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A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Franchise

October 23, 2013 - 10:30 am   |   by
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Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep...

A Nightmare on Elm Street was first released in 1984 by New Line Cinema, being written and directed by Wes Craven.  Since its inception, it has spawned seven sequels, a TV series and a remake of the original film.  It has also managed to invoke more fandom and fanaticism than any other horror franchise in history.

As an extremely avid movie geek, I too have been a part of that fandom since I was an eight year old just getting into movies.  I owned all of the films on VHS and bought all of the magazines, posters, comics and soundtracks that I could get my hands on.  Like most people, I also had the obligatory Halloween costume: the hat, sweater and glove combination.  I even went so far as trying to build my own Freddy glove out of soda cans, steak knives and work gloves.  I was later amused to find out that I wasn’t the only one doing these things.  People from all over the world have been constructing Freddy gloves in their basements and garages and selling them over the internet for many years.  There haven’t been too many film franchises that have driven people to this seemingly maniacal and obsessive behavior, and that level of fandom shouldn’t be taken for granted.  [Read on here...]

Looking at the Nightmare series today in retrospect, you realize just how interesting the films really are.  Being developed and executed under different directors has given each entry in the series its own distinctive flavor and feel, which was also accomplished using very little money.  Even without a so-called big budget, you never get the feeling that they were made by mostly inexperienced filmmakers or financed by a fledgling movie studio.  They have the look and feel of A level films and deliver on much of the same level.  They all have their pros and cons and aren’t considered by the general populace as masterpieces of the genre, but they’re far too quirky, fun and inventive to be ignored or forgotten very easily.

The Nightmare series also introduced the world to one of cinema’s most popular and enduring icons: Freddy Krueger.  Robert Englund’s masterful portrayal as the dark and sinister dream demon who was burned alive by the parents of his victims during his homicidal rampage as a human being has always been a sort of iconography of great character acting.  The original approach of the character couldn’t have been any more primordial: he invades the dreams of his victims and kills them in their sleep.  He’s quite vicious yet relishes what he does, making him more of an anti-hero to audiences than a villain.  As the sequels followed, Freddy became less of a ruthless and terrifying night stalker and more of a figure of fun that would throw a joke or two in during his deadly spree in teenage dreamland.  He became so overexposed that it was difficult to find him scary anymore.  Ultimately, it didn’t matter much to the public and audiences lined up to see him dish it out to a whole new set of teenagers, sequel after sequel.  Freddy’s menace and attitude combined with the fedora, the red and green sweater, the glove and the burned flesh all combined into an indelible image that has embedded itself into popular culture, making the Nightmare series not just merely a set of slasher films, but a culture-defining ethos that will live forever.

With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the entire series film by film.  To do that, we’ll need to start at the very beginning...

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street (DVD)Wes Craven, who was fresh off of the mildly successful Swamp Thing (with the grindhouse classics The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes already under his belt) had crafted the story of A Nightmare on Elm Street on his own, but no one in the industry had any faith in it.  The main inspiration for the story came from three non-correlated articles in the L.A. Times about individuals whom had died due to Brugada Syndrome (otherwise known as Sudden Unexplained Death Syndrome).  Craven found the articles intriguing and soon developed a script based around the idea that people could die in their dreams.  Even his closest colleague Sean Cunningham (director of the original Friday the 13th) didn’t believe that the idea was scary enough to be made into a successful film.

After several failed attempts at getting studios interested in the script, things were looking grim for the project.  That is, until Craven met Robert Shaye, an independent film distributor who was looking to finance a film that might generate a healthy profit for his distribution company New Line Cinema (no more than a one-room office in Manhattan at the time).  Shaye recognized the potential in the project and felt very strongly that an audience could relate to the material because everyone goes to sleep at night.  With their partnership formed, Craven and Shaye set out to seek funding for it and gather together the talent to get it made.

Originally, Craven had envisioned Freddy to be a much older man, but found that the energy and stamina needed to portray him could only be found in younger men.  British actor David Warner (The Omen) was originally cast in the role but left the project due to other obligations.  Craven soon found what he was looking for in a young Robert Englund.  Fresh off of the hit TV series V, Englund was the top candidate for the role.  As a classically trained actor, he brought a swagger, stance and personality to the part, while also being able to reach into his inner dark recesses to make his character both sinister and nasty.  Craven also found a great protagonist in Heather Langenkamp, whose ‘girl next door’ persona, as well inner strength, gave Freddy his greatest and most memorable opponent, Nancy Thompson.  With the casting complete and all of the remaining pieces of the puzzle in place, principal photography was soon underway.

