A Nightmare on Elm Street Retrospective

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© Copyright New Line Cinema

© Copyright New Line Cinema

With news of the upcoming Halloween Returns (2016) ignoring Rob Zombie’s reboot in favour of the series’ initial continuity (or at least part of it), I find myself filled with renewed hope that Robert Englund might one day reprise the role of Freddy Krueger in a direct follow-up to the original films. After all, his take on the character endured for two decades before Samuel Bayer’s unnecessary remake in 2010, adapting to the conflicting visions of no less than seven directors in the course of eight movies. Watch any instalment of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and you’ll find a familiar brand of terror that transcends generations.

To be clear, I’m not referring to Freddy’s iconic glove, unique powers, or burnt-up noggin. Wes Craven spent years peddling his high concept to unimpressed studio executives, some of whom shamelessly cribbed his treatment just after giving it thumbs down. However, there’s a reason I’m still writing about A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) today, whereas no one remembers Twentieth Century Fox’s Dreamscape (1984). By juxtaposing the symbolic image of people dying in their dreams (i.e. in denial) with the youthful urgency inherent to slashers, the former humanities professor stumbled on a universal truth: teenagers need to break free of the fantasy their parents created for them.

Curiously, though practically every horror flick released since owes its formula to A Nightmare on Elm Street, this deeply human element remains specific to the franchise. In fact, every sequel delivers a variation on the theme, even Jack Sholder’s underrated A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), which strays so far off the beaten path New Line made a point of re-establishing the myth in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). This strikes me as a bit of an overreaction, but I can understand the studio bigwigs keeping a tight rein on the property. Lest we forget, theirs is the house that Freddy built.

Mind you, it’s worth noting that Craven’s initial proposal for this third instalment steered a lot closer to the daring head trip he’d eventually deliver in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). His second pitch focused on a ghostly embodiment of clinical depression, pre-empting J-horror hits like Pulse (2001) and Suicide Club (2002) by at least fourteen years. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if New Line missed an opportunity to revolutionise the horror landscape for a second time. Then again, no one can deny the success of Chuck Russell’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which fans still hold as their favourite, largely on account of Heather Langenkamp’s return as Nancy Thompson.

© Copyright New Line Cinema

© Copyright New Line Cinema

It occurs to me A Nightmare on Elm Street is the only eighties slasher franchise to present its “final girl” as a recurrent heroine, emphasising resilience and resourcefulness rather than the ability to keep one’s legs closed. Even after Nancy’s demise, Freddy ends up wrestling in Wonderland with the fittingly named Alice (Lisa Wilcox), who serves as his nemesis in both A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) and A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child (1989). Say what you will about their campy kill sequences, together these movies tell an unexpected coming-of-age story that brings the theme of teenage awareness to its logical conclusion.

With little left to say, the series then delved into horror comedy, dropping the moniker “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to better showcase its devilish star. Punctuated by Craven’s aforementioned head trip in 1994, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) and Freddy Vs Jason (2003) feel like opposite sides of the same coin, exemplifying how slapstick humour can destroy the credibility of an aging monster or resurrect him for a crowd of nostalgic gore hounds. I think the difference between the two films lies in Freddy’s petty desperation, which distinguishes him from other slasher villains.

Either way, this goes to show that the dream demon had never really grown stale, only his material. Consider how malleable he’s proven himself over the years, shifting back and forth from sinister boogeyman to wisecracking jester from hell. You see, unlike Michael Myers from Halloween (1978), the Springwood Slasher doesn’t rely on mystique to rattle our subconscious. Based on that of a schoolyard bully, his boisterous personality evokes a familiar evil that can’t be weighed down by age or continuity. As long as we as a culture recognise the cruel angst that comes with growing up, Freddy will have a place in our nightmares.

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