Revisiting all 8 of Freddy’s nightmares, the richest of the slasher franchises

Revisiting all 8 of Freddy’s nightmares, the richest of the slasher franchises

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

Many slashers have slaughtered their way through horror movies over the decades, but among genre fans, there is generally considered a “holy trinity”: white-masked Michael Myers of the Halloween series, hockey-masked Jason Voorhees of the Friday The 13th series, and disfigured Freddy Krueger of the Nightmare On Elm Street series. Or at least, those are the three most bankable of the subgenre, if you count the 10 Halloween movies scaring up $367 million worldwide in grosses, the 12 Friday The 13th movies raking in $465 million, and the nine Nightmare On Elm Street movies conjuring $457 million. Audiences kept returning for these murderous rounds, but critics have generally been much less charitable; Leonard Maltin’s drive-by slam of the original Friday The 13th in his annual Movie Guide (it offers “one more clue as to why SAT scores continue to decline”) is par for the course.

Not that the historic critical disfavor isn’t always appropriate; at some point, one needs to call at least some of the films out for existing simply to milk a profitable business property. But however wildly varied in quality the individual films may be, perhaps there is something to such franchises—some kind of fundamental inner fear being exorcised—that kept audiences coming back for more.

It’s through that lens that the Nightmare On Elm Street films—even more so than the Halloween and Friday The 13th films—could be seen as ripe for such an appraisal. As supernatural as they may be, the terror of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees—or, in the case of the original Friday The 13th, Jason’s mother—remains bound to a recognizable physical world. Freddy Krueger, however—the former child murderer who was burned alive by a group of vengeful parents on Elm Street in Springwood, Ohio—channels his campaign of violence in the realm of fantasy and dreams. At the very least, such a premise would potentially allow greater leeway for enterprising filmmakers to basically let rip with whatever feverish visuals they’d wish to put on the screen. That potential was realized, with varying degrees of success, throughout the whole series; even the worst Nightmare On Elm Street film is still 10 times more interesting than your average Jason Voorhees-led hack-’em-up, visually and thematically.

The seeds were planted in 1984 with A Nightmare On Elm Street—and it is immediately apparent just how different from the norm Wes Craven’s entry into the slasher subgenre was. The premise combines his own childhood experiences being bullied by a classmate named Fred Krueger with reports of some Cambodian refugees supposedly dying in their sleep from disturbing nightmares, Craven conceived of a malevolent child killer with knives for fingers who targeted teens through their dreams. But Craven’s tweaks to the slasher formula run deeper than that.

There’s its more empathetic and empowering view of teenagers, especially in light of the behavior of their parents. Generally, parents of teenagers in the Halloween and Friday The 13th movies are either absent-minded or merely absent, leaving teenagers free to do whatever they please. In A Nightmare On Elm Street, however, parents are not only oblivious to the travails of their children, but in some ways actively harmful to them. After all, it was the parents of the now-teenagers on Elm Street who burned Fred Krueger alive in a fit of outraged vigilante justice, and who are now trying to shove that bloody past under a rug as their offspring suffer the consequences. In Craven’s world, it’s the teenagers who dare to face the brutality in front of them, while the adults pretend there’s nothing strange going on.

And then there are the teens themselves—the film’s heroine especially. As resourceful as Halloween’s Laurie Strode or Friday The 13th’s Alice are in warding off the murderous advances of the killers going after them, their attacks are ultimately more defensive than offensive in nature—mostly a matter of using whatever is at their disposal at any given moment to fend off their attackers. Freddy Krueger’s brand of evil, though, demands someone that can match him in sheer imagination, and that’s what distinguishes A Nightmare On Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) from the horror-heroine pack. Langenkamp exudes a sense of headstrong street smarts fully in tune with Craven’s more empowering take on the final girl; she’s positively subversive in a traditionally male-dominated genre.

