Halloween Horror: A Nightmare on Elm Street – “The Undiscovered Country…”

Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street

Last Halloween I achieved a phenomenally important life aim: watching the complete A Nightmare on Elm Street series in a row. Who doesn’t want to do that? Even Freddy versus Jason? Yes! Again! So, what was the result? Well, this blog for the 30th anniversary to begin with… From humble beginnings to the legendary third part…

IT WAS A FORTUITOUS DELIVERY TO MY YOUNGER SELF THAT KICK-STARTED THIS, WINGING ITS WAY ACROSS THE ATLANTIC IN THE LATE 1980s.  A stash of bubblegum cards (Bubble gum not included, Customs) sent by a cousin, mainly horror – with comedy taglines attached to images from Fright Night, Chucky, various Stephen King adaptations…  It was the era of Garbage Pail Kids but this was much more real: Hollywood real.  And standing out from the stash, more than any other gruesome, was Freddy Krueger.  He was credited with lines far funnier than in any of the films I’d soon learn, the battered stills capturing comedy moments less scary than that Nightmare influenced episode of Byker Grove.  In many subsequent years I’d see the first instalment a number of times, but last year was a chance to see it all in its franchise spanning glory, thanks to the advent of DVDs, DVD players, box sets and a far exceeded 18th birthday.

“One”… A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

“The scarred face, the striped jumper, the fedora almost as famous as Indy’s…”

Wes Craven’s definitive film kicks off with a heavy fairy tale vibe, one that’s faded into increasing familiarity over the past 30 years. “One, Two, Freddy’s Coming for you” runs the nursery rhyme at the film’s heart, the only concession to that horrific secret hidden at the heart of the Elm Street community. That community’s part of the film’s necessary reality. Yes, the fact that the fairytale exists is a little strange, as do the various choices by law enforcement throughout the film, but not staggeringly so.  Mainly, there needs to be that semblance of reality to establish boundaries for dreams to blur.

Immediately rooting it in reality, apparently, is the construction of the franchise’s main icon: Freddy’s razor glove. Designed to be predatory, thought up by Wes Craven as a finite recall to atavistic race memories. It’s an effective icon, as much as the scarred face, the striped jumper, the fedora almost as famous as, and reclaimed from, Indy’s…

Dreams give a wider scope than simply fairytales. There’s the predatory wolf with an aptitude for disguise, the witch’s house… And then the bogey man in the cupboard, under the bed.  Nightmare sought to have its cake and eat it, and the villain had brought the slicer. It’s packed full of tropes some inherited, some new to slasher.  There are the references to famous dramatic storytelling, including Hamlet, that blurring of reality and linking the two, the old classic coming of age thanks to scream queen heroine Nancy.  While it requires a strict logic within its own universe, it clearly fits into the same line of slashers that had hit the mainstream with Halloween some six years earlier.

Unlike some other huge slasher franchises, this isn’t killing to prevent teen / pre-marital sex, although contrary to reputation that does figure, caught up in that crucial teen demographic. Freddy has elements of an elemental, but not the inhuman, giant and silent kind. This slasher is haappy to talk, in fact he needs to, but he’s certainly not the comedian quite yet.  Kim Newman suggested in the 2011 documentary Fear Itself: The Life and Crimes of Freddy Krueger, that Nightmare has a heart of pure horror: a central tale of monster after a girl who bests him.  But Freddy’s main addition to 1980s horror bringing supernatural back.  As much as the film was pinned into the middle of that decade, with its electronic score, and ‘introducing Jonny Depp’ to cut-off tops… That’s the key, alongside that dark comedy, the special effects and the scares that would bobble around in priority as the franchise grew.  There was too much pulp, too much new world, and too broad a fear-base in the dream kingdom for Freddy to become a classic icon of horror to match his gothic forbears, but he was larger than the life compared to many of his slasher contemporaries.

Key to Nightmare is the idea of taking things from dreams, including the fedora to the point of where the slasher himself can be snared and dragged from his domain – to fight in a reality that he doesn’t own or control. But then, beating the happy alternative ending that was filmed, there’s that strange surreal conclusion. To call it a twist is strong, recalling as it does the suitably dreamlike backwards roll of Carrie’s coda. It’s effective and startling, but also breaks the film’s narrative conclusion, wrenching us back into the dream world where Freddy is king.  And of course, leaving us in no doubt that there will be a sequel. Something new had arrived, and its influence wasn’t to be underestimated.

“Two, Freddy’s Coming For You…” A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

Like Jigsaw a few horror franchises later, Freddy seems to be recruiting …

That title, didn’t that happen in the first film?  Well, whatever, less than a year later it was time for a different direction.  Always a bold move in a sequel, often a foolish one.  It certainly doesn’t bother with a creeping start, predating Speed with a nightmare journey on a school bus that signals Revenge’s intention to massively expand on the first film’s dreamscape. And also its logical flaws. Classic sequel territory, as Wes Craven’s Scream series would riff on mercilessly a decade or so later – no doubt with part of his mind on this sequel that he wasn’t involved with.

The distinctive electronic score is there again, but in place of the relatively charismatic protagonists of the first film comes Jesse. And he is very serious. Very serious indeed.  The hook is his family, the Walshes, who have moved into Nancy’s house five years after the events first film. Freddy’s revenge?  Again no. While the maniac’s decided to shift his MO, it’s not necessarily a focussed campaign of revenge for his death nor his vanquishing, if it was, in the first film.  Here the Dream Master becomes a mainly paranoid voice, turning Jesse into his puppet of terror and murder. Conveniently, it’s a situation not helped by Jesse’s girlfriend finding Nancy’s diary in the bedroom he’s moved into. Like Jigsaw a few horror franchises later, Freddy seems to be recruiting as much as ripping lives apart.

