Nightmare on Elm Street: the classic series

For numerical ratings of the individual films, please scroll to the bottom of the post.

Nightmare on Elm Street is one of my favorite franchises in movie history. I managed to see the fourth movie around the age of eight; shortly thereafter I managed to work my way through the series. It opened the doorway to modern horror movies for me and while John Carpenter may be my favorite filmmaker and Jason and Pinhead have a much wider selection of films, Freddy is the king movie monster for me. It has also, by focusing on dreaming, has instilled in me a lifelong fascination with sleep, dreams, and interpretation. I would very much life to see something come of this fascination so that one day I can attribute y success to some low budget horror movie that I watched as a kid.

As a franchise Nightmare is pretty important. At the time it was made New Line Cinema was a hair’s breadth from going under, they funneled their last dime into this movie and look at them now. Executives even joke that New Line is the house that Freddy built. Without Freddy there would have been no massive Lord of the Rings epic; such a grandiose front from such a small and terrifying beginning.

But what’s really sad is that for all the exposure (some would say over exposure, and they may be right in saying it) the Nightmare series is not all that it could have been. The original movie came out after most of the other modern horror classics, in terms of number of sequels it ranks pretty low (only Texas Chainsaw Massacre has less), and the classic films ran for less than ten years. It may sound pretentious but I think Nightmare’s own greatness is what has led to its short life. It’s a hard film to plot, the mythos is complex and it doesn’t deal with elements of our own world, and yet is dealing with an element we do regularly encounter. Freddy is a truly terrifying villain, and the subject matter of the films should impose no limitations on what the film can contain. It is my hope that with modern filmmaking technology, a resurgence in this series will occur and never again will anyone feel safe in their dreams. Wait, that sounds pretty horrible actually…

When people think of Freddy they usually imagine a wise cracking figure, well lit, and almost too funny to be threatening. In the beginning this was not so; beyond lurking in your dreams, Freddy lurked in the dark corners of your dreams. The notion that something evil lurked at every turn was far more effective than the sight of someone lurking. However, when he was shown it was quite a sight: his shirt is garish and offensive, his face is badly burnt, and he has the simplest but most unnerving of weapons, and that hat means his face is almost always in shadows. In the begging he was a figure of pure terror, which is as it should be; Freddy was a child molester, and presumably murderer. Going further into the psychology of it his motive could be seen as even more frightening because he has been granted revenge.

Freddy died at the hands of angry parents, the surrogate victims of his crimes. These are people who lost loved ones to his madness and they went to the law for help; the law failed them. They then took the law into their own hands and punished this man, this man who did indeed commit these horrific crimes, and they killed him. But some unholy power gave him a gift, it gave him all the power he needed to extract his revenge, and that is what is truly terrifying behind these movies. That a guilty man, punished for his crimes, would manage to not only slip out of his punishment but to gain more power each time. And now he preys on us, and his increased potential is of our own doing. He is a reminder of our sins, our loss, and our own powerlessness. And all of this horror would not be visited upon us, but on those we cherish most.

That is the basis for the first film, which despite its low budget, was well cast (Jonny Depp’s first film), acted, and plotted. The characters are memorable, the progression is easy to follow even with the logistical jumps we have to make, and it’s truly a creepy film. It also gave us a strong female protagonist, one truly capable of stopping the monster. Some people out there might try and remind us of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween but if you really think about it she only ever reacted. She was a mouse trapped by the cat and had no choice but to fight back until help arrived. Nancy, played by Heather Langenkamp, took the fight to Freddy. She suffered loss, and she ran away, but she took the time to prepare and she went into his home to do battle. This is part of why the film is so great, she is able to completely turn the tables on the villain and come away strong; and she truly deserves this victory.

