Logistically speaking, the third season of FX’s popular spookfest American Horror Story was a colossal mess. Characters inexplicably developed superpowers whenever the story called for them, and lost them just as quickly. There were no rules governing the show’s universe, so it never stood a chance of passing itself off as quality television. It was sporadically entertaining; regardless of narrative inconsistency, the campy dialogue and hair-curling Grand Guignol grotesqueries connected. But when it wasn’t being off-the-rails weird, it was disposable. The same problem plagues the Nightmare On Elm Street series after Wes Craven’s first entry. The laws governing Freddy Krueger’s movements and powers are vague to entirely nonexistent, and over the course of six proper sequels, the Freddy Vs. Jason crossover, and one remake, about a dozen extenuating circumstances render them pretty much defunct. The Elm Street films set themselves apart from the legions of imitators by contriving ways to spin that shortcoming to their advantage. The conceit doesn’t always work, but when it does, the films repurpose nonsensical dream-logic to deliriously loony ends. Even when Elm Street movies are terrible—and some of them are truly abysmal—they have personality to spare.
Somewhat counterintuitively for a genre steeped in transgression, horror thrives on order and discipline. Clearly defined constraints on a villain’s powers simultaneously establish a sense of stakes and clue in the folks at home about what scares to expect. The original Elm Street lays out Freddy’s game plan in broad strokes: He’s able to stalk feverish teen nightmares, and when his victims get killed in a dream, they die for real. It took six installments for the creators to explain why and how Freddy can traverse the dream-world, but even prior to that, Freddy challenges these regulations. He often breaks through into the real world, or pulls one character into another’s dream. Like all perennial slasher nogoodniks, Freddy seems impervious to death in any form, from holy water to throat-stabbings to live burials.
The cleverness of the Elm Street franchise lies in its attempts to own the foggy governances that inevitably develop in a horror franchise protracting itself over so many films. To varying degrees of success, the writers recast this flaw as a feature, applying Freddy’s seeming omnipotence to the logic-free realm of sleep. His weapon of choice is the knife-glove, but the malleability of dreams opens up infinite homicidal opportunities for Freddy. He kills a junkie by turning his fingers into syringes full of a neon-blue intravenous drug and forcing her to OD? Sounds good! He bursts out of a young boy’s body like some kind of reverse Tauntaun? Why not! He traps the souls of children in a demonic pizza topped with meatballs containing wailing, sunken faces? Sure, but he better make a bad pun about “soul food”!
Setting fire to the rules lets Freddy—and by proxy, the filmmakers—do whatever he pleases without fear of testing any long-since-broken suspension of disbelief. But it also means that Elm Street’s pleasures have to be base and immediate enough to draw attention away from that. The film might not have to hold up to logical scrutiny, but it had better be scary as hell. And it was, until the writers pulling Freddy’s strings contrived a far more demented—and fun—routine for their killer.
After the rightfully revered, even-keeled chills of the 1984 original, the Elm Street series turned into a rotation of increasingly odd sideshows. Wes Craven ducked out before the second installment could begin shooting, but director Jack Sholder remained faithful to the original’s spirit. He kept Freddy’s “inhuman murder machine” persona intact, but really, only one aspect of the following year’s A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge merits discussion: the roiling undercurrent of homoerotic tension. The follow-up to one of the most seminal American slasher films ever is as gay as the day is long, which still feels like a considerable coup almost three decades later. Lithe teen Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) spends his days in a state of suspended anguish after defaulting to repression when he’s tormented by urges that frighten, confuse, and slightly excite him. There’s a man inside him begging to get out and take control of his body, and Jesse doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be able to stuff Freddy back down. In case the leaden subtext wasn’t clear enough, Sholder tosses in a sequence where Jesse enters a leather bar and runs into his gym coach, who brings Jesse back to school and forces him to run laps and hit the showers. This scene could very easily be cut-and-pasted out of the film and into the first act of a gay porn film. More amusing still: While screenwriter David Chaskin has copped to coding the oiled-up homoeroticism in the film’s script, Patton and Sholder have both admitted that they were completely blind to it.
Released in 1987, A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors attempted to build on the mythology of the original Elm Street, re-introducing Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) as a counselor at an institution for mentally unwell youths. But posterity cast the series’ third installment as the harbinger of New Freddy. Craven conceived his villain as a personification of the darkest crannies of his characters’ subconscious, able to literalize his victims’ looming fears and wield them as weapons. New Freddy, conversely, is a clown, except without the permeating vibe of creepiness attached to clowning. If Carrot Top were doomed to spend eternity eating it at an open mic in the deepest reaches of hell, he’d look a lot like New Freddy. Dream Warriors hits the highest highs of the series by marrying the madcap humor of the New Freddy era to the original’s straight-faced bloodletting. Here, the creative forces behind the film own its internal anti-logic, and take it to the greatest payoff, cramming hallucinatory sight gags between fearsome frights.
