And so we enter the final stretch. Truth be told I planned having this up way earlier, however I had to buy myself a copy of FREDDY vs. JASON to complete the series and found myself at the whims of the cruel mistress that is Amazon. In this blog we’re going to be looking at the last two films in the series with Freddy as a singular villain. An addendum blog will surface in the next few weeks to discuss FREDDY vs. JASON.
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare
Don’t you just love it when a moniker hoists a film with it’s own petard? It’s easy to be cynical about an entry in a successful horror franchise attempting a sense of finality but in reality this was the film which all but killed The Elm Street movies. Whilst it’s easy to see that this was intentioned to be the last in the main continuity of the Elm Street films you get the feeling that the plan was to spin Freddy into something a little more epic and do some cross-over type stuff in the 90s. The final shot of Jason Goes To Hell in 1993 seemed to suggest that a supernatural tag-team was going to the main event in 90s horror, and yet FREDDY vs. JASON wouldn’t materialise for over a decade after both series had run their course (with the FRIDAY films even attempting their own reboot with JASON X in the meantime). For whatever reason the public lost their taste for these killers and the 90s became something of an extended wake for everyone’s favourite Child Murderer and Avenging Retard.
It’s perhaps easy to see how FREDDY’S DEAD nurtured a distaste for the character of Freddy Kruger, whilst I’m far kinder to it than most people it’s impossible to argue that this was an Elm Street film turned up to 11. The problem is that in doing so the creators of the film sort of exposed how gauche the series had become and how the focus had ultimately shifted from children being terrorised by a burnt maniac with finger knives to the Freddy Kruger show. This change had been occurred in pop culture long before FREDDY’S DEAD but it was this film which made that cultural switch implicit.
As such FREDDY’S DEAD is a film populated with ciphers and concerned with the nature of Kruger. We see way more of his back story in the film, we learn of the reason behind his powers, and we get closure on the series. The problem is that Freddy’s back story isn’t all that interesting outside of what we already know and in making Freddy the star of the show the film effectively neuters the one consistent element of quality in the series which was Robert Englund’s ability to switch between the broad comedy of the character and an almost startlingly level of hate and anger. Even in the DREAM CHILD Freddy maintained a hint of an edge, but in this film he’s practically vaudevillian and it defuses any tension whatsoever.
Where the film works for me, and doesn’t for a lot of others, is how far the film is willing to go with that vaudevillian tone. The film is pure camp. It’s illogical, it’s silly, it’s garish and it’s cheesy as all hell but it’s also far more memorable than Stephen Hopkin’s dreary previous film. Director Rachel Talalay does a lot with very little and even if ultimately the film doesn’t work, and it really doesn’t work at all, I still respect the ambition. The main problem with FREDDY’S DEAD is that it looks cheap and that’s because despite having a grander scope than the previous film it’s got the, allegedly, the smallest budget of all of the films in the series. Whilst there’s an attempt at a cartoony visual aesthetic it feels utterly flat compared to all but the second film in the series.
The film’s saving grace is a sense of humour which is kind of off kilter. Most people remember the film as being kind of retarded, but there’s something infectiously funny about certain moments in the film. Freddy beating the crap out of some kid with a power glove is just ridiculous, but the scene goes on so long and is film with such gusto that the concept actually transforms into something almost deliriously funny. The problem is that the film gets compromised a few too many times in the name of a quick joke and it feels like tonally the film doesn’t know what to do with itself. On one hand you’ve got Freddy at his broadest, most ‘anti-heroic’ and on the other hand you’ve got a group of kids whose back story is pitch black. It’s kind of odd that we’re watching a film where we’re expected to delight in the torture and murder of children who, it can be inferred, suffered all manner of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their parents. As such we’ve got Freddy in one dream sequence taking the form of one kids parent and attempting to recreate a rape but we’ve also got Freddy prancing around behind a deaf kid and shhing the audience. It’s an odd dichotomy and it brings the inherent conflict of the character to the fore. By highlighting and heightening these two conflicting ideas of Freddy as audience hero and Freddy as brutal, primal, force of horror it gives the film a weirdly unpleasant feel.
At the end of the day the biggest issue with FREDDY’S DEAD is that it feels like no one has a fucking clue as to what they’re doing. The extended back story for Kruger is so boring and staid that it feels like we still don’t know all that much about the man, although learning about Kruger’s pre-burn life just seems to be a bad idea anyways, and the rest of the film just feels tonally dislocated. It’s populated with weird one-shot cameos that probably were a lot of fun at the time but just feel odd now. We’ve got Roseanne and Tom Arnold showing up for a few minutes, but because it’s not the early 90s anymore it just feels like we’re seeing some weird couple walk onto the film for a few minutes. Similarly Alice Cooper’s cameo in the film as Freddy’s dad only really works if you know it’s Alice Cooper and understand the context of why that was funny, within the film itself it just looks like Harry Dean Stanton walked onto set for a few minutes.
What’s frustrating is that stuff works in the film. Kruger stalking a deaf kid through his dreams shows perhaps the most interesting visual design in the entire sequence and it’s predicated on good idea, after good idea, but it goes on so long and ends on such an odd note that the piece feels deflated. Even the stuff with the stupid dream demons feels like it could work as part of a broader, more mythical, take on the character but despite these threats to expand the concept the conclusion of the film feels far too small and literal. After all the set up with dream demons, and Kruger’s back-story, and the idea of Freddy expanding his domain beyond the borders of Springwood the final confrontation happens in an anonymous basement. It’s frustrating and reductive and it feels like we’ve been watching the film spin it’s wheels for 80 minutes so that it could show us the really boring flashbacks of Freddy being an abusive husband and creepy child. The thing is that Freddy Kruger as a child killer brought back to haunt the dreams of children through sheer force of will is a far more terrifying prospect than Freddy Kruger, some fucked up kid who became a fucked up guy who sold his soul for more power.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
he thing which always defined Freddy as a villain, to me, was his humanity. Sure it’s a sick, twisted, humanity, but there’s still something innately human about Freddy in the way that Michael Myers and Jason aren’t. They’re monolithic stabbing machines, Freddy is a being of avarice and spite and malice and it always made him far more threatening and far compelling an antagonist.
