Since his 1984 debut in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, the child murderer turned crazy dream ghost known as Freddy Krueger has been one of the most instantly recognizable icons of the horror genre. He spawned a seven-movie franchise (plus a television series, a crossover film, and a remake) and singlehandedly turned New Line Cinema into not only a viable company, but an immensely profitable one. Granted, it’s not the most solid franchise in the world, and over the years since the original franchise ended with 1994′s New Nightmare, Freddy has been the target of much derision in the horror community. Citing anything from Krueger’s love of one-liners to the inconsistent series lore, I’d say that horror fans in general are quicker to distance themselves from the Elm Street films than almost any other long-lived franchise out there.
To be completely honest my own love for the character had long since retreated to a dusty and disused corner of my brain, a far cry from the days when I maintained the unwieldy e-mail handle “sonof100maniacs” back at the dawn of Hotmail. When I ran across a lone copy of the recently released (and temporarily Best Buy exclusive) Nightmare on Elm Street blu-ray set though, that old devotion leapt back into the fray, and that very evening I was curled up on the couch with a pumpkin ale in one hand and a remote in the other, headed once again toward that old familiar town called Springwood. A mere 48 hours later I was watching the credits roll on New Nightmare, and I knew without a doubt that this had been a trip worth taking.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
This is the one that spawned an empire, the low-budget lovechild of director Wes Craven and New Line Cinema, the little studio who could. Freddy Krueger, a twisted child murderer burned alive by a mob of angry parents when he was released on a technicality, has returned years later to prey on the offspring of his executioners. Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) looks on helplessly as her friends are brutally murdered one by one in their sleep by a mysterious knife-gloved psychopath who appears only in their nightmares. I honestly think a lot of people, as they’ve grown up branched out into more niche horror titles, have forgotten how innovative this first film was. The effects would have been impressive even on a much larger budget, and for something made under a million dollars, they’re incredible. The first kill, where Nancy’s friend Tina is dragged up the wall and across the ceiling by an invisible force as she’s slashed to death in her sleep, is still in my opinion one of the scariest and best executed in horror history.
Thematically, the whole thing is nothing short of genius. Previous slasher film victims tended to be irresponsible babysitters, pot smoking teenagers, and city kids poking around where they don’t belong. I’m hard-pressed to think of any other movie where the victims are comprised almost entirely of innocent high school kids just trying to get some sleep. Personally, I’ve never liked sleep and don’t quite trust the whole process, and I’ve spent my whole life fighting it as long as I can, so this is a concept that speaks to me on a much deeper level than most horror films. Robert Englund’s portrayal of Freddy Krueger is also at its peak here, played with an unsettling focus that wouldn’t be matched again until the franchise came to an end. He’s utterly unsympathetic, and relentless in the pursuit of his victims.
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
If there’s one thing the Elm Street franchise cannot be accused of, it’s a slow and gradual decline. This is my absolute least favorite of the entire franchise. Wes Craven, believing that his original film was a complete entity and required no sequel, declined further involvement, but New Line had gotten a taste of that sweet Freddy cash and wasn’t about to turn down another truckload of it. Craven was replaced by Jack Sholder, who had yet to make anything worth watching and still maintains that distinction to this day, and the first of many sequels was unleashed upon an eager public one short year after the original. Robert Englund was the only returning cast member, and the story picks up five years after the first film, when a new family moves into Nancy’s now-vacant home on Elm Street.
