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A Nightmare on Elm Street – A Retrospective


There were three major slasher franchises born of the late 70s and early 80s. The first was Halloween, the tale of a masked killer who never said a thing and represented evil itself. The second was Friday the 13th, the tale of a masked killer who never said a thing and represented some kind of moral judgment. The third was A Nightmare on Elm Street, the tale of an unmasked killer who invaded the dreams of the children of the people who killed him and exacted vengeance upon the innocent.

All three had their ups and downs, but I think my favorite of the three series overall is A Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s a wonderful sense of imagination to almost all of the entries as Robert Shaye at New Line Cinema allowed directors a certain creative (though not financial) freedom to pursue their visions of the pure imagination. They also devolved into pursuits of lore and formula that robbed any potential entry of the exciting ability to do the unexpected, but at least the imagination was there in terms of the dreams. Like the other two, it also got rebooted in the 2010s with a new cast to try and extend the franchise further. It was a horrible disaster, and no one has made a film in the franchise since.

And yet, they speak to something truly horrifying: the idea that we could get attacked and violated in our most vulnerable moment: when we are asleep. All of our physical strength means nothing when we are asleep. What if something we didn’t understand invaded us there? What if it is completely unconnected to our own sins? What if the sins of the father do visit upon the son and there’s nothing we can do about it?

Horror


The franchise was birthed by Wes Craven, the writer/director who became well known for his entries in the horror genre, when he saw a handful of stories in Los Angeles newspapers about young people who feared going to sleep and then died while sleeping. He took that idea and made a horror film that tapped into something special that few horror films were able to even conceive at the time (and few have been able to grab since). A young girl goes to sleep and is terrorized by a horribly scarred monster with razors on his right hand, and her friends begin to die as they sleep in horrible ways, one by one.

I think horror is most effective when it successfully perverts something that should be safe into something horrible. The Shining, both Stephen King’s original novel and Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation, take the family unit, in particular the father figure, and make him a source of horror, speaking to an innate fear of the family unit suddenly breaking down, turning the safety of the family unit inside out. A Nightmare on Elm Street does something similar with dreams. We all have nightmares, those moments in the middle of the night when we suddenly wake up in a sweat because our minds have gone off the rails against our wishes and shown us something horrible, but what if they were something more? What if that terror kept on from the dream world and had real world consequences? We’ve all heard of the idea that we could die in real life if we actually hit the ground while falling in a dream, but what if it were true? What if it weren’t just random chance but a monster of a man was invading our dreams and making it happen?

The safety of sleep, when we cannot defend ourselves, becomes a battleground against an enemy we cannot understand or have any idea of how to fight. That is terrifying, and that is the fear that A Nightmare on Elm Street tapped into. For all of my problems with Wes Craven (I’ll have more to say about him in another thread), he really got something right with his first take on this idea.

The Lore and the Rules


Horror, like any sort of fantasy, requires rules to make it work in the minds of the audience. There needs to be bounds in which the strangeness that haunts our characters works, or else it ends up feeling random rather than terrifying. The rules around the terror that Freddy Krueger invites upon his victims was relatively clear: if you fall asleep, Freddy can get you. How that manifests can be a little unclear (how the kid in the jail in the first film ends up hanging himself through his dream has never felt straightforward to me), but that basic rule is always in place, except for the second movie. That second film, Freddy’s Revenge, is something of a black sheep of the franchise in that it ignores all of the rules of the first film and turns it into a possession story rather than a dream one.

From the third film on, though, the series tries to some degree to keep to the rules the first film sets out while expanding it with more rules. And the rules are simply complications that don’t really add much. The big one happens in the third where Patricia Arquette’s Kristen has the ability to bring other dreaming people into her dreams. This becomes important because this third film introduces the rule that Freddy can only invade the dreams of those children of the people who killed him. Kristen’s ability expands his feeding ground, so to speak. However, at no point was it ever made explicit in either of the first two films that Freddy could only attack those specific children. To me, it felt like a choice on his part. That he had become a malevolent spirit and he decided to take his vengeance out on a group of young men and women that didn’t have anything to do with his death in order to punish their parents. If he had wanted, I figured he could have gone beyond, but he just didn’t want to. And then the third movie introduces the rule that they were the only people he could invade. Why introduce this limitation?

And that’s what it ultimately is. It limits Freddy very narrowly, which is an odd thing for a franchise that was determined to just continue for several more movies. It also ties it directly to a specific actor and character (Patricia Arquette’s Kristen) which, considering the fact that Arquette quickly said no to any more appearances, seems to have been a mistake. They recast her in the fourth film with Tuesday Knight, but it still limited Freddy’s ability to invade new dreams harshly. They had to move her powers to a new character, the titular Dream Master (Lisa Wilcox’s Alice).

I’m not saying new rules are an impediment all the time, but the rules that the creative team of the Nightmare franchise chose to invent were antithetical to the interests of a continuing franchise. What’s even more curious is how they chose to continue to adopt some rules but not others, and it always made it harder to justify Freddy’s continued existence. Without the rule that Freddy can only invade the dreams of those specific children, it becomes open to move him around. Limit it to just Elm Street, and you can just get a new generation. But why? Why would Freddy keep going on? Well, the movies as they are pretty much just say it’s because he’s a malevolent spirit, and that’s all you need. Hell, in Freddy vs. Jason, they completely recast his power as being built on fear.

