Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An In Depth look Into The Films of Freddy Krueger.


by Chris Ward

Given the way that everything we hold dear is being given a 21st century makeover, it was only a matter of time before that wickedest of movie boogiemen - Freddy Krueger - was given an updating, although we won't get to see the results until next year. So, as I trawled through my vast collection of box-sets and various franchises, I decided to re investigate the original exploits of the red-and-green sweatered dream demon.

For the benefit of those not up on the back-story (there must be somebody!), 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' was written and directed by Wes Craven (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) and centres around a group of middle-American teenagers - Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Tina (Amanda Wyss) and their respective boyfriends Glen (Johnny Depp) and Rod (Nick Corri) - who are all having the same realistic dream about a horribly burnt man who wears a red-and-green striped sweater, a fedora hat and has a glove with knives instead of fingers, who tries to take them to a boiler room to kill them. Although they are all having the same dream, none of them realises until Tina confesses at school.
Nancy realizes she has been dreaming about the same man so when Tina's parents leave town for the night, Nancy and Glen decide to sleepover at Tina's. After Rod shows up unexpectedly, he and Tina disappear to the bedroom where, after making love, Tina falls asleep and begins to dream about her mystery man, who then appears in her bed - although only Tina can see him - and slashes her to pieces. Of course, Rod panics, escapes and, after meeting with Nancy to protest his innocence, is arrested by Lieutenant Thompson (John Saxon), Nancy's father. It is then things start to unravel, as each of the teens is stalked by the twisted stranger, until Nancy manages, in a dream, to grab the man's hat and bring it out into the real world, identifying him as Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), who, she learns from her mother (Ronee Blakley) was a child killer in the local area some years before. After he was caught and let off due to a technicality, the parents of the neighborhood kids tracked him down to the boiler room where he worked and set fire to the building, trapping Krueger inside. As an act of revenge, Krueger now haunts the dreams of the children of the people who killed him.

Released in 1984, by which time the slasher movie had had its peak, 'ANOES' was a real shot in the arm for the flagging genre. It's production values may look a bit clunky by today's standards, but this movie still has the ability to scare better than pretty much any teen horror movie released since. Named after Craven's school bully (as was the character of Krug in 'Last House...'), Freddy Krueger was a genuinely terrifying character, and although he isn't on-screen much, and the iconic status and cheesy one-liners were a few movies away, he really is a massive presence throughout the movie, thanks mainly to Robert Englund's masterful performance and over-the-top use of body language. The acting of the other main players varies from average to good; John Saxon is always a welcome presence and plays the role of a man desperate, but unable, to protect his daughter with utter conviction, although Ronee Blackley is pretty flat and useless as Nancy's alcoholic mother Marge. And yes, that is THE Johnny Depp as Glen - not the biggest start to a successful career, but he does display some sort of charm as Nancy's gormless boyfriend. Heather Langenkamp gives a fairly stiff performance as Nancy, but it doesn't really detract from the movie. A good story and a strong villain lift this movie head and shoulders above the rest of the era, and even though the ending is a bit lame and it may not have aged quite as well as 'Halloween' or 'Friday the 13th', it still retains it's shock value and edginess, which more than compensate.

Never ones to miss an opportunity, New Line released the sequel 'A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge' a year later, and although it is inferior to the original, it isn't as bad as many make out and does have some great moments. The story involves the Walsh family, who have moved into the house on Elm Street previously occupied by Nancy. Since moving in the eldest son, Jesse (Mark Patton), is having trouble sleeping and is plagued by nightmares about - you'll never guess! - a man in a red-and-green sweater, a fedora hat and a razor-sharp claw on his right hand. After a few odd incidents, mainly with the heating in the house (and an exploding budgie!), Jesse comes face to face with Freddy who, instead of killing him, wants to use him as a vessel to get back into the real world. So now, instead of the usual teenage angst and confusions (and there are plenty of confusions here!), Jesse also has to worry about being ripped open and, for want of a better description, giving birth to a fully grown psychopathic killer!

