Horror: An Elm Street Nightmare before Christmas – “The Rest is Silence…”

Freddy Krueger Pied Piper

 

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

TO RECAP FROM THE FIRST TWO PARTS: 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 bubble-gum cards, comedy taglines and horrifically compelling images. In a long-awaited retrospective I re-discovered the first film, Wes Craven’s master class in bringing real fear and real supernatural to the slasher genre… then a franchise that went through peaks and troughs of an increasingly convoluted mythology. Once the ‘son of a hundred maniacs escaped his family, even signing on to a film titled ‘Freddy’s Dead’ in 3d couldn’t do him in. In this final part of the retrospective, there are three distinct films across three decades. These could well be the franchise’s pledge, turn and prestige…

“Seven…” Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

A shadow would soon fall over New Nightmare of course. The shadow of Ghostface, bulked up by the Scream franchise. Now, Wes Craven’s other saga is bloated with a belated fourth entry, but it had already become synonymous with post-modern horror. Scream may have been the shot in the arm that slasher films needed in the 1990s, but it also inexorably created the recent wave of horror remakes, including 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.

With a worldwide haul of 398 million to Nightmare’s $583 million, Scream also immediately created the gap that a new wave of more serious, hyper-violent, low budget shockers could fill (most notably Saw). But before writer Kevin Williamson formed an alliance with Wes Craven, the latter “father of Freddy” had just one more visit to Elm Street up his pied sleeve.

It may not be set 10 years on from the events of the first film, but a decade since its release. And while it may kick off with familiar glove and boiler room antics, these are soon revealed to be practical effects on a sound stage. It’s Los Angeles, Wes Craven’s directing a new Nightmare and original Nancy actress Heather Langenkamp wakes from a dream haunted by Freddy’s glove to an earthquake. Yes, Nightmare has moved from Ohio to Los Angeles; yes, it’s strictly not in the franchise chronology and is riddled with the typical ‘real’ performances of actors sending themselves up but; it’s also a key franchise film that nods to past and future.

“Hello Sidney…”

An early prank call foreshadows Scream while making phones one of the most important part of the tale (it’s the 1990s after all). There are many references to previous films, but perhaps more important is that Wes Craven has the chance to right some wrongs. Freddy’s make-up has changed, more prosthetic and haunting. Perhaps the least realistic, it’s certainly the most striking and suits a far more serious slasher. The fedora and pied jumper are present, but so is a long coat Craven originally intended for Krueger. The figure is different from the gangly sweater-fiend we’re used to, but here his role is strengthened by its simplification against the meta-plot.

Otherwise, Many Nightmare alumni get to send themselves up, particularly Englund who wrings his real persona while juxtaposing it with the make-up caked fiend he portrays with one glove. It’s not so much dreams as Hollywood that blur this film’s reality issues. And set in and around the home of American cinema, the earth itself is quaking. And away from the satire, there’s also plenty of room to play on favourite themes from childhood to schizophrenia. And all the while the participants, albeit with a heightened sense of reality and far more reason, question the line between reality and madness just as they should.

As the film moves on Heather’s hair grows greyer and those associated with the film are dispatched as you might expect. On celluloid, Craven himself suggests Freddy is an entity drawn to his films, one released by the demise of the franchise. In this parallel universe where the films enjoy a heightened level of celebrity and cross-over appeal, “Every kid knows who Freddy is – he’s Santa Claus”. But still, references to the real franchise history are critical. Freddy clings to ceilings recalling part one, he lives in clouds recalling the brilliant sequence from part three; he even stages a possession of Heather’s son Dylan, recalling the second instalment. And despite these, Craven was eager to steer the ship back from the rocky path of comedy and further towards the themes that he had originally intended to explore. Of course, he had seen that original as just that and not a franchise. When he had returned during development of the third film, the idea behind part seven had informed those early scripts. It hadn’t made the grade at the time and perhaps, purely monetarily, there’s a point.

Poor Returns

New Nightmare was the lowest grossing of the franchise – just over $18 million in all. That’s rather unfair, cripplingly unfair given its lower certification (a 15 cert in the UK, shudder). 10 out of 10 for effort, but it’s the same ambition (and perhaps redemption for the monster who here plays “himself”) that killed the Nightmare as we knew it.

It’s not just Craven’s chance to remake the franchise more in line with his original vision, albeit in a skewed format, but also a chance to reclaim parts of the franchise. After the stretching of the latter instalments, there’s the glorious return of that simple point of tension: falling asleep. Freddy’s ‘less’ realistic make-up is more alien, with fierce eyes made to burn brighter, that better suits his removal from any back story. This is back to the series’ archetypes and away from the celebrity killer himself. As such, he is generally allowed to sink back to his safest place: the sharp end of dreams themselves. And when the end credits roll, Freddy Krueger is of course listed as himself. It’s more sophisticated, it’s a richer palette that can paint scares next to subverted expectations, and who thought that audiences would ever like that.

