By Brad Grandrino
Every year when summer ends and mid-September arrives, I throw myself into full-Halloween mode and shift my normal habit of binge-watching all sorts of films to binge-watching horror films exclusively. And with the recent passing of scary movie mastermind Wes Craven, it was only a matter of time before I once again met the Springwood Slasher himself, Freddy Krueger.
Even though Craven only directed two of the Nightmare on Elm Street films (and co-wrote the third), I knew I would inevitably force myself to sit through all seven (eight if we’re counting Freddy vs. Jason, but we’re not). Seeing as how the only really great Nightmare on Elm Street flicks are the ones with which Craven was involved, I was in for more of a trick than a treat. But, alas, I have survived the nightmares, relatively unscathed.
I invite you to come along with me on a journey through Dream World, back to the mid-1980s when everyone’s favorite supernatural serial killer reigned supreme. The Bastard Son of 100 Maniacs, they called him, and we’re taking Johnny Depp’s red-and-green-striped convertible for a spin down memory lane. Or, rather, down Elm Street.
In addition to reviewing each of these films, I also counted how many times in each Freddy used the word “bitch,” but we’ll get to that. Let’s start where everything always starts: at the beginning.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Written & Directed by Wes Craven
Freddy’s “Bitch” Count: 1
In 1984, Wes Craven wrote and directed the first installment in the franchise: A Nightmare on Elm Street. It starred Heather Langenkamp as the feisty teenage protagonist Nancy Thompson, Johnny Depp in his debut role as Nancy’s doomed boyfriend Glen Lantz, and of course the legendary Robert Englund as every ‘80s and ‘90s teenager’s worst nightmare, the claw-gloved Freddy Krueger. But you already knew that.
The first Freddy flick is virtually flawless. Craven really succeeds in inviting us into an eerie, atmospheric world where dreams and reality are separated only by a thin, blurred line. I have heard that this was one of Craven’s intentions: to keep audiences guessing as to whether or not the on-screen characters are dreaming or in the waking world. In a way, that’s the horror of Freddy Krueger. He was Inception before Inception, only on Elm Street there’s quadruple the risk of dying in your sleep.
And since everybody sleeps, there’s basically no way to escape Freddy. That’s the genius of Craven. He’ll really lull you with this beautiful, strange environment and then scare the shit out of you by introducing a supernatural villain from whom, unlike Myers and Voorhees, you just can’t run or hide.
Sure, Myers and Voorhees were almost indestructible and would of course find you eventually, but with A Nightmare on Elm Street, you’re trapped in Freddy’s world. You have no choice but to abide by his rules. He may let you think you’re winning for a short while, but that’s just part of the fun. In the end he will get you, and he will slice and dice you, often in a cruelly comedic way.
Although the kills in the first Nightmare are pretty tame compared to the rest of the series, they still stick with you—especially poor Glen’s. No amount of bleach or hypnotherapy can clean from your mind the image of a young Johnny Depp being pulled into his own bed and then hurled back out as a mess of blood and guts. That visual’s here to stay, bitch.
It goes without saying that A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best of the Freddy franchise. Unfortunately, though, it was followed by the worst.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
Written by David Chaskin; Directed by Jack Sholder
Freddy’s “Bitch” Count: A very sad 0
After the first Nightmare, fans of the slasher genre wanted more Freddy, and a year later their prayers were answered… sort of. Granted it must’ve been difficult to fill the giant shoes left behind by Wes Craven after the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but even so, what we got was a horrible hodgepodge that’s three parts ‘80s teen coming-of-age rom-com, two parts failed attempt at Lynchian Brand surrealism—with just a pitiful dash of Freddy Krueger, and a truckload of what-the-fuck-is-even-happening?
Freddy’s Revenge does not live up to any of its expectations. From start to end it’s gibberish, or perhaps just some archaic form of filmmaking that’s deader than Latin.
The main character, Jesse (Mark Patton), is one of the worst protagonists of any film ever. From Patton’s general inability to act, to the character’s air of obnoxiousness, we want this kid to die from the get-go. Normally in a slasher flick that’s kind of the point—you’re not really supposed to “admire” the characters; rather you’re meant to see their flaws. They’re sinful, hormonal teenagers with whom you can easily relate, but it’s fun to totally abhor them too.
But Jesse isn’t even sinful, and he’s only hormonal if you count that one scene when he’s dancing “sensually” on his bed to some terrible ‘80s tune, shortly before his equally annoying girlfriend walks in and… helps him clean his room? Really, in what dimension does this shit happen? Not even in Freddy Krueger’s Dream World would you see that sort of thing. In short, Jesse is just not main character material. And yet for some reason, Krueger wants to possess him and use him to kill more teenagers. But don’t get too excited, because the body count in Revenge is unbearably low.
What more can I say about this inexcusable piece of garbage which almost succeeds in sullying the sacred name of Fred Krueger? I guess I can tell you that a bird randomly explodes at one point. And a Krueger-driven school bus speeds out into the vast deserts of… Ohio. And a toaster bursts into flames. It’s pretty ridiculous.
Even Freddy’s makeup looks terrible, like somebody slapped a steaming pepperoni pizza on Robert Englund’s face before shouting, “Action!”
Freddy’s Revenge is by far the worst in the Nightmare franchise, if I haven’t already made that clear. I hope that someday some unknown hero will gather all remaining copies of this crap-fest and hide it in that giant warehouse at the end of Raiders, where it’ll stay forever and ever.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Written by Wes Craven, Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell; Directed by Chuck Russell
Freddy’s “Bitch” Count: 2 (one in written form)
I mean, what’s not to love? We’ve got a script co-written by Krueger’s creator, an all-star cast including a young Laurence Fishburne and an even younger (and incomparably cute) Patricia Arquette, the return of Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson, and an array of loveable characters and colorful deaths that honestly trump all the kills in all the other Nightmares combined.
