A Nightmare on Elm Street series

This article was originally published on 12ftdwende.com on 30 April 2010.

So a few weeks ago I mentioned that my favorite of the cinematic boogeymen is Freddy Krueger. What can I say, he got me young. From the boxes in the video store to the bits and pieces I’d catch on late night television, that fictitious son of a bitch freaked me out. Now I’m an adult and movies by and large don’t scare me anymore (with certain exceptions like The Shining and Jesus Camp). I can sit through most of the installments in the Elm Street franchise without a single jump. Freddy went from horrific boogeyman to a shtick-heavy joker who just happened to kill teenagers. Like Wile E. Coyote, except four out of five times he actually catches the Roadrunner (and bad things happen). But when I really start to think about the idea of a killer who lives in dreams… who is above the normal rules and laws of the waking world… it doesn’t exactly psyche me up to get to bed.

So, of course, the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street opens today from Platinum Dunes, the production company that previously remade (to varying degrees of success) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher, and Friday the 13th. I decided to catch an early screening and review it but when buying my advance ticket the other day I thought to myself “why just review the one? There’s a ton of these movies! That would make the article more interesting! And also twice as long as it’s supposed to be!” So before the big show I got to some re-watching and here’s a few micro-reviews of the previous installments in the franchise.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – Did you know this film is based on a true story? I shit you not! The plot was fictionalized by writer/director Wes Craven of course but the premise was taken from a series of news articles he read about a group of teenagers who became convinced that when they fell asleep they would die. AND THEY WERE RIGHT! Taking the name of a bully who used to pick on him in school, Craven created Freddy Krueger. This original film is a horror classic and deservedly so. The characters are developed enough that they do not feel like caricatures. In fact with all their problems (practically every character in the whole original run of films comes from a broken home) this movie has sometimes been characterized as a John Hughes film with carnage. Bonus: first major film role for two-time Oscar nominee Johnny Depp. Some of the effects are a bit dated (this movie is a week older than me) but Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger is a boogeyman for the ages… so naturally this film was followed by…

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) – This is quite possibley the gayest slasher movie ever made. Now I want to be clear: I am not some immature high schooler who uses “gay” pejoratively to mean “lame.” I mean this movie is insanely homoerotic and the whole thing could be seen as an allegory for the main character’s struggle with his sexual identity. It’s not necessarily clear whether or not that it is intentional, but seeing as the kid ends up running into his gym teacher in a leather bar and director Jack Sholder shows a lot more male skin than female I’m going to assume at least someone knew what they were doing. While that whole issue makes the film… interesting, it is nonetheless an awful awful movie and by far the worst in the series. It disregards some of the central rules of the franchise and just plain sucks. The opening bus nightmare is pretty cool though.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) – Redemption comes for the series in what is probably the best of the direct sequels (though it has a few issues). Chuck Russel directs and co-writes this entry along original writer Wes Craven (who refused involvement with the second film) and future Oscar-nominee Frank Darabont (writer-director of The Shawshank Redemption). Patricia Arquette and Larry Fishburne star in this insane asylum-set installment. The tormented teens of Springwood, Ohio have been locked away because they keep complaining about a man trying to kill them in their dreams. Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon from the original also return. This film includes the infamous scene where Freddy slams a wannabe-actress’s head into a television set yelling “Welcome to Prime Time, bitch” which marked the beginning of the unfortunate tendency for Freddy to become a whole lot jokier (and start calling everyone “bitch” a lot).

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) – Patricia Arquette declined to reprise her role as Kristen in this sequel and thusly the film boasts absolutely no one you’ve ever heard of (aside from Robert Englund). While the dialogue and acting in this film are awful (which is hardly unique in the series) director Renny Harlin really GETS the whole dreamscape aspect of the story. This movie feels more like a dream than any of the others, so it’s got that going for it if you can get around the stupid story (by future Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential scribe Brian Helgeland) and lame punch lines.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) – Much like the last film, crappy writing and interesting direction (courtesy of Stephen Hopkins). This film does contain a force-feeding death that I’d rank as the grossest in the series (though if you have a problem with blood it might rank as one of the LEAST unsettling).

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) – That “Final” in the title is somewhat undercut by Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Freddy Vs. Jason and the remake… but whatever. I don’t think these franchises are ever really going to end. This is the point where officially the series stops going for scares and starts going for laughs. Successfully in a couple areas (look for a young Breckin Meyer from Clueless and Robot Chicken). The movie has cameos by Roseanne, Tom Arnold, and Alice Cooper. That’s how much they just flat-out stopped trying. There’s also a big 3D ending. But this isn’t your Avatar 3D. This isn’t even your Final Destination 4 3D. This is old school one-red-lens one-blue-lens nothing-looks-the-right-color paper glasses 3D. Yup… Also a quick digression: this poster sucks. Look at all the other posters above. They’re awesome! Back in the 80s you had cool painted posters, even for mediocre movies. 90s and after it’s just Photoshop crap (or whatever the 90s equivalent of Photoshop was).