And amid the satire on celebrity, perhaps it’s time to highlight the biggest mystery of New Nightmare? What, oh what happened to Englund when he lost contact..? Would we ever see him again..? Well… Next decade…

“Eight, Gonna stay up late…” Freddy Vs Jason (2003)

Okay. Not really an eighth film in the franchise, but certainly the Englund Freddy’s last appearance. The definitive last – so it’s almost a shame it’s so diluted by exploitation. It was a meeting of minds in some ways, of sentiments in others, although perhaps not quite the pairing people wanted. Ash! Ash! Ash! Screamed the fans. They got the mute, hockey mask wearing, machete wielding hulk instead. Still, there’s plenty to see in this Krueger-Voorhees battle and a none-to-shabby hook to make it happen. It even manages to dig back to several previous films and, miraculously, potentially hand out a shredded olive branch to part two. The problem is, like every call to unite The Expendables before it happened would it and could it ever be that good? Well undoubtedly it only has New Nightmare to compare to in terms of cinematography. Even the remake, washed with the slightly TV movie sheen of digital tech that would come with the next decade of horror films doesn’t come near.

The Nightmare franchise had been built on the blurred foundations of dreams versus reality and had expanded exponentially from there, in some incredibly difficult narrative curves. Contemporary horror franchises had favoured a far more linear perspective, even as supernatural elements had crept in. And standing tall above those, like its strong and irrepressible lead figure was Friday the 13th. The most successful horror franchise in US box office history, through dollar and film quantity it machetes through the lot. Quantity would suggest it’s the most critic-proof of the lot and a lot of that was down to a franchise that prized simplicity and repetition above all – quite unlike what was happening on Elm Street.

“It was the children who gave me my power”

It’s a great conceit, if I can say so: taking care in a slasher layout that feeds on the history of both franchises (many previous Nightmare films, bar the seventh of course) to craft a ‘generally’ logically referential film. Most importantly, it sets up a real motivation for the ‘versus’ as the balance shifts between victim and Freddy. Just as it should. And it sets both icons up bloody quickly. Though Freddy inevitably warrants slightly more explanation than the Crystal Lake stalker (apart from the latter being indestructible. Thanks mum.).

Of course, it hadn’t been plain sailing. For one, these are two monsters, like many spawned by the 70s/80s slasher who are very much creatures of their manor. With one monster the project of a highly damaged childhood, the other a child murderer, there were a raft of ways to bring them together. Many were explored, some even featuring guest appearances such as the laughable inclusion of Dimension Film’s aloof Hellraiser icon Pinhead. Behind the scenes, the real slasher icons were the studios angling for the rights to the other’s franchises so they could control the outcome. In the end producer Robert Shaye managed to do what Pinhead never had the chance to.

High Stakes

This really is the high budget stab for the franchise. Previously Jason had headed to space for an underrated meta-instalment while Freddy had gone full post-modern. Now there was $25-30million to play with. That’s a big step up and it shows – with some iconic settings looking better than ever. Ronny Yu was an excellent choice to helm the slasher following his bravado work rejuvenating the ninth highest US horror franchise Child Play with 1998’s Bride of Chucky. Here he directs with necessary verve, leaving time for comedy amongst the tension if not altogether with the right tonal balance. True, we kind of know that Crystal Lake’s in New Jersey, but having made the hike to Ohio, you don’t expect Jason to get hit by a stray cigarette while stalking outside.

As a Nightmare film, it’s one of the most simplistic. The fear of sleep has disappeared once again, with the fear of remembering taking centre stage during a tour of the horror icon’s past (hello, part three once again).

In many ways this amalgam acts as a precursor of the reboot, perhaps a real sign that the slasher genre was changing. It especially wrings out some nastier sides from a more severe Krueger than we’ve seen for some time (He describes himself, with all manner of references, as fear itself).It’s quite astonishing how much one of the most exploitative instalments packs in. But in reaching so hard, there’s always a risk to logic. It’s hard to buy into the tension of everything falling apart “again” from yet another generation of Elm Street Kids (Part six is well ignored, or more likely this is a prequel?), especially as main victim Lori’s father wasn’t part of those original damned parents. Still, it’s Lori who gets to pass the message of Freddy around school and when dwelling on the warehouse, the school, the lake, 1428 Elm Street in Ohio and the Cornfields, the film knows how to have fun. Sadly, it’s in Jason’s later slasher set-piece that the film’s higher budget and galloping structure is let down by inherently throw-back dialogue. The script! The script!

