kids gaining their dream powers is cheesy, it shows a level of ambition and a level of psychological savvy that the films never really see again. It also allows us a weird dream world where four of the kids ostensibly gain super powers (although the one black kid being able punch things REAL hard feels a little questionable) whilst the other gets a Mohawk and some flick knives. Now I’m not debating the merits of a Mohawk and flick knives, but compared to the kid whose scream can destroy matter, or the kid who can acrobatically defy physics or the kid WHO IS A FUCKING WIZARD just asking for flick knives and a hair-do seems a little reductive.
We’re also treated to some more inconsistencies with regards to Freddy’s powers. Now you see I think it’s kind of hilarious that Freddy has no hard and fast rules in regards to what he can do, but I do wonder if anyone gets seriously agitated by him flouting the rules. Anyways after killing the wizard kid and somehow overcoming the girl with the Mohawk and flick-knives Freddy is facing down our intrepid heroes when he realises something ain’t right in the material world and he fades out to possess his bones, don’t ask, and go Harryhausen all over John Saxon’s ass. Two things strike me as odd about this. One, Freddy can reanimate his bones seemingly at will but has chosen not to do despite the fact that surely an unkillable bag of bones would surely be just as an effective avatar as a whiny kid who’s so far in the closest he’s been proclaimed the king of Narnia. Two, why does Skele-Freddy have his blade glove when Nancy’s mother apparently stole it from said corpse years ago. Three, why the fuck did Nancy’s mother steal Freddy’s glove all those years ago? Did she feel that at some point down the line she’d need an appropriate visual aid to explain to her kid how she firebombed some dude for the greater good?
This film also starts the tradition of Freddy killing people fairly innocuously but going full on with the build up. He lobs one kid off of the roof of an asylum which doesn’t sound all that interesting, the main thing about this is the lead up to the actual death, with Freddy ripping out the kids veins and tendons and turning him into some squirming teen marionette. It’s painful and gooey and really effective and it sort of marks the transition from Elm Street being a slasher film (Tina and Glen in the original are, despite the theatricality, fairly standard murders) to being something halfway between body horror and slasher. Freddy lingers with his victims and often the level of violence inflicted on one person becomes almost monstrous, and that’s a part of the films odd charm. Jason and Michael have to have ever increasing body counts because they’re essentially blunt objects, Freddy can spend five minutes putting each victim through agony. Lamentably this is probably as much a progenitor of Torture Porn, and in particular the Saw films, as Last House on the Left.
One last thing to mention is the score. Now the first Nightmare film was scored by good old Charles Bernstein (who created the really fantastic main theme), the second film got Christopher (I’m a truly fantastic composer, but I don’t seem to get any credit) Young for the scoring and in the third film we get Angelo (David Lynch taught me to eschew soundtracks in favour of random buzzing sounds) Badalmenti. Badalmenti does some nice ambient stuff and seems to homage Bernstein a lot, which is nice. From this point on the Nightmare films get overtaken by tie-in heavy metal songs, a trend started by the Dokken track from this film, and that’s a shame because Bernstein, Young and Badalmenti all bring really interesting layers to the films that get lost in the later films.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
Here’s a thing I like about most of the Elm Street films, there’s a symmetry in that the majority of them have similar openings of an unseen figure crafting something. In the original we have the glove, in The Dream Warriors we have Kristen’s papier-mâché house, in The Dream Master we get creepy child drawing a chalk picture and in this we get a creepy child drawing on a sidewalk. It’s a tenuous theory but it’s a theory I’ll defend to the death.
So we have Kristen, Kincaid and Joey showing up in this film as the survivors from the last movie. It’s a nice way of establishing a timeline for the films, although you have to wonder how they all got released from the mental asylum considering they would have been found with the corpses of two of their friends and their psychiatrist following the events of the last film. Maybe some paperwork got misfiled and a judge got famous whilst some lawyers got fat. Anyways here’s the problem with Kristen, Kincaid and Joey being in the film. We know these kids, we like these kids, even if Kristen has been replaced by an actress who only looks like Patricia Arquette if Patricia Arquette had acquired a nasty case of downs syndrome, and we couldn’t give a fuck about the ‘new’ survivor kids.
That’s not entirely fair, Alice is probably my favourite reoccurring Elm Street character, but it’s interesting that this is the Elm Street film with the biggest body count (outside of Freddy vs. Jason which is like a fucking teen holocaust) and yet the actual details of these murders are almost ephemeral. Joey gets drowned, Kincaid summons Freddy by way of demon dog and then gets stabbed on a planet made of cars, one nerdy girl gets sucked dry, one guy gets murdered in a dojo and some girl, in an admittedly bravura continuation of the body horror theme, gets turned into a cockroach and dies, somehow. Conceptually they all work, but there’s no edge to them, nothing tied into the deeper narrative of the characters (unless Kincaid was REALLY scared of cars and scrap heaps) and despite sounding interesting they’re all kind of anonymous.