Shot in Los Angeles in less than 4 weeks at break-neck speed, the filmmakers did their best to utilize the talent and tools at hand to make something special.  Even with its meager budget, A Nightmare on Elm Street managed to pull off some wonderful visual moments and fantastic mechanical special effects (Tina’s death scene leaps to mind).  The film also cleverly blurred the line between dreams and reality, leaving the viewer not quite sure if the characters were awake or asleep.  Freddy himself was left in the shadows and often obstructed from view so that the audience never got a really good look at him, which allowed the audience’s imagination to fill in the holes (a Hitchcock device that turned out to be very effective).Although the cast and crew got along well during filming, it was Wes Craven and Robert Shaye who often had heated disagreements over budget and story content.  Shaye felt that the original ending was all wrong and that audiences shouldn’t go out with a happy ending, but instead with a big scare and twist.  It’s a decision that forever affected the history of the franchise (even though there were no thoughts of it actually becoming a franchise at that point).  Craven wasn’t happy with the changing the ending, feeling that it was demeaning to the rest of the film (as well as a bit confusing on a story level), but compromised on his producer’s demands.  And although the matter was settled, the relationship was strained thereafter and Craven wouldn’t return to the director’s chair until much later in the series.

On November 9, 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street was independently released by New Line Cinema in a limited engagement and a week later nationwide.  The word of mouth on the film quickly spread and helped push it into becoming a success, turning a profit almost immediately.  This signaled to Robert Shaye that there could be a gold mine in the character of Freddy Krueger.  A sequel was soon rushed into production to cash in on the original’s popularity and, eventually, help give New Line Cinema a boost into the majors.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (DVD)After the fallout between Wes Craven and Robert Shaye, it was clear that Craven had little interest in returning for a sequel.  Jack Sholder, who had directed Alone in the Dark for New Line three years prior, was cutting together trailers for the studio during development on Freddy’s Revenge and was offered the job of directing the film.  A fresh face in the make-up department, Kevin Yagher, was also brought in to redesign Freddy’s make-up, taking over for makeup artist David Miller.  Yagher would go on to work on the makeup effects for the next two films in the series.  However, the most troubling bit during the casting process was that Robert Englund wasn’t brought back to play Freddy… at first.  An uncredited extra was used instead with the idea that he would be overdubbed later.  At that time, both the Friday the 13th and Halloween series had managed to turn a profit without bringing the same actor back every time to play Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, respectively.  Because of Englund’s impact on the character, this couldn’t be accomplished with Freddy Krueger.  Once filming had begun, the mistake was quickly realized and Englund was brought back on board.

However, that wasn’t the only problem that plagued the shoot and eventual release of Freddy’s Revenge, but it was the only one that got solved to everyone’s satisfaction.  Taking a close look at the film, you can clearly see that no one had a clear vision of it becoming scripture for a fan base.  Everything about it, from role reversals of the characters, major script issues and some terribly-executed special effects (except for Jesse’s transformation), shows that it was meant solely to be a quick cash-in and wasn’t given more time in the development process.  Other problems with the film were inherent in the original script itself.  In the film, Freddy literally metamorphosizes through the character of Jesse and steps into reality to do his dirty work.  According to the mythology of the series, Freddy is always in a dream no matter what.  To have him running around at a pool party terrorizing teenagers rubbed not only fans the wrong way, but even Englund himself.

For years, the most-talked about subject having to do with Freddy’s Revenge was the role reversals of the lead characters.  Usually in the series (and most other horror films), the protagonist of the story was played by a woman.  This time around, they chose instead to make the lead a male, which caused the homoerotic subtext of the story to be heightened without it meaning to be.  Screenwriter David Chaskin recently admitted that he had intended for there to be just such a subtext, but nowhere near as prevalent as what wound up in the final film.  According to the filmmakers themselves, no one had even an inkling that it could be looked at as a story about a young man coming to terms with his sexuality.  It was an issue that wasn’t addressed until many years later, but nevertheless, it remains a hot topic amongst fans.

Despite all of its problems, Freddy’s Revenge was still released on November 1, 1985 as is, and was a greater financial success than the first film.  It was snubbed by critics and unfortunately left a bad taste in the mouths of fans, and both the success mixed with the negative reactions to it indicated two things to Robert Shaye: that this could be an on-going franchise and that they also had to try harder in delivering a better quality product to the growing fan base.  Both came to fruition in the next film but Freddy’s Revenge continues to be held up as the red-headed stepchild of the series.  It wasn’t a completely wasted effort, but the final product is plagued with problems ranging from the script, the special effects and just the overall execution.  Regardless, most feel that it’s still worthy enough to be a continuation in the string of pearls, even if it doesn’t shine quite like what came before or after it.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (DVD)When Robert Shaye and company decided to venture into doing a third Nightmare sequel, they decided to go back to the man who created it.  Wes Craven, along with screenwriter Bruce Wagner, were brought asked to write a treatment for a third film with the possibility of Craven directing.  The script that was eventually delivered was one of the more controversial approaches in the history of the series, but it had enough interesting ideas worth pursuing.  Deciding that the treatment could use some fresh blood, the studio hired the writing team of Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont to come in and give it a spit and polish, while Russell was hired to direct.