This did not last into the second movie, Freddy’s Revenge (isn’t this whole series his revenge?), which barely ties into the original at all. To be fair the second film has an interesting premise, that of Freddy trying to come back to the real world, and it features one of the best lines of the series. The problem partly falls on the director, who was apparently very confused about some issues. Essentially this whole movie is one big coming out letter. Not that I hate homosexuality, but the never subtle subtext here really detracts from the film, and the fact that it was apparently unintentional means it has no bearing on the plot. Add in the fact that it’s mostly a retread of the first film and has no lingering effects on the mythos relegates it to non-existent status. Truly it is a shame that the series tripped so hard on only its second film.

Happily the third film fixes that right up. In Dream Warriors Wes Craven came back to help with the story which revolved around a group of troubled teenagers all attending a sleep clinic since they refuse to sleep. Apparently no one believes them when they mention the scary clawed man that haunts their dreams. No one that is, except for Nancy who has returned home to work as a sleep doctor/counselor person. Here Nancy, not much older than before, takes up the role of the retired warrior who must train the younger tribe members. Though she won her fight with Freddy it apparently did not take so she must help this new group come up with new ways to fight evil. This film is well done, it has a premise that it adheres too very well, and the setting of a restrictive sleep clinic creates a strong dynamic with the dream world where these kids are taught that they can break the rules and be whatever they want. Each of the kids has a unique look that helps separate them, they may not be the deepest of characters, but they do have vastly different personalities (I like Will, he plays D&D and one of his players is a mute. How hard would that be to DM). The ending is especially good, setting up a battle on two fronts: the dream world and the real world. It then passes the torch onto a new heroine who we know will have to battle Freddy once again.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the third movie has a few flaws. One of them (which persist in the whole series) is how much real world interaction occurs when something happens in the dream world. Sometimes when someone dies they fly around the room and blood spills freely, other times they just seem to die quietly. The most baffling of all occurs with one character that apparently sleepwalks. As he walks, puppeted by Freddy, he is remarked to have looked awake and at one point we see him actually phase through a door. As a society we barely, if at all, understand dreams, and in a movie I expect them to make even less sense; still walking flat out through a closed door is pushing it a bit. The other flaw is that the most boring of the kids survive, not a damming flaw true, but still my favorites all die.

Next up is The Dream Master, and this film is also a bit of a mixed bag. When you see those images of Freddy being cheesy or cracking witty catchphrases, this is the movie that did that. What’s amazing is that it is a pretty sudden transformation, in most series you might have a lead up, or watering down of the concept, but here it just happens. That aside this is actually my favorite Nightmare film, it’s the one I saw first and I just enjoy wathing it. The characters are fun (Rick is awesome, oh yes he is.) the deaths are inventive, and we get another new heroine. Some people may not like Alice, and it’s true that for much of the movie she is pretty feckless, but this is something of an origin story, and by the end she becomes a pretty bad ass chick. It’s less ‘real’ than Nancy from the first movie, but by this point we have learned that there is more than reality at stake and we need a hero like Alice. It deals heavily with mythology and imagery, that the only way to defeat someone who plays so far out of the box is to invoke old rules that seem to have little bearing on our current society.

 And then a rap song plays over the ending credits. Gah! Seriously, I have almost a love/hate relationship with this movie. There is so much I like about it, but it also amps up the pop culture references. Part of this has to do with one of the actors being a singer. Also much of the movie is very California looking and too bright, then again this does help create a contrast between reality and the dream world. All things together, I love this movie, it’s not the worst movie in the series, or even the second worst, but it’s not the top of the pile either.

Remember how I said that the transition from darkness to pop references came quickly? Apparently enough people complained about number four that the studio felt a change was needed, so we got The Dream Child, and hoo boy is it a dark movie. In this film Alice has apparently moved on with life, she has a loving boyfriend, new friends, a recovering father, and life seems beautiful. But then something happens, and I blame Dan. Freddy finds a way to come back, and it’s quite revolting. Once he’s back he begins once again to feed off the people closest to Alice, and no longer are these colorful and imaginative dreams (well, one is) but some of them are quite horrific. It’s an odd thing, Freddy does still make jokes here, but they seem darker, and the environments are deadlier. It’s an exercise in tone, that this movie does seem so much like the fourth one and yet manages to harken back to the earlier efforts in the series. We even get some new back story for Freddy, and it is also demented and quite icky to think about. And then there is the ending, which also lingers in your mind and does not provide a true sense of closure. All in all, this movie is pretty good. It’s creepy, unnerving, and dark. It has its own dementia and shoves it in your face. It goes over the top on occasion (The comic art geek is awesome, but very cheesy) but mixes that with pure and utter gross moments (You are what you eat). Sadly, this is not where the series ended.

