There were several reasons to look forward to the summer following the sixth grade, the summer of 1989. It was the last summer before I began junior high school (which I didn’t know would be hell). I remember feeling a lot anticipation for that summer. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was coming to movie theaters. So was Batman. I had seen Lethal Weapon on video and while Mom and Dad didn’t take me to see Lethal Weapon 2, I knew it wouldn’t be too long before it came to video. Ghostbusters II was also coming out (though I missed seeing that movie until it came out on video; the first of only two times I’ve seen the whole movie, the most recent was last year). The last thing that really got me excited was the last movie I’d see in the theater before the nightmare known as junior high (and pre-adolescence): A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child.
My mother, who wasn’t hip enough to have liked The Dream Master, left it up to my father to take me. Diggit: Dad doesn’t like horror movies. For that matter, my father doesn’t like most movies. Old westerns, The Horse Whisperer (which I have yet to see), and maybe a few early Clint Eastwood movies, otherwise Dad just isn’t interested. But he loved me (the old man still does) and he took me.
The Dream Master was a huge hit. The Dream Child was not. Was it Freddy fatigue? Was it that despite large numbers of people who went out to see the fourth Nightmare, far fewer actually liked it? Was it that teen pregnancy was a little too close to home for the Nightmare demographic? Perhaps it was all those things. Perhaps none. Another cause could be that the Horror Boom of the 1980s was about to crash. Stephen King was taking a short break to deal with some personal issues, and there were too many bad books on the shelves and even more bad movies in the theaters and on video rental shelves.
The Dream Child was directed by Stephen Hopkins, who, like the two previous Nightmare directors, went on to have a pretty active career once moving away from Elm Street. The story was by the horror novel writing team of John Skipp and Craig Spector, and Leslie Bohem, who wrote the screenplay. Somewhere in my memory, I link the writer David J. Schow to the film, too. New Line was tapping into the Horror Novel Boom for creative ideas. If I’m wrong that Mr. Schow (who appeared in Borderlands 5 with me, Stephen King, John Farris, and others…go find a copy on eBay) had anything to do with The Dream Child, I’m sure someone out there will correct me.
My feelings on the movie, released a few weeks before my twelfth birthday, have changed little in the twenty-one years since it came out. As a matter of fact, those early thoughts have solidified and become more adult. I actually have reasons for some of those feelings.
More continuity! This movie continues the story of characters we met in the previous movie. Woo!
Lisa Wilcox returns as Alice Johnson. Her performance in The Dream Master needed a little oomph until the end, but as I said in the last essay, it was probably that the director was about cool camera angles and flashy effects more than he was about acting. Wilcox does a far better job in The Dream Child, though she no longer looks like a teenager, even one graduating from high school. Her performance is solid and helps the movie flow. The only other comment I have is her hair. Her hair was dyed red in The Dream Master so people wouldn’t get her confused with Tuesday Knight. For The Dream Child, she sports her natural blonde hair. I’m always for the red hair, though.
Some of the supporting cast is okay, too. Nick Mele’s return as Mr. Johnson, who is a recovering alcoholic (he wasn’t recovering in The Dream Master) plays a sympathetic role, a real character arc from his assholy tendencies in the prior movie. Danny Hassell returns as Dan, Alice’s boyfriend. His performance is all right, it’s just good to see a returning character. Of the new victims–er…um…teenagers–it’s really only Kelly Jo Minter as Yvonne who is worth watching. She was trapped in high school in the 1980s, stuck in Summer School, for instance.
Stephen Hopkins brings a gothic feel to this movie that is missing from The Dream Master and only hinted at in Dream Warriors. The sets are usually darker in this movie than in the previous and there are shots of the institution where Amanda Krueger (the writers have dropped the whole Sister Mary Helena name) worked that remind me of the best gothic movies. This is a man who could have made a really good Nightmare, given better material.
Poor material or not, the idea of Freddy trying to use the dreams of an unborn baby is a good one. I know a lot of fans think it’s lame but I’m not one of them. Why not? If the execution is poor, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
The majority of the characters survive. This fact helps stop The Dream Child from bringing the Nightmare series too far into slasher movie territory.
The weak cast. Erika Anderson as Greta, the bulimic/anorexic teen model, and Joe Seely as Mark, the skateboarding comic book geek, are both all right but weak. They have their roles to fill and both do so, but are (wait for it…) stereotypes. Kelly Jo Minter is able to make Yvonne rise over any stereotype she might be in. The people who play Greta’s, Mark’s, and Dan’s parents have all the depth of sitcom parents.
The missed opportunities. Stephen Hopkins seems to be a director with talent. The movie isn’t too bad, except…well…I’ll get to that soon enough. It feels as though the screenwriter(s) could have taken the idea, the fear that all people have about being parents but especially a teenager with an unplanned pregnancy, and have gone further with it. Instead, we get a creepy kid with haunting blue eyes who keeps showing up, being creepy, and is calling Freddy his friend. We have a comic book geek taken out in a comic book dream, a bulimic/anorexic teen model killed by being fed to death (more on this later, too), and, well, other silly things that are supposed to be scary but are not. When Freddy comes back to “life” in the church from the last movie, he has a strangely long left arm and hunga-munga bare feet that last for only that scene. Why? Then Freddy’s face appears in an ultrasound nightmare. It’s scary only in that someone thought that would be scary. There was a lot more possibility with the material that seems to have just been put aside for the quick and easy. And if my two examples didn’t tip you off, then you’re gonna be shocked when I say that another nightmare is–
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. When he is reborn, after the required lame one-liner (“It’s a boy!”), there’s actually a creepy, nearly horrifying moment, if one can get past the stupidly long arm with the equally stupidly large hand attached (his gloved arm and hand are normal)¹. There are a few moments toward the end, when Freddy is walking down a corridor and the overhead lights are swinging and he blinks in and out of existence that somewhat works. Even the strange staircases-everywhere-ending that is reminiscent of a German expressionist film and M.C. Escher more than A Nightmare on Elm Street movie works. These are, I believe, Stephen Hopkins’s touches. Freddy, though, ruins this movie. He has become a comedian in this movie, yelling gallows-humor one-liners and making us, the audience, co-conspirators to his deviant acts.
I understand that Robert Englund is a working actor and will go where the money is to pay his bills–Freddy Krueger was a guaranteed paycheck–but I would have to think that if you have helped build a character as strong, as memorable, and as scary as Freddy Krueger, you wouldn’t help dilute him. In a recent interview with Rue Morgue, he says that he and whatever Nightmare director he was working with on the later movies would often shoot two versions of a scene: one rife with quips and one-liners and another that was darker, meaner, and scarier, and that the editors/studio would often choose the former over the latter. Perhaps that is the case. New Line Cinema, in my book, had made some pretty terrible choices regarding the Nightmare movies thus far and didn’t really see them as anything other than cash cows. The art and thought Wes Craven put into the initial idea and resulting movie had been discarded before they even finished principle photography of that same movie, when Robert Shaye and New Line forced him to shoot different endings for cheap scares (and possible sequels?). By turning Freddy into a punk-antihero-lounge-comedian, they could sell more tee shirts, posters, dolls, etc., with his likeness.
If The Dream Master is the movie where Freddy Krueger stops being scary, then The Dream Child is the movie where he becomes boring. The movie halts each time he comes onscreen with his wisecracks. Oh, and I’m not fond of the makeup on Freddy this time around, either. In certain lighting, from certain angles, it’s quite effective, but when well-lit, it looks horrible.
The censors. By the late 1980s, Middle Amurica had had enough, damnit! All these horror movies and heavy metal songs and MTV and titty magazines and the new Fox Network with their Married…With Children that actually had porn stars on, and that radio guy from New York, Howard Stern, with his filth and…well, their heads were ready to explode. It was bad enough when Freddy Krueger was playing in small theaters and drive-ins, but now he was everywhere! The Religious Right, Tipper Gore, and their ilk were determined to set America back on its righteous path by protesting Freddy Krueger. Matchbox’s talking Freddy Krueger doll, glimpsed in passing at the local Child World (I miss that place), was pulled off the shelf before it could make it under my Christmas tree. The Dream Child, which didn’t just feature a child murderer/molester come back for revenge as the hero, but also dealt with teenage sex/pregnancy, fetuses (we all know how much the R.R. loves fetuses), and any number of other things that could/would damage any unsuspecting child/teenager who could sneak into the theater to watch it. As a result, some of the effects were toned down. Dan’s death on motorcycle is edited down to be not as graphic, and Yvonne’s death is edited to that Freddy is no longer dipping into her innards to feed her (which leads to the question: Why does she have a bleeding belly? when we see her later on). Honestly, the cuts were minor, but one senses that the story may have suffered from the motivation of trying not to offend people who would never actually see the movie, anyway, but just stand outside the theater with their signs and damn those who did want to see it.
The Morning After
My feeling when I saw it, weeks away from being 12, was: Not as bad as 2, not as good as 1, 3, or 4. I feel the same way twenty-four years later. The Dream Child shows signs of weariness. By churning out a movie a year, New Line Cinema exhausted the very people they wanted money from: the fans. Yes, the nine-to-twelve-year-olds were still excited by seeing Freddy in a new movie, but the older, more refined teenagers were growing tired. This is a shame because with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger, New Line Cinema had on its hands the potential to make a few movies that were all good, scary, and thoughtful. Instead, it kept Freddy in a sort of veal cage, changing writers and directors, hiring actors with less and less skill, adding more and more special effects, and generally not giving a damn about the series that had put the company on the map.
Stephen Hopkins does a good job in the scenes leading up to Freddy and after he’s gone, but while Freddy is onscreen, he’s a joke. Super Freddy. Puh-lease. Freddy on a skateboard. “Bon appétit…bitch!” Come on. Shut the fuck up and be scary.
Still, The Dream Child isn’t the worst of the sequels. It has some inspired moments, an idea that I still rather like, and some decently creepy, if not horrifying or terrifying, moments.
Freddy’s Nightmares–A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series continued another season after this movie, with Freddy’s makeup matching what he wore in The Dream Child. But the series, not very good to begin with, lost even more viewers and was canceled. Such is the way. After all, Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, and other horror anthology shows were also disappearing. Sales were beginning to drop on those horror novels and horror movies were beginning to sink at the box office.
New Line Cinema saw the writing on the wall and pulled Freddy out of the marketplace for a while. They were busy trying to acquire Jason Voorhees from Paramount Pictures. Just imagine what one could do with both Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger….
¹One can argue that the very fact that Freddy exists in dreams makes it okay for his left hand and his feet to be oddly large, and I can except that if they remained so throughout the movie or if strange morphs of his body–aside from gimmick nightmares–were part of the norm. The only physical thing that changed with Freddy, other than the hat and sweater, is his face. One could argue that as different teenagers dream about him, they add their own twist, I guess. But…I don’t think it completely works. Maybe if each person dreams a different look for him, but not in the larger sense.
I was ten, I guess, when I first learned of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, though it came out days before my eleventh birthday. I wanted to go to the movies to see it as I had the third movie but didn’t have the chance to. My first viewing of the movie was on VHS, rented from a video store (a local chain, I believe). I liked it a lot. At eleven, I loved that Freddy said all these sarcastic one-liners and that the movie was visually fun to watch. I liked that he was just so big, larger-than-life. I also liked that this movie had so many special effects, effects that were all over the tv.
Again, its place in American culture is important. The Horror Boom was at its peak. There seemed to be shows on tv every other weekend about horror special effects, including a special that aired in syndication called Stephen King’s World of Horror, a special that gave me the first hint of who this Stephen King guy was as well as showed me how some of the effects that garnished The Dream Master came to be.
MTV was at its height. It had changed the culture and was, at this moment in time, the place kids went for entertainment, news, and information. Freddy Krueger’s ascension was as much a result of MTV as it was the Horror Boom. Freddy had a very rock n roll/punk persona. He didn’t care about social norms or what was appropriate. He was a big ol’ Fuck You to the establishment at the end of the Reagan era and the kids, damnit, were listening. I may have only been 10/11, but I was one of them.
Wes Craven was officially off the movie. For some reason, New Line didn’t go with Chuck Russell or Frank Darabont to write/direct. I suspect it was a financial decision. With Dream Warriors a success, it probably would have cost more to rehire them than it was to go with new talent. One problem, though, was a writers strike that made the screenplay difficult to pin down. They went with Finnish director Renny Harlin to direct. The movie was shot in early 1988 and released that August.
Character continuity. Freddy’s Revenge kept Nancy’s house (and diary) but bailed out on any other character (except Freddy) from the first movie. Dream Warriors bailed on its predecessor and returned to the first movie without any mention to the second movie. The Dream Master takes place sometime after the events of its predecessor and re-introduces us to the survivors of Dream Warriors: Kristen Parker (this time played by Tuesday Knight), Joey (Rodney Eastman), and Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) in all his stereotypical glory. Freddy even returns from the junkyard grave he was placed in by Dr. Neil Gordon and Donald Thompson.
Lisa Wilcox as Alice. Her acting in this movie could be better, but the character isn’t supposed to have much personality in the beginning of the movie, so it sort of works. If she’d had a stronger script and a better director, her performance may have been better. She’s in the dream section because I find her purrrrty.
The overall acting. Look, there are no future Johnny Depps or Patricia Arquettes or Laurence Fishburnes in this movie, but for the third sequel to a low budget horror movie (and being a low budget horror movie in its own right), the cast is pretty good. The teenagers are believable enough. Nicholas Mele as Alice and Rick’s father is very good. I believe in the characters, which is all one could hope for. Another standout is Alice’s brother Rick, played by Andras Jones. Part wise-ass, part martial artist, part caring brother, he brings a certain level of realism to the part and helped make this movie a cut above the typical horror movie sequel.
Robert Englund as Freddy. By now, Freddy Krueger was more than just the bad guy in some horror movies, he was a genuine pop icon, up there with Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. Englund is able to infuse Krueger with glee as he tortures and picks off the teenagers in this movie. Krueger looks like he’s having fun because Englund is having fun playing him. More on Freddy later on, though.
The special effects and the visuals. Renny Harlin may have won more Razzies than just about any other director, but he brought a certain style to The Dream Master that some of the other movies didn’t have. With the success of the previous three Nightmares, there was also more budget for more effects, which were interesting and fun.
The late-1980s charm. Like Freddy’s Revenge, it’s pretty easy to see where in American culture this movie takes place. From the music (this is the second Nightmare to have a real soundtrack, but the first for it to have its soundtrack so entwined with the movie) to the hair styles to the clothes, this movie reeks of the late 1980s. And like Freddy’s Revenge, it’s taken twenty years for that charm to surface. Hardcore fitness? Check. A nerd like Revenge of the Nerds? Check. A karate kid like…well…. Check. MTV reference? Absofuckinglutely!
The ending. I like the ending. The church set is pretty cool. The idea of evil looking at itself and dying is a nice one. The souls on Freddy’s chest introduced in Dream Warriors coming out and getting their revenge is a nice touch.
Who’s that girl? Ooohh…it’s Kristen. Patricia Arquette, who so famously squealed her way into our hearts as Kristen Parker in Dream Warriors, is replaced by singer-actress Tuesday Knight. According to The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion, producer (and Freddy’s Dead director) Rachel Talalay said that Arquette was never approached to reprise the role. Since it wouldn’t really be until 1993’s True Romance that Arquette would become a star, the only reason I can think of is the same reason I figure for not bringing back Chuck Russell or Frank Darabont: money. Arquette would probably have wanted a lot more. The other reason, and even more likely, is that Arquette probably would have said no. Coming from a family in the business, she might not have wanted to have been pigeonholed as a scream queen. After all, Joey, Kincaid, and even Kristen’s mother (Brooke Bundy) all returned to Elm Street for this movie. And even though Talalay says New Line never approached Arquette, I’m not sure that I’m convinced.
Either way, Tuesday Knight’s turn as Kristen Parker is okay, but there is a certain disconnect between her and the audience. She was a strong character in Dream Warriors and while Knight’s portrayal of Kristen is definitely more hard-assed, the character doesn’t feel right.