Doing Something Different


The second film turns him into a possessor instead of just a dream monster. The sixth film (and one of the worst) has one of the most interesting sections in the whole franchise where the town of Springwood has become a nightmarish and unescapable maze that traps our main victims before it becomes the silliest of the films. Outside of the seventh film, the meta-heavy New Nightmare that pulls back the franchise and focuses on the actors themselves, that’s about the extent of the really different things that the franchise tries to do. Outside of those, it’s just a bunch of teenagers discovering who Freddy is, spending at least half the movie trying to convince people that Freddy is real, and then they get killed in their dreams before a final showdown that definitely kills Freddy. For real, this time.

It didn’t have to be that way, though. Peter Jackson was hired to write a script for one of the later Nightmare films, and he included the idea that Freddy was weakening. High school students would get high and go to sleep at parties to gang up on and beat Freddy in their dreams. That was probably how the first act played out, most likely devolving into Freddy getting his powers back and taking vengeance, but it was something. New Line passed on it. The devolved Springwood is a great setup, but it’s quickly left behind in favor of the tradition structure of what we’ve come to know as a Freddy movie.

These movies were cheap to make, and they made their money back quickly. They were so successful that New Line Cinema became known as the studio that Freddy built. You know what that offers? Freedom. You only have to spend $5 million and you’ll definitely get $15 million back in profit? Let your creatives run wild. Let them discover new paths for Freddy to take. Let them be outrageous (this is a slasher, to be honest).

The studio never let the movies explore things narratively, but at least they let the directors explore things visually.

Dreams


There’s a moment in the fifth film’s finale where a chase happens in a dream. It takes place in an ever-changing set of stairs that defy gravity, calling to mind the painting by Escher of stairs titled “Relativity”. It’s such a great visual, and it helps buoy the entire third act for me. The rest of the film is one of the most plodding of the franchise, but the director Stephen Hopkins let his creative team explore design in interesting ways. That’s why I actually kind of like this series.

The Halloween films get bogged down in lore and increasingly absurd reasons for bringing Michael Meyers (along with at least three complete resets of the franchise). The Friday the 13th films are blunt violence (I need to see more than the first three at some point). The Nightmare films always lean into the nightmares themselves. They becomes excuses for design and special effects after a while, but it’s always something. They didn’t start that way, though. What Wes Craven tapped into with his first film was the nature of fear, the feeling of complete helplessness as the surreal enveloped you and became dangerous. Adding in the physical danger represented by Freddy creates a unique horror experience that few films before (perhaps stuff like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr) had tried to accomplish.

And that’s the peg on which the rest of the franchise hanged its special effects to diminishing returns to the point in the sixth film where Freddy is playing video games and making bon mots without any sense of terror or horror.

Revisiting Dreamland


And, of course, New Line tried to reboot Freddy Kreuger in the 2010s. It is everything wrong with modern horror, remakes, and Hollywood in general. It’s drab, humorless, obsessed with the wrong parts of lore, over-explaining, and just too dark visually. The most curious thing is that they made Freddy himself humorless. I don’t entirely blame the actor, Jackie Earle Haley, but this Freddy has no real wit to him. It’s all just anger, feeding this idea that Robert Englund is the only actor anywhere on earth who can do Freddy right. Nah. The writing team simply drained the character of any humor. Even in the original films where Freddy was the most dangerous, he still was out there entertaining himself even if he wasn’t being goofy for an audience.

The Point


It was interesting to watch the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise unfold. Both of and apart from the large slasher craze of the 80s and early 90s, it fulfills a lot of the typical slasher elements (teenagers as canon fodder for the central monster, in particular) while also allowing for a lot of room for creativity in design. It starts from a strong point, with Wes Craven’s original working of an idea into something almost primal in its handling of fear, and ends up following a standard, repetitive path of increasingly complex lore while maintaining the same formula again and again and again. It also has one of the most interesting sequels, New Nightmare that completely changes how things work.

I have quite a soft spot for this little franchise that built New Line. It’s not great, but there’s pretty consistent entertainment to be had.

Except the remake. Ugh.

2 thoughts on “A Nightmare on Elm Street – A Retrospective”

  1. I have a complicated relationship to Horror. I recognize its power, the feeling that everything is NOT going to be all right….that anyone can die…that’s powerful stuff. In real horror, the good guys can lose. The innocent suffer though no fault of their own.

    But I don’t enjoy it. I don’t really like watching the innocent being slaughtered (when it’s bad people being killed or punished, that’s drama, not horror). So I have mostly turned my back on the genre since 2001 or so.

    Freddy was always mixed as well. I don’t enjoy gore. But his burned face is memorable, so is his wit and cruelty. But most of all…Freddy cheats. Yes, this is a genre so completely based on rules and tropes that entire film franchises exist to deconstruct and satirize them. And Freddy also, as you mentioned, is constrained by whatever the writer chose to limit him with. But in the context of the dreams…he is supreme. Just when you think you’ve figured out how to fight him, he breaks the rules. Just when you’ve killed him, a dog pisses fire and brings him back to life. Or he grabs your mom and drags her though a tiny window. I suppose part of it is a need to keep the franchise running and partly due to thin continuity. But it makes Freddy a little more terrifying. You can never be sure you’ve won and as a viewer that’s interesting. And frustrating.

    Anyway, good essay. I don’t think this series deserves too much love or attention but it was a big deal once. And yes, you should see the Friday the 13th movies, just to see if you can find a through line there. It has some effective horror in it as well.

    Like

    1. It probably didn’t deserve it, but it was relatively quick and coincided well with going through Wes Craven’s work, which also didn’t really deserve it.

      It’ll be interesting if I end up liking the Friday the 13th series more. It’ll happen eventually, for sure.

      Like

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