31 Days of Hell: Every Nightmare on Elm Street

Happy Halloween!
For our gift to you, it's the entire Nightmare on Elm Street series!

Ordinarily this is where I would begin with a very fancily worded introduction about how Wes Craven's most original and enduring character has haunted the nightmares of moviegoers for decades, singlehandedly turning Michigan-native Robert Englund into a genre legend. How not a boy or girl old enough to read doesn't know who Freddy is. He's like Santa Claus or King Kong.

Instead, please consider this a continuation of our tribute to the late, great Wes Craven. We paid our respects to him here. Now let's get this show on the road. Welcome to prime time, bitch!

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) -- written and directed by Wes Craven
Only a filmmaker who hadn't seen a movie until he went to college could come up with something so scary that it hits you right in the primordial baby-maker. This simple idea of a slasher villain who kills you in your dreams is a brilliant concept. Everyone needs to sleep. If you remember Saving Private Ryan, there's a scene that always reminds me of A Nightmare on Elm Street, when a character discloses how he's able to sleep on the battlefield: "Try staying awake." As someone who worked a full time job all through college, I can testify to the accuracy of that tactic, and how much it gets you in trouble.

Craven's film begins with a dream sequence to hook us in, and as soon as the rules are established, a sense of danger permeates the celluloid. It certainly doesn't hurt that we like most of the characters right away. Heather Langenkamp as Nancy brings an innocence to her performance that keeps her engaging, even when she overplays the dramatic scenes. As with most teenage-centered films of the 80s, the parents aren't the most believable characters, but Nancy's friends, led by none other than Johnny Depp, are all well established and quirky individuals we don't want to see fall into the waiting clutches of Freddy's claw. Even when the movie goes over the top as an R-rated predecessor to Home Alone, it's always fun.

The dream sequences feel authentic and not overproduced. Craven and his cinematographer Jacques Haitkin create a dark and foreboding visual palette with such a small budget. The shot of Freddy walking toward his first victim with his arms snaking out like a Stretch Armstrong doll from Hell is one you'll never forget. As Fred Krueger, Robert Englund owns this movie right from "go," commanding the screen every moment that he's on it, and just like a truly great villain should, you can even feel his presence when he's not on the screen. You can just sense him, peering out from behind the walls or waiting for you to think its safe before shutting your eyes. And that's when the real fun begins.


A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985) -- directed by Jack Sholder
Well that didn't take long. Less than a year after the first Nightmare turned New Line Cinema into the house that Freddy built, Robert Shaye used his rights to the character to produce a sequel that plays like Paul Verhoeven would've directed it if he was blind and socially insensitive. With Jack Sholder (The Hidden) in the director's chair, there's certainly craft on display and some nifty lighting, but the script by David Chaskin is a disaster that all but ignores Wes Craven's established rules. That's what happens when you try to poop out a sequel before the popcorn digested by the first round of patrons has a chance to hit the toilet.

What saves this movie from being a complete waste is the insane amount of homoeroticism that turns this "horror" sequel into a fall-down hilarious comedy. The director claims that he had no clue of the extensive homosexual subtext in Chaskin's script. I suppose if you're neck deep in production, shooting out of sequence, and illiterate... maybe I could buy that. But come on. Once this was cut together, didn't the proverbial light switch in your head eventually turn on? That scene when Jesse (Mark Patton) leaves his Meryl Streep clone with a scorching case of blue balls so he can stay the night as his friend Ron's house wasn't already a huge clue? What about the part where Kuato from Total Recall turns up in a fetish club that knows less about fetishism than E.L. James? None of those were a dead giveaway?

Perhaps it's all for the best that Sholder is as oblivious as he is. It's precisely because of his clueless direction that this is one of the most entertaining entries in the series, but for completely unintentional reasons. That's not to say that it doesn't have its moments of intrigue. If we can accept that a malevolent entity with a penchant for one-liners can kill us in our dreams, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine him attempting other sorts of vile shit to affect the physical world. It's made all the more palatable because it's Robert Englund on the screen doing what he does best. This was before Freddy became the poster villain for the MTV generation. His performance here is very creepy, and it makes all of the film's failures worth the hassle.


A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987) -- directed by Chuck Russell
I guess the third time really is the charm. After Freddy's Revenge turned a profit but turned off many fans of the original, Wes Craven was brought back to write a first draft for a second sequel. That screenplay was eventually polished by director Chuck Russell along with none other than Frank Darabont. Yes, that Frank Darabont, who directed The Shawshank Redemption. So it's no wonder that this installment is an often enthralling ensemble piece with bedrock themes of teamwork and hope. Combine that with the most imaginative nightmare scenarios yet, and you have a sequel that not only surpasses the original, but remains the best of the series to date.

