Artwork by Cap Blackard (Buy Prints + More)
It’s the 30th anniversary of Wes Craven’s landmark horror film, Nightmare on Elm Street. To commemorate the innovative, classic slasher, a few of us folks at Consequence of Sound decided to do something gleefully grim in the spirit of the film’s clawed maniac and sleep depriver Freddy Krueger: rank his kills. He would have wanted it this way. Full disclosure, it’s going to get pretty violent, gross, and, naturally, a little nightmarish. Consider taking a nap before reading this, because we ask: Are you ready for Freddy?
Blake Goble (BG): In 2007, I got the chance to interview Bob Shaye, the founder of New Line Cinema. He was releasing The Last Mimzy, a pet project of his while still heading New Line in what would be the studio’s last days before merging with Warner Bros. Shaye sounded a little tense because the studio was hit hard by The Golden Compass’s failure the previous year. He was promoting everything New Line was releasing, and I was happy to hear him out. He was anxious but pretty giving too.
I tactlessly asked him about New Line’s growth as a studio, calling it the “House that Freddy Built,” a nickname sported by a bunch of participants in Nightmare on Elm Street DVD docs and features. Shaye zoomed right past that comment for the straight story about his studio. Pity, as I’d been sporting the Freddy DVDs for years (still keeping them on a bottom bookshelf) and I thought I could sneak in some commentary about my favorite horror franchise.
It’s funny, but his ignorance of the character, and my placement of the box set, is fueled by small amounts of shame and mortification. Shaye got to play like a major studio head for over 20 years because of Nightmare’s successes. And while I love Freddy, I am admittedly a little shy to boast because horror movies are easy to slight.
But come to think of it, there are next to no horror flicks like the Nightmare series. They tailor imaginative suspense and gore by way of elaborate dreamscapes. Freddy Krueger is easily the most charismatic serial killer to come out of ’80s horror. The movies have a fascinating trajectory with conceptually inventive beginnings that evolved to vaudeville set pieces. Still, above all, Nightmare on Elm Street is a no-joke, hair-raising masterpiece about the danger of what should be our safest place: in bed, asleep.
I’m ecstatic to be talking Fred. Shaye ought to be, too.
Michael Roffman (MR): Consider me a third then. This series has always been my favorite. For one, it worked off the most original premise out of any horror franchise; the villain’s transformative mythos warranted its many sequels; and the multiple writers and directors somehow kept it all rather cohesive. That latter element is what separatesNightmare from its peers, specifically Friday the 13th (which still has no concept of time), Halloween (which never had a grasp on its story), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which was never going to trump the original.) Yet with Nightmare, the films arguably grew better with age.
I’ve seen Wes Craven’s original several times in theaters — mostly at raucous midnight screenings — and what’s always interesting to see is how the film can still connect with newer generations. Sure, there’s laughter, especially at Heather Langenkamp’s spotty acting and Ronee Blakley’s incorrigible role as Marge Thompson, but there are genuine thrills that undoubtedly haunt younger souls. Much credit goes to Robert Englund for his spirited performance, but it also boils down to the inventive storyline and the fabulous SFX that broke new ground and still hold up in our exhausting era of gluttonous CGI.
Now, the series had its ugly low points (The Final Nightmare, for example), but they pale in comparison to the garbage that plagued its peers, and that’s why I’ll always recommend this series to any prospective horror fan. It’s terrifying at times, but mostly entertaining, the signature horror franchise that essentially works front to back. So much so that pretty much everyone, irregardless of their generation, condemned 2010’s admirable-yet-unnecessary reboot starring Jackie Earle Healey.
Side note: Doesn’t it still bug you how much Craig Wasson looks like Bill Maher?
Randall Colburn (RC): Oddly enough, what’s easy to criticize about the Nightmare on Elm Street series–its uneven, sometimes baffling, tone–in some ways contributes to its escalating sense of dread. When you have a killer cracking jokes, it’s easy for the viewer to assume they’re in a safe space. Not so with Freddy Krueger; some of his punniest punchlines accompany some of the most brutal kills (Roach Motel, anyone?). I hated this as a kid. Why? Because I felt tricked. I felt unstable. I constantly felt the rug was going to be pulled from under my feet.