It may sound ridiculous, and parts of it are, but this movie does have a few merits in it's favor. Robert Englund gives probably his best performance as Freddy, being more twisted and evil than in any other 'Nightmare...' movie - check out the barbeque massacre for some great Freddy action. Englund’s over-the-top facial expressions and spastic body movements are at their most effective here and the moment when he declares ‘You are all my children now’ remains his most iconic. There is also good support from eighties teenage mainstay Robert Rusler (whatever happened to him?) as Jesse’s friend Grady and Clu Gulager as Jesse’s irrational but slightly amusing father, and it is the scenes in which they are involved that really carry the narrative.

But now to the not so favourable. The character of Jesse is probably the least interesting of all the characters here, and as he is supposed to be the main focus of Freddy’s attentions that could be seen as a major problem. As is his chemistry (or lack of it!) with girlfriend Lisa (Kim Myers), which sort of leads into another area. It has been suggested that there is a very homosexual subtext to this movie, mainly because Mark Patton spends most of his screen time in his underwear in the company of other males, plus the quite odd scene involving Jesse’s sadistic, fetishwear-loving p.e. teacher (quite why we needed to see Freddy smacking his arse with a towel is certainly up for question). Like most of these things, it’s there if you want to see it or you can just ignore it if you don’t, but it may offer some sort of explanation as to Jesse’s behavior. I’ll leave that one there, but rewatching this movie on dvd after years of seeing it on an old vhs was quite a revelation, as there were things on-screen that had previously gone unnoticed; mainly the subtle use of reds and greens on background objects – an indicator that Freddy may not be too far away, similar to the way the music in ‘Jaws’ indicated the shark’s appearance – and a clearer view of Freddy’s expressions and character traits.

Overall, ‘...Freddy’s Revenge’ is a good movie and not really deserving of the backlash it has generated over the years. Indeed, the main gripe people have with it is that it doesn’t seem to have many connections to the whole Freddy mythology other than the fact that Jesse’s family live in the same house as Nancy from the first movie. The fact is that there was no major Freddy mythology at that point, apart from Marge Thompson recanting about Freddy’s arrest in the first movie, so it really is an empty arguement. As it stands, this is a lot better than people give it credit for, and compared to a lot of other franchise sequels it really does deliver the goods.

Which brings us nicely to 1987’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors’, which is where we start to see where the franchise was heading. We are introduced to Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) who has been having some very real dreams involving our favourite boogieman, until one night when her mother discovers her in the bathroom with her wrists cut. Kristen gets admitted to Westin Hills, a psychiatric hospital with a unit for suicidal teeneagers – which is lucky considering the business coming their way! Whilst in hospital, Kristen is introduced to a group of teenagers all suffering the same nightmare about Freddy. Seemingly helpless against the kids symptoms, the hospital hire a new staff member who specialises in dream therapy. Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) joins the team of well-meaning Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) and the strict Dr. Elizabeth Simms (Priscilla Pointer) to get to the bottom of the kids nightmares, learning along the way that all of the teenagers possess special skills in their dreams that may just help them defeat Krueger once and for all.