The new protagonist, Jesse Walsh, is plagued by nightmares immediately after moving into the house, and soon finds Nancy’s diary detailing the deaths of her friends and her own battle with Krueger. The main conceit here is that Freddy is making a comeback, but wants a human vessel that he can occupy in the physical world, rather than being confined to dreams. The story might have been salvageable if they’d stuck to that, but sometimes Freddy and Jesse are separate, sometimes Jesse morphs into Freddy, and the whole thing is kind of a mess. I was ready to call it a night by the time Freddy was chasing dozens of teenagers around a swimming pool, killing a couple but mostly just waving his claw around and tipping things over, seemingly reluctant to take advantage of the “fish in a barrel” situation he’d been handed. The film is also sprinkled here and there with an odd homoerotic subtext in the absence of the female lead that would become standard for the series, and Jesse himself is sporadically effeminate. Not that this is a bad thing, but the story never really commits to it, so it comes across as inexplicable instead of interesting. In the end, Freddy is defeated by someone refusing to believe in him, also the sole weakness of Tinkerbell. All murders previously linked to Jesse while he was under Freddy’s control are presumably forgiven.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Directed by Chuck Russel with a story by Wes Craven, the series’ third installment is a favorite for many people. It’s my favorite of the “middle” films, and it features a ton of cool moments. Original Nightmare heroine Nancy Thompson is back, this time interning at a psychiatric ward that has become home for the last surviving “Elm Street children”. They’ve been labeled suicidal and their nightmares are dismissed as mass psychosis, despite beginning before any of them had even met. Nancy defies hospital management and leads the group in a fight for their lives. Freddy’s backstory gets fleshed out a little more here, as told by the ghost of his mother, Amanda Krueger. As a young nun working at that very hospital in the 1940′s, Amanda was accidentally locked in a room for several days with a hundred violent inmates. She was kept hidden and raped “hundreds of times”, and was found later on the brink of death and pregnant with Freddy, “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs”. As far as backstories go for franchise horror, this one is undeniably chilling. This marked a potential turning point for the series; with this knowledge in the minds of the audience, Freddy could have easily become one of the most complex and terrifying villains to ever hit the screen.
Unfortunately, this is also where the one liners start. It’s a good film on its own, but when Freddy buried the head of a young aspiring actress in a TV screen and exclaimed “Welcome to prime time, bitch!”, things changed forever. It was an ad-lib by Robert Englund, and it’s a good scene, but fans went nuts over it and the series spent three more movies chasing that moment with ever-diminishing returns. Nobody could have known that it was the beginning of the end. Everything else here is pretty great though. There are a lot of great effects, particularly some stop-motion stuff with a Freddy puppet, and later with his skeletal remains, Jason and the Argonauts style. There’s the giant Freddy worm, and an imaginative kill scene where Freddy walks a puppet enthusiast to his death, using his tendons like marionette strings. Most of the kills in the film are “personalized”, with Freddy using the victims’ interests or weaknesses against them, instead of a generic stabbing, which is another good idea that gets out of hand as the series progresses. Patricia Arquette turns in a good performance as Kristen Parker, the new heroine to who Nancy passes the torch, and when the movie comes to a close the viewer is left with a lot of hope for more interesting sequels from here on out.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
As you may have already guessed from the above image, we didn’t quite get the followups that we were hoping for. Freddy’s fourth appearance was helmed by the president of the Renny Harlin Fan Club, Renny Harlin. Harlin has said repeatedly in interviews that he sees Freddy as the “James Bond” of horror, a standpoint that I don’t even quite know how to process. The power of Freddy as a character lay in the fact that he was an irredeemable and reprehensible killer with a twisted and traumatic origin. He killed for the sake of killing, and often for revenge, but as the series progressed, he killed for comedy. Scripts became increasingly fragmented as writers tried to cast Freddy as both the hero and the villain, succeeding in neither. This installment isn’t without its redeeming qualities, but it represented a commitment to a lot of decisions from which the character would have a hard time coming back.
Kristen Parker makes a return from Dream Warriors, this time played by Tuesday Knight. She’s joined by two other recurring characters from that film, Kincaid and Joey, as well as new heroine Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox), who is to become the eponymous “dream master”. As her friends are killed off, Alice gains their skills and personality traits, eventually becoming a powerhouse capable of going toe to toe with Freddy himself. It’s a cool concept, and the movie itself spends 90 minutes wavering between interesting and ridiculous. There are some great effects showcasing the idea that Freddy is actually comprised of the souls of the people he’s killed, which writhe around in his torso like an entire family of Kuatos. Then, there’s the scene where his victims are represented as meatballs on a pizza, which Freddy snacks on while making “soul food” puns. The smart and thematic killings come to a screeching halt when he turns one girl into a bipedal cockroach and then crushes her inside a roach motel, seemingly just so he could use the well-worn “…but you can’t check out” tagline. But then in a great climactic effects scene, Freddy’s torso passengers revolt and tear him apart from the inside, ending the series’ most uneven entry on a high note.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
Continuing in the footsteps of the previous installment, The Dream Child was an absolute mess. Directed by Stephen Hopkins, also known as the first person to prove that Predator could be awful, this is a film with little to no redeeming qualities. It gets credit for at least carrying on the story, which elevates it slightly above Freddy’s Revenge, but not by much. Alice Johnson returns from the last film, this time carrying the child of her boyfriend Dan, who is killed off early on when I guess Freddy turns into a motorcycle and then causes Dan to merge with the motorcycle in some sort of cheap HR Giger knockoff, at which point Dan plows the pickup truck he’s driving into a semi and goes up in a ball of flames. Coherent! Anyway, Freddy is now killing people via the dreams of Alice’s unborn child, and simultaneously sort of becoming that child? I honestly don’t know.