The list of horrendous, character-specific puns perpetrated throughout the New Freddy era runs too long to enumerate here, but the most typical example arrives in Dream Warriors. One of the patients at Nancy’s mental ward has showbiz aspirations. She dreams that while she’s watching Dick Cavett, Freddy appears on television and slashes open Zsa Zsa Gabor’s neck. Freddy’s head then pops out of the top of the television, arms sprout from the side, and he grabs the Hollywood hopeful, bashing her head into the TV screen. He then says the only appropriate thing at a time of such grave momentousness: “Welcome to prime time, bitch!” The three films that follow Dream Warriors continue the legacy of execrable wordplay and the use of a growled “bitch!” as punctuation, hitting the series’ creative nadir in 1989’s A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child when Freddy force-feeds an aspiring supermodel to death. (“Bon appetit, bitch!”)
During the New Freddy period, the Elm Street series began to aggressively court the 1980s zeitgeist. Beyond filling the pages of The Homicidal Maniac’s Essential Joke Book, the New Freddy films capture the ephemeral particulars of ’80s culture with unusual desperation. The powers that be on Elm Street set out to create a product that would appeal to the emergent skateboarding, videogame-playing, parent-sassing youth, so the films are packed with uproariously stale signifiers of their era. The fifth installment boasts a supernaturally awful soundtrack, beginning with a track from Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, who penned “Bring Your Daughter… To The Slaughter” specifically for the film, and ending with Kool Moe Dee spitting the hip-hop equivalent of a pair of leg warmers. For a brief flash in that same film, a comic-book aficionado is rendered in the pencil-sketch style of A-ha’s classic “Take On Me” video. In Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, New Freddy traps a pre-fame Breckin Meyer inside a pixelated SNES game and recites Nintendo’s “Now I’m playing with power!” motto in one of the most misguided product placements in film history. Maybe legal reasons kept Freddy from appending “…bitch!” to that slaying.
Craven intended on righting his own ship when he took over for the seventh installment, 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Working from a script he had initially written for the third film, Craven envisioned a purist’s return to Freddy’s roots. There would be no puns, no hokey gross-out effects, and no gimmicky 3-D sequences. Serious Freddy—also known as Freddy Classic—would terrify more than ever before by invading the flesh-and-blood world. Robert Englund, who played Freddy in all installments except the 2010 remake (where Jackie Earle Haley took over), appears as himself, as do many other stalwart performers from the Elm Street annals. Craven imagined a metacinematic gutting of the exhausted slasher genre, but the results were little more than a lackluster dry run for the far superior Scream. New Nightmare fancies itself a brainier sort of cut-’em-up, but plays right into the same tropes Craven wanted to deflate. It’s a prototypical horror show with different proper nouns. Craven hit his target two years later, but New Nightmare proved to be an ambitious misfire.
That leaves Freddy Vs. Jason and the reboot, twin disappointments that handily illustrate what happens when there’s nothing to overshadow a distracting lack of internal logic. FvJ promised an epic showdown between two of horror’s most esteemed killers, but ended up scattershot and anticlimactic. Freddy and Jason do battle—for approximately five minutes near the end of the film. Freddy spends most of the movie trapped in hell because he’s fallen out of the public consciousness, stripping him of his power to inspire fear. (Freddy’s greatest weapon has always been heavy-handed subtext.) The processes permitting Freddy to reenter the world are the murkiest of the franchise, tacitly encouraging audiences to bear with them until the story can get to the good stuff. Then the film cops out at the critical moments.
Every deviation the 2010 reboot takes from its forebear is a step down, when it isn’t ripping setpieces from the original film wholesale. The film chooses to make Freddy’s formerly implicit child rape abundantly explicit, with a sickening sensationalist bent. Showing not even the faintest hint of New Freddy’s loopy energy or Freddy Classic’s atmosphere-heavy menace, Haley stumbles in Robert Englund’s sizable footwear. Not even a game performance from future Academy Award nominee Rooney Mara (echoing future Academy Award nominee Johnny Depp’s appearance in the original) can get this film’s blood pumping.
The marked lack of flavor in the Elm Street reboot is a sad reminder of the franchise’s rich variety of personalities. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the superior sequels’ frequent refusal to take themselves seriously, they’re delightful. They’re bad and dumb, but they never commit the gravest sin of all: being boring. FvJ and the reboot take the most miserably generic approach to the material imaginable, draining it of its fidgety, inventive charm. In the original series, Freddy’s world was often ill-defined, but it was usually also terrifying, funny, or jaw-droppingly freaky enough to win audiences over. It’s his nightmare, bitch.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of A Nightmare On Elm Street ends here. Don’t miss Matt Singer’s Tuesday Keynote on the different ways the original film mimics dreams, and the accompanying conversation about the film’s singular conceit and Craven touch. Join us next week when we take on the Lovecraftian horror of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator.