Halloween Horror: Nightmare on Elm Street – “In that Sleep of Death…”

Freddy Kreuger Nightmare on Elm Street

Last Halloween I achieved a minor life aim, watching the complete Nightmare on Elm Street series in a row. Even Freddy versus Jason? Yes. So, what was the result? Well, the second part of this blog for the 30th anniversary to begin with…

TO RECAP FROM THE FIRST PART: IT WAS A FORTUITOUS DELIVERY THAT FOUND ITS WAY OVER THE ATLANTIC TO MY YOUNGER SELF THAT KICK-STARTED THE NIGHTMARATHON OF EVERY ORIGINAL RUN FREDDY FILM AT HALLOWEEN 2013. A stash of bubblegum cards, comedy taglines and horrifically compelling images. In a long-awaited retrospective I re-discovered the first film, Wes Craven’s masterclass in bringing real fear and real supernatural to the slasher genre; the mis-step of a sequel that tried too hard and; the third, sublime showcase of talent that brought us structure, a set up for the franchise to expand in and that marionette sequence to boot. So some victims escaped the third instalment – what would happen to Kirsten and co next..?

“Four, Better Lock your Door….” A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

As often happens, the smart moves of the second sequel weren’t quite built on with the follow-up. It wasn’t immediately wasted, and there’s certainly no lack of trying… Talent was high once again, with Renny Harlin coming in to direct and Brian Helgeland co-scripting– using a pen with Mystic River and LA Confidential in its future. But it wasn’t quite the same in front of the camera. Patricia Arquette’s departure as Kristen particularly disconcerting as the series instalments become more interconnected.

There’s an attempt to keep up the ideals of the third part though, with an opening quote from the Book of Job (I mean, this was pre-Google, so good effort) and immediate, dream-state return to the original house in a dream-state. Part four is a return to basics, but throws up the interesting additions like the daydreaming Alice, the proper return to high school and the capacity for Freddy to expand his empire. Consolidating that Elm Street house as an implied base for the slasher also works as a shrewd and deliberate attempt to write part two out of the franchise. That’s hardly unusual in a long-running series, nor is the fact that any inherited characters are sadly… Quickly killed off (a lean 37 minutes to be precise; one of Freddy’s most efficient sprees).

“Did you ever hear of the dream master?”

Even Kirsten. It’s day dreaming Alice who surprisingly picks up the mantle from her – the third in the succession of female leads and Freddy-fighters (again, cutting out the second film), and he’s quick to draw the obvious parallels with her name. Alice acts as a conduit for the supernatural elements of reality to combat the dream killer. Most of all it features an escalation of dream control. While that opens up the canvas of gruesome demises still further, it’s also the film’s undoing – forsaking the science and inherent rationality of the third part.

The surprise is that Freddy isn’t the eponymous Dream Master. That’s Alice, employing rival dream powers and a random methodology that acts as the Himalayan orchid antidote to postcode killers of the undead. Interestingly, A new addition is the fractured family, Alice and her brother Rick living with an abusive dad, an extra dimension that balances with Kristen’s mother’s actions in giving her daughter sleeping pills and the previous entries rather better familial relationships.

Dream Master Works better on paper, I think mainly because the quality doesn’t quite make it to the screen, despite a quite brilliantly inflated budget of $13 million. There are fine moments in there and it forms an integral part of the franchise’s key storyline. But it’s clearly in thrall of the prequel it chases to replicate. There are neat additions, such as the territorial clarifications about the killer’s Elm Street remit and then the chance for expansion. There’s also the broadening of powers in the dreamscape but while there are no wizards fighting Freddy this time, it’s a little over-cooked by the time it reaches its Day-Glo conclusion. That said, one nice touch is the dream the time loop that lays down a path for the sixth part.

The fact that Alice gains attributes from her various friends throughout the film adds videogame stylings and rather unnecessary complications on route to the final stand-off, but when it comes it’s one of the series most compelling, with the ascent of the Dream Master.

“The master of dreams, my soul I’ll keep…”

Alice’s dream magic, a rather hokey weapon considering the main nursery rhyme of the franchise is a parody, but allows Freddy’s victims to take revenge alongside some ritualistically vampiric trappings. The result is an insectal horror, going on coenobite and it’s quite splendid. It also recalls the earlier rather nifty ‘pizza’ scene and reconfirms that at least the SFX guys were having a good time with the budget. Even the most ardent critic must concede that it’s much better than the infamous flaming dog piss entrance Freddy made earlier in the film.

With a still greater increase in one-liners, Freddy was now a confirmed “smart arse wise-cracker”, something Robert Englund has reasoned as reversing the typical teenage idiom. But that’s not quite the emphasis that comes across when watching. It’s truly the point that the audience started rooting for the striped one – especially as he showed off a bizarre level of pop culture knowledge and a predilection for beach holidays. In an act that would soon be reversed, the make-up artists had also streamlined Englund’s mask to bring out more of the actor’s face. All in all, in a film anxious to dispose of the previous entry’s characters, create new high school outfit and end in a multi-coloured fairground church it’s a major cause of imbalance. It’s a huge film that really sacrifices character development to beat its predecessor. But the series was still in the ascendance. The result was the most financially successful film of the original run, and the top grossing American horror film of the 1980s.

“Five…” A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

One asset in the direct sequel of part five is that it retained Lisa Wilcox’s services as all powerful Dream Master Alice. Apart from Englund, it’s the most compelling continuity in the series since Heather Langenkamp returned in the third part. Alice can be justly termed “all-powerful” after the convincing defeat of Krueger at the end of Dream Master in part 4 only to be brought back here for a further sift around his origins. Kreuger needs to be reborn, but the big question after the expectation reversing title of the last instalment was the identity of the dream child…

Typically, the action kicks off straight away with Alice taking on the persona of nun Amanda Krueger in an asylum – leading to that very real rebirth for the Elm Street slasher, echoing the first. With boyfriend dispensed with via one of the franchise’s most outlandish scenes – the speed demon bike transformation – Alice inevitably finds herself also pregnant with his child. Can this be coincidence?

