When my primary movie-going companion and I decided to commit to two all-night movie marathons a month ago, we were not really sure what to expect. But after last weekend’s mostly-successful All-Night Horror Show, I was pretty sure I could get through the “All-Nighter on Elm Street” – consecutive screenings of the first seven entries in the saga of famed Springwood Slayer Freddy Krueger (played exclusively by Robert Englund in these films) – without too much trouble.
The PMGC and I made some mistakes last week, and we took away what lessons we could – but some factors were beyond our control. I cannot speak for her, but I had to wake up at 6 am yesterday; there was no real way to justify taking a sick day at the unnamed high school, especially after taking one last Friday. So even though I took a nap after work, I was still not in great energetic shape when we arrived at Cinefamily. Luckily we made better snack choices to drive us through this time. There’s nothing wrong with candy (I mean, there is, but that’s not the point), but we got actual food last night, including sushi, beef jerky, and goldfish crackers. It’s not the healthiest menu, but it will get the job done. Round that out with an extra surcharge for couch access, and pillows and blankets, and we were all set for a good night.
A good night, but not necessarily good movies. The marathon began at the beginning, as one must. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a veritable classic at this point. The tale of a group of teens being hunted in their dreams by a disfigured madman named “Fred Krueger” (he’s not “Freddy” yet) has literally been done over a half-dozen times now (trust me, I know), but the first one still feels unique. I tend to find that most older horror movies don’t hold up in terms of the scares, but the original Nightmare includes solid ideas and images that creeped me out. This can be attributed to horror auteur Wes Craven – whose vision holds up despite dilution – and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin – who composes some really effective scenes with his director.
The same cannot be said for the sequel. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Haitkin sticks around for this one, but Craven is gone, replaced by writer Dave Chaskin and director Jack Sholder. Also gone: most of what made the first film so effective. The movie, despite its title, has nothing to do with revenge – unlike the first, which is all about Freddy getting back at the people responsible for his death. Instead of taking advantage of the ethereal dream realm that Craven’s film used so effectively, the sequel chooses to have Freddy inhabit the body of a confused young Elm Street immigrant, Jesse (Mark Patton), to directly kill random people in the real world.
Freddy’s Revenge is so gay. And I don’t mean that pejoratively (because I’m a conscientious human being). I literally mean it would fit well as an entry in the genre of “queer cinema.” The whole movie seems to be a metaphor for coming to terms with burgeoning homosexuality – Freddy is literally the man inside Jesse. It is not subtle in any way (even the production design is gay; just look at that the name of the board game in Jesse’s closet – “Probe”), but it shares a thematic resonance with the first film in its investigation of teen sexuality and how that alone can be a horror. Who needs a Fred Krueger around when you’re already dealing with puberty?
That is really the last we see of figurative representation in the series for a long time, but that doesn’t necessitate the quality getting worse. In fact, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, is one of the best in the franchise. Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), the protagonist of the first film, is back to help a new batch of adolescents (including a young Patricia Arquette as Kristen Parker) fight against Freddy. This movie (and the rest of the series) ignores practically every aspect of Freddy’s Revenge, and it is for the best. The action returns to the dreamscape, where the children harness their innate confidences to fight back against the ghoul who has tormented them for so long.
Craven contributes to the writing for Dream Warriors, but the film is mostly a product of director Chuck Russell, who brings some amazing practical effects to the film, as well as the humor that Freddy will be known for moving forward. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is in Dream Warriors that Englund utters Freddy’s favorite word for the first time: “bitch.” The third film is also notable for bringing a little diversity into what has been an incredibly white series so far, and providing some backstory for the central villain. More ethnically ambiguous actors will show up, and Freddy’s mythology will get more ridiculous, but it all starts here.
At this point in the night I am doing pretty well. Granted I’ve had an energy drink, but I haven’t started nodding off yet, which I had done several times already by this point last Friday. So I’m really alert as the series begins its nosedive. You know something is amiss when A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master opens and Patricia Arquette has been replaced by some anonymous blonde. Yes, Kristen is now played by a woman named Tuesday Knight (which sounds like a fake name, but is apparently real), and this seems to be the reason why little time is wasted before all the holdovers from Dream Warriors are dead. In fact all of the interesting characters are slowly eliminated in this one to keep as much focus as possible on Alice (Lisa Wilcox) and Dan (Danny Hassel), the two blandest characters in the entire series. Despite her averageness, Alice is apparently the only person who can challenge Freddy for the subtitular classification, and thankfully Dream Master only spends 93 minutes accomplishing that goal.