The final shooting script that was handed in had more of a biting satirical edge while still retaining a strange and horrific framework.  Ultimately, Dream Warriors was the first entry in the series that pushed Freddy into more comedic territory.  They even went so far as to have a scene of a young girl watching TV, and as she watches, Dick Cavett transforms into Freddy and kills Zsa Zsa Gabor.  It was actually a strange foreboding for what happened with Freddy in the real world later on.  Chuck Russell has admitted on several occasions for being partly responsible for bringing out Freddy’s funny side but never feeling like it was a mistake, despite the detractors.

Dream Warriors was also the first film in the series to give Freddy a deeper backstory.  By this point, audiences were well aware that he was the product of vigilante justice, but what was unknown was everything leading up to that.  The inclusion of a backstory wherein Freddy was the son of a young nun who had been raped by hundreds of mental patients at an asylum only made him much more interesting and less two dimensional than his low budget counterparts.  The film was also the first sequel to have such a rich and diverse cast.  The first two films had featured mostly simple, middle class, white teenagers from the suburbs.  This time around we’re introduced to a wheelchair-bound geek, a mute, a former heroin addict, and for the first time, a black teenager.  The cast was also rich with talented veteran actors like Craig Wasson, as well as new talent like Patricia Arquette, the latter of which went on to have a successful career afterwards.  Also returning to reprise their roles from the first film were Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon.  Despite the difficulty of working with a first time director in a mostly tense working environment, the cast managed to pull off wonderful performances that tend to stand out more so than other films in the series.  The film also contains an array of some very impressive practical and visual effects.  There are some fantastic and interesting death sequences along with some very clever special effects on display in this film.

To coincide with its technical prowess was a set of sympathetic victims that we actually cared about.  They’re set up early on as troubled teens who are seemingly suicidal and treated as if they’re just crying for attention or losing their marbles altogether by the adults.  Setting the story in a psychiatric hospital and following their plight only curries sympathy for them and we hope that they succeed, even if Freddy is the star of the show and we want him to succeed, as well.  It all works extremely well, even if some of the sequences do stray into cheesy territory at times.  Had the film not given its characters a proper build-up, it could have easily been laughed off of movie screens and made it difficult to pick up the pieces afterwards.  Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Released on February 27, 1987, Dream Warriors was a huge success, making even more money than first two films.  Most fans believe that it’s the best sequel of the series, and I would have to agree with that.  It contains everything you could want in a sequel without going overboard with poor story mechanics, thinly-drawn characters or heaping buckets of gore.  The film turned Freddy Krueger into a household name, and in the interim, the merchandise to go along with it.  The revenues that kept coming in helped in building New Line Cinema into a full-fledged movie studio.  However, the success was only minor compared to what came next.


A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (DVD)After the overwhelming success of Dream Warriors, New Line quickly got another sequel underway to capitalize on it.  A script was quickly thrown together and Robert Shaye hesitantly hired director Renny Harlin to helm the project. Harlin managed to bring a fresher stylistic approach than previous directors that was fast, frenetic and dripping with teenage angst.  It was a perfect fit, despite Shaye’s reluctance and being unsure of the young director at the time.

The Dream Master storyline brought back the three surviving dream warriors from the third film, only to be killed off within the first thirty minutes (a sort of detriment to that film really).  The story also further developed the idea of Freddy needing the souls of his victims in order to thrive, except in this instance, the ‘powers’ of his victims were taken in by shy and uninteresting Alice (played wonderfully by Lisa Wilcox).  By the end of the film, Alice becomes a courageous and strong young woman, giving her character a real arc (a story device that hadn’t been used in the series up to this point).  There were also some very bizarre ideas utilized for the film, including the resurrection of Freddy by way of a dog urinating fire onto his resting place.

The film also combined the talents of many of the best special makeup and technical effects wizards including Jim Doyle, John Carl Buechler, Screaming Mad George, Howard Berger and Kevin Yagher, some of whom had worked on the previous films.  Old school mechanical and special effects were in their prime, and whether they were being done in-camera or optically, they worked fantastically on audiences.

The only problem during the shoot was Robert Shaye’s reservations about Renny Harlin.  By this point, New Line was beginning to get very protective of their biggest money maker and weren’t easily swayed when it came to new approaches and fresh ideas.  Renny Harlin has stated that he was sure that he would have been fired from the project at any time because he didn’t feel that Robert Shaye had the utmost confidence in his ability to deliver a quality film that the company could sell.  It didn’t really matter all that much though because Freddy’s popularity was bigger than ever, and even a bad film in the series would have made its money back no matter what.  Thankfully, Harlin wasn’t relying on that and attempted to make something the Nightmare fans would embrace.

