In your dreams
When I was in my early teens, I was terrified of Freddy Krueger. I am embarrassed by this because I can only imagine how it may sound to people who didn’t grow up in the 1980s. Do people older than me think Freddy is simply a cornball corporate brand that was cynically spun off into endless cheap sequels? Do people younger than me regard him as antiquated, the way many of my generation felt about movies like The Blob?
I first saw the original A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1987 or 1988. It was at a Halloween bash, one of the first parties I ever attended in which the boys and girls were supposed to, you know, interact with each other (talk about horrors!). After pizza, we popped in the rented VHS tape. We chuckled at the gallows humor and the gruesome killings, maintaining the brave faces we wore for the opposite sex. And I can’t speak for anyone else who was there, but lying in bed that night, wide awake, all I could think was, Did I just hear a noise coming from the basement?
The concept for A Nightmare on Elm Street (which arrived in theaters in 1984) is so simple that it is a wonder nobody had thought of it before. Horror movies have long placed their protagonists in nightmarish circumstances in which they are pursued by an inescapable evil entity ( The Night of the Hunter and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are examples.) Why not take that premise a step further and create a disfigured killer who can enter and even manipulate your very nightmares? The potential for scary situations is infinite, and when you throw in an urban legend about a vengeful undead psychopath who was burned alive by the upstanding citizens of his picket-fence community, you’ve got a recipe for a monster hit.
Producer Michael Bay and director Samuel Bayer (whose most famous work is arguably his video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) hope to re-create that success with their remake of the original film, which opens on Friday, April 30. Former child star Jackie Earle Haley — who is enjoying a career resurgence, having played creepy characters in Little Children, Watchmen, and Shutter Island — dons Krueger’s signature fedora, red-and-green sweater, and razor-tipped gloves.
Bayer and Haley have their work cut out for them. The original A Nightmare on Elm Street is a legitimately frightening film. Until it devolves into some unfortunate Home Alonee-sque tricks and traps near the end, it’s a slow burner about a community in denial over its misdeeds — and about that everpresent monster under the bed. Director Wes Craven builds suspense masterfully, relying on eerie imagery rather than loud scares and punctuating the drama with classic horror moments, such as the bloodied girl being dragged across the ceiling of her bedroom by an invisible force.
As far as the acting goes, the film is mostly remembered for Johnny Depp’s screen debut and for Robert Englund’s turn as Krueger. Englund crafts a powerful beast of a villain, delivering his lines in a guttural growl and wearing a constant smirk under all that burn-victim makeup. In that first movie, he pursues his victims with a peculiar hunch and an unnatural gait, a bit like the Wicked Witch of the West when she chases Toto around. Englund clearly delights in playing the boogeyman, and as with many classic monster portrayals, his mischievous glee goes a long way to carrying the film.
So popular was Englund’s performance that the first film would be the last one in which Freddy was particularly scary, as he — and not his teenage victims — became the unquestionable star of the sequels. Soon, Krueger was his own comic relief, hurling insults at his victims and issuing terse one-liners just before the kill, much like Arnold Schwarzenegger in action movies like Raw Deal and
Commando. (It is also amusing to note that Arnold, and certainly Sylvester Stallone, probably had higher kill counts in the 1980s than Freddy or Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th — and they were playing heroes!)
As the Elm Street series extended into six sequels, it maintained stronger quality control than competing franchises such as Halloween and Friday the 13th. This may be faint praise, but it’s true. The fantastical dream settings led to more variety than could be found in other slasher films, and Englund’s Krueger had far more charm than silent, masked killers Voorhees and Michael Myers of Halloween. Revisiting
Elm Street recently, I was particularly impressed with the pre-computer-generated special effects, including the camera trickery in the first film, the school-bus-in-hell set piece at the outset of the second, and the stop-motion marionette in the third.
The series only has one true high point after the first film, and unsurprisingly, it was when Craven returned to write and direct. In Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), Heather Langenkamp — the lead actress from the original film — plays herself, being terrorized by Krueger during the filming of another Elm Street sequel. Although New Nightmare runs a bit long (Krueger’s many visits to Langenkamp’s son get repetitive), it is nonetheless a clever, postmodern precursor to the Scream series, which Craven went on to direct shortly afterward.
New Nightmare would have served as a nice conclusion to the Krueger story, but the character is just too profitable to stay dead, and he returned to battle Voorhees in 2003’s Freddy
vs. Jason. With the recent avalanche of ’ 80s horror remakes such as last year’s Friday the 13th and 2008’s Prom Night, it was only a matter of time before Freddy rose up from the ashes of that boiler room in the basement.
Will the public be interested? Most likely. There’s just something about Freddy. Even after the character scared my acid-washed pants off me in the 1980s, I still stayed up until 12:30 a.m. to watch the bad, Twilight Zone-ish TV show
Freddy’s Nightmares. I’ve all but memorized the Simpsons spoof, with Groundskeeper Willie wearing the glove and hat. I even had the DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince cassette with the Elm Street-inspired novelty rap hit “A Nightmare on My Street.” So, yeah — I’ll be there.
And, I’d imagine, the teenagers will come, too. As long as the horrors of adolescence exist, horror movies will be around to remind us that there are even worse nightmares. Most teens in Santa Fe may not have basements, but Freddy will find a way to come for them anyway.
Ready for Freddy?: Robert Englund