Renny Harlin directed The Dream Master, and his instincts are strong in a couple of places (specifically a scene that follows Kristen around her room from a top-down view), but then there is stuff like the stunt-y final fight scene and the anti-climactic resolution. It can’t get much worse than this.
Or can it? Turns out it definitely can. The acting in The Dream Master is uniformly bad (aside from Englund who has settled into a menacing punchline), and it doesn’t get any better because black-holes-of-charisma Alice and Dan are back for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. This movie cannot take place too long after The Dream Master, but Alice has luckily managed to replace all of her dead best friends with a new group of living best friends. Freddy can’t have that, so as soon as he comes back to life again (I hate it when he does that) he proceeds to wipe them out, (thankfully) starting with Dan. Freddy also has designs on Alice’s unborn baby, so for reasons I don’t understand the boring young woman attempts to learn even more about Freddy’s history (ugh) to finish him off once and for all (yeah, right).
Everything is so repetitive at this point. Entries 1, 2, and 3 in the series were all kind of different so it is really disappointing to watch it cannibalize itself so in parts 4 and 5. The only real sequence worth talking about in The Dream Child is the comic book-influenced death scene. That one is really creative. Everything else – who cares. Freddy isn’t even that fun anymore, relying more on “bitch” than anything else. Who can blame me for the heaviness of my eyelids?
Lucky for everyone involved, The Dream Child is the nadir of the series. Things begin to improve in the ill-titled Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Set ten years after the previous installment, Freddy has successfully killed all of the children in Springwood (presumably including Alice’s baby – good riddance) save one, who he sends out in the world to bring back more victims. John Doe (Shon Greenblatt) does just that after a brief stay in a youth shelter. Among this new band of kids hides Freddy’s own child – will he or she manage to finally put an end to the immortal nightmare monster?
Freddy’s Dead isn’t a whole lot better than The Dream Child, but comparatively it is a masterpiece. The cast includes Breckin Meyer and Yaphet Kotto, and Englund as Freddy is goofier than ever, but they all perform well. The film is designed to wrap up the Freddy mythos, and assuming you don’t care too much about quality (you’ve just watched six Nightmare on Elm Street movies, after all) it does a pretty good job. The last bits of Freddy history are filled in, for better or worse, and – thought I slept through a couple chunks – the conclusion is satisfying enough.
When the lineup for the evening was announced I was surprised to see Freddy vs. Jason wasn’t on the docket, since it is the last of the Englund films. It makes sense now though because Freddy’s Dead is where the main series should have ended. I say “main series,” because the final film of the marathon – New Nightmare – is more of a spin-off than anything else.
New Nightmare marks Wes Craven’s return to directing within the franchise, and he brings with him a meta script that is way ahead of its time. Heather Langenkamp is back again, but now she is playing herself, an aging actress whose most recognizable role was as a teen in the movie I had watched 11 hours earlier. Turns out her old director Wes Craven (playing himself) has been working on a new Nightmare script, and he wants her (and Robert Englund) back. Something is not quite right, however, as Heather is being stalked by an ancient being that bears a striking resemblance to the creature she was once famous for fighting.
That summary isn’t fully descriptive, as the plot is pretty complex and deals with some really interesting perspectives on the nature of storytelling and grief and mental illness. There are a couple of choices made by Craven (the director as opposed to the character) that undermine some of the really solid tension up until the third act, but it is still one of the better entries in the series, with a series-best performance by Langenkamp and new range from Englund (who gets to play two roles).
And that’s that. Thirteen-plus hours later PMGC and I exited the theater to see a bright blue sky that wasn’t out when we entered. Before tonight I had seen Part 2 and New Nightmare. Now, I’ve seen all of them (my definitive ranking, by the way? 1, 7, 3, 6, 2, 4, 5). I got through the night unscathed. I wish I could say the same for all those poor kids on Elm Street.