Name some horror icons. Go on. Think of as many as you can. Now narrow them down to the ones that everyone knows about. Forget about Brundlefly for a moment. I think the shortlist goes something like this: Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman, Jason Voorhees and, of course, Freddy Krueger.
Everyone knows the conceit on the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Freddy is a child killer burnt alive by a mob of angry parents. Years later, Freddy returns as a supernatural force who can invade your dreams and kill you in your sleep. Conceptually, this is brilliant. Truly one of the most promising and intriguing horror concepts ever devised. This is a guy who goes after you when you're at your most vulnerable, when your guard is down. Genuine terror sauce in its purest form.
Maybe it's because I love the concept, maybe it's because I liked the idea of a killer with personality instead of the silent Jason type, but for whatever reason, I've always considered myself a Freddy fan despite having not seen all of the films (and not having watched any of them in years). With the remake of the first film just around the corner, I decided it was time to fill in those final gaps. I was going to watch all of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. In a row.
In one sitting.
After some consideration, I decided that the whole "watch the whole series in one long session" thing wasn't too gimmicky and was actually thematically appropriate. If these characters had to stay awake for days on end to battle a horribly disfigured murderer with supernatural powers, surely I could stay put (and awake) through eight films. As a man who values his sleep (and who doesn't drink soda or coffee), I decided to make this a day marathon to avoid nodding off. I also decided to keep track of certain common horror elements, namely kills, sex and drugs. You know, for the record.
At around 10:30 a.m., I popped the first disc into Ye Olde Media Player, opened my notebook to keep track of my thoughts and settled in for a long day.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Directed by Wes Craven)
"One, two, Freddy's coming for you..."
Body Count: 4 (Tina takes a ride across the ceiling, Rod gets a short drop with a sudden stop, Glenn has the ultimate wet dream, Mom gets cooked in her bed)
Dream Sequences: Sheep that cry like people. Freddy's extendable arms. Freddy's penchant for self-mutilation. Bathtub to the abyss. The introduction of Freddy's boiler room. A lot of bugs and goo and other assorted spooky graveyard gags.
Sex and Drugs: Tina and Rod have The Comically Loud Sex (TM). Freddy sexually harasses Nancy by giving the telephone a serious case of Demon Tongue.
Thoughts: What's most surprising about A Nightmare on Elm Street, especially when you place it alongside the rest of the series, is how low key the entire thing really is. Whether this is a result of the film's shoestring budget or Wes Craven's creative vision (or a combination of the two) is a debate for a later time. The fact that Craven is able to deliver a high concept story that's as good as this is a testament to someone.
That's not to say A Nightmare on Elm Street is a particularly great movie. It's a good movie, arguably a very good movie and the story is clean and straightforward, not yet bogged down by the ridiculous mythology that would grow around the character of Freddy Krueger as the series pressed on. This is a story about being terrorized by the boogeyman, a guy who waits in your closet or under your bed and comes to get you when you least expect it. Freddy Krueger is a force of nature, a malevolent force fueled by a desire for revenge and the pleasure he gets in taking lives. When our heroes encounter Freddy in their dreams, they're not massive special effects extravaganzas in bizarre locales, but a dark mirror of their normal lives. What's scarier: an action-packed fight with a giant snake in a gaudy dream palace or desperately trying to escape a killer in your own home, only to realize that the stairs are melting beneath your feet?
The answer is the second one, by the way. Although the film plays fast and loose with the logic of Freddy's powers (an issue that will only be exacerbated ten fold in future films), the subtle, straightforward and entirely un-pretentious approach doesn't call attention to the myriad of logic problems until long after you've put the DVD away. And I could spend a few sentences picking apart the terrible performances by Heather Langenkamp and a young Johnny Depp, I'd rather talk about how good Robert Englund is here, playing Freddy Krueger as an overconfident madman who finds terror and violence amusing. This creepy self-satisfaction will eventually be mistaken as comedy and Freddy's character will be warped beyond repair, but we'll get to that later. Based strictly on his appearance in the first film, Freddy had every right to become a horror icon.
But as Fonda said to Hopper: "We blew it."
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985, Directed by Jack Sholder)
"Then what is it? Bird rabies? It's that cheap seed you've been buying!"