Given a summer release on August 19, 1988, The Dream Master was an enormous success.  Not only that, but it was the biggest money maker of the original series and validated Renny Harlin as a talented and valuable young director to many, including Shaye.  Fans came out in droves to see Freddy’s latest and were cheering him on at every turn.  The character became so mainstream that it was impossible to take him seriously anymore as a dark character, something that would hurt the franchise in future entries.  The Dream Master was also the first of the series to be released during New Line Cinema’s heyday as a major independent studio before becoming a major Hollywood force.  Complete with their new (and now famous) logo, it was more than clear that the studio was here to stay.  The success gave Renny Harlin a chance to go on and make a string of financially successful action and suspense films while giving the studio an opportunity to seek out new franchises, but the success would prove to be bittersweet for the Nightmare series.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream ChildAfter its success, The Dream Master had the fastest turnover as far as developing a follow-up sequel in the history of the franchise.  The studio was so eager to release another film they knew would make a profit that the creative process was quickly lost in the mix.  An unfinished draft of a screenplay, which was written by a variety of different writers, was rushed into development and the directing reins were handed over to a young visual director named Stephen Hopkins.

This time around, the franchise saw a more direct sequel to the characters from the previous film than before.  Alice, Alice’s father and Dan from The Dream Master returned to reprise their roles, making Alice the only female character to survive more than one film (obviously discounting Nancy/Heather in New Nightmare, which was more of a hybrid character).  Working hard to deliver a visually interesting film (perhaps the most interesting of the series), Stephen Hopkins’ background as an art director gave him more of an artistic visual edge than previous directors.  Unfortunately, the story itself was both rushed and sacrificed just to get another film into theatres.

Once again the writers delved into Freddy’s backstory by bringing his mother into the forefront of the story and resurrecting Freddy through her.  The convoluted story involved Freddy using Alice’s unborn child to continue invading teenager’s dreams, something which Alice put a stop to in the previous film.  It was a more mature approach that dealt with issues of child abandonment, rape and abortion, which hadn’t been dealt with in the series before.  In retrospect, it tends to stick out as one of the most socially-conscious entries in the franchise, but it seemed more like a David Lynch nightmare than your usual run-of-the-mill Nightmare film.  However, the studio was willing to go with a fresh approach in fear of the series becoming stale.

Like the last film, The Dream Child also brought a lot of talented special effects wizards in to work on it.  Freddy’s literal rebirth in the film gave the makeup artists a chance to redesign his make-up.  Unfortunately, it’s the weakest and least-effective makeup job in the series, but thankfully the rest of the film’s effects are superior and highly-imaginative.  Everything from rear screen projection, stop-motion animation to faux black and white photography was used to great effect.  Though visually interesting, the physical effects tended to stray more into gory territory, even more so than previous entries.  This caused the MPAA to come down hard on the original cut of the movie, with two key scenes becoming truncated in the final version.  It didn’t help the film in the long run and left some audience members scratching their heads as to what exactly was going on during some of the dream sequences.

Released on August 11, 1989, The Dream Child saw a disappointing decline at the box office upon its release.  It was technically a financial success, but it was nowhere near the hit that The Dream Master had been and wasn’t an enormous profit for the studio.  It saw the poorest performance of any of the films in the series at the time and was a let-down for many of its followers.  Fortunately, its aftermarket life proved to be more lucrative. When originally released on home video, the unrated version of The Dream Child was included which featured all of the graphic footage that the MPAA had made the filmmakers cut out to get an R rating reinstated.  As of this writing, that footage has yet to be included in future DVD releases.

Meanwhile, New Line Cinema was busy pursuing different avenues to find worthy new film properties, including chasing the rights to the Friday the 13th series from Paramount Pictures.  Between the studio’s involvement with other promising directions and The Dream Child’s lackluster box office performance, it was decided to end the series with one final entry.

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (DVD)Two years would go by before Freddy would make a return to the big screen.  Story treatments for the sixth sequel were being handed in by the likes of people like Peter Jackson, but it was the screenplay by Michael De Luca and Rachel Talalay that got the studio excited the most.  Signing on to direct, Rachel had been a very small part of the series from the very beginning, starting out as little more than a production accountant.  Having worked her way up the ranks to the director’s chair, she was determined to send the series out on a high note.

The approach to The Final Nightmare was to make it a less serious film and more of a fun, bizarre ride.  Twin Peaks had the heaviest influence on the film, as did the work of John Waters.  Featuring cameos from the likes of Roseanne Barr, Tom Arnold and Alice Cooper, it was a chance to have some fun with the story after the previous film’s dark, gothic overtones.  Hoping to hook audiences with a gimmick after the disappointing box office figures from The Dream Child, it was also decided that the final portion of the film would be filmed in 3D.  Although it worked for the most part, story and effects elements were downplayed in order to achieve it, which is a mistake Rachel has often commented on.