Dream Warriors is the definitive Nightmare movie, besides the original, of course. It outright rejects the existence of Freddy’s Revenge and acts instead as a direct sequel to its 1984 predecessor. The movie takes place at a hospital where a group of troubled teens attempt to stay awake in an effort to evade killer Krueger, who keeps appearing in their dreams. Nancy Thompson comes to the rescue with a dream-repressing drug called Hypnocil, which she herself has been using to avoid running into that notorious ghoul who ruined her life so long ago. Presumably, the drug also keeps that catchy jump-rope tune out of her head. You know the one.
Patricia Arquette is Kristen Parker, a girl with a gift: she can bring people into her dreams. This, of course, is inevitably how the teens fend off Freddy. Or at least attempt to.
If there’s one negative thing I can say about Dream Warriors, it’s that it established the tone which the rest of the franchise lazily adopted. While Dream Warriors is, on its own, an original concept, its successors recycle the same exact formula again and again until Craven ultimately returns for New Nightmare in 1994.
Let me explain: We are introduced to the main characters of the film, a group of teenagers who are either close friends or at the very least find themselves acquainted. Each teenager has one specific personality trait. One of them, for example, makes puppets. So how does he die? Freddy uses the veins in the boy’s arms and legs to make a ventriloquist dummy out of him, causing him to sleep walk out a window, falling to his death. Then there’s the infamous scene where Jennifer, an aspiring actress, is electrocuted by a Krueger-possessed television (“Welcome to prime time, bitch!”). You can see how this formula plays out. In Dream Warriors it’s a new recipe, and it’s fresh and delicious and we enjoy every bite. But in the following sequels, it’s trite. We’ll get to that once I’m done gushing about Dream Warriors.
In the second Nightmare sequel, we learn of the birth of Fred Krueger, who dons the badass moniker, “The Bastard Son of 100 Maniacs.” In a scene straight out of Supernatural, Nancy’s dad and the hospital kids’ doctor have to give Krueger’s remains a proper, holy burial, all while the kids in Freddy’s Dream Land have to take Krueger down or die trying.
If you have to watch only two Nightmare on Elm Street flicks (and I wouldn’t blame you for only wanting to see two of them), you have to see the first and the third, in that order. And you can stop there, because the rest of the ride is a downward slope—and not in the good, roller coaster-y kind of way.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
Written by Brian Helgeland and Scott Pierce; Directed by Renny Harlin
Freddy’s “Bitch” Count: 1
Remember that recurring formula I mentioned earlier? Right off the bat you can already see it in the title here. Every Krueger sequel following Revenge includes the word “dream” in its title, save for Freddy’s Dead and New Nightmare. And besides that, they follow the same exact structure as Dream Warriors. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing… if it were done well.
In Dream Master, we see the return of Kristen Parker, unfortunately replaced by somebody who isn’t Patricia Arquette. This is the first major disappointment in Nightmare’s third sequel. However, the return of Joey and Kincaid, two surviving teenagers from Dream Warriors and Kristen’s best friends, is a nice touch… until they get killed off, like, right away.
So Freddy’s back, and Kristen soon lends her powers—the ability to pull people into her dreams—to her friend Alice (Lisa Wilcox), who will become our heroine for the next few movies. This is unfortunate, because in Dream Master, Alice is… how should I put this? Well, she’s boring. There’s nothing special about her. When she talks, you start to fall asleep, which sucks because in this particular movie that’s the one thing you’re not supposed to do. There’s just nothing engaging about Alice’s character.
Meanwhile, each of her friends has naturally only one specific defining personality trait. These traits, of course, correlate with the manner in which Freddy kills the kids.
We’ve reached the point where things feel particularly gimmicky. By the middle of Dream Master, you already have a pretty good idea as to how everybody’s going to die, and the amount of cheese is unacceptable, even for a movie about a striped sweater-wearing burn victim who kills kids in their dreams.
But don’t get me wrong—while the film has its cons, it’s definitely got its pros as well. For one, (and this can be said for every Freddy flick, barring the 2010 remake), Robert Englund is always Freddy Krueger. Personally, as long as Robert Englund is Freddy and the movie isn’t Freddy’s Revenge, I can find some amount of enjoyment in the picture. Besides Englund’s inevitable return, the kills are admittedly pretty cool. I especially enjoyed watching a girl get all the air and blood and guts and bones sucked out of her. That’s my kind of DeflateGate.
Look, though: The cons outweigh the pros. A new nursery rhyme is introduced in Dream Master, and it’s just not nearly as catchy as the old “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you.” In fact, it’s essentially nothing more than a play on your classic “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” prayer. And somehow this prayer, coupled with Freddy seeing his own reflection (real fucking original, right?) are enough to defeat the Springwood Slasher… at least temporarily, of course.
This ending’s a total cop-out, and it’s what ultimately leads to Dream Master’s failure as a volume in the Freddy franchise, especially after the glory that was Dream Warriors. The fourth installment simply tries too hard to duplicate its precursor, and it absolutely fails.
What we get instead is a Bizarro version of Dream Warriors, with two-dimensional characters, a tedious protagonist, and a whole slew of nonsensical, shoehorned plot devices.
Fortunately for you, dear reader, the next couple films in Freddy’s saga, while still in many respects attempting to clone Dream Warriors, become increasingly aware of the comical aspects of Krueger’s world and embrace this gory levity wholeheartedly, even if sometimes the humor falls flat.
I’ll see you for Part Two tomorrow!