Undead a Undead

Gratifyingly it all descends into a warped struggle between the real world inhabited by the indestructible, undead machete wielder and Freddy’s unconscious dreamscape of razors. Machete versus glove. The victims soon learn that the way to go is to set the two fiends against each other and yeah, that’s really all we all want to see!

And so… Come the end, and the sort of almost twists you expect, who could win? Well, after quite a few undead decapitations and ‘deaths’ it may be Jason who emerges from Crystal Lake with Freddy’s head in his hand, but even without the wink, the strains of the Nightmare score are unmistakable. A sequel may be increasingly unlikely but surely this warranted one, albeit with a regulated tone and an extra-special extra cameo… With dark subject matter sitting amidst comedy and gore, it’s certainly one of Englund’s strongest performances in the role and a fitting swansong if there had to be one.

Perhaps the biggest shame about Freddy V Jason is that poster’s was simply, and bloody, awful. And so, in the space of time they may once have made five sequels, it was time to begin again…

“Nine, (ten), he’s back again…” A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

With Freddy V Jason owing so much to the 1980s and 1990s, Samuel Bayer’s 2010 reboot really is the product of a different century. The orchestral score during the extended titles, matched to snippets of childhood games, remind of contemporary European horrors.

The film slips straight into a dream sequence, but this isn’t the boiler room or female victim of 1984. Everything is just a little off-world in a deserted road-side diner, front and back, as freshly minted Dean discovers. If anything, it’s all a little overt Silent Hill – until an unmistakable glove descends with a snickt! This is a film that knows it needs to propel itself along, and after a brief introduction to all the major players (and the temporarily forgotten fact that Dean brought a slashed hand out of his dream with him) it’s straight into the action. Dean hasn’t slept for three days, caught in perpetual nightmares featuring a burned man after a psychiatrist dragged him back to the recesses of his childhood… And then, almost immediately, a slip into a micro sleep sees Dean slicing his throat in the same diner. Let’s not get sentimental. Or as Freddy says: ”You’re not real” “I am now”. That’ll get him.

It’s an effective cue to the fleeting titles and familiar theme. The curse spreads with Dean’s confession to his new girlfriend Kris, ready to filter through an amalgam of school friends inspired by various parts of the original franchise. It’s Kris who carries the early part of the film, occupying the same role as Tara in the original. Here Nancy is Rooney Mara, an actress on the verge of earning an Academy Award nomination. And it’s her first encounter with Freddy, a Johnny Depp-style nodding off with headphones, which shows an inherent with slashers in the 21st century. While Freddy’s new face is obscured to begin with, here the CGI wall stretching – irresistible to producers and directors – proves a little too much. The saving grace is that we’re at the start of the film – guaranteeing that slashes via CGI will be intermittent at most.

When Freddy first appears to Kris, it’s a statement of intent: “Remember me” he says – a rather good ploy. There’s no need to slash straightaway, just let the memories seep back into the community (Freddy V Jason, but with room to breathe and actually implicated characters). Or so you’d think if you’re familiar with the franchise; a self-fulfilling voyage of discovery once the genie’s out the bottle, or the hand is in the glove. But this reboot chooses to enhance the line between dream and reality with a strong line of ambiguity. Simply put, that should be more effective. But is hamstrung, unlike the 1984 version, by the decision to delve straight into Kreuger’s past.

Six More Minutes to Play

There’s far more of a sense that Freddy is creating his own myth through repeated dream sequences, but it takes a while for the purpose to become clear. Kris’ demise is quite iconic – if not as effective as the bedroom ceiling sequence in the original that inspired it. As Kris is the original’s Tina, so her ex-boyfriend Jesse (surely an unwarranted reference to the second film) becomes Rod. And while Freddy relishes the chatting and remembering between friends, he still takes time to visit Rod in prison (as he did in 1984). But while Rod’s demise was ambiguous before, here Jesse is the first victim to visit to the classic boiler room. It’s similarly filmed, with crisper visuals of course, but most importantly leads to one of the film’s great additions.

As Jesse’s body falls to the floor of the jail, his cellmate scrambling to the door in panic and denial, Freddy advises to Jesse’s freshly hoisted body, trapped in sleep death, that the human brain remains conscious for another six minutes. An exquisitely horrid extension that’s effectively kept off-camera.