You can tell just by watching the film that Darabont and Russell have a clear understanding of the audience, and not just of what they expect, but their intelligence. At the time this film was made, the only other major competing franchise was Friday the 13th (Halloween wouldn't find its resurgence until the following year). By comparison, this is certainly the thinking person's horror series, with psychological implications that can be followed to much more interesting places. Dream Warriors doesn't go as deep as it could with this psychology, but scrapes the surface just enough to where it leaves us wanting more, and that's never a bad thing.

With a cast of likable performers headed up by Patricia Arquette, the return of Freddy's original nemesis, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), and Craig Wasson playing an adult who is actually written as intelligently as his junior counterparts for a change, the stage is set for another massacre -- with a twist. By this point of the decade, it had become en vogue to root for the killer in slasher films. But we actually care about these kids. Setting the film in a mental institution for troubled youth might seem like a cheap shot (since it worked so well for Friday the 13th: Part V; oh wait, no it f**king didn't), but Russell takes time to let us get to know his characters. Instead of simply turning Freddy loose for a body count, the dream scenarios play out as sick mind games that exploit the innermost weaknesses of these disturbed kids. It is exactly the kind of twisted psycho gambit a killer like Freddy would play, and I'll be damned if we don't feel for them while they're being picked off. For a mainstream slasher series in the 1980s, that's pretty daring all by itself.


A Nightmare of Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) -- directed by Renny Harlin
When you think of directors who favor spectacle over substance, there's a few that will immediately come to mind: Michael Bay and George Lucas to name a couple. Renny Harlin should also be on that list. Despite having the great Die Hard 2 under his belt (and that one is still bogged down by some painfully obvious logistical problems), Harlin is yet to direct another good film that I've seen, and don't even get me started on Exorcist: The Beginning. I would rather have Linda Blair regurgitate split pea soup directly in my mouth. Even with a script by Oscar-winning writer Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), Harlin still somehow manages to take a promising cast and turn Freddy's fourth outing into a blue pill for the MTV crowd whose attention span is only good for -- squirrel!

There really isn't much you can expect from a film that brings Freddy back to life with fiery dog piss. No need to read that twice. You aren't hallucinating. One of the survivors from the prior film has a dream where his dog literally gives Freddy's corpse a flaming golden shower that resurrects him for another go at the Elm Street children. I would tell you it gets better from there, but I would be lying. From the ridiculous image of Freddy wearing sunglasses on a beach to a Karate "fight" with sound effects subbing in for an invisible antagonist, Harlin just keeps piling on the crap. I wish I could tell you I'm lying when I say that this remains the highest grossing film of the original series. Pardon me while I weep for humanity.

That's not to say that there is any shortage of creativity. Renny Harlin is all about flashy, and his keen visual style is on full frontal display here. Speaking of full frontal, the actress replacing Patricia Arquette is named Tuesday Knight. Either she was planning a career in porn when she got cast in this or her parents really, really wanted her to be a stripper. What was I talking about? Oh yeah, how Harlin created this sequel for people with no attention spans. How ironic. But really, it is very pretty to look at, and so is Lisa Wilcox, the only new welcome character. The dream sequences are energetic, well designed, and Harlin's camera moves hint that he may yet have a great movie or two left in him. If only he bothered to try and find it.


A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) -- directed by Stephen Hopkins
I'll give Stephen Hopkins some credit. He understood that the direction Freddy was taking in The Dream Master was not the ideal path, but what he did not understand is that it was too late. For some reason, a shot in Robocop 3 comes to mind: Where you see an action figure of the titular cyborg sitting on a child's bedside table. Once you turn your R-rated main character into a toy for kids, there's really no going back. It's due to this fact, combined with some of the worst acting in the entire series, that The Dream Child is little more than a highly imaginative misfire.

It's a real shame, too. Before directing this sequel, Hopkins was a gifted production designer, and he's brought that skill to this film. The design of the dream sequences is really the star of the show. Hopkins uses simple matte composites and gritty set design to create convincing otherworldly touches that transport you into the confused mindset of our heroine, Alice (Lisa Wilcox, back for round two). Of all the weak links floating around, she isn't one of them. Wilcox brings strength, conviction, and an emotional core to her performance that makes us really care about what's going on, even when the other actors around her are overplaying their parts so much it makes you wonder if they all got the same script.

The script itself may have been the real problem. While the film is built around a very promising core premise, Hopkins' nightmare generator is really clocking some overtime on this sequel in order to make up for the poor character development and even worse acting. Thankfully we have Robert Englund and Lisa Wilcox at the center of the story to take us through. If we were left with the supporting performances, it would've been game over. Hopkins also tosses out what is arguably the best and most simple dream sequence of the series, along with some very gruesome kills to make us cringe. They work really well, even if the MPAA did continue its trend of bending this series over the editing table for some surprise cut sex.


Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) -- directed by Rachel Talalay
After The Dream Child brought in the worst box office returns of the entire series, the decision was made to kill off Freddy once and for all. I'm pretty sure that's not a spoiler considering the title and the fact that we have one more film to go. This time around, there is not even the slightest attempt at any sort of horror, tension, or even jump scares. Freddy's Dead is a comedy, and if you watch it in that frame of mind, this is one of the most hysterically funny films of the decade. I'm not even kidding. There are more laugh-out-loud moments in Freddy's Dead than almost any other film I can think of from the 90s.

This is what The Dream Master only wishes it could've been. Renny Harlin's film didn't work because he only took it halfway -- Freddy was still supposed to be "scary" while the imagery and tone of the film constantly kept assuring us that he wasn't. Rachel Talalay, having moved herself up from a production accountant on the early films, directs this sequel as a highly stylized live action cartoon. She must've figured, "Screw it, people love Freddy, let's give them Freddy cracking more one-liners than a Steven de Souza script." The result is a balls-to-the-wall entertaining visual extravaganza with Robert Englund's Bugs Bunny of a performance posed centerstage, and pitted against an adversary in the form of Lisa Zane. She's no Alice or Nancy, but at least she isn't Tuesday Knight.

I could go on for hours about the bountiful comedic pleasures contained in this gem. Somehow it's gained a reputation of being one of the worst films of the series. I really don't see how the fans could be more off base. Granted, if you're looking at this as the last of the official sequels in a horror series, then yes, Freddy's Dead has precisely zero scares and shows no inclination for even wanting them. But let's just rewind the clock back three years. With The Dream Master, you've got a film that's shot like a comedy pretending to be a horror film, followed up by an actual horror film that takes itself far too seriously while being phenomenally ridiculous at the same time. Where Freddy's Dead differs and succeeds while those two movies failed is that it's tonally consistent (for the most part). If Freddy is going to star in a comedy, just admit it's a comedy, and make a f**king comedy! Talalay made a brave choice to part with expectations and let her freak flag fly. Bravo.


Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) -- written and directed by Wes Craven
After parting on poor terms following the production of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, mostly due to Bob Shaye's insistence of tacking on a jump scare ending that's still one of the most laughable moments of a largely respectable franchise, Wes Craven and Shaye decided to bury the hatchet and dig up Freddy for one more go-round. But let us be clear: This is not a sequel. If it was, I would call it the best film of the series, because it is -- by far. Instead, Wes Craven's New Nightmare exists in an alternate reality from the original series. Our reality. The principle cast of this film is mostly comprised of actors and crew from the Nightmare series, all playing themselves. In doing so, Craven slyly strips his audience of the safety glass that separates us from the film's world.

Incorporating factual elements from the lives of his cast, Wes Craven brings back Heather Langenkamp to do battle with Fred Krueger, and this time she has a highly exploitable weakness: Her young son, Dylan (Miko Hughes), is a sleepwalker. If you got comfortable with Freddy as a joke-cracking wiseass, get ready to jump out of bed. Robert Englund, in addition to playing himself, reimagines Freddy as a menacing and terrifying ghoul with zero remorse and a sick sense of humor. Just like The Dream Warriors, the dream sequences in New Nightmare play on the worst fears of the characters, fashioning a sharp blade of their own weaknesses that Freddy twists slowly into their psyche. Now, this is what we talk about when we talk about a true horror film.

Joining Langenkamp and Englund are the likes of John Saxon, who played Nancy's dad in the original Nightmare, and even Wes Craven himself turns up to deliver an intoxicating monologue about the nature of Freddy. Ordinarily, when a horror film slows down for some background exposition, it kills the flow and we start checking our watches. Craven's writing -- and his performance -- is so good here, the story so unique and compelling, that the explanation is anything but boring. It gives dramatic weight and tension to every scene that follows it. For a horror series whose foundational values ran out of gas back in 1988, to re-envision the reality he created with such vigor, viscera, and vitality is nothing short of genius. Wes Craven's New Nightmare isn't just the best film to feature Fred Krueger, but the sheer creative force of its originality might just make it one of the best horror films. Period.


Now I know what you're thinking: What about Freddy vs. Jason? What about the remake? Well, if you remember back in February and March, I reviewed the entire Friday the 13th series. Those reviews also stopped short of Freddy vs. Jason and the Friday remake. As fate would have it, there is one Friday the 13th left in the year. See you in two weeks!

- Blake O. Kleiner

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