Of course not. And not that simple.

Alice’s predicament here is a further extension of the various family models the series had cycled through. But it leads to a film less about dreams than time itself; where unborn children are as ghostly as guardian angels. It’s riddled with familial politics as much as blue lighting. Even the interesting concept of Freddy invading the dreams of the unborn child are forsaken for a rather Gothic storyline of ghosts and rebirth. Jacob the ghost boy is a projection of Alice’s future child while Amanda, Freddy’s unfortunate mother is the guardian angel back from the past. The franchise has fortunately moved on from the warehouse maternity ward of undead Freddy and back to the asylum nursery of the live one. I mean, bastard son of a thousand maniacs – who could resist exploring that?

Of course, that asylum is long abandoned due to the rather torrid events that unfolded there. But, when you’re relying on the ghost of a savaged nun to advise an unborn child in how to defeat an undead slasher, there are going to be complications.

This film pushes Catholicism to the fore more than any other, with the many lines exploring birth, origins and conception. It’s muddled in with pop and historical references, from the Escher inspired labyrinth to Mark the comic book artist’s dive into Ah-Ha aping antics before he’ s literally cut up like paper. It’s not as gratuitous as the climax of the fourth part, but by now there’s less a blurring of reality than a an impenetrable

Part five embarks on a far more serious and gothic approach during the dream sequences, and a far less serious one when they broke into the real world. Some parts are even more Hellraiser than its prequel, while others are almost played for laughs.

The Dream Child proves an adage while it blows apart the series’ odd-numbered rule: A Nightmare film should lay off moral statements. Part two’s attempts were obviously forgotten as 5 ran headlong into teen pregnancy, rape, drinking and driving, eating disorders and abortion. With a jokey atmosphere and moodier dream sequences it perhaps the most unbalanced film in the run.

Special mention however, should go to the soundtrack that mashed heavy metal with hip-hop. The 1990s were round the corner and it was deemed time to call an end to Freddy’s rampage of revenge…

 “Six, grab a crucifix…” Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare

And so, just seven years and six films in the franchise bowed out, encompassing 3d and letting long-time franchise producer Rachel Talalay take the reins. Working up from Assistant Production Manager on the first film to producer, she only missed part 5 (taking a thanks credit instead, alongside Russell Mulcahy); there are few that new know the franchise better.

But bloody hell, it kicks off with a Nietzsche quote!

“Do you know the terror of he who falls asleep? To the very toes he is terrified, because the ground gives way under him, And the dream begins…”

At least Freddy himself chips in with his own retort. Part six changes the game entirely chucking a rusted kitchen sink at a series that had previously attempted to keep a straight face. The travails of Alice and Kirsten and Nancy wouldn’t have worked if treated with the same unreality. Here the stories moved on to complete unreality, with every teenager wiped out in Spingwood, Ohio (maybe), the adults driven mad and Freddy seemingly the winner.

It’s always best when looking at a final instalment, purely distilled from the lineage of the first film, to take it as just that. But then, the story wasn’t all that Talalay had to fight The Final Nightmare is packed. The celebrity cameos are bigger, both real and diegetic. The ridiculous story’s let loose from the thought of a sequel (although it failed, as have many horror films in the same position). And most cripplingly of all, it was filmed in 3d. A marked and considerable slog on the production process, its’ easy to see the pitfalls in New Line’s first 3d release.

There are various shreds of horror films to come and classic horror tropes throughout. There are slight foreshadows of the more realistic Saw. There is almost, very almost the air of Dantean Hell in the way Freddy’s punishments hit the afflicted, the really carry on from the mid-franchise films. And then they go and spoil it all by dating the technology with a videogame death. At points, in the old Elm Street house once again, it’s almost Roald Dahl.

Elsewhere there is the inexplicable elevated with a wink to cartoon. There’s that dream fall from a plane to Elm Street and the fact that Freddy just seems so bored in his victory that he’s hatches a Bond villain plot to escape it. It’s a dysfunctional band that forms at the film’s core, reminiscent of the third film, although here the guardian figure of the children has far more importance than even Nancy.

Every town has an Elm Street

Maggie Burroughs serves three purposes here: the motivation for Freddy’s initial rampage (the thousand maniac fuel remains, don’t worry); the instrument of Freddy’s worldwide domination and; the last in the long line of heroines who can destroy him.

Following the evolution of the supernatural in the series, perhaps it’s no surprise that The Final Nightmare chucked another element in at the bitter 3d end. Most of all of course, the three demons that encountered and empowered Krueger before his death (apart from providing a loose reason why Freddy’s never previously been vanquished) make for a big stab at 3d at the end.

“Happy Father’s Day” indeed.

Well, at least the film’s poster was stripped down.

It’s a bold start that at least tries to be start as incoherently as it means to continue, ending the series perhaps where it should: familial revenge and a gory for the Elm Street slasher. The real shame is that it clearly breaks with the franchise that enabled it, perhaps even more so than part two. Set 10 years on from the previous film, it’s a future of approximately 1999, two years before New Line unleashed The Fellowship of the Ring on the big screen.

And 21 years after The Final Nightmare, New Line would be serving out dollops of Hobbit in 3d, two years after A Nightmare on Elm Street was rebooted…

Next dream: Gloves slip as we confront the post-modern, the franchise mash-up and reboot…

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