Again, stereotypes. Kincaid is written exactly as he was in Dream Warriors. Sheila (Toy Newkirk) is supernerd. Brooke Theiss plays Debbie, the hot fitness girl. You get the idea. Alice longs for Dan (Danny Hassel), the popular jock. In other words, A Nightmare on Elm Street is heading down typical 1980s slasher movie territory. Luckily for us Fred-Heads (I swear I didn’t make that term up), it’s not there…yet. But it’s damn close. I’ll get to the reason below.
Who wrote this thing?! The Dream Master was worked on during a writers strike. As a result, the story is by William Kotzwinkle and Brian Helgeland, and the screenplay is by Brian Helgeland and Jim and Ken Wheat (under the pseudonym Scott Pierce). There are also rumors that other people worked on the script and added things as well. Post-Dream Master, Helgeland went on to be nominated and win Oscars for such movies as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, has written the upcoming Ridley Scott-directed movie Robin Hood, and directed Payback and A Knight’s Tale. (He’s also from my hometown, which is pretty cool). I guess the fact that the movie is good at all is a surprise, but the story is definitely lacking. It’s the kind of movie that if you’re watching it and not thinking, just being entertained by the cool camera angles and flashy effects, you don’t notice the holes in plot and logic. There’s a blurring of the nightmare/waking world in this movie toward the end that is major. At eleven years old I thought certain tricks, like Alice and Dan repeating a scene several times, was cool. At thirty-five, it doesn’t make sense. Are they awake? Are they sleeping? If they’re sleeping, where are they sleeping? They’re in an accident from sleeping at the wheel, but would that happen if they’re running to go save Debbie? And how come Nancy’s house is now very much Freddy’s house? And how come none of the three survivors of Dream Warriors mentions Nancy or Dr. Gordon, two people I would think they’d believe to be nearly saintly? And how does Joey get stuck inside his waterbed? And how come Kristen’s mother doesn’t know her daughter’s bedroom is engulfed in flames until her daughter’s boyfriend and his weird, mousy sister show up? And if what happens in your dreams happen in the real world, does that mean that Debbie’s parents are going to find a giant squished cockroach in their attic or will it just be Debbie’s crushed body? And…. Get it?
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. Yeah, that’s right, I said it. This is the first Nightmare that Robert Englund gets top billing, before the title no less. Not too shabby for the nerdy alien from V. By now, Freddy Krueger had become one of the 1980s answers to the Universal Monsters. Robert Englund had done interviews as Freddy, had hosted movies on HBO and music videos on MTV as Freddy. Freddy Krueger was on tee shirts, posters, yo-yos, albums, toys, pins, Halloween costumes…you name it. He was in music videos:
And where Freddy was, Robert Englund was. Freddy’s appearances became a sort of hammy, kitschy thing where Freddy would make quips at people, spin puns, and be a general friendly neighborhood child killer. I mentioned in my essay for Dream Warriors that Chuck Russell and his lighting people lit Freddy mainly outside of the shadows. In The Dream Master, Freddy is always lit very well. Not only that, but Freddy breaks the fourth wall!
You see, Freddy Krueger (and Robert Englund) is no longer just the bad guy in the Nightmare movies, he is the Nightmare movies. Teenagers are no longer paying to see whether or not the kids will escape Freddy, they’re paying to see how Freddy kills them, which makes The Dream Master different than the other movies of the series so far. However it’s the template created in Dream Warriors that starts it. More on this later. You see this in Kincaid’s nightmare where Freddy is reborn. The bones that were left in the junkyard at the end of Dream Warriors come together in The Dream Master (thanks to some flaming dog piss) and Freddy is born again. There’s a poorly dubbed moment when Freddy is posing, backlit, and says, “You shouldn’t have buried me…I’m not dead.” [Is this the best line they could come up with?!]. And then the camera, which means we, follow Freddy as he looks for Kincaid. We’re surprised when Kincaid, from nowhere, drops a car on Freddy. This isn’t the only time where it seems as though we’re following Freddy’s adventure. When Debbie becomes a cockroach stuck in a roach motel, we’re then outside the roach motel with a midshot on Freddy, who’s peeking into the small box with tiny screams coming from it. Freddy squishes it, ending the tiny screams and then says, “You can check in, but you can’t check out.”
Not only does Freddy become the star, but with all the zany camera angles, Freddy also becomes a model. Every line is accentuated with a flick of the finger-knives, or some pose that deals with the glove and knives. In other words, Englund’s performance as Freddy Krueger becomes too big. Though it’s still rather restrained compared to where it’s going (remember, I still have the worst of the movies to come), Freddy has officially stopped being the villain and has become the sarcastic 1980s antihero. Freddy becomes to the monster movie what Eddie Murphy became to cop movies around the same time.
The Morning After
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master opened on August 19, 1988 (almost a week before I turned eleven) and was a huge hit. It was the highest grossing of the original Nightmare series. That summer, Freddy was everywhere. Every entertainment magazine had a story about the movie or Freddy. He was on television and the radio. He had his own 900-number. Freddy was more than just the bad guy in a horror movie now; he was a star. The template had been set by the previous movie, Dream Warriors a year before. The anticipation for the third movie was pretty big and there were more photoshoots starring Freddy than previously done. With the success of that movie, the PR on The Dream Master worked overtime. Generally, the makeup job most people think of when they think of Freddy is the makeup job done for The Dream Master, even though this one is, again, different than its predecessors and successors. It’s very similar to the makeup used in Dream Warriors, only has more color to it. But I digress….
With Freddy the star, the teenagers are now automatic victims. Dream Warriors, trying to get away from Freddy’s Revenge, basically introduced us to teenagers whose purpose was to last only so long before Freddy picked them off. However, those teenagers were pretty well thought out and the audience could buy into them (though not as easily as Wes Craven’s original cast). With the fourth movie, even though we begin with three survivors from the previous installment, we get the sense very early on that most of these characters will not make it through. The reason: We never learn about them the way we learned about prior Elm Street characters. As a result, we have more stereotypes cast only for flashy death sequences and a villain who is now the hero.
This puts the Nightmare movies on track to become just another slasher series. Its saving grace is its imagination. Because Freddy haunts the dreams and nightmares of his victims, the audience is always given the treat of interesting and bizarre sets and imaginative terrors. Only, there are no terrors at this point in the series. There are no horrors. There’s some gross-out and a lot of eye candy, but nothing that really gets under the skin. The original Nightmare was full of horror and terror. Freddy’s Revenge has a few (albeit too brief) moments of horror and at least one of terror (again, Jesse fighting to keep the basement door closed but losing, only to turn around and find the monster right there). Dream Warriors had several creepy moments and, with Nancy and her father central characters, definitely had moments that qualify as horrifying/terrifying. The Dream Master has no real horrifying moments and certainly never terrifies us. It’s unsettling in a few minor moments, but mainly it’s fantastic (in the true sense of the word), gory, and over-the-top.
Yet, its popularity has cemented this movie’s version of Freddy Krueger into our minds.
It also helped get horror fans ready for Freddy on television. In the fall following the release of The Dream Master, an anthology television series called Freddy’s Nightmares — A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series came out. Freddy was a character in a few of the episodes but was mainly the host, a la Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The first season (which has Brad Pitt in an episode) was the more “popular” season and had Freddy in his Dream Master makeup.
At this time, between the movie (which I didn’t see until its home video debut), the press, and the tv series, I was in full horror mode, renting such gems as Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II and other classics (as an aside, give me the money and I’d happily write/direct a remake of Mary Lou). I watched some of the Friday the 13th movies if they came on HBO, Cinemax, or Showtime, and saw Halloween IV and V (the first one was difficult to come by, for some reason), but Freddy Krueger and the Nightmares he inhabited were the poison of choice in the monster category. I also became aware of the movies of Stephen King, Pet Sematary being the more recent of his movies released at that time.
Today, I still hold The Dream Master in my heart, not for any reason of quality but because it was part of the building blocks of what made me who I am today. I wish that the filmmakers/studio had had the interest/ability to get Heather Langenkamp back as Nancy. With her death at the end of Dream Warriors, and Kristen’s promise to “dream her into a beautiful dream”, it would have been interesting to make Nancy the anti-Freddy. This idea was done in the early 1990s in a comic book series (Nightmares on Elm Street) written by Andy Mangels and published by Innovation. It would have gone with Craven’s symbolism of Freddy as evil incarnate and Nancy as good. Alas, it was not to be.