Body Count: 5 (Gym coach gets Abu Ghraib'd in the shower room, Freddy's claws introduce Ron to a door, three random partygoers get the slice and dice routine)
Dream Sequences: Runaway school bus finds itself danging over Hell. Freddy rips open his head to expose his brain. PE equipment comes to life. Dogs with human faces. Freddy emerges from inside a person.
Sex and Drugs: Jesse and Lisa are supposed to be attracted to each other. Jesse is flaming gay in a big way. The gym coach is a leather daddy. Freddy stops Jesse and Lisa from getting it on by giving him a serious case of Demon Tongue (see picture).
Thoughts: I've often heard A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge referred to as "the gay one." It's true. There are enough bare-chested teenage boys on display in Freddy Krueger's second outing to make it the second most homoerotic horror movie ever made (the first being the gayer-than-Elton-John Jeepers Creepers 2). I've also often heard that A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge referred to as "the worst in the series." It's not. It's not even close.
Don't expect me to mount a full-scale defense of the film here. It's not particularly good and outside of the gay subtext (which drops the sub and just becomes text), there's really nothing of interest going on here. However, I refuse to outright dismiss it because, tonally, it feels more like a companion to the first film than any others in the series. Other than ditching the unsettling theme music (a move so wrongheaded that it's the only film in the series to do so), this feels like it takes place in the same creepy, understated universe of the first film. Granted, the creepy is now stupid and the understated is now boring, but I'll give the movie props for trying.
However, Part 2 does continue to series' quick descent into continuity hell. Freddy's abilities remain woefully inconsistent. Freddy can kill birds in their sleep? Why does one of them die after it wakes up? How can the girl who sets out to rescue her boyfriend see Freddy's demon dogs if she's not asleep? If Freddy is only after a physical body in this film, who is he getting revenge on? No one in particular it seems. Might as well have called it Freddy Strikes Back.
But you know what? Freddy is still kinda' scary. His appearances are brief and brutal and Englund plays him with the menace that was on display in the first film. Later films will forget that we are supposed to be appalled by Freddy and embrace him as the main attraction of the film. However, as lame as this movie gets, it never forgets that Freddy is a monster.
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (1987, Directed by Chuck Russell)
"In my dreams I can stand. My legs are strong. In my dreams I am the Wizard Master!"
Body Count: 6 (Puppet kid gets the marionette treatment, "bitch" gets welcomed to prime time, wheelchair wizard gets some stabbin,' punk girl gets some finger overdosing, Lt. Thompson fails in his Jason and the Argonauts impersonation, Heather Lagenkamp gets written out of the series)
Dream Sequences: Freddy becomes the world's worst Muppeteer. Freddy becomes a TV set. Freddy becomes a snake. Freddy becomes a sexy nurse. Freddy becomes a...oh, you get the point.
Sex and Drugs: The shrink is attracted to Dr. Nancy despite the fact that she's apparently made out of wood. Joey gets dream-seduced by a topless nurse who turns out to be Freddy, who suspends him over a fiery pit using a serious case of Demon Tongue (there's a pattern here).
Thoughts: This is where the Nightmare on Elm Street series finds its groove and reinforces a template that will remain in place for the rest of the series. It's unfortunate that it's a groove I don't particularly care for and it's even more unfortunate that the template will grow stale by the time the opening credits roll on the next film, but this is the start of the series as most people know it. It's also the start of Freddy's decline from a fantastic movie monster to a pun-happy huckster.
I do like that A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: The Dream Warriors attempts to repair the continuity of the series by bringing back Heather Lagenkamp (still awful, but whatever), who is now a sleep specialist trying to help a group of psychiatric patients survive against Freddy's night onslaught. In fact, pulling up stakes and moving the series from suburbia into a psych ward is a wise choice and the change of scenery is refreshing. Not to mention, is there anything worse than being separated from your family and labeled insane while being hunted in your sleep by a claw-handed burn victim?
Bigger than the location change, though, is the change in tone. Gone with the small budgets and minimalist dream sequences and in with the elaborate sets and fancy special effects! The dream sequences in Part 3 are a sight to behold, filled with incredible art direction, matte paintings and visual effects. The only issue here is that they're not scary. Impressive for sure. Certainly busy. Definitely elaborate. But not scary. Similarly, the film takes a sharp turn into the fantasy realm, with characters learning to fight back in their dreams by using their imagination. Granted, this makes sense. After all, who hasn't had a dream where they were Batman Bond? Anyone? But the execution stinks and it makes Freddy even less of a threat. When the intended victims fight back (and often do so while wearing ridiculous costumes), Freddy's predatory nature is shuffled aside.
If Freddy can't stalk his prey in creepy, unsettling chase scenes, what can he do? Oh, he can turn into a giant snake. Or he can turn into a TV. Or he can grow heroin needles from his fingertips. The simple boogeyman is gone, say hello to Freddy the special effect. Granted, some of these moments are pretty nifty (particularly the scene where Freddy transforms one of his victims into a nasty little marionette), but they're never tense enough to be frightening or even bloody enough to be gross. And while we're on the subject of Freddy, we learn he was born when his Nun mother was raped by "100 maniacs." Freddy's vile taunts have been replaced with bad puns. This film manages to demystify Freddy and tone him down in one fell swoop. Great job, guys. Really. Outstanding.
In the grand scheme, Part 3 is completely unoffensive popcorn fluff, more fantasy than horror. However, this film loses its grip on Freddy and by losing him, well, let's just say the series can't exactly fall back on stellar performances or ingenious plotting.
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master (1988, Directed by Renny Harlin)
"Oh, who, Freddy? Freddy? Look, I don't want to hear about Freddy, okay. I heard it all from Kristen and I don't want to hear anymore. So just stop it."
Body Count: 6 (Kincaid gets stabbed, Joey turns his waterbed red, Kristen meets a fiery end, Sheila does her best Yaphet-Kotto-at-the-end-of-Live and Let Die impression, Rick gets kung-fu'd up, Debbie has her arms ripped off in a weightlifting session gone horribly wrong before sprouting bug arms and becoming miniaturized and squashed...no, really)
Dream Sequences: Freddy hangs out on the beach. Freddy hangs out in a junkyard the size of the planet. Freddy gives a martial arts lesson. Freddy teaches a class. It turns out that Freddy is like Barbie. He's qualified for every job and always has the right costume!
Sex and Drugs: Some people date. Naked chick in the waterbed. Sorry to report that there is no serious case of Demon Tongue on display.
Thoughts: Take a look at the "Sex and Drugs" header above. If this were a Friday the 13th movie, there would be a paragraph of text there. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Nightmare on Elm Street series is its real lack of nudity/sex and drugs for a 1980s horror series. Now, I'm not saying I want every horror movie I watch to be filled with boobs and bongs, but I think it's interesting to note that this kind of content decreases as the series continues, as it becomes more "kid friendly."
"Kid friendly? This is a Freddy Krueger movie! Surely you must be joking!"
Nope. By this time, Freddy Krueger was a sensation. The movies were raking in the big bucks and Freddy toys were flying off the shelves. Our sick and demented child killer had become a cash cow, New Line's Mickey Mouse. It makes sense that this is the first film in the series to give Robert Englund star billing. It also makes sense (from a business point of view), that A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master is tame and silly, ditching nearly every horror element of the previous films and embracing the fantasy. Freddy's powers have become so random and his punning so out of control, that the simple act of trying to watch the film becomes a chore. When you're not scratching your head and wondering what just happened, you're groaning because Freddy just turned into a pizza and said "If the food don't kill ya, the service will!"
What happened here? How did this series get so out of control? Why did they take Englund off his leash and give him a ham and cheese sandwich? The film practically wants us to root for Freddy because he's oh-so funny. Okay, I love watching Jason hack and slash his way through a dozen camp counselors, but Jason is a retarded zombie, a cypher to serve up interesting kills. Freddy is a CHILD MURDERER. Wes Craven created him as an abomination, a special kind of very dark evil. By lightening him up, you're doing a disservice to everything that the first film attempted to do.
And the entire movie is just silly. Freddy parodies Jaws and smashes a sand castle. Freddy has a karate battle. There's even an extended "suiting-up" montage that culminates in a huge fight between Freddy and the dream-powered heroine. If people weren't being murdered every fifteen minutes or so, this would be at home with Saturday morning cartoons.
But his is how you sell Freddy Krueger dolls, I suppose. This just movie puts me in an angry place.
(Will I survive the marathon? Will the series pull itself out of this slump? Will Freddy become scary again? All of these answers and more in the next installment!)