“You’re my number one. You’re my little Nancy”

And Freddy works his destruction until a classic two victims remain. After the game of tag that has seen each friend drag another in turn, we’re left with the inevitable Nancy and luckless wannabe boyfriend Quentin (disconcertingly looking like Dylan Moran in most shots). Nancy is a lot more effected in the remake, far more introverted. Mara had started her film career in the third Urban Legends film, a sequel that left its earlier slashing premise for a more supernatural bent; This Nightmare makes a stab at both sides of the horror coin.

Since the last direct film in 1994, many a plot point was stitched up by the internet. Quentin therefore fulfils the geek side of the equation, leveraging the web to ramp up knowledge of the risks of sleep deprivation. His exposition is very heavily handed and makes him a very serious young man indeed.

The internet does bring one slap round the head brilliant piece of myth to the films though: the Pied Piper of Hamelin. More than a welcome fit after earlier films digs into fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel it is great to have the link spelled out – especially while the film pursues a course of ambiguity.

Nancy’s position as Freddy’s favourite is the key and forced plot point that makes her runs through events almost lining up to make her “remember” – just as Freddy’s campaign continues. It’s the internet once again, and a video blog where one ex-pupil goes a little Stanley Parable, that reveals Freddy’s plan is to lure his former victims to their forgotten pre-school.

And when Quentin and Nancy make it to the school, the twist that betrays the build-up is sordid. The films main strength is an ambiguity; that Freddy was an innocent man and that he’s seeking revenge on the parents who wrongly killed him and the children who had him killed in their innocence. It’s never going to promote sympathy for the slasher, but it certainly changes the film’s direction. It’s key to remember that this reboot comes well after the peak of redemptive horrors like Saw, far removed of the faux-moralism of the 1980s slashers.

However, that ambiguity’s shot in the third act we find that the parents were right, if misguided. And as Quentin eloquently put it: “He’s not after us because we lied, he’s after us because we told the truth. “In that truth, combined with the direct exploration of Freddy’s background, the new franchise has an immediately more limiting concept no matter how it draws from a number of original films.

History repeating

Names aren’t all that the film picks and chooses from the sordid treasure trove. The chest bursting is present, the glove in the bath as well. Similar to the first film, blurring allows artistic license; mixing submersion in dreams and reality so the dreamer can effectively be ‘consciously asleep’ and then awake from one sequence to the next. It would be petty to point out this broad swipe thirty years in. Especially as, with a broad palette to pull from, neat flourishes abound. The later corpse dragging homage is unnecessary (explained away by micro-sleep), but the shop change from musac to All I have to Do is Dream is a great flourish. Later on the aligning of Quentin’s adrenaline waking of Nancy and Freddy’s death stab is wonderfully handled.

The end-game follows the same ploy after drugs had so easily replaced the repetitive ‘friends to keep you awake’ of the original film (this franchises ‘other’ mobile phones). This time, the film is content to leave the house and visit the neighbourhood. Having already wandered from Elm Street, to the forgotten school and Freddy’s cave there’s the journey back to the house. That’s where Freddy gets to wheel out the worst lines. “How’s this for a wet dream” before, in an inverse of Depp’s “bed fountain” death in the first film, Nancy falls onto bed from blood puddle.

“Your memories are what fuels me”

By the end, the loss of ambiguity is replaced by Freddy’s reveal as a strong strategist. By keeping the game going so long, he was luring Nancy would fall into a sleep that she could never wake from. Though death is on the cards, the earlier analogy (thanks Quentin) of coma and an endless sleep is not easy to ignore. In the end, brought into the real world, with a final line of “Why don’t you just fucking die” Freddy is de-armed and decapitated. The symbolism of loss of his hand, similarly, can’t be ignored.

Of course, in the end there has to be a twist. But rather than take the ambulance that’s gifted, the film waits for Nancy and her complicit mother to return to the Elm Street house. The parents here are shown to be much more fallible, the loss of their children not moralistically severe enough. The final twist supports the sequel rumours – a film that leaves the children to haunt the parents. Although a sequel is strangely yet to materialise. Considering the hard, fact of unadjusted dollars, the film sits not only second in the franchise on box-office, but proudly as the eighth highest grossing slasher film of all time at the US Box Office.

If only there was just that little bit more polish on the script of a film that the makers knew was gold dust. As surely as the crew talked about the inevitably of one facing one’s nightmare, alongside the pressure of creating a franchise of their own there are mis-steps. On screen, considering many of the deft touches, it’s a shame that often it’s easier to say “I don’t know what’s real anymore” than actually show it. But in spite of that, the reboot deserves a sequel, just as the franchise as a whole deserves to continue.

 “The rest is silence?”

…A Nightmare on Elm Street is about as dead as Freddy Krueger.

Tune in next year for another Halloween saga…

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