But what of our notorious scarred killer? Unlike Jason Voorhees—who would only technically appear from Friday The 13th, Part 2 onward—Freddy Krueger was there right at the beginning of the Nightmare On Elm Street series. But the Freddy (or, rather, “Fred,” as he is referred to here) of Craven’s original is more a menacing presence than the hokey quipster he would become in later installments. As extravagant as some of the murder sequences are—most famously, the geyser of blood that erupts after Krueger kills Nancy’s boyfriend, Glen (Johnny Depp, in his screen debut)—Craven’s film remains rooted in an elemental conception of its antagonist as a personification of fear, one that gains strength the more his potential victims believe in his existence. Fitting, then, that Nancy ultimately defeats Krueger by refusing to take that fatal bait, calling him “nothing” and “shit” as he makes one last threat to her life while rising out of her bed.

Or, at least, Nancy might have defeated him for good with that last defiant gesture had Craven’s boss at then-in-its-infancy New Line Cinema, Robert Shaye, not demanded a twist ending that left the door open for a sequel. All of Craven’s imagination in filming it—with cinematographer Jacques Haitkin’s emphasis on glaring bright sunlight immediately suggesting the falseness of this Eden—isn’t enough to hide how nonsensical it is. Nevertheless, this commerce-dictated open door paved the way for a series that would occasionally flesh out the themes of A Nightmare On Elm Street with more depth than even Craven initially managed.

In some ways, A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge is an outlier in the series, contradicting some of the ground rules Craven laid out in the original: The Freddy Krueger of this film does attack some of his victims in reality rather than just in dreams. But if Krueger represented a generalized kind of fear in Craven’s film, in Jack Sholder’s follow-up, the fear is made more specific, internal—and, to put it bluntly, homophobic.

Not for the last time in this franchise, Krueger would try to resurrect himself through the body of another—in this case, Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton), whose family has moved into 1428 Elm Street five years after the events of the first film. But it’s the way Krueger tries to gradually emerge out of Jesse’s nightmares that gives the film its metaphorical kick. It’s appropriate that Jesse-as-Freddy’s first victim is his gym teacher, Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell), who Jesse inadvertently sees outside of gym class at an S&M club—an accidental encounter that leads the coach to force him to run laps at school as punishment. Schneider meets his untimely end in a grotesque manner that suggests a bondage session gone horribly wrong: stripped nude, tied to a shower wall by pipes, and slashed to death. But Jesse’s inner struggle with an emerging Freddy isn’t just confined to such fatal outward maneuvers: Krueger once again emerges just as he’s on the verge of consummating his heretofore unspoken attraction to Lisa (Kim Myers).

All of this suggests that Jesse is waging a battle with his own unspoken homosexual urges as symbolized by Krueger. In 1985, such blatantly homophobic subtext was perhaps welcome with more open arms amid the dawn of the AIDS crisis; in this (ostensibly) more-enlightened age, it can’t help but seem appallingly retrograde. Nevertheless, the fact that such subtext exists at all, to be unearthed and examined, if not approved, suggests the potential richness and longevity of this franchise.

Wes Craven returned to the series with A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, as an executive producer and co-screenwriter. Although director Chuck Russell and co-screenwriter Frank Darabont would eventually rework Craven and Bruce Wagner’s original screenplay, this third entry in the franchise remains perhaps the most effective among the sequels in not only maintaining thematic consistency with Craven’s original film, but giving those themes more depth, and expanding their intellectual and emotional scope.

Certainly, the reappearance of both Nancy Thompson (Langenkamp) and her father, Donald (John Saxon), in Dream Warriors ensures some of that consistency: Nancy is now a dream psychologist starting a new gig at a mental institution, while her father appears later in the film, still grieving over the death of his wife at the end of the original Nightmare, and still unwilling to fully face up to Freddy Krueger’s evil. But their dynamic—Nancy exhibiting more mental strength than her father—is also reflected in some of the supporting characters. One of them, Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette, in her screen debut), is especially noteworthy in that regard: A product of a painful divorce, with her mother (Brooke Bundy) clueless as to how to deal with her troubled daughter, Kristen is seen in the film’s opening scene channeling her anguish through papier-mâché construction. She turns out to be the one with the most direct pipeline into the subconscious, with the ability to pull people into her dreams—helpful in the inevitable final showdown with Krueger.