Two years later we received Freddys Dead: the Final Nightmare and honestly this effort may be worse than part two. It features no returning characters and our only link to the world at the beginning is an amnesiac who honestly does not regain his memory. The town of Springwood is now a dreary little burg that seems just as dreamlike as any nightmare Freddy ever put forth. The adults all act in a senile fashion and there is no sense of realism. I suppose the creators may have been going for some sort of merging of reality and dreams but if that’s the case they failed. I suppose if I must say something nice about this film it would be that finally the citizens have realized that a crazed killer is stalking the dreams of their children, and apparently he ahs done well because there are no children in Springwood anymore. Except the amnesiac, and he leaves. Why does he leave? I don’t know, but he does and that brings in new characters who feel very much like mash ups of old victims and during all of this we are fed more back story of Freddy which serves only to complicate his past and give us a new heroine to fight him. Of course this new heroine’s nature undermines all previous heroines and her lack of personality or even personality traits makes her very much an annoyance. In the end she puts on 3D glasses, and so too does the audience, and we get to see her fight Freddy in all three dimensions. It feels like the gimmick it is and they sold the movie based on it alone. This movie adds very little beyond random celebrity cameos and the friggin’ Nintendo power glove. It was an insult to fans and I’m sad to say I sat in a theater and watched it all the way through.

As the original films go that was it. Beginning in 1984 they ran until 1991. In the beginning they were imaginative and opened many doors, but at the end they became a sad embarrassment. However, even if the original plot line has reached an end, the story of Freddy has gone on, in 1994 we received a new Freddy film that stood apart from all the rest.

I will discuss it next time, it and the ones that followed.


As a series: 4/5

Nightmare on Elm Street: because it still stands strong it gets 4/5

Freddy’s Revenge: because it does have some merit 2/5

Dream Warriors: because it has all the elements coming together 5/5

Dream Master:  because it’s my favorite 4/5 (3/5 if you remove nostalgia)

Dream Child: because it was flawed, but tried so very hard 3/5

Freddys Dead: because some Freddy is better than no Freddy, maybe. 1/5


2 thoughts on “Nightmare on Elm Street: the classic series

  1. I’ve never seen any of the films mentioned in this post, but I’d always held the assumption that even the classics of modern horror don’t hold up well to today’s (jaded) standards. What’s your take on that? Are they still scary, or just “good?”

    And while it is beneath some people to nitpick a movie like Nightmare on Elm Street for this, I should point out that the justice system only failed the town because the writers have no idea how the justice system actually works; Freddy would never have walked and likely would have rotted in prison for the rest of his life. Not that I don’t mind the idea of supreme injustice in him escaping every kind of justice visited upon him…but from what you say the series doesn’t capitalize on this anyway. Se la vie.

    Also, what about homosexuality?

  2. That is a difficult question, because not only have people become jaded but they are forgetting how to think and imagine. A lot of older flicks rely on the human imagination to fill in gaps and build fear. It’s funny to suggest that you need an intellect to watch a slasher flick, but you really do. That said, some do suffer because the effects don’t hold up as well, orange blood just doesn’t look scary, But some of the concepts still hold.

    and…the second film is full of homosexuality. Blatant and innuendo. The director has stated that he didn’t realize it was there, but when one of the characters is a homosexual and attends a ‘gay bar’ it’s pretty obvious that at least sme ammount of subtext is there. There are also a few plot breakdowns that bring a few other aspects to light, although some of them paint Freddy in this film as a ‘avatar’ for homosexuality and I think that’s overly negative. Ask me sometime and i’ll get more in depth, or we can watch it sometime.

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