In addition to the out of place motorcycle thing, “highlights” include Freddy killing a girl by force feeding her and making her face so fat that she dies, and also a comic book inspired showdown where “Super Freddy” chops up a guy made of paper. Seriously, it’s an extended scene of him just chopping up paper with his glove. There’s some expansion of the Amanda Krueger backstory which shows her actually giving birth to Freddy, but they even manage to ruin that. You know what? The more I think about it, the more I hate this one. Maybe more than Freddy’s Revenge. In the end, Alice and her dream baby (or dream toddler) team up against Freddy, with said toddler sort of becoming Freddy and using his own powers against him inside a giant MC Escher painting. Then Amanda Krueger and Alice reabsorb their respective dream babies and all is well. Sigh.
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
Directed by series-long production director/producer Rachel Talalay, Freddy’s Dead actually has a lot to love, despite containing what is possibly the worst scene in the entire franchise. Perhaps realizing that their cash cow was close to dying of natural causes, New Line made the decision to kill off Freddy in his sixth appearance. This film attempts to finish out the story arc of not only Freddy, but also of Springwood itself, and does so in a mind-blowing THREE dimensions. That’s right, Freddy’s Dead was shot in 3D for whatever reason, which was marketed as “Freddy Vision” and actually worked into the story, albeit poorly. The story begins with an unnamed teenager (Shon Greenblatt) having those old familiar nightmares, and winding up in a halfway house for delinquent kids. Along with social worker Maggie Burroughs (Lisa Zane), this John Doe and a few others wind up in Springwood, long after the events of the previous films. Freddy has finally succeeded in killing all of the town’s children, and the adults that remain just kind of wander around, having been driven insane.
It turns out that one of our heroes is actually Freddy’s child, and he’s lured them back to Springwood in an effort to escape the town himself and take his act nationwide. As he says, “Every town has an Elm Street”. The whole thing is actually a really cool premise, and with some better decision making it could have been a high water mark for the the series. I love the childless, dilapidated Springwood, and I love how the town turns back in itself when a few of the halfway house kids try to leave. Some of the best Freddy backstory is in this installment, and it’s cool to see Robert Englund playing the part in extended scenes without makeup. Unfortunately there’s that whole scene where he kills a kid by playing a video game, complete with references to the Nintendo Power Glove, and the odd inclusion of 3D that doesn’t do much beyond hampering what they could do with the special effects and making a lot of things seem really confusing without the context of a theatrical viewing. Despite the drawbacks though, I think this one’s pretty entertaining, and it’s as good a finale for the series as one could’ve hoped for given the circumstances.
New Nightmare (1994)
These days, more time often elapses between planned sequels than existed between the point that New Line made a conscious decision to kill off the character that made them a household name and the day they decided that they needed to bring him back. Fortunately they did it right, bringing back Wes Craven as writer and director in the hopes of recapturing the magic of the first film. Craven brought back Heather Langenkamp, as well as John Saxon (who played Nancy’s father in the first and third films), and of course Robert Englund who had never left. This time though they all played themselves, as did Craven and Robert Shaye, producer of the of the entire franchise. The concept was that Wes Craven was writing a new Nightmare script, and at the same time Heather and her son were beginning to have nightmares eerily reminiscent of the films she once starred in. It was a clever deconstruction of the genre, two years before Craven himself rehashed it in Scream and everybody went “That’s brilliant and new!”. In my opinion, New Nightmare did it better, and this is easily my second favorite film of the entire franchise. It was an amazing turn of events, considering everything the series went through up until this point.