So lets start with the good stuff. Wes Craven was back on board (wahay!) as scriptwriter, and it shows as this movie is probably the most inventive of the sequels, given the ‘Dream Warriors’ element. Bringing back Nancy, and her father (again played by the ever brilliant John Saxon), was a masterstroke, especially after the complaints about part two’s lack of character connections, and her interplay with Krueger was comparable to any hero/villain battle you can think of. The pacing of the movie was fantastic, as Freddy makes his first appearance within the first ten minutes in what is probably his most effective opening shot, and barely lets up until the end, and Freddy himself is given a bigger backstory, where we learn who his mother is and where he was born.
But it isn’t all good – oh no! This was the movie that turned Freddy from maniacal slasher into a wise-cracking conjurer. Yes, the dream skills idea is good on paper, as we’ve all had dreams where we have had special powers, but Freddy using what amounts to magic to kill? Admittedly, it isn’t as bad here as in the later installments, but when Freddy commits his first kill in the guise of a puppet-master, some questions have to be raised – like ‘what the hell are you doing?’ You see, although the original premise of ‘ANOES’ is rooted in fiction – it isn’t likely to happen, right? – there was always a sense of realism to the proceedings, like when Freddy killed he killed with a real, man-made weapon. Although he couldn’t be real, his methods were. Here, the fantastical elements have taken over, and we’re left with characters like Will - ‘The Wizard Master’ (try not to giggle when he has a go at Freddy, in his wizard’s cape and magical fingers!) – and the unintentionally amusing scene when Freddy’s finger-knives turn into syringes, so he can easily attack an ex-junkie.
Robert Englund is obviously having a ball as Freddy here, as he’s given a chance to do more with the character, but when he’s onscreen – which is quite a lot – he just isn’t as frightening as he was in the previous movie. Whether it’s the make-up, which is good but slightly tweaked to be slightly easier on the eye, or the lighting, which makes sure you can see every burn and scar clearly, I don’t know, but it’s pretty clear that this movie was designed to make the whole Freddy concept more marketable. Which is fine if you’re dealing with a dark character like, for instance, Batman or James Bond, but Freddy is an undead child-killer. Something that seems have been forgotten along the way.

There are plot holes here too. Like, if the kids in the hospital are, as Nancy puts it, ‘the last of the Elm Street children’ then why have they only just started dreaming about Freddy? Why didn’t they have nightmares before? And if they all lived on Elm Street, then why didn’t they all know each other? And can Freddy be in all of their dreams at the same time, or does he only appear to one person at a time? And is Heather Langenkamp basing her hairstyle on David Coverdale of Whitesnake? We need to know!

Overall, though, this is a fairly decent attempt at giving the original movie a proper sequel. Many people cite it as the best of the sequels, and it probably is, given the basic story, the use of characters and the pacy narrative. There are some good performances – look out for a pre-‘The Matrix’ Laurence Fishburne as Max, the kindly staff nurse – and some of the characters were good; maybe Dr. Gordon could have been brough back in later sequels, as he got some intensive experience in dealing with dream demons. But at the end of it all, it’s sort of like watching your best friend get drunk in a nightclub and starting to dance on the bar – you love them and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of mischief, but you can see where it’s heading and it isn’t pleasant!

And not pleasant is a pretty good adjective to describe ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master’, as now we were into full-on, money-making, Hollywood franchise mode. Following on from ‘...Dream Warriors’, part four picks up with Kristen Parker (this time played by the curiously named Tuesday Knight) starting to have weird dreams about boiler rooms again. Using her skill to pull others into her dreams, she brings in fellow warriors Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) and Joey (Rodney Eastman) who are pretty peeved at being dragged back into her nightmares. Convincing Kristen that Freddy is finally dead, she carries on her life with her new group of friends. Inevitably, though, it isn’t long before Kincaid and Joey start having weird dreams again, and, thanks to a terrible chain of events involving Kincaid’s dog, the man in the hat is back! Extracting his revenge on ‘the last of the Elm Street children’, Freddy soon gets a new group of teenagers to terrorize, as Kristen uses her abilities to pass on her ‘gift’ to her timid friend Alice (Lisa Wilcox), who seems to have dream abilities of her own. Of course, Freddy starts picking off Alice’s friends one by one, forcing Alice to utilise all her skills and strengths against the pizza-faced dream stalker.

I’ll get the overall comment out of the way first – this movie is pretty terrible. In that cruel way that fate so often works, this is still the most successful ‘...Elm Street’ in terms of bums-on-seats ticket sales. Let’s make it clear – this isn’t because of the story, the acting, the special effects or even the then-growing trend of having a heavy metal soundtrack. It’s because New Line were marketing Freddy Krueger as a sort of cartoon character, with his own line of merchandise, a pretty poor television series and his own stand-up slot at Jongleurs – alright, I made that last one up, but that’s the way it was heading. Freddy’s resurrection was baffling and stupid, the characters were just dull and/or horrible, the acting was pretty poor, the script painfully lame and the kills were dumb – a girl with a bug phobia turning into a bug and then being squashed by Freddy? --- Or how about Freddy turning into a karate master to tackle Alice’s martial arts fanatic brother? And what about the one where Freddy literally sucks the life out of an asthmatic? Not quite was Wes Craven had in mind back in 1984, methinks!