The Final Nightmare was also the least direct sequel of the franchise.  Taking place sometime in the future when Springwood has been wiped clean of anyone under 20, it featured absolutely none of the characters from the previous films, except for Freddy himself.  In the final installment, Freddy has run out of teenagers in Springwood and is looking to jump ship.  The only way he can do that is through his daughter.  He sends the character of John, the last remaining teenager from Springwood with a bad case of amnesia, out into the world to find her.  Unfortunately, Rachel’s quirky style displeased a lot of the fan base while Freddy’s demise seemed to walk down familiar territory, making it more of a joke than enthralling to most fans.

The Final Nightmare also featured a lot of new young talent like Breckin Meyer and Ricky Dean Logan, the latter of whom went on to be a successful character actor.  There was also a bit of gravitas given to the film in the lead roles with Lisa Zane and veteran Yaphet Kotto.  The film was also one of the few entries in the series that had the most additional footage hit the cutting room floor.  Bootlegs of this footage have been floating around for years but none of it has yet to make any official releases.  With a wealth of great talent both behind and in front of the camera, it was also one of the easiest and most trouble-free shoots of the series.  The biggest headaches stemmed from the filmmakers trying to get the 3D to work properly, but they would soon find out if it would pay off or not.

Released on September 13, 1991, The Final Nightmare was released to slightly more enthusiastic response than its predecessor.  Fans happily turned up for Freddy’s supposed final bow, but it wasn’t without its drawbacks.  Still lacking the kind of box office draw that New Line was hoping for, the series truly died with this film. It was very much a ‘Twin Peaks meets Looney Tunes’ sort of horror film and fans were generally displeased with the results, citing it as one of, if not THE, worst of the series.  To add insult to injury, when it was originally released on home video, the 3D portion was removed due to the limitations of the format.  What was leftover were actors sticking objects awkwardly at the camera lens trying to make the 3D work.  Although it was released on Laserdisc, the original version of the film wasn’t seen by most home-viewing audiences until almost eight years later when it was released on DVD in New Line’s Nightmare series boxed set (with 3D glasses thrown in for good measure).

It’s almost sad to think that the series really ended the way it did, without its creator coming back for one last stab (pun intended) at bringing Freddy Krueger back to his roots.  It might have been a lost cause due to the character’s popularity and how overexposed he had become, but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the original storyline would never see another entry... but it wasn’t the last time that we would be seeing Freddy.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (DVD)Three years after Freddy’s final curtain call, New Line felt comfortable enough in bringing back the character for one more film.  Most people scoffed at the idea and made a joke out of it because of how much the studio went out of their way to declare the series finished.  However, the studio treated the idea with respect and wasn’t interested in making just another sequel.  The strained relationship between Robert Shaye (now a major studio executive) and the series’ creator Wes Craven was finally ended in one fateful meeting.  Shaye was happy to work with Craven in developing a new story for the series and gave him carte blanche to create something that he could call his own, which excited Craven enough to write and direct the project.

After reviewing the entire series from beginning to end, Craven decided to abandon the series’ storyline completely and jump outside of the films altogether, exploring the effects of it on the people who were a part of the original film.  The idea was that Freddy, as portrayed in the film, would be the evil that has escaped into the real world and that Craven’s mission within the film is to write another sequel to keep the evil out of reality.  Meanwhile, Heather Langenkamp is being terrorized by this evil and her mission is to save herself and her son.  It was a very bold move to go in such a radical new direction, but Craven was determined to make a horror film that carried a more meaningful message.  That message, which would be explored further in the Scream series much later, was aimed directly at the critics who blamed horror films for all of the negativity taking place in the real world.  Nearly all of the actors from the original film would also be brought back for both leads and cameos, but to more or less portray themselves.

New Nightmare was also the first of the franchise to make a more apparent use of computer generated special effects with the practical effects taking a back seat.  It was sort of a detriment in a way, but thankfully those effects were not gratuitous and had a purpose in the storytelling.  The biggest miscalculation, however, was Freddy’s new look.  To give the character a new identity as a pure agent of evil, his design was redeveloped to look bulkier and even more sinister than before.  This included having blades that came out of all four fingers plus his thumb instead of using his trademarked razor glove, as well as transforming into a demon at one point.  It’s a flaw that Wes Craven admits wasn’t the best idea, but it served its purpose to make Freddy unique instead of a carbon copy of what we had seen before.

Released on November 9, 1994, ten years after the original film, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare turned out to be the very first film in the franchise to be received well critically.  Unfortunately, the box office figures weren’t on the same page.  Returning its budget but failing to capture the kind of popularity the previous films had seen, New Nightmare became the least successful film of the entire franchise.  Some fans felt that it was demeaning to Freddy’s character to take him out of the original series and make him symbolic.  Others felt that the story just wasn’t interesting enough to explore in the first place.  Despite this, the film has had a strong aftermarket life on home video and is considered by many to be an extremely smart and effective horror film on its own.