The Dream Master stands out for all the reasons above and for being Freddy’s swan song for a bit.
But not our swan song, for we still have four more movies to get to, including what I think is the worst Nightmare in the series, and the second best (and on some days, the best) Nightmare. So stay tuned, folks. This nightmare is nowhere near over.
In the fall of 1986, just after seeing the double feature of A Nightmare on Elm Street and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge on HBO, my father took me to see the Sylvester Stallone movie Over the Top. Before you suggest that my father is horrible and should have been jailed for such a thing, I’ll remind you that in 1986, Sly Stallone was huge, and I don’t mean the growth hormones but as in a movie star. The best thing I remember from that day, though, is not Stallone’s trucking or arm wrestling, but the huge cardboard display in the lobby of the now-departed Cinema 140 for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. I was eager to see it, though I didn’t really think my Mom would take me. While she had begun letting me see some horror movies on HBO and on video, it was a whole other wall of pancakes to let your nine-year-old see a horror movie in a movie theater, right?
Yet, there we were in February 1987, Mom and me, sitting in the theater before the screen that would bring me to Elm Street. I wore my favorite red Raynor baseball cap with the brim in a position to protect me from the giant-ass Freddy Krueger on the screen. The brim would eventually be moved aside so I could actually see what was going on since Freddy is seen a whole lot onscreen at the end of the movie.
I was half a year away from being ten and I was jazzed as I left the theater. I thought that Dream Warriors was way better than Freddy’s Revenge and I couldn’t wait for there to be more Nightmares. I was already in a pretty deep NOES fever by this point. Dream Warriors intensified the fever.
Wes Craven returns. Kind of. Craven and Robert Shaye patched some of their problems up and Craven, with his writing partner Bruce Wagner, pitched and wrote a screenplay for Dream Warriors. For years I wondered what Craven’s screenplay would have been like without being touched by director Chuck Russell and co-screenwriter Frank Darabont. Thanks to The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion (the fine fansite where I’ve been borrowing the pictures that have appeared in these little diatribes), I was able to download and read Craven and Wagner’s screenplay. I have actually written a review of the whole script but for the purpose of this essay, suffice it to say that the script was bad.
Director Chuck Russell and co-screenwriter Frank Darabont brings Freddy Krueger back to his roots. Where Freddy’s Revenge alludes to the first Nightmare through conversation between characters as well as Nancy’s discovered diary, Dream Warriors makes no mention of Freddy’s Revenge. It’s as though the second movie were a nightmare best forgotten. Freddy first appears in a nightmare that Kristen (Patricia Arquette) is having and he chases her through hallways and tunnels, before finally appearing in a bathroom mirror and slitting her wrist. The rest of the nightmares take hold of Craven’s idea that in the dreamworld, Freddy can do and be almost anything, and runs with it. Even though the fans knew the rules by now, even though they’d been down this street before, the movie has enough surprises in it to make it feel like more than the third movie in the series. They use some of what Craven and Wagner put into the original screenplay, yet tamed it down, and actually make it more like the first movie, while still being its own thing.
Heather Langenkamp returns as Nancy Thompson. Without evil, there can be no good. Because Wes Craven is a writer as well as a filmmaker, and a very intelligent man to boot, he understands symbolism.¹ If Freddy represents evil at its worse, Nancy represents good at its best. During the course of the first Nightmare, Nancy becomes Freddy’s greatest foe. With her reappearance in the second sequel, the audience has someone they instantly connect to and root for. Now that she’s a little older and wiser, she’s a much more formidable foe for Freddy.
The overall cast for Dream Warriors also deserves kudos. Not every performance is great, and there are definitely stereotypes, but this cast far outshines that of the second movie’s. Patricia Arquette gets one of her first major film roles as Kristen Parker, the main character of the story. She is a little squeaky at times but there is a quality to her that makes one understand how she had a pretty good post-Nightmare career. Craig Wasson as Dr. Neil Gordon is superb as the stressed psychiatrist who cares so much for these troubled kids that he’s willing to put his career (and eventually his life) on the line for them. John Saxon returns as Donald Thompson, former lieutenant, current security guard. The cast portraying the troubled teenagers are also pretty good in this movie. Oh, and I can’t forget Priscilla Pointer as Dr. Simms and Laurence Fishburne (credited as “Larry Fishburne”) as the orderly Max. His understated performance also hints at the career he will enjoy.
One of the good parts of this movie is the information about Freddy’s origins. The mysterious nun that only Neil Gordon can see is a welcome addition. To find out that Freddy was “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs” is a pretty nice touch, while not a subtle one. Of course, an argument can be made that this information is one step toward making Freddy more human and more sympathetic, and that it’s also pretty melodramatic. All true, but it also sets Krueger up as more of a symbol. Evil is what spawned him, evil is what drove him through life, evil is what drives him in the afterlife. It also doesn’t excuse his actions in any way.
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. Yes, I know. I’ve put this in all the essays thus far. Don’t worry, it won’t always be this way (remember, my least favorite Nightmare is still impending…). This is the last film of the franchise where Robert Englund gets last billing in the opening credits. Freddy is still the villain at this point. Yes, his role is larger in this movie than in the first one, and maybe even the second one, but he is still the villain. The audience only sees him when his intended victim becomes aware of him. One of the most frightening shots of Freddy in the entire series is in Kristen’s opening nightmare. She’s running through a long hallway and far behind her, Freddy comes running around a corner with his glove raised, headed straight for her. I believe the shot is slowed down just a bit, just enough for the audience to think, Oh, shit! There he is! It is clear that Englund relishes the role and basks in playing this despicable monster. When he rips his sweater open to reveal the faces of his victims, the smile on his face is priceless.
The ending. I dare say that the ending in Dream Warriors is better than Nightmare‘s ending. The dual climax of Donald Thompson and Neil Gordon fighting Freddy’s skeleton in the junkyard where the Elm Street parents placed him and the nightmare boiler room from hell and the mirror room are more interesting than the Looney Tunes hijinks Nancy sets up to defeat the pulled-from-the dream Krueger. Even Nancy’s demise feels fitting, especially with Kristen’s promise to dream her into a beautiful dream, which could have been used as a set up for further movies (and was eventually used in a comic book series written by Andy Mangles in the early 1990s).
There are less nightmares in this film than the previous sequel and the ones that follow, but let’s explore them, shall we?
Heather Langenkamp’s return as Nancy. Huh? Didn’t you just tell us that is was one of the dreams of this particular movie? Yes, I did. While it was great to see Ms. Langenkamp’s return to Elm Street as Nancy, I feel as though her performance was a little wooden in some scenes and that Russell didn’t really give her much to do. By making Kristen the lead character, Nancy gets a smaller role in the film. Yes, a lot of the movie follows her, but I also feel as though she’s along for the ride a little more than she should be. Here’s a character that has so much more potential. Honestly, I believe it was less Russell as the director than it was New Line’s bureaucracy that’s to blame. For them, the Nightmare movies (and Freddy Krueger) were huge moneymakers. They got a small fan rebellion with the poor quality of Freddy’s Revenge‘s story and probably felt that returning to teenagers having nightmares was the thing to do. The fact that there are so many adults in the mix of this movie doesn’t happen again until Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, which we will get to in due time. Nancy’s return could have been more, especially if we’re going with the aforementioned symbolism of Freddy = evil and Nancy = good.
The beginning of the wisecracks. Yes, giving Fred Krueger a personality was genius on Wes Craven’s part, but here’s where the personality begins its decent. Freddy is still scary in this movie, but the sense of humor, while dark and smile- (and maybe even chuckle-) worthy, is a little too much. When Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) gets pulled into the tv, do we really need, “Welcome to prime time, bitch.”? Yes, it makes us chuckle, but this is Freddy fuckin’ Krueger! I don’t mind him fucking with his victims, it’s one of the things that makes him so scary, but this is a little much.