Though most of the supporting mental-patient characters are given more sparks of personality than can normally expect in a slasher movie. Kristen, Kincaid (Ken Sagoes), Taryn (Jennifer Rubin), mute Joey (Rodney Eastman), and the rest aren’t mere cannon fodder, but well-defined individuals with their own hopes and, uh, dreams. If, in the first two Nightmare On Elm Street films, the subconscious was merely a blank slate on which filmmakers could project whatever surreal visions they could envision, in Dream Warriors it becomes something more: an empowering space for characters to embody their ideal selves. Perhaps the most affecting and even inspiring scene in the entire series is the one in which, during a therapy session, all of these mental patients slip into a dream world upon hypnosis and discover they have all the powers they merely hoped to have in reality: handicapped Will (Ira Heiden) can now walk and become a wizard; short-tempered Kincaid has super-human strength; drug-addicted Taryn is now a glamorous badass.

Despite such gestures toward character depth, though, in the end, these characters are all in a Nightmare On Elm Street movie, which means that some of them will make it through and some won’t. Therein lies this film’s somewhat unsettling paradox: Allowing viewers to become more emotionally invested in these characters than usual only increases the feeling of sadism inherent in the slasher genre. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that there are much more of Krueger’s wiseass one-liners here than there were in the first two films, and that his methods of killing off individual victims correspond so closely to their specific aspirations and fears, like turning puppet-maker Philip (Bradley Gregg) into a puppet, basically navigating him to do his doom, and ramming the head of aspiring actress Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) into a TV set after appearing in an episode of Dick Cavett’s late-night talk show. In Dream Warriors, Freddy Krueger is not just a paranormal serial killer, but a ruthless destroyer of adolescent dreams.

Not even Nancy is able to survive Krueger’s surrealistic assaults in Dream Warriors, but Kristen, Kincaid and a newly talkative Joey make it out alive—only to be offed in the opening stages of A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. That destroyer-of-adolescent-dreams conception of Krueger is still evident in Renny Harlin’s 1988 entry, but there’s less of Dream Warriors’ emotional resonance, partly because the new characters here are back to being little more than two-dimensional victims. That includes the new heroine, Kristen’s best friend Alice (Lisa Wilcox), at least at first. But when Kristen (now played by Tuesday Knight) pulls Alice into her dream just before Krueger throws her into the boiler in which he was initially killed, she transfers her powers to Alice—and, in an interesting twist, Alice becomes a magnet for the dream powers and personalities of the teenagers Krueger offs. She transforms from a bland protagonist into a more empowered warrior, with enough strength and firepower to take Krueger on single-handedly by the end.

Mostly, though, The Dream Master plays as an excuse for up-and-coming Harlin to bombard the screen with as much visual invention as he can muster. On that level, the fourth installment offers some genuine pleasures. The stream of flaming dog piss that revives Krueger this time around is merely the tip of the iceberg; a series of dancing math formulas figures into one dream sequence, while an image of a pizza pie with human heads as toppings pops up in another. There’s even a time-loop sequence—with Alice and love interest Dan (Danny Hassel) trapped in a repeating cycle of events until their realization of this breaks the cycle—that anticipates Groundhog Day, and a black-and-white sequence with Alice entering into a movie in a theater that recalls, of all things, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. It climaxes in a final showdown that ends with perhaps the most majestic of Krueger’s many deaths, in which he is essentially consumed by his own mirror reflection, forced to confront the evil he has committed—all taking place in a church, no less. Already, in this film, Harlin was showing traces of the gleefully sadistic imagination he would bring to higher-budget projects like Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and Deep Blue Sea. None of it is disturbing, exactly, but it’s at the very least watchable.

So is Stephen Hopkins’s A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, though it’s less formally inventive than Harlin’s effort. (Hopkins’s most consistent visual idea is to apply a blue filter to most of the scenes.) Nevertheless, this entry boasts a few imaginative murder sequences—most notably, one in which graphic-novel fiend Mark (Joe Seely) finds himself in a comic book and temporarily becomes The Phantom Prowler before Krueger turns him into a paper doll and cuts him to death—and a general sense of Gothic atmosphere that Harlin only approached in the aforementioned church sequence.