The events of this film start to echo the first, with John Saxon lapsing back into character and Robert Englund mysteriously leaving once Freddy enters the spotlight again. There are a ton of callbacks to the original, including bit actors returning in new roles, and lines of dialogue that make a comeback in new situations. And since this is the “real” Freddy, the actual nightmare upon which the films were supposedly based, the character is free from all the unfortunate baggage he picked up along the way. The jokes and mugging for the camera are nowhere to be found, and Freddy is again the persistent and unstoppable force from the first film. And obviously it’s all still a movie, but something about Heather Langenkamp playing herself makes it all the more disturbing when her child’s babysitter is murdered, dragged up the wall and across the ceiling just like Tina a decade earlier. The “movie within a movie” magic just works here, and everything has an unsettling quality because of it. This is the only time such a longstanding franchise has ever returned to form after falling so far, and I assure you that it’s worth sitting through the bad ones just to get to this point.
So how’s the box set?
Retailing for $45, the Nightmare on Elm Street Collection includes five discs (even though it looks like four in their stock photo): four blu-rays and a DVD. The whole package is barely bigger than a standard blu-ray case, and if all releases were this nicely streamlined, my movie storage concerns would come to an end. The original film gets its own disc, the other six are paired off, and then there are some extra bonus features on the DVD, including a couple featurettes and two episodes of the 1988 television spinoff Freddy’s Nightmares. As one might expect, the special features on the first film are the most generous. There are two commentaries, a pop up trivia track (every movie should have this), a bunch of featurettes including the very interesting New Line history “The House that Freddy Built”, and 7.1 audio. New Nightmare also has a commentary track, but the rest of the films all have a meager selection of featurettes, and the occasional related music video such as “Dream Warriors”, recorded by Dokken for the third film. The back of the box makes the special features look pretty extensive for all the movies, but a lot of them are just brief excerpts from interviews, sometimes as short as 38 seconds, and rarely longer than a few minutes.
The DVD contains “Fear Himself: The Life and Crimes of Freddy Krueger”, a newer documentary on the character narrated by Robert Englund. It’s good but disappointingly short at a half hour or so. The best part of all the featurettes, especially the short ones on the “middle” films, is that everyone is unusually apologetic. The people being interviewed seem to applaud the series in general but come across as let down by their own contributions, and the honesty is weirdly engaging. The only person who seems unaware that the series ever faltered is Renny Harlin, who if nothing else is probably the most consistently optimistic filmmaker in Hollywood.
The selections from Freddy’s Nightmares are a nice inclusion, but again leave a little bit to be desired. They inexplicably skip over the Tobe Hooper-directed pilot episode, one of the better entries in the series, and go right to episodes two and three, which are both pretty forgettable. The third stars Lori Petty and is directed by Mick Garris, notable hanger-on and participation award recipient in the horror genre. The series ran for three seasons and there was some cool stuff in there, hopefully they kept it lazy here in anticipation of the release of a series box set down the road, but I’m not holding my breath.
In the end, taking all the highs and lows into account, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a franchise worthy of a prominent place in horror movie history. There were missteps along the way, but it began well and it ended well, which is more than can truthfully be said about any of its contemporaries. At his best, Freddy Krueger is absolutely one of the screen’s greatest villains, and at its worst the franchise still brings some unexpectedly creative moments to the table, and will probably provide you with some good laughs as well. For the effects enthusiast, the series is a time capsule of a decade’s worth of technological advances, and even when a setpiece didn’t exactly benefit the story they were usually showcasing something pretty cutting edge. And regardless of whether the film at hand happens to feature scary Freddy or jokey Freddy, it’s always obvious that Robert Englund is completely into whatever he’s doing at the time, which is remarkable in and of itself considering how long he played the role.
The blu-ray collection is nice, and its special features are only disappointing due to how New Line chose to split them up in the menus and on the box. If it had been presented more honestly, there’s really nothing wrong with the amount of extra stuff here, and really the only other stuff I’d ask for is the full interviews from which some of the short clips were taken. The set doesn’t come with 3D glasses and even if you have your own there’s no option to watch Freddy’s Dead in its original 3D, but I skipped the DVD set which did include those things, so I’m not sure how well it worked and they might have dropped it for a reason. Even setting everything else aside, it’s seven movies for $45, all with HD transfers ranging from decent to great. So for the dedicated 80′s horror fan there’s really no reason not to pick this one up, I’m definitely glad I did.