As far as good points go, it really does just come down to Robert Englund’s performance. Obviously by now he was doing it for laughs and a decent salary, but with Freddy being increasingly pushed to go down the path of pantomime villain, surely at some point Englund must have said ‘This isn’t what Freddy is all about’. Add to all this the fact that it was directed by Renny Harlin (‘Die Hard 2’, ‘Cliffhanger’) and it all adds up to a big disappointment. It may have been fun in 1988, but looking back now it’s just plain embarrassing.

With Freddy now as much a part of modern culture as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, in 1989 New Line brought us ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child’, where the pre-release blurb was promising a more evil Freddy, and a story involving Freddy haunting the dreams of an unborn baby. Like a foetus is going to put up much of a fight!

Anyway, the story (HA!) goes something like this – Alice and her boyfriend Dan, having survived part four (something that I nearly didn’t!), are now expecting a baby. As Freddy isn’t really dead, because if could die then somebody would have called a halt after ‘...Dream Warriors’, he tries to come back into the real world by infiltrating the dreams of Alice’s baby and getting reborn. Apparently, the only person who can stop him is his mother, Amanda Krueger (haven’t we done this before?), who unfortunately is also dead, but not dead in the real sense of being dead, because her spirit needs to be freed from eternal purgatory – or something like that. After Dan gets whacked (trust me, it isn’t a spoiler) and Alice’s new friends all start to get killed in all sorts of whacky ways, Alice has to free the troubled spirit of Amanda so she can stop Freddy once and for all – or at least until the next movie!

First of all, why does this movie have Elm Street in the title? Freddy or any of the victims don’t go anywhere near Elm Street; incidentally, seeing as Elm Street is a rundown area in all of the kids dreams, has anybody actually gone to the real Elm Street when they’re awake? It might be very nice! But I digress.

The law of sequels dictates that you have to throw more into the mix than the previous movie and do everything bigger – and that’s exactly what they’ve done here, as it’s an even bigger balls-up than part four. Admittedly, it is darker in tone, but as for Freddy being more evil; you may as well have had Jim Carrey playing his part. Englund was just doing the best he could with what he was given, and what he was given was pure comic book garbage. All the religious iconography that was being introduced was completely unnecessary, Dan’s death sounds good on paper – he’s racing along on his motorbike when the all the framework starts to fuse with his body – but it just looks silly; the character of Mark getting turned into paper and ripped up – silly; a stick-thin girl getting force-fed her own guts – actually, that’s pretty good, but save for that and Englund’s manic performance and comic timing (even his make-up looked silly, too!) what else is there to recommend it? Well, Bruce Dickinson on the soundtrack album and a pretty cool poster, but that really isn’t enough!

Marginally better than part four, mainly because of the darker tone, this is still a pretty dire entry in the series and for many it is the worst. Apparently there was a lot of material cut out – to make the final cut shorter and flow more smoothly – so maybe a full director’s cut may give it a bit more credit, but for Freddy, who was now a very long way from the maniac stalker of the first movie, it really did look like the end...

...until the next beginning! As the nineties beckoned and a newer breed of horror was making it’s mark in the shape of more extreme fare like ‘Hellraiser’, New Line sensibly decided to call a halt to the Freddy Krueger comedy show by making ‘Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare’ in 1991.

Seemingly ignoring the past few movies – which isn’t a bad thing – this movie sees Freddy taking on Maggie Burroughs (Lisa Zane), a child psychologist who has been having recurring nightmares. Discovering that one her patients has been having similar dreams, Maggie sets about finding the source, which leads her to a town called Springwood and a place called Elm Street. Not only does she find out where the dreams are coming from, but she also finds out something about herself that she may wish she hadn’t...