The stereotypes. The idea of having troubled teenagers that everyone thinks have tried to commit suicide is a pretty good one. It brings us away from the suburban Elm Street, though these kids are supposed to be children of those original parents (it also brings us away from Craven’s viewing that suburbia isn’t as nice as one might believe) but some of the stereotypes are a little much. There’s a recovering young addict who liked to shoot up, played by Jennifer Rubin, who has all the stereotypical issues and fantasies (though Rubin’s performance is pretty good and transcends the stereotype). Then there’s the nerd who loves his Dungeons & Dragons-eque role playing games. There’s the girl who wants to be an actress (with a face for radio, if not the voice), the shy kid who refuses to speak but fantasizes over the stereotypical hot nurse. The head of the clinic, Dr. Simms, is another version of Nurse Cratchett, who lacks any real bedside manner or compassion. The worst of the stereotypes, though, the one that irks me every time I see this movie, is Kincaid, the young, angry, foul-mouthed black kid whose fantasy is to have Herculean strength. By 1987, we should have moved beyond that, yet there he is.
Nancy’s house becoming Freddy’s house. Boy, did this take a lot of Expanded Universe ‘splainin’! In Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner’s original script, Nancy and Kristen come across the home Freddy Krueger was born and raised in. It’s the typical haunted house. They find the house and their nightmares also bring them there. It’s not in Springwood on Elm Street, but somewhere else. Nancy is brought there in the same supernatural manner (though she doesn’t realize it) that pretty much brings many characters in horror fantasy fiction from place-to-place. Somewhere along the way from Craven & Wagner’s script to the Russell & Darabont script, Nancy’s house becomes Freddy’s house. Well, let me correct that: In this movie it’s still Nancy’s house. The idea, I guess, is that the nightmare version makes it look like a haunted house. For some reason, though, Freddy seems to have inhabited it in the nightmare. Maybe the boiler room was too uncomfortable. Who knows? But it throws us off. It’s good that it connects Nancy to the story again, but it doesn’t make sense that Kristen and others would go there.
The 1980s was a hot time for the horror genre. By the beginning of the decade, Stephen King had blown up and by the time A Nightmare on Elm Street came out, he was a household name. There were a lot of horror novels coming out every year and horror films being made. Maybe it was a sort of punk-anti-establishment thing. We had Ronald Reagan telling us everything was good, everything was fine, yet there was the sense that his finger hovered over The Button and all it took was his psychic to tell him he should push it; maybe this was one reason for the popularity of horror at this time. I think that a result of these times and the Horror Boom is that A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors benefited. Frank Darabont was (and still is) a huge Stephen King fan. By the time he would have been brought onto Dream Warriors, he would have already written and directed the short film The Woman in the Room, an adaptation of a Stephen King story. Of course, Darabont would go on to adapt and direct other movies based on other King works. The Shawshank Redemption–based on King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist were all very good movies that captured everything that makes King not only such an entertaining writer but also a great writer. When work on Dream Warriors was underway, King would have been having one of his most prolific and biggest years ever, with the publications of It, Misery, The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three, The Eyes of the Dragon, and The Tommyknockers, not to mention the film adaptations of Pet Sematary, Creepshow II, and others I’m probably forgetting. Many of the ideas in Dream Warriors seem like something King might have put into the movie had he worked on it. The role of the adults in this movie is similar to the role of the characters of It, having to face something from the past, the teenagers being individuals with personalities, whether stereotypical or not. The way Nancy and Freddy seem to be drawn together is also reminiscent to how the characters of It are drawn to It.
Freddy has another makeover. Gone are the brown contacts and the too-high cheekbones, though the hook nose remains. His scarring is also more reminiscent of the second movie’s, yet less healed in some ways. His hat and sweater are pretty consistent at this point. The green stripes remain on the arms. The glove is back and there are no noticeable changes to it. What has changed is Freddy’s lighting. By now, everyone knew what he looked like. He was in magazines and hosting double features on HBO and doing interviews and appearing on MTV (to help sell the soundtrack) and showing up on posters, etc. His surroundings are still dark, but Freddy is lit better. The mystery of his face is gone and with it, so is the fright.
Freddy’s first music video! Dokken’s “Dream Warriors.” Patricia Arquette must be proud.
One other piece of info that you might be interested in. I mentioned above the copy of Craven and Wagner’s original screenplay for Dream Warriors (located at The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion). If you are a fan of the series, it might be interesting to read it. I read it with the hopes of reading a script that kicked the movie’s ass, but rather found a script with a lot of issues. I wonder if Craven truly intended that as a legitimate Nightmare or if he knew it would be rewritten. There are some interesting concepts in it, but I feel as though the script is lacking. Majorly lacking. What is interesting, though, is how much was borrowed by later Nightmares.
The Morning After
Overall, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors works. Freddy Krueger has his last hurrah as a frightening character, it’s great to see his original enemy back to square off against him, and the new kids (and adults) are formidable opponents. Chuck Russell (who would go on to direct the movies The Mask and Eraser with the likes of Jim Carrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger under the name Charles Russell) and Frank Darabont use Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner’s original story and build on it to success. Had they been interested (or allowed, I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story on why they didn’t work on any other Nightmares, though I have suspicions) in going further in this franchise, I suspect there may have been some interesting movies (or at least one interesting movie). At nine, I thought this movie rocked. I went home and built a Freddy glove with pens and pencils. Realizing how silly it looked, I built another one with popsicle sticks, until I was able to buy the official glove one Halloween. At thirty-five, I still enjoy the movie. It doesn’t have the power of Wes Craven’s original, but it is a solid sequel and is better than any of the Friday the 13th movies. It shows imagination and an understanding of fear.
In history, the movie made big change for New Line Cinema and garnered enough press that it was inevitable that Freddy would be coming back. Perhaps that’s where things went wrong. Eager to capitalize on Freddy’s ascent from cult figure to pop culture icon, the movie was barely out of the theaters before New Line was prepping A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. So the summer I turned ten, Robert Englund was in Freddy makeup filming the fourth movie, and things began to turn ugly….
¹ In 2010, a pair of great documentaries about the Nightmare on Elm Street movies had yet to be released. I Am Nancy, produced by Heather Langenkamp does not only show the importance of the character Nancy to the films she appears in, but also to the fans. It also features great interviews with Robert Englund and Wes Craven, who goes into great detail about the importance of Nancy as a character as well as a symbol.
So, the legend has it that, because strong word of mouth made A Nightmare on Elm Street a sleeper hit, Robert Shaye and the other folks at the burgeoning New Line Cinema asked Wes Craven for a sequel. Wes, being a smart guy and wanting to pursue other things, basically said, “I’ve said what I have to say in this world right now. Thanks, but no.” New Line was all like, “Well, we’ll do it without you, sucka.” And they did. To teach Wes a lesson, they hired an incompetent writer and worse director to make the movie.
Okay, some of that history is made up. Craven had originally wanted A Nightmare on Elm Street to be one film with a happy ending and New Line, which was trying to actually get off the ground, wanted that last frame Boo! so they could have a sequel. When Craven passed on a sequel, Robert Shaye went to David Chaskin, who’d been working at New Line while writing screenplays at night, to write the screenplay. Chaskin wrote the screenplay and handled rewrites and New Line tapped Jack Sholder to direct.
This was the second half of the double feature on HBO in the fall of 1986 that introduced me to Freddy Krueger. Even at nine, I didn’t like the movie very much. I say it’s the second worse of the series (stay tuned for what I think is the worst!). So, let’s get into it.
Kim Myers as Lisa. I’m not sure why, but I liked Myers as Lisa and still do. To be superficial, she’s not the most beautiful woman in the Nightmare movies, but there’s always been something about her that I found appealing. That, and I think she did the best acting work in the movie, except for maybe Robert Englund, but he doesn’t count. Considering the material, she did a pretty good job conveying the sort of emotion required to tell Jesse-in-Freddy, with a straight face, that she loves him. It is something that would challenge even Meryl Streep (whom Myers resembles) but she managed to pull it off. If Freddy’s Revenge had been as good as the original, she may have had a chance at being as well thought-of as Johnny Depp. Except that she probably wouldn’t have gotten on the cover of Tiger Beat, or the lead role in 21 Jump Street, or been Tim Burton’s alter ego. But still, she’s good.
Robert Englund. Kinda goes without saying, yes? Englund’s portrayal as Freddy Krueger is still scary. He still plays with his victims a bit, though this script doesn’t allow it much. I’m still a little disturbed by the scene after he comes out of Jesse (Mark Patton) in Grady’s bedroom. Grady (Robert Rusler) is lying in a heap by the door and Jesse is crying, bloody, in front of a full-length mirror. Instead of Jesse seeing himself, though, he sees Freddy, who is laughing and taunting him. It’s a fairly disturbing scene in a fairly milquetoast movie. He’s fun to watch in the infamous pool party scene, too. While the scene will be spoken about in further detail later, something about Freddy running rampant through the pool party is funny, and Robert Englund does his best to make it scary. He does an okay job.
The 1980s cheese factor is something that took twenty-eight years for this movie to achieve. When the movie came out, it was just lame. Now to look at it is to see why this movie, more than Craven’s original, is a sample of 1980s teen cinema. It was trying so hard to appeal to teenagers. While Craven’s movie was about telling a good, scary story (with some subtext below the surface), Sholder’s movie is an attempt to get teenagers’ money. From the outdated eighties fashions and music, to the stereotypical way in which the parents and the children interact, it makes the movie fun to watch. The effects are cheesy, the clothes and music are cheesy, and it all makes me think 1985 in big, neon-colors with a checkered backdrop. It actually makes the movie charming now, no small task for this turkey. Too bad it took nearly thirty years.
Its length. At 90 minutes, it’s too long, but at least it wasn’t two-and-a-half hours like Transformers. The movie is over before you know it, like a shot from the doctor.
The exploding parakeet. Just kidding, that’s one of–
I’m going to try to keep this brief. Good luck with that on this turd of a movie, the second worst Nightmare movie of the franchise (see how I do that? Now you really have to keep checking back!).
Most of the cast. Mark Patton and Robert Rusler do the best they can as Jesse and Grady, but they belong on a sitcom, not in the follow-up to one of the best horror movies of all time. Clu Gulager and Hope Lange as Jesse’s parents are appallingly bad. They would be parents on a failed ’80s sitcom. Marshall Bell as the gay, sadistic gym teacher does what you’d expect for a role that is nothing more than a stereotype. And that’s one of the issues with this movie, almost every role in this movie is a stereotype. Jesse is the Hero, and New Teenager At School And Is Misunderstood. Lisa is the Girl Who Too Quickly Falls For The Hero/Rich Girl Who Isn’t A Bitch. Grady is the Enemy-Turned-Friend/Overprivileged Kid. Mr. & Mrs. Walsh are the Suburban Dad (Who Knows Best) & Mom (Who Puts Up With Dad). The kid sister is, well, the kid sister. Again, it’s a testament to Kim Myers that she made Lisa live as well as she did.
The story. In this interview, David Chaskin defends his work on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. You can’t blame the guy. He probably did the best he could and, for him, it was just another horror flick. It was a follow-up to a movie that was doing well for New Line (to everyone’s surprise) but not the iconic film it has since become. But the story is flawed. According to Chaskin in the interview linked above, “I’ve heard a few complaints that we strayed too far from the formula (i.e., bringing Freddy into the material world) and that somehow, the syntax didn’t jive with the original, although I’ve yet to hear an example that holds up to scrutiny.”
True. Craven brought Freddy into the material world when Nancy first plucks his hat off his head while Roger Rabbit is running his tests, and again at the end for the Looney Tunes segment of the movie. I’m sure in Chaskin’s mind bringing Freddy Krueger into the material world (Madonna had said it was so just the year before) via his possession of Jesse wasn’t much different. But here’s an argument he can scrutinize: If Freddy had the power to possess someone and come into the waking world to gain his revenge against the parents who burned him, why bother with the whole nightmare thing? Why not just possess Nancy in the first movie (or Glenn, for that matter)? The answer is because it’s called A Nightmare on Elm Street, not A Possession on Elm Street. Or if you really want Freddy in the real world, maybe have poor ol’ Freddy stuck in the real world ever since the events of the first Nightmare and he’s trying to get back into the dream. He’s effectually powerless here and wants his power back. But even that idea has holes.
The wise thing would have been to truly built on Craven’s concept, explore Krueger’s history deeper, see if Heather Langenkamp would return as Nancy, and perhaps go even more fantastic.
Let’s not forget that Craven did the smart thing by making the female lead the hero of the movie. To make Mark Patton’s Jesse the hero is sort of a slap in the face. First, the actor is too weak. Second, the idea that the female lead was more than just a girl to be chased by the villain and to bare her breasts was something pretty cool, not even Jamie Lee Curtis was as forceful in fighting Michael Myers, but Jesse’s possession doesn’t do much for him as the main character. It is up to Lisa to save Jesse, which shifts the focus onto her, who is not the narrative center of the story until the pool party. Shifting focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing–Hitchcock does so in Psycho and even Craven did it in the first Nightmare (it’s easy to forget, but Amanda Weiss’s Tina seems to be the lead in the movie until she dances on the ceiling)–but in the last third of the movie? I don’t know….
The director. In an interview on the 1999 Nightmare DVD set, Jack Sholder comes out and says (I’m paraphrasing) that some directors use horror movies as an art form to release their own fears while other directors make horror movies to be fun. He implied Craven was the former and he was the latter. Sholder got some good, creepy shots in the movie. When Jesse notices Freddy in the basement cooking an arm in the furnace, struggles with the basement door with Freddy on the other side, then turns to find Krueger standing there, it’s scary. At the pool party (still coming to that, too), there’s a shot of Freddy looking back at Lisa, and he’s lit with the flames, making him creepy. But Sholder seems too willing to cop to what he thinks the teenage moviegoer in the mid-1980s wanted to see rather than making a scary movie that would match the original. Some of the “scares,” including the exploding parakeet, a creepy rat in an old refrigerator, and the dog with the human face all fall flat. The allowance of the majority of the actors to be rejects from bad sitcoms is another problem with his direction. And there’s more, so much more….
Freddy’s new look. In the first nightmare, the character is Fred Krueger. In one scene, while Nancy is being chased by him, she runs into her house and closes and locks the door. She starts up the stairs and her feet sink into them. Then the glove crashes through the window in the door and Krueger appears with a mask of Tina’s face. In Tina’s voice, he says, “Help, Nancy! Save me from–” He rips the mask off and, in his own voice, finishes: “–Freddy!” That’s the first time he’s called Freddy. If memory serves, that’s the only time in the first movie that he’s called “Freddy.” Of course, that name is in the title of this movie, thereby making him Freddy Krueger forever after. And if that wasn’t enough of a change, for whatever reason, Sholder (or the producers) decided to change the way Freddy looked.
For starters, they gave him stronger cheekbones. They also placed a hook on his nose, a nod to the Wicked Witch of the West. They also thought he’d look older with brown eyes instead of Robert Englund’s green/blue. Because Freddy possesses and comes out of Jesse, his knives come out of a burned hand in some scenes and the traditional glove in others. Lastly, his outfit is different. He’s still wearing a fedora, though it’s a different shape. And he’s still wearing a dirty red-and-green sweater, though this one is more form-fitting and has stripes on the arms. The makeup would change with each new director, but the basic sweater and hat would remain the same. The sweater with the solid red arms that appeared in the first movie wouldn’t be seen on Freddy again.
Is this a minor gripe? Sure, but why mess with something that worked so well before.
The pool party. Yes, there’s a 1980s teen movie pool party in the middle. Lisa’s holding a pool party at her big friggin’ house (apparently, Elm Street is one of those streets that has a lot of social classes living on it, from the lower classes [think Rod Lane and some of the kids from the third movie] to the middle [Nancy, et al] to the upper [Lisa, Kristen in the third movie]) and invited Jesse, who is depressed and a bummer to be around. She finally confesses her interest in him and they make out, ready to go further when a large, greenish tongue comes out of his mouth (Freddy’s tongue, which we saw a lot of in the first one, always looked relatively unburned).
