Return to Elm St – A Freddy Krueger Retrospective!
The Dream Demon
How a scarred child killer wearing a glove with razor fingers became an unlikely hero of the horror genre
One, Two, Freddy’s Coming For You
Anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s probably remembers nights when they were having trouble sleeping, waking up in a cold sweat and imagining that the shadow draped over the wall looked suspiciously like a tall man in a fedora and wearing a steel claw. This was the effect that Freddy Krueger had on many defenceless teens.
During the slasher movie boom of the 1980s, most screen killers followed the same prototype: silent killing machines who lumbered around slowly, occasionally slitting the throat of some teenager with an excess of hormones. Maniacs like momma’s boy Jason Voorhees and Captain Kirk lookalike Michael Myers followed this template, but not Freddy Krueger. Here was a screen killer with personality; a sadist who enjoyed cracking jokes and putting on a show like a carnival barker, using his imagination to off his victims in elaborate killings.
No screen killer could match Freddy for twisted charisma. Chucky made a valiant effort, but it’s hard to be scared by something which could easily be punted halfway across a room and into a wall, and the Leprechaun was just embarrassing. There was Clive Barker’s Pinhead, but his wordy, grandiose Shakespearean lectures on the nature of pleasure and pain could prove to be dense for anyone looking for typical spills and thrills.
Freddy was in a class of his own; he quickly became an unlikely pop culture icon and a hero to many a horror fan. The fact that people were cheering on a child murderer was beside the point (and maybe that says something about the human condition).
Three, Four, Better Lock Your Door
In the early 80s, Wes Craven was coming off the gritty rape revenge drama The Last House on The Left and an adaptation of DC Comics’ Swamp Thing, which is better left forgotten. A series of articles on Khmer refugees from Cambodia suffering disturbing nightmares and dying in their sleep inspired him to come up with Fred Krueger, the “Son of a 1000 Maniacs”, a child murderer killed by the vengeful parents of his victims and who returned to claim revenge in dreams.
Whereas your typical slasher film focused on nothing more than a parade of gory deaths, Craven had bigger ideas in mind. The first Nightmare kept Freddy and his cruel taunts mostly in the shadows, constantly blurring the lines between the real and imaginary. The film managed to scare audiences by tapping into their most vulnerable state, their dreams, where everything was possible.
Working on a small budget, Craven created a handful of memorable set pieces: Freddy doing a Stretch Armstrong impression in a dark alley, Tina being flung around a room like a rag doll, and Johnny Depp decked out in a cheesy 80s style mullet being swallowed by his own bed and erupting in blood and viscera. It rightfully became a hit and set Freddy apart from the rest of the other movie monsters, also making New Line Cinema – the only studio who took a chance on Craven’s ideas – a major Hollywood player. Us nerds owe Freddy a debt of gratitude for The Lord of The Rings.
Five, Six, Grab Your Crucifix
One year after Elm Street, the studio quickly cranked out a sequel. 1985’s Freddy’s Revenge is usually considered the black sheep of the franchise; the one everyone pretends never existed. This time around, Freddy wants to possess the body of confused teen Jesse Walsh in order to continue his killing spree, all while his host splits his time between his devoted girlfriend and his hunky best friend.
Director Jack Sholder has repeatedly claimed that he had no idea that he was making a coming out parable: Freddy possessing Jesse is simply a metaphor for the teen’s repressed homosexuality, and in the end, it takes the love of a beautiful woman to set him on the straight path. This is so blatantly obvious – at one point, Jesse unwinds by visiting an S&M bondage bar – that in the end, it ends up resembling Freddy inserted into a Lifetime drama. There are some great sequences here, including the killer’s immortal line, “You are all my children now” (on the other hand, the exploding parrot is just stupid), and you have to give it credit for not rehashing its predecessor and attempting something new, but this sequel is somewhat bizarre and one where its title character is clearly taking a back seat to everything else.
It took a couple more years for a third sequel to be made; by this time, Freddy had exploded into the mainstream and all of a sudden, dying in your dreams was cool.
Seven, Eight, Gonna Stay Up Late
1987’s Dream Warriors had Freddy going after the troubled residents of a psych ward, who discovered special dream powers in order to fight back. Set pieces became much more elaborate – the sight of a poor sap being strung along by his veins like a puppet remains cringe-inducing to this day – and the killer was slowly beginning to take centre stage; in fact, this was the last time that Freddy would be actually scary. Aided by a great song from 80s heavy metallers Dokken, this is the one sequel that’s really worth watching; there’s a real sense of go-for-broke fun from director Chuck Russell.
This also set a template that was sadly followed by the next three sequels: The Dream Master, The Dream Child, and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (as per usual with horror films, this was a complete lie.) Freddy became the star of the movies, the teen actors became increasingly anonymous, and the series became all about the novelty deaths, predating the M.O. of the Saw movies by at least a decade.
Thrust into the spotlight, Freddy became a stand-up comic who never ran out of lame jokes, finding himself in increasingly embarrassing situations; some fans gave up once they saw him riding a skateboard. By the time the boogeyman dressed up like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz and flew around on a broomstick, one could tell something was wrong. The sequels are not a complete wash: they’re an incredibly fun watch and aren’t lacking in creativity when it comes to their set pieces, but they could barely be considered horror films.
Nine, Ten, Never Sleep Again
By now, the pizza-faced maniac in the red and green sweater started popping up everywhere: in comic books, board games, lunchboxes, trading cards, a god-awful Nintendo game, and even in rap videos. It took Wes Craven to come back and set things straight with 1995’s New Nightmare. Here, Freddy was once again a sadistic monster who preyed not on teens, but on the cast and crew of the original Nightmare after crossing over into the real world. This oh-so-meta twist was not only a risky experiment from Craven, it also showed the possibilities present in a character who was wildly different from the typical screen killer.
Like most other screen boogeymen, Freddy went into hiding in the mid-90s, his place in pop culture already secured and having become a launching pad for a whole lot of talent: in addition to Johnny Depp, the franchise also gave early roles to Laurence Fishburne and Patricia Arquette; directors like Renny Harlin and Stephen Hopkins had their first gigs; and famed writer/director Frank Darabont had one of his first writing assignments with Dream Warriors. This was a far cry from something like the Friday The 13th series, where most of its unknown teen cast quickly returned to man the drive-thru after Jason had hacked them to bits.
Freddy showed up again in 2003 to get his ass handed to him by Jason in Ronny Yu’s versus movie, which was basically a full hour of setup leading into one of the most ridiculous yet wildly hilarious movie fights ever seen. It was spun off into a comic book co-starring Ash from Evil Dead, and fans everywhere still have hopes that someone will adapt it to the screen someday.
Freddy was revived in a 2010 remake which despite starring a suitably creepy actor like Jackie Earle Haley, couldn’t hold a candle to the original (and gave movie fans yet another reason to hate Michael Bay.) It just goes to show that, despite the ups and downs, Freddy Krueger remains near and dear to horror fans’ hearts, a true icon of the genre. Even if we don’t see him on screen, we can always run into him in dreams – and start running in the opposite direction.