As an adult, these are the feelings I crave. And, though many of them are great, that sense of instability is missing from horror franchises like Friday the 13th, Saw, and Paranormal Activity, which tend to drape the viewer under such a veil of darkness that there’s barely room to breathe. Intentional laughs are rare in those films, making the experience more edge-of-your-seat than rollercoaster. Both can be great, but there’s something to be said for how even the worst Nightmare on Elm Street films can feel like carnival rides.
One of the only modern films that I feel embraces this tonal fuckery is 2007’s Trick r’ Treat, which deftly oscillates between moments and broad comedy and brutal violence. Where else do you see Freddy’s unique methods of slaughter influencing culture?
Justin Gerber (JG): Randall, I think any “clever kill” found in a horror movie over the past 30 years owes credit to Elm Street. Before Freddy we had Jason and Michael, but the dispatching of victims in Friday and Halloween were more about the blood and gore (especially Friday) than the imagination put in. Although I deplore the Saw series, the tricks that Tobin Bell’s character pulls on people to trap them, maim them, and make them “feel” is a cut above chopping someone’s head off with a machete, and abides by the “Freddy Way”. Brainscan and Ghost in the Machine (the latter directed by Final Nightmare’s Rachel Talalay) also owe thanks, not just for the inspiration, but to Bob Shaye for not suing them.
Now, I’ve seen the Friday films just as many times as the Elm Street films, but the executions are more about hiking up a good body count than bringing you into the world of a ghost. The Elm Street franchise features a cackling villain, (mostly) great special effects, and overall a pretty good through line, but at the end of the day these tales of Freddy are simply really good ghost stories.
As much of a name-dropper as Englund can be in interviews, being replaced for the Elm Street reboot was taken as such an offense because he is the franchise. Kane Hodder had been Jason for four movies before he was kicked to the curb pre-Freddy vs. Jason, but the franchise thrived way before he appeared on screen. The original Halloween series had six different Shapes, and the original Texas Chainsaw franchise had a different Leatherface each time. People turned on the new Freddy because as our ol’ pal Duncan MacLeod once said, “There can be only one.”
Mike, Bill Maher was in House II: The Second Story, so him being in Dream Warriors wouldn’t have been too far-fetched.
BG: Englund and Krueger are one, indeed. That meaty, burnt, wet cigar of a visage and the foul words that emerged from its mouth are what made Krueger a brand in the genre. All those known name slashers were just angry, weird loners with little to say, but Freddy (and now seemingly Englund) just won’t shut up. It’s his best quality, and somehow pretty unique for the genre.
In the first run of DVD’s, in the special features, there’s stuff about the production of Nightmare 4 where Englund talks about how in 1988, the franchise was backed with MTV promotions and a near-Hollywood budget. One day on set Englund thought it would be funny to stick only the Krueger claw out of his trailer door for a gathering crowd of onlookers, and according to him everyone just went bananas. Now that’s power and popularity for a mass murderer.
Hey guys, says here on IMDB Wasson hasn’t made a movie since 2006! What if he just is Bill Maher now?
JG: NEW RULES – Hollywood executives must hire Craig Wasson for more work. He is earnest.
MR: So, what happens now with Freddy Krueger? Is he actually dead? The remake in 2010 was a financial disappointment — star Rooney Mara would rather quit acting than return as Nancy — and Englund himself has now sworn off the role, even touring various conventions this past summer with the rock ‘n’ roll declaration that this was indeed The Final Time. So, is this franchise officially cooked? Was that wink at the end of Freddy vs. Jason a wave goodbye?
It would be appropriate. While special effects have certainly evolved, and today’s online generation provides quite a playground for Krueger, the idea of bringing back the franchise feels so stale and uninteresting. There isn’t a story to tell outside of more collaborations with Jason Voorhies or Ash Williams, and just typing that now made my eyes roll.
Still, we know how Hollywood works, and odds are there will be another one down the line, but I don’t think it will be very successful, even if they did manage to wrangle Englund for another go-around. The Krueger name has already been bruised by the horror comedy tag, making it very difficult to reclaim the scares and terror of its 1984 original.
That’s what I love about this list. We start with the laughs and work our way toward a time when we couldn’t go to bed after watching a Nightmare film. It’s doubtful any of us will wake up screaming tonight — well, at least from Freddy — but we’ll appreciate the franchise for what it accomplished for a genre that gets more and more confusing by the year.