The Nightmare series then went into a slumber and lay dormant for well over a decade as New Line Cinema moved on to other promising properties.  They were, by this point, a major Hollywood studio with other hugely successful films and franchises under their belt including BladeSe7enRush HourAustin PowersTeenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesThe MaskFriday, and of course, the biggest success the studio has ever had, The Lord of the Rings franchise.  As for Craven, he moved on from Freddy and found mainstream success with the extremely successful Scream franchise through Miramax, but continues to acknowledge A Nightmare on Elm Street as his greatest triumph.


Freddy vs. Jason

Freddy vs. Jason (DVD)In 1992, New Line Cinema had acquired the rights to the Friday the 13th franchise after Paramount Pictures had allowed their sequel rights to lapse, giving steam to a project that was trapped in development hell for nearly two decades.  Finally coming to fruition almost nine years after the Nightmare series had ended (and almost ten years after the Friday the 13th series had also ended), Freddy vs. Jason was the long-awaited match-up that fans had been keeping tabs on since the project went into development in 1987.

The original script for Friday the 13th Part 7: The New Blood was originally meant to be the penultimate clash between the two titans, but when New Line and Paramount couldn’t work out an agreement over the distribution and character rights, the script was re-written and turned into the familiar Friday sequel that we all know.  A myriad of different writers and scripts passed through the studio’s hands until a screenplay worth putting into production could be found.  In 2002, that finally came to pass and New Line green-lit the project with Bride of Chucky director Ronny Yu at the director’s helm.

The good news was that Robert Englund would be returning to portray Freddy, but the bad news was that Ken Kirzinger would be brought in to replace Kane Hodder as Jason.  Kirzinger had doubled for Hodder in Friday the 13th Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan, and according to the filmmakers, he was cast because he was much taller than Englund and more befitting of the director’s concept of the character.  The decision to recast Jason caused an enormous amount of controversy in the fan community with most deriding the film before it even went into production.  Kane Hodder himself was also upset by the decision, having been a cheerleader for the project for many years, but the controversy soon died down to just merely murmurings of disapproval.  With their two leads in place, filming soon began.

According to the developers and writers on the project, it was important that the story never found itself trying to reinvent either character’s backstories.  It could have been a bitter blow to either fan base if there was a deeper meaning to the duel at hand.  An early concept placed Freddy as a camp counselor at Camp Crystal Lake in 1958 whereupon he both molested and drowned Jason.  The concept was that Jason had returned from his watery grave searching for the counselor who did him in.  Fascinating to think about, but ultimately, would likely have weakened the material rather than strengthen it.  In the script that was eventually used, the adults of Springwood decide that the only way to defeat Freddy is to erase him from ever existing, and without the fear that he feeds on, Freddy can’t return to the dreams of teenagers.  Fortunately, Freddy finds a way around that.  His plan to bring Jason Voorhees back from the dead and go to Springwood to spread the fear for him backfires when Jason won’t stop killing Freddy’s children, leading to the eventual clash between them.

Released on August 15, 2003, Freddy vs. Jason was the biggest money maker of either franchise by a mile; drawing in nearly $83 million domestically and almost $115 million worldwide.  Reactions from both fans and critics were mixed, but New Line had successfully achieved what they had set out to do with the film and reaped the rewards.  What the film managed to deliver was a blood-soaked, ultra-violent and just flat out hard R-rated horror film.  During the days that major studios wanted a PG-13 rating on most of their summer releases to get a bigger majority of moviegoers in to see them, it was a blessing that it didn’t happen with Freddy vs. Jason.  The latter half of the film is a hack and slash the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a mainstream horror film for some time.  With bloody debris, bone and appendages flying in every direction, it was exactly what many fans had been waiting patiently to see.

A sequel involving either Ash from The Evil Dead series or Pinhead from the Hellraiser series was discussed soon after, but never came to fruition. It could have been the start of another of the classic monster mash-ups from the 1930’s and 1940’s for a new generation of horror fans, but maybe sometimes it’s just best to wonder what if.  Although, I have to say that I would much rather have seen that come to pass rather than what happened next.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)Now here’s where it gets really personal for me.

In the age of the almighty remake, A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t invulnerable to the Hollywood reprinting process that continues to tarnish the legacy of many a film.  Ever since the announcement that a remake was in the works, fans moaned and groaned about it, and for good reason.  How could anybody possibly re-capture not just the magic of the original, but cast an entirely new actor in the role that Robert Englund was born to play?  Well, whether fans liked it or not, it happened.  The production company Platinum Dunes and music video director Samuel Bayer set out to re-imagine one of horror’s greatest icons and failed on so many levels.