It’s a Machiavellian plot that spills the logic of the Nightmare universe – and that’s saying something after the reality blurring of the first film. Cutting the awkward line of linking to and distinguishing itself from its prequel, Revenge takes 40 minutes to wheel out the original nursery rhyme; and it’s got to be said, it’s a rather desperate concession.

A splash ‘em up after the splash ‘em up

This entry’s probably only beaten in the discussion stakes by its prequel, for all the wrong reasons. The controversial tone, radically different villain scheme, weaker direction and oft-argued sexual subtext.  But it does have at least one plus point. There is the stupendous pool party, a rather splendid slash ‘em up after the splash ‘em up before the inevitable descent to the warehouse that birthed the undead Freddy.  Thing is, as neither fire not resistance could beat a twist ending last time, how could the addition of an awkward tone succeed this time?

It’s a shame that Craven didn’t return to the franchise, an irreversible lost that happened for a host of reasons.  But he was more right to doubt the idea of Freddy as manipulator in this film than he was to dislike the idea of the first film birthing a franchise.  To be kind, the result has an interesting premise – but one that bizarrely stumbles into the sadistic and non-sensical when it really shouldn’t. The purpose of adding more grounding to a character who exists in dreams just seems to misread the power of the original. After the level coming of age foundation of the first film, the unmistakable bisexual subtext in this seems less a step too far than a step too soon.  Sadly a sequel that all too obviously diminishes many of the first film’s highlights. But there were better nightmares to come.

“Three…” A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)

“Sleep. Those little slices of Death. How I loathe them.”

And what a response. Starting with a Poe quote, now that’s has got to be a sign of intent.  But more perhaps, it’s an indication of pretentiousness growing behind the camera.  After the second instalment there’s a strong need for that, and man does it work.  Simple stuff to begin with: electronica is abandoned for rock while time is taken to pit a different and (generally) well pitched opposition against the gloved fiend.

Yes, it’s the Goldfinger of the Nightmares.

The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was fortunate to attract talent throughout its run, onscreen and behind. Following Depp’s debut in the first part, Patricia Arquette makes her big screen debut here, appearing alongside Laurence Fishburne.  But most importantly part three brought back Wes Craven, working the story with Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell (the latter of whom also directed). That’s quite a creative force, so it’s no wonder that The Dream Warriors set in stone many definitive parts of the series, but also that it’s so bloody good.  Yes, it’s the Goldfinger of the Nightmares.

Heather Langenkamp, is given a solid role as the returning Nancy; both focussing and enhancing the plot while getting a necessary end game after the confusing wake of the first film.  Her workplace, the hospital, makes an ideal setting for Freddy’s games and the perfect nest for the ragtag collection of victims/warriors.  Most of all, it fuses science to the supernatural, something that had leaked from the first sequel.

One of the greatest set-pieces of the whole franchise is the puppet master sequence, carried out with Dantean zeal, great perspective, skewed cinematography and exaggerated staging.  It effortlessly captures that blur between dream and reality, while imbuing the franchise logic with a new and subtle mix; Freddy can kill, only the initiated can see past the suicide.  That’s far beyond the first film’s simple slash ‘em up or the second film’s coercion.

Here there is a physical cure, a dream suppressant. But can an elemental of rage and revenge like Freddy be suppressed by chemicals?  The result is a more likely revenge scenario for the razor man; an enclosed group of victims who are in fact (duh, duh, duh) the last of the Elm Street children.  Balance is everything to a good horror film though – on the flip-side, who but the last of that brood could possibly defeat him.

Group hypnosis allows these warriors to enter Freddy’s world on their own terms but of course it’s a costly mistake.  In context of the series, part three delimits whatever supernatural shackles were remaining, providing a canvas for heightened and increasingly surreal deaths. As that canvas expands we receive a supernatural glimpse into Freddy’ biography (the eye-poppingly extraordinary “bastard on of a hundred maniacs” plot line… Delivered by a ghost nun (of course!). That’s the flesh for the future instalments, and hell, it’s a hook and a half.

As mysticism increases, it’s almost inevitable that ritual elements such as proper internment comes up. And for all the cliche, it proves a better step than yet another return to that warehouse and the origin of this undead.  Boldly, the cost of the big end-game is Nancy, amid a cliff-hanger conclusion that hinges on the classic Elm Street house, this time as askew as it really should be.

Other series additions include: the advent of full-on one-liners “What a rush!” – surely a response to the second entry’s mis-placed dourness; the celebrity cameos, with Dick Cavett and Zsa Zsa Gabor – adding a nice line in surreality.  With Craven’s return, it’s easy than ever to see Freddy as a forerunner of Scream’s Ghostface.  Like that other Craven creation, Freddy is constantly battered all over the place.  Constantly beaten up, far removed from some of his indestructable contemporaries. It may seem an obvious move, but it adds innate comedy and a more nuanced villain than that offered by the Terminator style Voorhees and Myers.

As the supernatural wanders into ritual, Catholicism bubbles to the top, alongside some not too unrelated, distinct moral reasoning.  What a counter-balance to the “This is… God” line of the first film.  But these Elm Street kids, these poor afflicted kids… They’re paying for their parents’ sins. Even Dr Simms talks of guilt as a cause of nightmares, the “purgatory fastened by the hands of man”. It’s an inescapable trap and one tinged with fatality.  And in that, perhaps, lies The Dream Warriors greatest asset. For all the mitigation this film bleeds into the franchise fabric, Freddy Krueger is a victimiser long after death.  A strong, classical structural; a conceit well thought out; a return to coming of age. It’s no wonder that the franchise would seek to build on it immediately and directly…

To be continued…  As Freddy said, “I’m going to split you in two…”

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