It also tackles much darker themes—most notably, teen motherhood and the possibility of abortion. The “dream child” of the title turns out to be the baby Alice is carrying, and which Krueger is using as his way of coming back to life. The seeds are there for an allegory of the anxieties of impending childbirth akin to Rosemary’s Baby and It’s Alive, and there’s one dream sequence, at least, that fulfills that potential: In one of Alice’s dreams, a young boy named Jacob (Whitby Hertford)—which Alice eventually realizes is her unborn son—lashes out at her, accusing her of not loving him and saying that he’s been learning things from Krueger, a.k.a .“the man with the funny hand.”

One look at the opening sequence of Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare—a take-off of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” with an unnamed John Doe (Shon Greenblatt) doing the William Shatner freak-out honors—indicates the comic tone that director Rachel Talalay and co-screenwriter Michael De Luca are going for. If Freddy Krueger had slowly become something of a joke in the past couple of installments—with his increasing volume of wisecracks aligning him more with a ’80s action-movie icon like Arnold Schwarzenegger than with the spooky bogeyman of Wes Craven’s original conception—this sixth installment fully embraces self-parody, similar to the way the sixth Friday The 13th film (Jason Lives) abandoned any sense of terror whatsoever and went for wall-to-wall winking.

Essentially, Freddy’s Dead is a spoof of Dream Warriors, with psychologist Maggie Burroughs (Lisa Zane) taking on the Nancy Thompson role and a handful of her youth-shelter charges—including deaf Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan), drug-addicted Spencer (Breckin Meyer), and Tracy (Lezlie Deane), still dealing with the trauma of being sexually abused by her father as a young girl—playing the dream warriors. It’s the aforementioned John Doe, however, who sets the events in motion: Maggie—with the three troubled teens, unbeknownst to her—brings John back to the town and discovers that not only have all the children been killed, but all the adults have gone insane (including Tom Arnold and Roseanne Barr, both of whom make unexpected cameos here).

The intrigue involves revelations about a long-lost child of Krueger’s, as well as our antagonist’s attempts to escape Springwood and begin another wave of child killings elsewhere. But with its colorless characters and overall snarky tone, the real interest of Freddy’s Dead once again lies in the murder sequences—most notably, a dream sequence set inside a video game (complete with goofy Mario-like fast-motion movements), and a 3-D finale in which Maggie tries to bring Krueger out into reality by diving into his past. Perhaps this ill-conceived stab at horror-comedy was only logical considering the direction Freddy Krueger himself had taken in the recent sequels; nevertheless, by the time Talalay’s film reaches Krueger’s fourth-wall-breaking final joke (“Oh… kids.”) and a montage of the preceding films over its end credits, one would be hard-pressed to conclude that it was probably past time for the scarred, knife-fingered bogeyman to be laid to rest once and for all.

Despite its title, however, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare would turn out not to be Krueger’s last hurrah. More surprising than that, however, is that original creator Wes Craven would be the one to resurrect him. Leave it to Craven, however, to come up with perhaps the most imaginative way of all to bring his creation back from the dead: not through flaming dog piss or unborn conduits, but a screenplay being written by Craven himself.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare goes the meta-movie route, turning the act of coming up with a sequel to A Nightmare On Elm Street into a full-blown Pirandellian exercise. Instead of characters searching for their author, however, actors (like Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, and John Saxon) and New Line executives (like Robert Shaye and Sara Risher) all wait to see what Craven will come up with, as he waits for his own dreams to help him write the rest of his new screenplay.

Craven gives himself an explanatory scene in which he essentially recasts his creation as an ancient evil whose essence was successfully captured and imprisoned once by “storytellers” like himself and Langenkamp before that essence became watered down or made overfamiliar to viewers, thus leading that story to its death—and thereby freeing Krueger to try to jump from cinematic fiction to reality. It’s a cleverly veiled dig at a franchise that gradually leeched his original creation and its initially disturbing implications of its power, thus setting up a scenario in which a more abstract version of Krueger threatens to turn reality into his deadly playground.