For starters, the cast of the Nightmare remake is miles apart from that of the original cast.  Actors from the original film fit into their characters so well because they were more or less playing themselves, which helped make them more easily accessible to audiences.  This time around, no one in any of their roles comes across that way. In fact, they’re so uninteresting that you generally don’t give two hoots about them.  They’re, for the part, just the usual pretty faces that are slapped into mainstream horror movies instead of interesting characters that an audience might care about.  Some might argue that waiting to see the characters get it in these films is what the whole ballgame is about, but I would disagree.  If there’s one thing that the Nightmare series accomplished, even in the worst of sequels, it was to sympathize with its victims.  If an audience is manipulated into relating to the characters on even the most basic of levels then they would also in turn feel sorry for them.  That’s the way that the Nightmare series has always worked and why its appeal is much more broad than your usual slasher movie.  If audiences want to see people they don’t care about getting hacked to pieces, they can watch the Friday the 13th series where that kind of thing is commonplace and acceptable.

The other great thing about the original series is that it maintains plenty of repeatability, but there’s absolutely nothing so spectacular about the remake that makes you want to see it more than once.  Formulaic to the core, it’s just another entry into the “everyone’s dying, it’s a big mystery and we have to solve it” modern schlock fest that continues to be recycled over and over again in a plethora of others like it.  There’s also nothing original and innovative about it.  It’s just so average, bland and uninteresting that it makes you want to see the original films again just to get the bad taste out of your mouth (which is about the most positive thing I can say about it).  It gathers together many of the moments and visual cues from the original films into a sort of greatest hits package without bringing anything new to the table.  Of course, each sequel in the original series wasn’t particularly innovative, but they were crafted with much more thought and care than just Xeroxing ideas and concepts.

The biggest flaws in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street were the changes made from the original story.  Not only could the filmmakers not create something fresh, but they also changed and flawed the series two biggest characters: Freddy himself and Nancy.  In the new version of Freddy’s backstory, he tends to the gardening of a pre-school, living in the basement and befriending the children who attend there, which we later find out was more than just friendship.  The film, for a while at least, plays with the idea that maybe the vigilante parents who went after him were mistaken and that Freddy might have been an innocent man who was back for revenge, only later to find out that they’re wrong.  This flaws Freddy as a character and makes his motives questionable.  If Freddy is only back for revenge without having previously murdered anyone, that makes him relatable, and you’re not supposed to relate to your antagonist.  Sure Freddy is popular as a character and audiences love seeing him do what he does, but never on the level of relating to him.  As a character in this film, he’s definitely a bad person and does some atrocious and vile things to the children, but he was never a killer.  It may not seem like that big of a deal, and the writers were probably trying to give both the parents of the children and Freddy himself a more precise reason to exact revenge, but Freddy loses his character essence in the process.  I’m not saying that pedophilia and molestation aren’t evil things because they are, but in a character sense, Freddy’s motives are flawed.  In other words, Freddy was a more complete character in the original series with enough character motivation that extended beyond what he did in reality.

And even though Jackie Earl Haley is a fine actor and does the best that he possibly can, even inside a flawed character, no actress could have done anything with the character of Nancy.  In this version, she is very loosely based on the original film’s Nancy Thompson, and I do mean loosely.  This Nancy, played by the talented Rooney Mara, is a loner, keeps to herself and doesn’t really want much to do with anybody, especially the guy who’s the most interested in her throughout the course of the film.  In other words, this is the “emo” version of Nancy.  The problem with this is that not only does it also destroy the essence of the original character, it gives Freddy no opposition.  You have a bunch of psychologically scarred teenagers running around without any inner strength to conquer their demons, and therefore, aren’t believable enough to go up against such a powerful force.  To put it in perspective a bit, Nancy has always been Freddy’s greatest foe.  She’s a strong young woman who doesn’t overly depend on others to help her in her time of need.  Her bravery and strength is one of the reasons that the original Nightmare worked as a story.  If she had been like Barbara from Night of the Living Dead, a weak, screaming and horribly useless character, she would have been dead in no time.  Nancy also crossed likeability boundaries between sexes and not only did the guys want her, but the gals wanted to be her.  So now, in the remake, we’re given this emotionally-crippled young woman who can’t really do anything on her own without the help of her pseudo-boyfriend (who, by the way, is merely there only to spew juxtaposition most of the time).  The filmmakers have, more or less, diluted Nancy’s character and made her just another member of the cattle in the herd of the modern horror film industry.  But, in spite of all of the flaws, the remake steam-rolled on ahead without any objections from anyone about its flawed content.

Released on April 30, 2010, A Nightmare on Elm Street definitely pulled in a very good revenue for the studio due to name recognition alone, but was met with mostly negative critical and die-hard fan response.  As for myself, I left the theater on opening day feeling underwhelmed an unimpressed.  I really tried my best to set my bias aside and judge the film of its own merit, but when it takes so many elements from the original films without trying to do anything new, it’s really difficult to do that.  Ultimately, if you’re remaking a film, your final product is going to be judged against the original no matter what.  There’s just no getting around that, and the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street pales in comparison to the quality of the original film.

