Well, we’re drawing in on the end of the month, and that means it’s time to write about the franchise I have the most mixed feelings about: Nightmare on Elm Street.
The rest of this series has dealt with franchises that I love but know are objectively shit – Saw, Final Destination – franchises I hate but know are at least somewhat objectively good – Halloween – and miscellaneous nonsense. But Nightmare on Elm Street, kicked off by legendary horror director Wes Craven (may his gloriously twisted soul rest in peace) in 1984, is a whole different beast. Let’s get started, shall we?
First off, I want to come out and say that I don’t think the first movie is very good. And yes, there’s a lot of lacking quality in these franchises as a whole, and I know a lot of people love the outright camp goriness of the original feature, but it just doesn’t work for me. I’ve watched it quite a few times, certain that on this viewing it would suddenly click for me, but it just…never did. I can appreciate the creativity of the kills, the boldness of the premise, the instantly-memorable presence of Freddy Krueger, the obvious burgeoning talent of a young craven Craven, but it just doesn’t do much for me. I find it clunky, awkward, just lacking in a lot of ways.
But the franchise that followed that is a completely different story. Freddy Krueger (as played by Robert Englund across the franchise, in the role that would come to define his career) is such a fascinating villain because of both what he can do and what he represents: his existence in the dreamworld allows for him not only to employ a creative range of nastiness (where Michael and Jason are limited to stalking around with big knives), but for him to act as a really interesting metaphor for the maliciousness of subconcious: whatever we try to push down, whatever fears we want to ignore, he has them, and he’s bringing them out to play.
I think this idea is best explored in the second movie, Freddy’s Revenge, not just the best movie in this franchise but arguably the best sequel in any of the series we’ve looked at over the course of this month. In Freddy’s Revenge, Freddy acts as a thinly-veiled metaphor for the lead character, Jesse, and his desperate attempts to repress his homosexuality at a time when both the social stigma of being out and the AIDs epidemic posed truly palpable threats to the safety of gay men. Though writer Mark Chaskin long-denied this subtext as intentional, he recently admitted that it had been a specific choice made in reaction to homophobia at large in the world at the time: speaking on the film in 2010, he remarked that he “thought was that tapping into that angst would give an extra edge to the horror.” And it does – read this excellent retrospective on the significance of the movie right here if you don’t believe me.
And that’s what I think Nightmare on Elm Street, at its best, can bring to the world of horror: true subversion, fear that runs deeper than just a man with a knife. While Englund’s performance as Freddy can grate on me, this is a villain who’s malleable and can exist to represent so many different things according to what each writer and director wants to imbue him with.
In the excellent New Nightmare, Heather Lagenkamp (who played Nancy in the original movie) as herself must battle a Freddy who has crossed over into the real world as the Nightmare franchise has come to an end. She shares a superb scene with Wes Craven, playing himself, where Craven expresses the importance of storytelling in comprehending the impossibly evil:
“Every so often, they imagine a story good enough to sort of catch [the evil’s] essence, and then, for a while, it’s held prisoner in the story. But the problem comes when the story dies. And that can happen in a lot of ways. It can get too familiar to people or somebody waters it down to make it an easier sell.”
This is more than just self-referential meta-commentary for the sake of it (a skill he would go on to nail down in the exquisite Scream franchise) – this is a movie that offers comment on the vitality of stories in protecting as from evil, by managing it into something we can comprehend. Craven, perhaps more than any other director for any other movie in this series, knows horror, loves horror, but most of all, respects it, and respects the importance of it for what it can do to help us understand those bleak parts of ourselves and the world around us.
And no, I’m not out here to argue that every film in the franchise is a masterpiece – as hinted at by the monologue above, the series does sink into cliche and gore for the sake of it and loses sight of what Freddy can be in the right hands. But for me, Nightmare on Elm Street is the franchise that most often tried to push the boundaries of what horror could be and want it could mean, rather than cashing-in on endless hopeless sequels. I may not love the first film, but what followed was an often truly subversive exploration into horror as a genre at large. And for that, it thoroughly deserves its place in horror history.
The Franchise, Ranked Best to Worst: A Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy’s Revenge, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, A Nightmare on Elm Street, A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors, A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Master, A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Child, A Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy’s Dead
By Louise MacGregor
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(header image courtesy of the13thfloor.tv)