As such I never took to Wes Craven’s ‘new’ Freddy in the way a lot of Nightmare on Elm Street film fans did. There seems to be a general consensus that New Nightmare is in the upper echelon of Elm Street films and I can kind of understand where that viewpoint comes from. In practical terms New Nightmare probably represents the most artistically sound of all the Elm Street films. It’s well made, well acted, and most importantly it feels like it is made with a sense of purpose missing from the series since it’s first outing nearly a decade beforehand. But to me intent doesn’t always equal quality, just because a film has a good idea doesn’t make it a worthwhile endeavour.
The major issue I have with New Nightmare is that in the context of its time it should be something far better. The 90s are something of a roach motel for horror franchises, the big boys check in (Freddy’s Dead, Jason Goes To Hell, Hellraiser: Hell on Earth) but they invariably don’t check out. In fact the only franchise which seems to have a consistent presence throughout the 90s are the Halloween films and even they get something of a proto-reboot towards the end of the decade. What seems to destroy the viability of these films is Wes Craven’s own film Scream. Scream laid waste to the slasher genre as it was. New Nightmare feels, to me at least, like it’s a thematic proving ground for Scream. Scream is arguably one of Craven’s better films (it’s my personal favourite) and the meta elements which are handled so fantastically in that film are tested in New Nightmare.
The problem is while Scream feels vital and fun and manages to combine it’s clever, meta, elements with the trappings of a genuinely great Slasher movie ,New Nightmare feels kind of hopelessly inert. It’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is and it doesn’t really operate all that well as a horror film.
Let’s start with how it works as a horror film. My biggest issue with the film is that as a part of the Elm Street series it doesn’t feel right. Whilst it’s an odd point to dwell on the fact is that Freddy doesn’t do actually kill all that many people. We get two on-screen fatalities, one of which is pretty weak and the other which kind of ruins my favourite bit of the original, and the rest of the time we’re watching what feels like a proto J-Horror film with creepy kids and portents of doom but no real presence from the antagonist. Even the final twenty minutes when Heather finds herself trapped in the reality of the movies and battling ‘Freddy’ in his underground lair feels kind of devoid of menace.
My big issue with the film however is that whilst it’s concept is interesting it’s handled in a way that feels masturbatory. The idea is that Wes Craven, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp and everybody else who worked on the original Elm Street film has tapped into some ancient, metaphysical, form of evil. This evil exerts power through knowledge of it’s existence, in the past it chose fairy tales and folk stories and religious texts, now it favours the oeuvre of a so-so filmmaker. What’s fascinating about this concept is that it kind of works in regards to the character of Freddy Kruger, what’s not so fascinating is that anyone we’ve even a vague understanding of social anthropology would have already come across the idea of movies and literature as 20th Century mythology. The other issue is that this subject had been covered two years earlier in the utterly fantastic, and personal favourite film, Candyman. It’s got a very similar idea, about Urban Myth and legend needing to maintain itself by remaining in the public conscious, but it was always willing to take a far more studied and interesting approach to the idea.
A clever idea isn’t enough to sustain a movie and New Nightmare compounds the problem by trying to hard. Wes Craven appearing as himself and apparently authoring the defeat of evil in its most primal state feels arrogant in the same way that M Night Shylaman kind of being Jesus in Lady in the Water does. Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp talking about the new Freddy as being darker and scarier almost ruins the effect of the Freddy redesign, it also doesn’t help that in redesigning Freddy they seem to complicate the design and make some weird aesthetic choices. Kruger with bio-mechanical claws and a trench coat feels like some weird IMAGE comic version of the character and the fact he never seems to be shown with proper lighting makes the truly great makeup job look kind of lousy at times.
Craven chooses to present Freddy in brightly lit rooms or rooms with unhelpful lighting and they just make the new Freddy look odd and plasticky. I’m sure there are people who love the Freddy design, but this is my blog so I get to speak in absolutes.
In general I feel that New Nightmare is kind of dull, not forgettable in the way that Dream Child is, but just kind of plodding and meandering. There is the skeletal structure of a great film, but it’s overlong and doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. On one hand the film accentuates the spookiness of the film series, with Freddy operating as an almost possessive spirit rather than his usual sadistic self, but then ends with an all out brawl in what can only be described as hell.
I also think the biggest crime in the film is the way in which it restages Tina’s death and SHOWS us just what Freddy is doing to the victim. As I said in part 1 one of the most effective things about the original Nightmare on Elm Street was the fact you weren’t sure what was happening, seeing Trench-Coat Freddy drag a girl by the ankles along the wall just feels like Craven losing sight of what worked in the original.
Where the film works however is in its imagery. Craven crafted possibly the best of the dream sequences in the entire series in the first film by using unreal elements to invade a classroom with horror. New Nightmare works on a visual level because Craven understands the visual disconnect between Freddy Kruger and reality. Having him stood at horizontal angles on the wall, or using his claws to antagonise Heather are when the film works at its best. It’s an evocative, interesting, flawed, pretentious, work which puts it head and shoulders above Dream Master (which I actually kind of like, but have to admit it’s pretty lunk headed) and Dream Child.
What saves the movie more than anything else are universally great performances, even from that creepy kid, and in particular a great performance from Heather Langenkamp. It’s just a shame that the film feels more like Craven taking his ball home than him trying to do something truly creative.