What’s also striking about that scene, however, is Craven’s own performance: calm, cool, exuding the detachment of a scientist. One is reminded of his academic background, his days studying philosophy for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, teaching humanities at a couple colleges in northern New York. Even more so than A Nightmare On Elm Street, New Nightmare shows off a cerebral edge that lends a tantalizing meta textual layer to the horrors. By the time movie fantasy fully overtakes Langenkamp’s reality—at around the point when John Saxon starts referring to her as “Nancy”—the film becomes the full-blown Nightmare On Elm Street movie it had tried to keep at bay up until that point. In this context, Krueger’s inevitable demise at the end is not only a “physical” death, but an intellectual one as well: He’s a life-size monster brought down to the level of childhood myth. The final image of Langenkamp reading this script to her son, Dylan (Miko Hughes), offers a witty twist on the usual ambiguous slasher-movie ending: The only possible sequel to New Nightmare is as a harmless bedtime story.

Where could Freddy Krueger go after such a send-off? Into the arms of fellow slasher Jason Voorhees, it turns out. Not that 2003’s Freddy Vs. Jason came out of nowhere; 10 years before, Krueger’s clawed hand shot up from the ground to drag Voorhees’s iconic hockey mask down to Hell in the final moments of Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday, thus paving the way for this long-in-development grudge match.

One would assume that Freddy Vs. Jason would be little more than an afterthought to the Nightmare On Elm Street series after Craven’s 1994 effort. But Ronny Yu’s film has quite a few surprises in store. One of them is Freddy Krueger’s dominance in the film, at least in the first half: Jason starts off as merely a conduit for Krueger’s latest attempt to try to revive himself, his plan being that Jason will kill teenagers for him while the ensuing fear from his reign of terror helps Freddy regain his strength. The opening stages of Freddy Vs. Jason thus play more like a Nightmare On Elm Street movie in Friday The 13th clothing—at least until Jason eventually develops a consciousness of his own and begins to deprive Krueger of potential victims, thus leading to the titular battle to the death.

Amid the carnage, there’s an attempt at an emotional thread revolving around heroine Lori Campbell (Monica Keena) attempting to discover the truth of her mother’s supposedly accidental death and put her traumatic past behind her. Much more interesting, however, is the film’s surprisingly rich Freddy Krueger-related subtext. Clearly, Yu and screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift have done their homework, grasping Craven’s initial conception of the character as a manifestation of fear. That fear, however, has disappeared as a result of a town-wide program at the hands of the adults in Springwood to erase all traces of his existence in the current generation of teenagers, through medical means like Hypnocil (glimpsed in the first and third Nightmare films) and more insidious methods like altering newspaper archives to delete all mentions of Krueger. Adults remain as clueless as ever to the anxieties of their offspring, exemplified by the attempts of Lori’s father (Tom Butler) to shield his daughter from the truth about her mother’s death.

Its most potent bit of subtext, however, comes right at the beginning, in a Krueger-narrated opening sequence in which he laments his lack of power as a result of his becoming forgotten over the years. The Nightmare On Elm Street franchise hadn’t had a new film in close to 10 years until Freddy Vs. Jason, and especially coming after a film that had killed the character’s strength as a force of horror by cutting him down to storybook size, Krueger’s words carry extra metaphorical weight. And though the contest ends in basically a draw, Krueger clearly wins the style points. At one point, Krueger tortures Jason by pulling him into a nightmare of his own drowning death at Camp Crystal Lake, trying to exploit his fear of water. If Jason Voorhees was always pure physical menace, Krueger remained as much a totem of psychological terror as physical. Surprisingly, Freddy Vs. Jason brings the Nightmare On Elm Street series full circle, rehashing its major ideas and themes in genuinely fresh and clever ways that honor this imaginative horror franchise.

Final ranking:

  1. A Nightmare On Elm Street
  2. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
  3. A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
  4. A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
  5. Freddy Vs. Jason
  6. A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge
  7. A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child
  8. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare