After an extended sequel session some months ago I planned the Nightmare series as a kind of side feature for the end of October, having never really looked into it outside some vague memories of the first movie. They were memories of weird and gruesome things of course, so it seemed like a good idea. There are a lot of fans that exist who cite the third and seventh instalments as where the peaks in quality lie, so it was time to put that to the test and also to see why those entries which came in between are remembered less fondly.
Like so many of its contemporaries, Wes Craven's original fantasy slasher film has way too many sequels, and I would soon discover they churned them out without enough creativity or imagination behind them considering the premise. It's a series set in a world where anything you can dream up is possible but rehashes itself way too often, often looking to capitalize on the popularity of certain ideas without sticking to what has been previously established in terms of rules and lore. It relies on familiar elements rather than actually executing them in an effective way or writing them properly. But let's go deeper, and see what exactly the issues are here and how all of this holds up as a franchise. The man of your dreams is waiting...
The first, and best movie in this series, 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street is jam packed with set pieces and memorable moments that overshadow any minor complaints I might have. The finale is pretty dumb with those weird Home Alone traps being set, thought even that has some charm to it. One of the early dream sequences is also a bit strange with a stretchy armed first appearance from Freddy Krueger being less than effective, as if the puppetry didn't quite work out and they had to go with it. The acting isn't stellar, but for a genre movie there's enough likeable characters to carry it.
Of course this the first appearance of Johnny Depp, and you also get John Saxon (a favourite from Enter the Dragon) who is clearly the best thing here, and his appearances in two of the sequels always add appeal whether they give him a big amount of screen time or not. The score by Charles Bernstein has a great piano and synth feel to it with a theme tune that isn't as iconic as say Halloween for instance, but it has lots of personality and is a great addition to period horror scores nonetheless. Dropping it for part two was a big mistake (amongst other things) and they always brought it back later after presumably after realising this.
The film itself rests on that instantly engaging plot device of staying awake or a killer will get you. The 'am I awake or not' idea alone adds so much unease to everything going on. Freddy himself (or just Fred as he is here) is kept in the shadows, to great effect. His make-up looks a bit rough but I think it works better than later on when it started to look like a simple skin appliance or mask that got shown way too much. The plot about the kids trying to fight off the spirit of vengeance set on them by their own parents also adds an atmosphere of isolation which is more than the usual adults don't believe in monsters idea.
But the film itself is a great ride thanks to all the little horror beats, with the body bag, the trick phone, the blood geyser, the bath time nightmare among many others... it's all pretty great. The sequels had to jump through plenty of hoops trying to figure out ways not only to outdo this stuff but also how to get around that shock ending; Craven never intended this to have a follow up. But of course, they had to to make another movie or six anyway. How hard could it be?
As titles go, Freddy's Revenge has to be one of the most redundant (we'll get into part six later). What did I miss, wasn't the whole point of the last film revenge? Not only is this a silly thing to call it, they didn't even write a story that continues the original properly - so the whole thing about getting back at the parents of the Elm Street children is completely missing. He doesn't get revenge against Nancy after being defeated either, even if that was left without a concrete resolution. So it's a bit of a mess to say the least.
Instead this feels like a haunted house movie or something about poltergeists and demonic possession. The traditional score feels very out of place. So sure in a way Freddy was a ghost of sorts, but the whole point was that his power came from dreams and they affected things in the real world that way. This time he wants to escape that limbo by taking over the body of Jesse, a boy who moved into Nancy's empty house. And he's going to mess around with a lot of house hold appliances and along the way.
So things start out weird, with our hero having dreams about meeting the man with the finger knives even though he isn't related to the original team of vigilantes at all... and it gets stranger from there on out. Of all the movies this is the one that had me raising eyebrows the most and questioning what was going on at every stage. Freddy can not only make this guy do his bidding but also now affects objects in the real world and people who are not asleep. There are also some oddly homoerotic moments as many will know, with the inclusion of a sadistic gym teacher who is later stripped by possessed gym equipment standing out as the strangest element. As a theme in the whole teen puberty drama idea... maybe it could work? But everything is such a weird shambolic mess than any sense of purpose is lost. Why have dream powers when all this is possible?
The revenge part adds up to a big nothing with Freddy finally appearing during a pool party and flipping over a few tables and a barbecue. What a villain! There are actually some neat special effects sequences as he starts to morph into reality although his face is now all weird a puffy looking. It's mired under all this other stuff in a story that includes demonic cats and and ending where Freddy is vanquished by the power of love. At least I think so. There's so many perplexing moments that it's almost likeable, but only almost. Considering this is the last one without goofy one liners it can only be viewed as a comedy. Things have to pick up in the next one right?
Part three has a strong fan following and it's easy to see why. Dream Warriors has a lot of memorable stuff much like the original, along with a twist on the premise that works well. The fantasy ideas are pushed further but it manages to go back to the original story enough to make it work, making this the best of the sequels. It's visually interesting and has better characters, including a young 'Larry' Fishburne.
I do have to question just how many of the Elm Street kids are left though, it makes sense to go back to them as a target but how many were there? Freddy was supposed to have killed around 20 children in the original backstory, did every parent have an equal hand in ridding the town of him and subsequently keeping it quiet? Why didn't they get sought out the first time around, and how did they survive until now? But it's okay, this all allows for the last few to be held in a hospital suffering with mental issues as a result of their nightmares. We also get Nancy back which is good to see, it's almost like they planned this out like a real movie!
It does set up a few unfortunate elements that would get repeated far too often in the subsequent movies. The biggest is the way Nancy's house is now Freddy's house, which doesn't make sense. We as the audience know it of course, but now it's taken on importance within the story. Nobody is living there this time. There's also more of Freddy using powers in the real world. Now don't get me wrong the stop motion here is really great but it again begs the question of why he needs the whole nightmare thing at all. He also gains power from the souls of his victims for some reason, and making him an unholy monster - the son of a thousand maniacs - seems a bit much. The other movies latch onto this way too often.
But the tone works I guess, things fit together a lot more than in the second movie which was just headache inducing. The dream elements are far stronger too with the bizarre snake monster and hypodermic needle finger moments standing out. The idea of becoming "warriors" comes a bit late in the story which is a shame and some of the characters don't get much to do, but at least this has that level of personality. They get the theme back, and even if Freddy's dialogue is starting to become cartoonish, overall this is a fun time.