Jesse does what any boy with a weirdly long tongue and half-naked girl in front of him would: Run to his friend’s house (and we’ll get to that soon enough). Well, when he returns to the party with his now-dead friend’s blood all over him, freakin’ out about how “He’s inside me” (yes, I promise, soon), Lisa continues to tell him how great he is and…well…Freddy pops out again.
Not only does Freddy come to kill Lisa, and tells her in Jesse’s voice that he loves her or something like that, but he apparently freaks out with the knowledge that this nerdy kid is now in him, too, and he leaps out of some French doors, disappearing in mid air.
Waitasecond, the nine-year-old Billy thought. If Freddy is in the real world now, how can he vanish in mid air? The answer: Bad writing. But that’s just the beginning. Because then the pool begins to boil, and the hot dogs explode and catch on fire. The teenagers take care of it and seem like everything’s cool–until Freddy pops out of the ground and starts chasing them. Kids are running to a chainlink fence, where they burn their hands when the links get red-hot. Fire erupts around the edges of the yard as the kids are trampling other kids. And then there’s the future psychologist, who tells Freddy, “It’s all right, man. No one wants to hurt you.” Then Freddy introduces the douchebag to his claw. Oh, and there’s the eruption of flame that backlights Freddy with his arms out, Christlike, to give the message, “You are all my children now.”
All these silly antics in the movie could work, if they were in another movie, or if it were someone’s nightmare. But since it’s established that Freddy is now in our world, the waking world, how does all this happen?
The homoerotic subtext to the movie. I’m not against homosexuality in movies. In 1985, we were still five/six years away from Tom Hanks winning an Oscar for portraying a gay man dying of AIDS in Philadelphia. It would have been interesting to have an actual gay character in the Nightmare series. Imagine the horror Freddy could have provoked on him on a psychological level? And it would have been a great way of humanizing, in a popular franchise, something that was still the butt of too many jokes. In the interview I linked to previously, Chaskin says there is a definite homosexual undercurrent running throughout A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Jack Sholder, the great intellectual director, says there’s no such thing. Who to believe? Well, there’s that line: “He’s inside me.” Guess we know.
But that’s not where it stops. Let’s say that, on an intellectual level, Jesse is uncertain of his sexuality and he’s torn between feelings for Lisa and Grady, you have the makings of an interesting horror film that could have seriously tackled a topic that many young people deal with. Instead, we’re given the coach, played by Marshall Bell, who turns up when Jesse finds himself in a leather bar. Basically, the old gay/leather bar schtick from the Police Academy movies. The coach takes Jesse back to the gym to make him run laps, and then go into the shower. Of course, Freddy pops out and kills the coach.
Actually, it wasn’t Robert Englund in the scene. Unable to film it for some reason or another, a stuntman played Freddy in that scene, with all the spunk that the stuntmen playing Jason often had. In other words, none at all.
Instead of seriously and maturely handling a controversial topic, they do it with “subtlety” and stereotype.
Yeah, I can see how David Chaskin would think that Nightmare fans don’t have an argument that holds up to close scrutiny. And how Jack Sholder can sit in his interviews and smugly speak about how Craven did his thing and Sholder did his own. Seriously, guys!
Of course, Chaskin and Sholder are so original, they decide that they will kill Freddy with…love. Lisa tells Freddy she loves him (well, she’s talking to Jesse, who she believes is in their somewhere) and then kisses him. Yeah! Freddy gets it on! Well…almost. Fire comes from nowhere and Freddy gets burned…again. Leaving wimpy Jesse behind.
And then there’s the essential “Boo!” ending, with Freddy’s glove coming out of Lisa’s friend’s stomach/chest on a school bus, etc. & so on.
The town where Elm Street is located is given the name Springwood in this movie. It has been said that they were originally going to call the town Springfield, but New Line’s legal department was worried considering how many Springfields there are in the U.S. and how many of them have Elm Streets. I like that Wes Craven never specifically mentions the town; this could be happening anywhere.
The Morning After
Love runs deep, but hatred deeper. I spent about 1,600 words on A Nightmare on Elm Street, a film I love, and 3,300 words on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, a film I hate. Weird, huh? Look, it breaks down like this: With a little thought, with a director who cared and a writer who cared, New Line Cinema could have followed up Wes Craven’s movie with another classic horror movie, the best horror movie sequel since The Bride of Frankenstein. Instead, we’re given a typical 1980s teen schlockfest. The ideas are boring, the story is silly, and the acting is terrible. I hit on what I feel are the major points, but I could go on for another 3,000 words.
Still, this movie helped me fall in love with horror, and made me a fan of Freddy Krueger. After watching these two movies when I was nine, things were different. I found a new path that diverged (yet in many ways followed) the path set before me by the Star Wars movies and superhero comic books. So imagine my surprise when Dad took me to see Sylvester Stallone in Over the Top and, in the theater lobby, I saw a huge cardboard display for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. That’s more of a memory of that day than the Stallone vehicle. I was on the road for my first horror movie on the big screen, and a seat to witness the birth of an icon.
Freddy must be pissed off at me. While I was writing the first draft of this essay, Pamela was preparing food for some company and cut herself badly. She says the knife sucked and blamed that. The knife has a skinny, curved blade, much like what one might find on a claw. I’m blaming Freddy.
I believe that there are low budget horror films that are masterpieces of cinema. Night of the Living Dead is one. Halloween is another. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is up there. Wes Craven had already done some pretty impressive films that dealt with fear by 1984. The Last House on the Left, with its shocking, no-holds-barred violence, and The Hills Have Eyes are both pretty interesting. It wasn’t until 1984, though, that Craven not only made a masterpiece of cinematic terror, but also unleashed on the world of cinema the best villain since Darth Vader first appeared onscreen: Fred Krueger.
I was nine years old when I first met Mr. Krueger in the fall of 1986. I have had at least one scary Freddy Krueger nightmare every year since.
You know the premise so I’ll save you a synopsis and go right to the nitty gritty.
Craven is a writer, maybe not the best writer to ever write screenplays, but better than many. He is a well-educated man who uses the horror film to express his ideas as much as to entertain. A Nightmare on Elm Street became an instant classic partly due to the writing. The characters are pretty believable teenagers and parents.
Though Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp), Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss), and Rod Lane (Jsu Garcia) live on Elm Street¹ in Smalltown, USA (the town isn’t given a name until the second movie), the only teen who seems to have the sort of Americana suburban life one equates with a person living on Elm Street is Glen–Mom and Dad are still together, Dad makes the rules, Mom rolls her eyes but goes along. Tina’s mother has a boyfriend (we assume, there’s some guy shacking up with her and taking her on vacation) who says, in front of the fifteen-year-old girl, “Hey, babe, when you comin’ back to bed?” Rod Lane comes from a broken home and has had many skirmishes with the law. And the girl next door, Nancy Thompson, also comes from divorced parents. Mom (Ronnee Blakely) is an alcoholic, Dad (John Saxon) a lieutenant on the police force. Yes, some of the acting is a little wooden, but the young actors mostly bring Craven’s words to life.
The character of Fred Krueger was also well-thought-out. From the fedora to the red-and-green sweater to the claw to the scarred face, he is designed to be noticed and to strike fear. Most importantly, he is a character. Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and even Leatherface were pretty much silent killers. They chased their victims (hardly), slew them, and then went on their way. Fred Krueger fucks with his victims. Because his home is in the dream realm, he can do and be anything. Also, unlike most of those aforementioned baddies (including the body of Vader), Krueger isn’t played by a stuntman under a mask. Robert Englund took great pains to bring Fred Krueger to life and make him something more than the run-of-the-mill slasher. The thing that gets me most now is the pure fun Krueger seems to have throughout. The dude has a smile on his pizza face throughout the movie. He cuts himself to screw with his victims. He runs funny and makes funny sounds. He taunts them. On Krueger, the claw is more than just a weapon and a psychological motif, it is also a symbol that he is a cat and the teens are mice. He will chase them, play with them, and then eviscerate them, all while cackling and generally fucking with their heads.
There’s the way that Robert Englund carries himself as Fred Krueger, too. After Tina’s death, Nancy follows her body through the school to the boiler room. She finds a small habitat and then hears the knives on metal. She turns and Fred Krueger shambles out from behind boiler. His left shoulder is higher than his right, the sweater and the pants are too big for him, his fedora is messy, and he looks…well…terrifying. Even if he had no burns, I would not want that guy to be there.