Written by Brian Helgeland, who has the bizarre career of any screenwriter anywhere, you can tell there’s been some thought put into the overall narrative in terms of continuing the arcs from the last film but it just seems like the director Renny Harlin doesn’t care. It’s not that he’s apathetic it’s just that he seems determined to do what he’s told. Harlin brings a certain flair to the film and it actually looks genuinely handsome at times, but it feels fluffy and disorganised and no amount of moody lighting can shake the feeling that you’re watching something that was compromised at some point. Harlin is able to achieve some genuinely iconic shots, the shot inside Freddy of all of the children he killed is genuinely unnerving, but the best thing he does in the film is use Freddy’s finger knives. By having Freddy actually cut up apples, and pick things up with the finger knives, it gives them a sense of physical presence and allows you to wile away the hours wondering how they convinced the cast to let them actually putting knives onto the end of Englund, or his stunt doubles, fingers. Now the chances are this is all special effects jiggery-pokery, but I prefer to live the lie and imagine that at some point they actually built a functional set of finger knives.
One of the funner things about watching the films in a row is watching the filmmakers desperately trying to work out how to kill a guy who is literally mythical. From Nancy denouncing his existence in Part 1 the producers tend to favour esoteric ‘power of love’ type endings with only Dream Warriors dispatching Freddy in a way that was set up earlier. Alice forcing the children’s souls to rip themselves from Freddy works on an esoteric level, but feels flimsy and it feels like the filmmakers just rushed to finish.
Also how odd is it that they replaced Kristen but didn’t change her mother at all. Kristen’s mother, in a series full of AWFUL parents, probably takes the cake for being utterly abusive and horrible. When you consider that the first film has the mother being a drunken, previously homicidal, shell of a woman and Freddy’s Dead is full of parents who are physically abusive that’s quite some feat.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child
Here’s something funny. Nothing happens of interest in The Dream Master, Freddy anonymously kills some kids and makes wise cracks. Tons of stuff happens in The Dream Child and yet it’s a completely joyless slog. In theory the different elements of this movie should stack up to something truly great, in actuality it just ends up being subjectively the worst of the Elm Street films.
The film opens with Alice and her boyfriend, aka the Random guy she nearly murdered by carelessness in the previous movie, fucking in that sultry, over lit, late 80s way. In a way this ties into the creation aspect of the other movies, with little baby Jacob being created in lieu of papier-mâché houses and razor gloves. This is perhaps the cleverest thing about the movie, which is a shame.
In this movie we get flashbacks to nun rape, we see Freddy being born and his little foetal self scurrying away in a direct homage to Alien, we get Freddy at his most outlandish and we get the creepiest child actor ever known to man. Unfortunately nothing comes of it and there’s an overriding sense of cheapness and listlessness to the entire thing. Stephen Hopkins as a director has this unusual talent for overseeing projects with interesting ideas and quirks and somehow making them look cheap and wretched. For all of the abuse Lost In Space got at release I’m sure a better director with that FX team and script could have created something special.
Whilst Renny Harlin could never be classed as a subtle or nuanced he actually managed to make his cast feel lively at times. The cast assembled for The Dream Child just never quite gels. There are five main victims in the film. One is taken out almost immediately, the other two dissapear until they’re needed and the other is literally in the film for three scenes, one of which is her BIG Nightmare moment. Like the original Alice feels utterly isolated, but unlike the original there’s no sense of menace or dread. Freddy just looks odd (check out his weirdo arms throughout the film) and has become the master of jokes. When you don’t give a shit about the victims Freddy transforms from being something horrific and becomes an almost vaudevillian figure, inflicting ironic punishment on people for our entertainment. As such there’s real spectacle to Freddy’s kills this time, people get Tetsuo: The Iron Man’d into a motorcycle, people are fed their own innards, at one point Freddy turns into a goddamn super-hero but because there’s nothing to hold it together they feel like skits more than anything else.
Even Englund, usually energised in his role as everyone’s favourite immortal paedophile, seems bored in the role delivering his lines like a washed up comic forced to do paid personal appearances and tell old jokes……there were supposed to be more paragraphics but aside from laying into the aesthetics of the piece (a brown filter? Really?) I honestly don’t think there’s much else to say.
Some people will say that this is a better film than Freddy’s Dead and I’d disagree for one key reason. This film tries to go out there and zany with it’s dream sequences but fails to be truly crazy, Freddy’s Dead for all of it’s failings feels like a legitimately crazy film and it becomes endearingly entertaining because of it. The Dream Child just feels like watching beige paint dry.