As of this writing, the franchise ends here.  There are talks of another sequel in the works, which I hope doesn’t come to fruition, but if it does, I would hope that a little more care would be taken in the writing and execution processes to make it something interesting.

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (DVD)Despite its popularity and fan base enthusiasm, a documentary chronicling the entire Nightmare series had never been produced.  In the wake of lavishly-produced DVD boxed sets like Blade Runner and Alien Anthology, which were crammed to the brim with extra content, A Nightmare on Elm Street was never given the level of treatment that it deserved.  But in 2010, a small production company of filmmakers and fans put together a massive documentary on the entire history of the Nightmare series entitled Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy.

Clocking in at around four hours, this documentary devotes nearly half an hour to each film in the series plus the short-lived A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series - Freddy’s Nightmares TV show.  It’s an absolute treasure trove of never-before-seen material interspersed with interviews that include almost every major actor or crew member involved with each film.  It’s actually the first time that a good 50% of these people have spoken on camera in years (or possibly ever) about the series.  Some of the more successful actors weren’t available to take part in it, such as Johnny Depp and Patricia Arquette, but the sheer wealth of participants outshines these minor losses.  It also features wrap-around stop motion segments and original music for the opening titles by Charles Bernstein.  Included in the documentary is a collection of rare material including deleted & behind-the-scenes footage, storyboards, personal photos, and even props & memorabilia.  The filmmakers also provide an audio commentary for those interested in the making of the documentary itself.

This 2 disc set also comes with a bonus disc absolutely stuffed with extra material that didn’t make it onto the first disc.  Extended Interviews contains even MORE material that couldn’t be shoe-horned into the main feature (even devoting a couple of minutes to talk about the Nightmare remake); First Look: Heather Langenkamp’s I Am Nancy is a brief look at the documentary exploring the franchise as it relates to her; For the Love of the Glove takes a look at Freddy’s right-handed trademark, and the fans that have devoted their time, money and energy into creating their own gloves; Fred Heads: The Ultimate Freddy Fans focuses on the fandom of the series; Horror’s Hallowed Grounds: Return to Elm Street is a featurette from the infamous web series that revisits the locations seen in the original film; Freddy vs. The Angry Video Game Nerd takes a look at the YouTube superstar and the video game of A Nightmare on Elm StreetExpanding the Elm Street Universe: Freddy in Comic Books & Novels delves into the fan fiction and media created by various contributors; The Music of the Nightmare: Conversations with Composers & Songwriters sheds some light on the series’ musical scores and original songs with most of the people involved in creating them; Elm Street’s Poster Boy: The Art of Matthew Joseph Peak is a look at the man who did the poster artwork for most of the original films; A Nightmare on Elm Street in 10 Minutes is a humorous take on the original movie; and finally, following it all up is the Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy teaser trailer.  There’s also a very funny Easter Egg featuring Charles Fleischer, who appeared in the first film.  Obviously the main feature is the reason to get this, but this is a wonderful set of supplements to append it.

Released on October 5, 2010, Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy was an instant hit with fans.  It also received rave reviews and won various awards the year of its release.  As a sort of compendium to the series, it was also an entertaining story told through the eyes of the people who worked on it and guided its journey.  It also spawned a slew of horror retrospectives and documentaries that continues to this day.  If you’re a horror fan at all, it truly is the holy grail of documentaries.  It’s so wonderfully paced and entertaining that the four hour running time is never an issue and just flies right by with little notice.  It’s a labor of love that honors both the series itself and the studio that produced it.  It’s also bittersweet as you realize that the series is over and will never be as prominent as it once was.  Seeing Robert Shaye thank the fans with heart-felt gratitude for their support with the look of sadness in his face says it all, and it’s a wonderful way to close out not just the documentary, but the Nightmare legacy itself.

It was just a dream...

One has to wonder just where the Nightmare franchise could possibly go from here, if anywhere?  I’m almost certain that we haven’t seen the last of Freddy Krueger, whether he’s being portrayed by Robert Englund or not.  Regardless, I’ll continue to be an avid fan of the series but I’d also like to see it get its due on both DVD and Blu-ray, the deluxe way (its lackluster Blu-ray debut doesn’t count).  For a series that built a movie studio up from nothing and launched the careers of many successful actors, directors, makeup artists, special effects technicians and producers, I believe it has a place in history and deserves only the best of treatment, and I hope that I’m still around to see that happen.

In any case, it’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to discuss the Nightmare series with all of you and I hope that you’ve enjoyed this little trip down memory lane as much as I have.  I’d also like to thank my cohorts here at The Digital Bits for their constant support and friendship.

To them and to all of you, Happy Halloween!

Tim Salmons' Nightmare

- Tim Salmons

 

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