Overall, this isn’t really a great movie, but what was the real likelihood of New Line churning out a series finale worthy of Wes Craven’s original vision? That said, lame plot aside, it isn’t as bad as it could have been, and it’s certainly an improvement on the previous two movies. The wisecracks are still there, but not as prominent, or as awful, as before (the parody of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is silly, but amusing; the death by Nintendo is just plain daft) and Freddy himself is a bit less comedian and more villain than in recent movies. Not as wicked as in ‘...Freddy’s Revenge’, but you can’t have everything. There’s also some nice cameos, including Alice Cooper as Freddy’s father (seen during a flashback), Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold, and best of all – for all the old fans – Johnny Depp, although he isn’t playing the same character as he did in the original. You’ll just have to keep an eye out for him!

Resurrecting the 3-D gimmick for certain scenes was also a good move to bring the crowds in, especially as Freddy’s final demise was shot in that style, although the transition to the small screen wasn’t so great. It does smack slightly of too-little-too-late, but at least the heart was in the right place, and with it being directed by long-time ‘...Elm Street’ collaborator Rachel Talalay, at least there was somebody at the helm who had a bit of knowledge and passion about the heritage.

You would have thought that would be it, though, but no! In 1994, New Line announced it was releasing ‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’ (cue fanfare!) to a fairly disinterested public. Only this time, it wasn’t a sequel like all the others, where a new bunch of gorgeous teens would face Freddy and his limitless ways of killing; this movie told a story that was based more in reality. Celebrating the ten year anniversary of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, Heather Langenkamp (or a version of her) starts to experience some weird goings on in her life, culminating in the death of her husband (not her real husband – that would be silly). After speaking to her friend and colleague Robert Englund (again, playing a version of himself), who starts to act a bit weird himself, she goes to see Wes Craven himself, who it turns out has been having nightmares again and is planning a new Freddy movie. We then learn that the evil force that has kept Freddy coming back time and time again – and is the force behind Craven’s nightmares – is an ancient demon that is using the Freddy persona and trying to break through into our world by attacking Heather and her son. The only way to stop it is for Heather to become Nancy one more time and face ‘Freddy’ in the ultimate showdown.

All clear? Well, it is a pretty interesting, if slightly ostentatious, concept, and an obvious attempt to add a little intellect into what could have been a real dumbing down of an already dumbed down formula. Watching it now in 2009, in a climate where mainstream horror is visually more extreme and action-based, it does come across as, for use of a better word, dull. Maybe what would have been better viewing for hardcore fans (and that’s really who this movie was intended for, as newcomers probably wouldn’t have a clue about who was who) would have been a feature-length documentary with everybody involved in the series giving their various opinions on the Freddy legend.

Good points? Freddy’s first proper appearance is quite startling, as he’s had a slight makeover to eliminate some of his more human traits, and the first thirty minutes is quite tense, as you feel you’re building up to something great.

But ultimately, you’re not. It just seems to lose momentum after that, going from one scene of Heather not being believed to another, until you get to the final battle, which is all fairly predictable and, to be honest, painfully boring. Overall, the movie just comes across as half a good idea that wasn’t fleshed out properly before being shot, and that’s a shame as there really were the seeds of a good idea at the core. Points to Craven and New Line for trying to add a twist to a series that should have ended three movies ago, but ultimately it ends up as being more of a curiosity than essential viewing.

And that really is it for the original series. Of course, Englund returned to the Freddy character once more for ‘Freddy vs. Jason’ in 2003, but as that movie isn’t a fully-fledged ‘Nightmare’ movie, I shall give it a once-over at another time. As I write this, the trailer for the remake is online and first impressions are good, so check this space next April for a review. Until then, the original series are readily available on DVD so do yourselves a favour and check them out – just remember don’t fall asleep (for the first three movies, anyway!)


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