One last thing before I move away from Fred Krueger: Interviews done by the cast and crew of the 2010 remake often mentioned Freddy’s campy one-liners and silliness as a point where they are re-imagining the character. Looking at the most recent incarnations of Freddy, I can see why, but Wes Craven’s first film has little-to-no campiness in the character. Krueger’s “sense of humor” comes directly from the goals I mentioned above, namely, to fuck with his victims. He’s not breaking the fourth wall to make the audience laugh as he does starting with the fourth movie. He doesn’t even really have one-liners.
Craven directs the film with a deft eye for details. The sheep that appears in the boiler room at the very beginning in Tina’s first nightmare is a great what-the-fuck?! moment. It’s a dream, after all. The nightmares have an internal logic but not an external logic. Nancy finds a “secret door” that leads to Fred Krueger’s boiler room. She also seems to be able to travel across town through a few, strange gates. Craven has fun playing with the strange happenings in a dreamscape. The wall that comes inward over Nancy, the stairs that melt below her feet, Krueger’s arms stretching out to create the sense that you cannot escape, the moment when he’s at Nancy’s front door wearing a Tina mask and, using Tina’s voice says, “Nancy! Save me from–” before returning to his own voice for the final word of the sentence: “Freddy!” Craven has done his research and it shows.
The music. I know it’s early-eighties synth crap, but it works.
Nancy’s watch. When I was nine-years-old, Nancy’s talking wrist watch was kinda cool. At 35, it’s kinda lame. According to the commentary track on the DVD, the watch was actually Craven’s watch at the time and was quite expensive.
Rod Lane’s characterization. He is the punk with a heart of gold. He was rude, crude, and antagonizing, but Tina loved him and so did we. Only, Craven never really develops Rod. He is far more realized than most of the characters that will follow in sequels, but I always felt he was a little too much of the stereotypical punk in the motorcycle jacket, complete with switchblade. All those things wouldn’t have been a problem had he been just a tad more developed.
Ronnee Blakely as Marge Thompson. Everyone else on the film seemed to be trying their best to give an A-movie performance to this low-budget (aka B) horror movie except Ms. Blakely. Her performance is a masterpiece of B-movie acting. It’s over-the-top, melodramatic, and borderline silly. I still love her in the movie, but, well….
The endings. I know, everyone agrees. From the moment Nancy pulls Fred Krueger out of the dream until the end credits, things go wrong. Not all things. Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon give great performances, but the Looney Tunes contraptions that Nancy put together in ten minutes or so from a book just underwhelms. If this is Craven’s way of displaying the popular idea that evil is, in actuality, stupid and not as powerful as first thought, well….
This is one of the few stories where the idea that “It was all a dream” might not be a cop-out, but to get to that point is ridiculous. I wonder if that was Craven writing his way out of a corner, or if it was because of his miniscule budget, or if he really thought mallets falling from the ceiling and tripwires that set off exploding lightbulbs would be a crowd pleaser. To me, it feels like, “Man, I have got to tie this story up. What can I do once Nancy pulls Fred out of the nightmare?”
I’m not going to bother mentioning Marge Thompson being pulled through the small window in the front door. If you’ve read this far, you already know the deal on that.
The Morning After
This movie rocked my world when I was nine. It introduced me to the horror genre. It gave me nightmares that I still have. It also opened a world of wonder. Craven could have produced just another slasher movie about a killer who comes back from the grave to seek some sort of vague vengeance on teenagers. Instead, he gave us a horror-fantasy story that was as filled with imagination as it was with fear. I wonder what would have happened had the larger studios not passed on it and he’d been given a larger budget. Would A Nightmare on Elm Street have been an even better film or would it have only provided more rope for Craven to hang himself with?
I still, obviously, love this movie. Nobody write 1,600 words on something without getting paid in some manner except for love. There are plenty of flaws but the good far outweighs those.
¹ But do they? As far as I can remember, the words Elm and Street are never actually spoken in the movie. The closest we come is when Nancy’s mother, Marge, tells her the “neighborhood parents” hunted down and burned Krueger alive. I wonder if the Elm Street in the title was more symbolic than an actual place.
An Introduction to the Introduction
Back in 2010, when I was still using LiveJournal, I decided that I would embark on what I thought would be a cool little project to keep my mind working. I would write about each of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, leading up to the release of the remake, starring Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger. I enjoyed doing this a lot, and I had several readers who seemed to enjoy it. Since Warner Bros. has finally seen fit to release the original series on Blu-ray, I’ve decided to bring those essays back over the coming weeks. I’ve decided to revise these essays and perhaps add/excise some material. If you enjoy them, please pass the link on to other Nightmare fans, aka, Fred Heads (I guess…). Following the Nightmare on Elm Street essays, I plan on delving into Superman on film, leading up to the release of Man of Steel.
I hope you enjoy!
The Original, Albeit Revised Introduction
When I was nine years old, I got it in my head that I was ready to watch scary movies. Part of it was insomnia. I had already begun to suffer from it by then and would sneak out of my bedroom to watch TV. HBO and Cinemax had a whole bunch of interesting choices, most of them full of violence, sex, and horror. Another part of it was surroundings. Before Mom went back to work (I was eight) she would watch Dialing for Dollars on the Providence CBS affiliate Channel 6 (it’s an ABC affiliate now), which would often show (very much edited) horror films. I’m sure the last part of it was nine-year-old bravado. I was a big boy now. So I told Mom I was ready to watch scary movies with her and she nodded. About a week later, she reminded me of my claim and told me about two movies she’d watched on HBO, back-to-back.
“They’re called Nightmare on Elm Street,” she said. “They’re about this guy with a claw who kills teenagers in their dreams. If you die in a dream, you die in real life. The first one was very scary, the second one stunk. I’ll let you watch them if you think you’re ready.”
I said I was.
So the next Friday night, HBO aired both A Nightmare on Elm Street and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, hosted by Freddy Krueger. Her assessment on them was pretty accurate.
There is a belief among some people that horror movies and children don’t mix. Maybe they don’t. As an adult, I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks and paranoia; but I don’t think that’s from seeds planted in my mind by Freddy but rather natural inclinations, not to mention a good five years of being bullied. I became obsessed with Freddy Krueger, which was great because a few short months later, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors came out and–after much begging–Mom took me to see it.
The Nightmare on Elm Street movies (or as people had taken to call them as early as the third flick, the Freddy movies) were something big in my childhood. Not as big as Star Wars or comic books, but pretty close. Without those movies, I may not have become aware of Stephen King, which means I may not have been interested in trying out his books, which means I may never have bought The Shining on my thirteenth birthday, and may never have tried my hand at writing, and….
Well, you get the idea. You can thank Freddy for this.
Anyway, even though I know they’re mostly bad, I still occasionally watch them. I’ll watch the first one far more than the others, though, followed by Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and then the third flick. But make no mistake, I love ’em all!
When it was announced that there would be a remake, I sighed. I’m not against remakes per se, but I was a bit bummed that a piece of my childhood that meant so much to me was going to be played with by someone other than its creator. When I saw who was behind it, I groaned. I had sat through their remake of The Amityville Horror and the most horrific thing about that movie was that I’ll never regain those precious hours of my life.
When it was announced that Jackie Earle Haley would be playing Freddy Krueger, my interest piqued. He was getting a lot of good buzz for Little Children and Watchmen (the former is a pretty good movie and his performance is great, the latter has brilliant moments but is merely good overall; certainly no Citizen Kane-of-Comic-Movies as some would have you believe, but Haley’s performance is, again, great).
Then came the Tweets and blogs and the normal press and…well…by July 2009, I was eager to see the movie. What can I say, I’m easy. To prepare, I watched all the original movies on DVD nearly a year before the movie would be released. And once the movie was released, well….
So over the course of the next ten weeks (usually on Thursdays), I’ll be releasing a newly revised essay on my thoughts about A Nightmare on Elm Street and its sequels. If you’ve read these before, I hope you enjoy rereading them. If this is your first time experiencing nightmares in Gautham, well, I’ll be here to guide you. Take my hand, but be careful for the knives on my fingers….