Three, four, better read some more…
Of the horror movie icons born or prominent in the 80s, only one has real backstory. Jason Voorhees was just a poor bullied kid originally, Michael Myers appears to have been just pure bad from a very young age, with his lack of understandable motive one of the most compelling things about him. But Freddy Krueger was all about the backstory. He was famously ‘the bastard son of a hundred maniacs’ and had had a career as a paedophile and child killer while he was alive. Then, when American justice failed the parents of his victims, they took it upon themselves to enforce vigilante justice in its place. Freddy’s supernatural life as the slasher who comes for children in their sleep is ultimately a cautionary tale: if you throw away the rule book, your actions will come back to haunt you.
The first Nightmare movie was a low-budget affair that told an intriguing tale reasonably well. Some of the actors couldn’t act, but at least a couple really could – yes, that’s Johnny Depp in his first major role, moments before he’s the victim of the stand-out death scene in the movie. The idea of a child killer somehow continuing his murderous antics after being burned alive, attacking victims in their dreams and killing them in the real world was a cogent one, relatively unexplored in the horror genre in recent times, and Robert Englund turned in a hard-nosed performance as Krueger in the first instalment, making the original Nightmare a horror fan’s go-to pick of the series. In particular, the spunky teen with attitude and an overbite who takes on Krueger at his own game, Nancy, survived till the end – and was then seen being ridden off in panic by a dodgy school bus, as her alcoholic mother was grabbed by Krueger’s arm and bizarrely pulled through a tiny door-window. We’re not sure whether Nancy survived, or was killed in this final nightmare in the first…erm…Nightmare.
Nightmare 2 was just…weird. There’s a sense in which every successful horror-movie franchise is allowed one mulligan, one completely-out-of-left-field, what-the-hell-was-that diversion from the point, and while Nightmare 2 is definitely the mulligan of the series, it’s at least more to the point than, say, Halloween III, Season of the Witch. Nightmare 2 is set in Nancy’s old house, now home to new kid in town, Jesse – ooh look, Freddy’s new friend is a hot-ish guy, it’s not just about screaming girls. No, it seems to be about homo-erotic self-loathing as Jesse and local Ron jock become just friends, and Jesse struggles not to become Freddy, or a living portal to allow Freddy out of Dreamland and into – at the very least – one real world kegger party. He’s ultimately saved by the love of a good women. Oh dear. Next!
Nightmare 3 – Dream Warriors – takes us firmly back into solid Nightmare territory, with a bunch of kids in a mental hospital for sleep disorders among other things. Two of the doctors trying to help the kids are Neil and – oh look, there’s Nancy, all grown up! She quickly finds out that the kids are being Freddy-stalked and teaches them how to harness their inner superpower – super-strength, wizard magic, Buffy-style badassery and so on, but Freddy still manages to pick most of them off in increasingly bizarre ways – popping out of a TV set and smashing a teen’s face through the screen, turning his fingers into hypodermics to overdose a drug addict and so on. Nancy and the gang eventually seem to defeat the maniac, and Nancy is brought face to face with her dead father as a kind of reward. Except of course that he turns into Freddy and kills her. Clearly, her super-power’s not in the brain department. It eventually takes Neil to inter Freddy’s bones and sprinkle holy water on them to defeat the Dream Demon.
Dream Warriors is remarkable because it’s the point at which Freddy stops being just a bad guy and develops his own line in smartass wit and playful, grotesque, somehow appropriate kills, so you actually begin to enjoy his time on screen killing the kid. He’s a serial killer and paedophile with a sick sense of humour. It might feel intellectually wrong to like what he does, but in his style and his humour, he stands fedora’d head and shoulders above all the other 80s slashers from this point on. The complexity and surreality of the kills explode here too, and the basic threat of a maniac with a razor-glove is rarely enough any more.
Sadly, Dream Warriors is also the storytelling pinnacle of the series. Nightmare 4, The Dream Master, sees Freddy come back from the dead by the expedient of a dog peeing on his bones (don’t ask…), the remaining Dream Warriors summarily despatched, and the introduction of Alice, a teen who is also, unknown to anyone including herself, “The Dream Master”, meaning she can turn Freddy’s reflection on himself and allow the souls of his victims to rebel against him and tear him apart. The kills here are inventive if schlocky – turning a bug-hating teen into a giant bug and then crushing her, for instance, and while The Dream Master adds an agreeable degree of eastern hokum to the explanation of Freddy’s powers and is the highest grossing movie in the series, it has more than a whiff of re-hashed Dream Warriors about it.
Nightmare 5, The Dream Child, is exactly as dreadful as it sounds – it’s essentially Freddy’s Baby, with Dream Master Alice’s child being the battleground for one more slapdown between the Dream Master and the Dream Demon. Can he claim the child as a vessel for his own resurrection in the physical world? As it happens, no, but he’s only foiled by the intervention of a projection of Alice’s own child, and the apparent ghost of Freddy’s mother, in a meditation of the fear of parenthood that, in a movie series about a paedophile child-killer seems appropriate, if long-winded. The meditation on parents and children continues in the sixth movie, Freddy’s Dead, where Freddy searches for a way beyond the “supernatural borders” of Springwood – yes, really – and reveals that he has children of his own, whom he intends to use as the way beyond his traditional bailiwick – “Every town has an Elm Street,” he declares. There’s a sense of increasing madness in the movie – the grown-up residents of Springwood have gone nuts, and the kids have all been killed – but in this final “Classic” Nightmare, we get to rummage through Freddy’s backstory; he too was a bullied child, beaten by his foster father. Before his “death” he was approached by three demons looking for the most evil thing on Earth, and offered the chance to live a supernatural life and exact his revenge: the townsfolk of Springwood took his daughter Tracy away from him, so he took their children. As we said at the beginning, Freddy Krueger is a cautionary tale – throw away the rule book and your actions come back to haunt you.
The cautionary tale finds perhaps its most genuinely fascinating interpretation in a final “Nightmare that isn’t really a Nightmare” movie - Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. This last instalment goes behind the scenes, scripting the actors from the Nightmare movies, including Englund himself and Nancy actress Heather Langenkamp, as well as director Wes Craven. It’s an experiment in meta-horror, which Craven was later to take to a whole new level with the Scream movies, and it posits that “Freddy Krueger” is a demonic entity attracted to movies, and that somehow, movies and reality overlap and inter-inform each other, the premise being that if you invoke a demon long enough, you draw something to you that will play that role and make your horrific dreams to some extent horrific realities. As a statement from a great slasher movie director on the debate over whether horror movies have an impact on real would-be killers, it’s pretty unequivocal as a premise, and again, the theme is played out in even more blatant tones in the Scream movies.
While of course Nightmare on Elm Street was one of the 80s movies that received a 21st century remake (which we’ll deal with in another article), the “Classic” Nightmares as a body of horror work and a cultural phenomenon show a fascinating range and arc. From basic moneymaking horror, through teen angst expressed as slasher movie, to movies of self-empowerment and overcoming parental fear, all the way eventually to philosophical treatise on the power of art to re-shape the cultural norm, Freddy Krueger did it all – and all while slaughtering a range of anodyne or annoying American teenagers, imprinting a new horror icon on the cortexes of cinemagoers everywhere and teaching that cautionary tale of social and personal responsibility.
As Freddy himself might have said with a flick of his razor-glove: “Where’s the bad?”
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk