Wes Craven, a former college professor responsible for two of the darkest and most deranged movies of the 1970s (Last House on The Left and The Hills Have Eyes) unveiled a brash, commercial franchise in 1984: A Nightmare on Elm Street. The monster, a hideously scarred Freddy (named after a kid who bullied Craven at school) Krueger represents a successful blend of humour and horror. He’s a deranged killer who doesn’t lurk silently behind a hockey mask but menaces in full view, spitting pithy phrases as he sharpens his trademark glove. As a Jungian archetypes he’s the ultimate Shadow Trickster, the shape changer who relishes sick jokes. Freddy was a merchandising dream, an icon for a generation whose distinctive striped jersey, battered hat and scarred visage have sold countless movie tickets, along with t-shirts, board-games, coffee cups, lunch boxes and snow globes.
A Nightmare On Elm Street has a relatively low body count for its time (four), but each of the killings is a mini-movie in itself, with a separate location, build-up and mode of despatch. Tina (Amanda Wyss) is the first to go, marked for doom by her willingness to have sex with her no-good boyfriend. Freddy is the boogeyman of her dreams, stalking her down a dark alleyway with preternaturally long arms and finally smearing her across her bedroom ceiling before slashing her to pieces. The actual murder is committed by an unseen assailant, but there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind who is responsible. There is plenty of blood.
Next up is the no-good boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia), strangled by
his own bedsheet in jail. Again, the perpetrator is unseen. There’s no blood here, just the chill factor of seeing the bedsheet wind itself round the sleeping Rod’s throat, and the tension created by having Nancy observe events from within her nightmare, unable to alert anyone until it is too late. Although Nancy survives a few near misses, Glen is next to go, sucked into a giant hole along with his (now very dated) electronic gear and spewed out again in liquid form (“You won’t need a stretcher up there, you’ll need a mop.”). The final slaying is Nancy’s mother, Margaret (the Academy Award nominee Ronee Blakley), who is partially responsible for this mess in the first place, having murdered Freddy herself a few years back. Krueger immolates her, than drags her blackened corpse into his world, leaving no traces in this one.
This variation and inventiveness puts A Nightmare On Elm Street a notch or several above the competition. The murders are also highly motivated and specific. Freddy is not a random killer, hacking down anyone who happens to stray into his territory (at least not in this first instalment). Instead, he seeks revenge on the parents who took justice into their own hands all those years ago and is systematically coming after their children.
One of the notable things about A Nightmare on Elm Street is how brightly lit most of it is, and how many of the scenarios take place in ordinary, uncontested spaces -- a school hallway, a teenager’s bedroom. There are no warnings as the narrative shifts from reality to nightmare, and there are seemingly no rules about where Freddy can strike (in English class, in the bathtub). Freddy himself springs from a dark place, a boiler-room full of rust and steam, and it is only when Nancy acknowledges this (“Okay, Krueger, you bastard. We play in your court.”) and deliberately goes to seek him out that she has any chance of defeating him. Nancy makes a resourceful Final Girl as she pulls the monster out of her nightmare into the real world, where he becomes a slapstick figure, falling for her A-Team style booby traps, tumbling down the stairs, and flailing around with his arms on fire. But he still manages to kill her Mom.
The original A Nightmare on Elm Street had a budget of just $1.8M and some of its special effects, though convincing at the time, look shoddy today. It’s the simplest touches which still have an impact, however -- Freddy’s ghostly face (in actuality a man and some spandex) leering out of the wall above a sleeping Nancy, the “eeeeeee”sound of the knives on metal objects, and the red-and-green striped hood coming down over the car at the end (apparently it came down too fast so the panicked look on the actors’ faces is real).
- Nightmare on Elm Street -- a complete internet companion
- Nightmare on Elm Street Turns 15 -- A 1999 article from AV Club
- Everyday Nightmares: the rhetoric of social horror in the series -- Journal
of Popular Film & Television (Fall 1995)
Subsequent entries in the franchise get more and more ridiculous, making too much use of “it-was-only-a-dream” scapes, and showcasing Freddy as a kind of anti-James Bond, always ready with a bon-mot to accompany the snickersnack of his blades. However, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) presents a radical new take, adopting postmodern trends of the time rather than simply warming over a memory of the 1980s.
The Boogeyman as Brand
It was inevitable that New Line (once known as The House That Freddy Built) would want to cash in on their box office anti-hero. Their desire to milk as much money as they could from the franchise led to some uninspired sequels. Writers twisted themselves into knots attempting to kill Freddy off at the end of every movie in a manner which meant he could be brought back for the next one.
Wes Craven’s involvement in the series was inconsistent -- he wrote and directed 1 and 7, and also wrote 3 and 8. There was also a TV series (Freddy’s Nightmares) and a videogame for the NES, based on the 4th instalment, The Dream Master (Nightmare on Elm Street (Nintendo NES)).
In keeping with studio policy in the 2000s, Freddy’s next appearance wasn’t a sequel, but a remake of the original movie. The Jackie Earle Haley starrer failed to make much of a critical impact despite an excellent cast. Nonetheless, it took a respectable $115,664,037 worldwide (according to boxofficemojo.com), which is why studios will keep remaking our favorite things.
Finally, here’s a great infographic guide to all the sequels from HalloweenCostumes.com
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