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) – This is not technically a sequel. Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played Nancy in parts 1 & 3, plays Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played Nancy in parts 1 & 3. Wes Craven, Robert Englund, John Saxon, and New Line studio head Bob Shaye all plays themselves as well. The premise is that Freddy Krueger is just the latest incarnation of something evil that has been around much longer than the Elm Street movies and that this evil thing which can be trapped by stories is trying to break into the real world. The Freddy make-up is redesigned to look less like a burn victim and more like a demon. While the premise is rather frightening, the movie is short on actual scares and drags at several places but the ideas it plays with makes it much more interesting than any of the sequels.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) – The director this time is Samuel Bayer, who has no film credits but has directed music videos for twenty years including Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Blind Melon’s “No Rain,” The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” and The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” Franchises like Friday the 13th look pretty much the same movie to movie regardless of who’s at the helm but the Elm Street franchise really lets directors show off their style in the dream sequences.

Let me starts with the cons. Even in the crappier installments of the series the characters were actual characters. Even if they were stereotypes, there was a sense that each teenager of the previous films had a life and interests and problems beyond being “fresh meat” for a deranged dream killer. This movie has none of that. Nancy (Rooney Mara) likes to draw. Quentin (Kyle Gallner) has a crush on Nancy. That’s about as developped as these characters get. The usual bunch of 20-somethings like Katie Cassidy (from the Black Christmas remake and the new Melrose Place), Thomas Dekker (from Heroes and The Sarah Conner Chronicles) and Kellan Lutz (from Twilight) try to pass as teenagers. It doesn’t work.

In the previous films Freddy was referred to as a “child killer.” Never the dreaded P-word. That is for the best since most of the films take on sort of a campy tone. This film actually does raise the grim specter of child molestation (though actual molestation is never directly stated, pedophilia is pretty bluntly mentioned). To its credit, it also eschews the campiness of previous installments so the child abuse angle is never in strictly bad taste. But it does remain an issue. It may seem odd that any issue is “too horrible” for a movie about mass murder, but it’s a serious thing that sort of detracts from the blood-soaked fun we all flock these movies for. It’s hardly a deal-breaker for the movie but it adds an element of discomfort.

The film’s budget works against it a little. It all looks very polished, which I think can be a detriment to a horror film. The low budget of the original helped it get a more grimy or gritty feel. I was actually worried that CGI might cheapen the film. Lord knows there are dozens of horror movies where computer effects have replaced good old fashioned practical gore effects and made the whole thing look fake. The dream sequences let film-makers like Craven, Harlin, and Hopkins get creative with how they shot them. I was worried Bayer might get lazy with a computer. Well, I was wrong and I was right. There is little that matches the ambition of Renny Harlin or Stephen Hopkins in the dream sequences, but computers are not used as a cheat. The sequences are still well-constructed. My one complaint is the scene where Freddy comes out of the wallpaper to menacingly loom over the sleeping Nancy. In the original the wall was replaced with a sheet of spandex and the actor just pressed against it. That worked much better than the CGI in the new one which looks like a cartoon.

The thing that works the best about the film is Academy Award-nominee Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger. He does what Robert Englund hasn’t done in over twenty years: made Freddy scary. With the “realistic” burn victim make-up and a voice somewhere between Englund’s Freddy and Haley’s Rorschach, Freddy is as terrifying as ever. There are punch lines (some of them even recycled from the original film series) but they come off less like a joker’s shtick but more like a deranged sadist taunting his helpless victims. In flashback scenes Haley even brings some ambiguity to the still-living Freddy. Did he really do the awful things they said he did? The mystery is a somewhat compelling angle to the movie (or rather would be if everyone who saw the original didn’t already know how it turned out).

Story-wise, the film is as well-constructed as any of these films have ever been. The “mystery” helps propel the story from killing to killing. The film doesn’t over-do it with the deaths (only five onscreen, to my recollection) but ups the ante with the nightmares. The film incorporates the idea of micro-naps. When you go long enough without sleep your brain can dream briefly dream even when you are awake. I have no idea if that is true or not but in a movie where your dreams can kill you it makes for one hell of a good plot point. The single greatest thing I can and will say about this film is that it brings the scary. It has suspense where you know something bad is about to happen, but you jump anyway when it does. I saw this film with a large audience in a packed theater which is always a mixed blessing with these types of films. You’ll get the jackasses who don’t ever shut up, but it’s also much easier to jump when everyone around you jumps too. This is the first time I have been creeped out by an Elm Street movie since I was maybe about 12. This film brings back familiar story elements and motifs while at the same time breaking away from some of the unfortunate tendencies that brought down the old franchise. This movie may not haunt my dreams (we’ll see, I haven’t been to sleep yet) but it kept me on the edge of my seat.

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