Wes Craven’s influence on the horror genre can not be underestimated. As the great Kim Newman put it, ‘Wes Craven reinvented horror at least four times, most directors don’t even manage it once.’ Arguably, his most telling influence on the genre was the creation of Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street. A film I was inspired to return to following Craven’s recent passing. However, that didn’t seem enough and I decided to keep going. In the last few weeks, I’ve watched every single Nightmare on Elm Street film, including crossovers and remakes. Why? Krueger only knows.
It all starts so well. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a classic for a reason. Whether it’s the creeping hand emerging from the bath or Jonny Depp’s Glen Latz being sucked into his own mattress, it is full of genuine scares. It reinvented the teen slasher genre and its greatness stands tall over the rest of the franchise. Because, following that film, things begin to plummet. Krueger quickly loses his fear factor and becomes a quipping comedy character as much as a living nightmare. While the very genesis of his scares, the fact that he haunts your dreams, is pushed to one side as quickly as Freddy’s Revenge, the second film in the series as old needle hands spends as much time in the real world as he does the dream one. The deaths become boring and by the time number six comes around, Freddy’s Dead, they are inventing entire back stories, which in the course of the five films that came before have never even been hinted at.
However, for all the dross in this ‘franchise’ there is also some real good. Number one being Robert Englund, the man behind Freddy and a constant source of joy even in among some right shit. He is Freddy Krueger. In fact, it’s the decision to recast him that really destroys the remake. In among completing failing to grasp the subtleties of the original film, Jackie Earle Harley’s Freddy just isn’t Englund, and despite his best efforts, never could have been.
Englund is only one part of the trio that comes along with every good Nightmare on Elm Street film. The other two being Wes Craven himself and Heather Langenkamp, playing Nancy Thompson. The first film goes without saying, but in fact, the third film in the franchise, Dream Warriors, is as close as the early films come to matching it. With Craven as writer and Langenkamp returning, it sees the action taking place in a psychiatric home for children, all of whom are being haunted by Freddy. While there is no denying that Freddy is in full quip mode, ‘primetime, bitch’ being the most famous one, this film is packed with memorable deaths. Particularly Bradley Gregg’s Philip, who is strung up like a puppet by his own entrails and marched to a high window before plummeting to his death.
The next time Freddy would be treated so well is all the way up at film number seven, which once again contains that magic three. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is the hidden gem in this series, and its similarities to the Scream franchise is obvious. This one takes us into the real world, with Langenkamp and Englund playing themselves. However, Freddy finds a way across into this reality and starts playing his gruesome games. It’s a subversive and dark film, that really shows the potential this series had. Freddy is a terrifying concept, he takes away the comfort of sleep and turns what is meant to be your escape from the dark of night into a living nightmare.
Sadly, that idea is rarely realised. Freddy just becomes another mindless killer, slashing victims apart and forgetting how clever he should be. It’s frustrating to watch, because when this series is good, it is really good. When it’s bad, it’s Freddy’s Dead, and trust me, that is bad. A Nightmare on Elm Street will remain a classic horror franchise, but the truth is it could have been so much better than it was. It’s a tribute to Craven’s memory, however, that the ones worth watching, are those that his name is attached to.