< Horror Film History — Nightmare on Elm St series

Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger, Part 2: Freddy's Revenge, 3 Dream Warriors, 4 The Dream Master, 5 The Dream Child, 6 Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, 7 Wes Craven's New Nightmare, 8 Freddy vs. Jason

Nine...Ten...Never Sleep Again: A Nightmare on Elm Street

Wes Craven, the former college professor responsible for two of the darkest and most deranged movies of the 1970s (Last House on The Left and The Hills Have Eyes) unveiled a brash, commercial franchise in 1984: A Nightmare on Elm Street. The monster, a hideously scarred Freddy (named after a kid who bullied Wes Craven at school) Krueger represents a successful blend of humour and horror, a deranged killer who doesn't lurk silently behind a hockey mask but menaces in full view, spitting one-liners as he sharpens his trademark glove. In terms of Jungian archetypes he is the ultimate Shadow Trickster, the shape changer who relishes sick jokes. Freddy was a merchandising dream, an icon for a generation whose distinctive striped jersey, battered hat and scarred visage have sold many a t-shirt, board-game, coffee cup, lunch box and snow globe. Yes, snow globe - check out the New Line store.

A Nightmare On Elm Street has a relatively low body count for its time (four), but each of the killings is a mini-movie in itself, with a separate location, build-up and mode of despatch. Tina (Amanda Wyss) is the first to go, marked for doom by her willingness to have sex with her no-good boyfriend. Freddy is the boogeyman of her dreams, stalking her down a dark alleyway with preternaturally long arms and finally smearing her across her bedroom ceiling before slashing her to pieces. The actual murder is committed by an unseen assailant, but there is no doubt in the viewer's mind who is responsible. There is plenty of blood.

Next up is the no-good boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia) who is strangled by his own bedsheet whilst in jail by an again unseen assailant who has changed his modus operandi to 'fake suicide'. There is no blood here, just the chill factor of seeing the bedsheet wind itself round the sleeping Rod's throat, and the tension created by having Nancy observe events from within her nightmare, unable to alert anyone until it is too late. Although Nancy survives a few near misses, Glen is next to go, sucked into a giant hole along with his (now very dated) electronic gear and spewed out again as buckets of blood ("You won't need a stretcher up there, you'll need a mop."). The final slaying is Nancy's mother, Margaret (the Academy Award nominee Ronee Blakeley), who is partially responsible for this mess in the first place, having murdered Freddy herself a few years back and sought solace in the bottle ever since. Krueger immolates her, than drags her blackened corpse into his world, leaving no traces in this one. This variation and inventiveness puts A Nightmare... a notch or several above the competition. The murders are also motivated - Freddy seeks revenge on the parents who took justice into their own hands all those years ago, and is systematically coming after their children. Freddy is not a random killer, hacking down anyone who happens to stray into his territory (at least not in this first instalment).

One of the notable things about A Nightmare on Elm Street is how brightly lit most of it is, and how many of the scenarios take place in ordinary, uncontested spaces - a school hallway, a teenager's bedroom. There are no warnings as the narrative shifts from reality to nightmare, and there are seemingly no rules about where Freddy can strike (in English class, in the bathtub). Freddy himself springs from a dark place, a boiler-room full of rust and steam, and it is only when Nancy acknowledges this ("Okay, Krueger, you bastard. We play in your court.") and deliberately goes to seek him out that she has any chance of defeating him. Nancy makes a resourceful Final Girl as she pulls the monster out of her nightmare into the real world, where he becomes a slapstick figure, falling for her A-Team style booby traps, tumbling down the stairs, and flailing around with his arms on fire. But he still manages to kill her Mom.

The original A Nightmare on Elm Street had a budget of just $1.8M and some of its special effects, though convincing at the time, look shoddy today. It's the simplest touches which still have an impact, however - Freddy's ghostly face (in actuality a man and some spandex) leering out of the wall above a sleeping Nancy, the "eeeeeee" sound of the knives on metal objects, and the red-and-green striped hood coming down over the car at the end (apparently it came down too fast so the panicked look on the actors' faces is real). Subsequent entries in the franchise get more and more ridiculous, making too much use of dreamscapes, and showcasing Freddy as a kind of anti-James Bond, always ready with a bon-mot to accompany the snickersnack of his blades.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

"Every kid knows who Freddy is. He's like Santa Claus or King Kong."

After the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, New Line managed to crank out no less than five sequels in the subsequent decade. Freddy, a figure of true menace in the first instalment, was reduced to a stripey clown, the Halloween costume of choice for eight year olds. No longer capable of inducing chills, he resorted to making his audience cringe with terrible one-liners. However, in 1994, his creator, Wes Craven, decided to reclaim the franchise and wrote and directed the seventh entry himself. New Nightmare is a thoughtful piece of movie-making, addressing some thorny topics, such as the responsibility movie-makers have for their horrific creations. It breaks down the 'fourth wall' of movie-making, with actors, writers and even the producer playing themselves, on and off a film set, in the process of making a new Nightmare movie. Pirandello would have been proud.

Heather in an SFX workshop, on the boundary between dream and reality

New Nightmare uses a film set as its setting - a low budget solution to the problem of creating a viable reality onscreen, certainly, but also a way of exploring "the difference between one's imagination and one's life" (as Craven put it). In the original movie he blurred the boundaries between waking and dreaming, and in New Nightmare there is overt scrutiny of the separation between imagination, the screen story and what we perceive to be real life. Heather Langenkamp plays herself, as an actress ten years on from playing Nancy. She starts experiencing nightmares that make her suspect that her screen arch-rival, Freddy, has broken through into reality and is stalking her family. Initially, her fears seem groundless - how could a fictional character pose a threat to those responsible for his creation? Her husband, Chase, works in a special FX shop, engaged in the construction of a mechanical knife-wielding hand (very evocative of Freddy's glove), and he sees no reason to be concerned. Film is just an industry, a factory churning out illusions. However, when Chase is killed after falling asleep at the wheel, Heather's worst fears are confirmed, and she must figure out how to kick Freddy back into the realm of nightmares.

She finds out that Wes Craven is writing a new Nightmare screenplay based on the scenes he dreams each night. Craven tells Heather that Freddy is simply a representation of a demonic force. That force was trapped safely for a while in the stories that were told about him, but once its essence was mishandled, once Freddy was reduced to a figure of fun, the demonic power is let loose.

“It's about this entity, whatever you want to call it. It's old, very old. It's existed in different forms in different times. It can be captured sometimes... By storytellers, of all things. Every so often, they imagine a story good enough to capture its essence. 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 someone waters it down to make it an easier sell, or maybe it's just so upsetting to society that it's banned outright. However it happens, when the story dies the evil is set free.

The only way to control it is to create a new Nightmare On Elm St, that once again restrains the evil inside the limits of a narrative. This means Heather must adopt her Nancy identity, and face off against Freddy. She is reluctant to do so - she feels she has outgrown the horror genre and perhaps feels guilty about the way she profited from terror in the past - but Freddy respects the fictional power she once had over him. He is also using her child, Dylan, as his main route into reality - the kid appears with a home-made version of Freddy's glove (kitchen knives taped to his fingers) less than an hour in. This plays into Heather's guilt about her past - Dylan has seen all her movies, and this may, according to a child psychiatrist she consults, be causing the boy to behave in a bizarre and violent manner ("I'm convinced these films can tip an unstable child over the edge"). Heather must draw on her fictional persona of Nancy to reprise her role as gatekeeper, and lock Freddy out of our world forever. It's the only way for her to reclaim her son's sanity and stability - and, perhaps, make amends for the damage she has done.

Dylan channels Regan and taps into every parent's Nightmare

New Nightmare works on a number of different levels. It lacks the raw shock value of the original, or the kinetic dream-spaces of A Nightmare On Elm St 3: Dream Warriors. However, it does provide the audience with a different set of thrills - constant references are made throughout to other horror movies, bringing pleasure to the cognoscenti. Previous Nightmare entries are quoted (Freddy's tongue emerges from a phone, and the stairs turn spongy). Dylan, shown clutching a dinosaur straight out of Jurassic Park, harks back to some of the monstrous children of the 1970s; he spouts green goo like Regan in The Exorcist and his haircut brings Damien to mind (a similarity supported by a Carmina Burana reference in the score). A shadow on a wall is directly evocative of Nosferatu.

In addition to this intertextuality, and its exploration of the essence of illusion and fear, New Nightmare also deals in debate. It grasps the Media Effects nettle (does watching violent movies make kids violent? If there was no movie manifestation of Freddy, would Dylan be taping kitchen knives to his fingers?), and the narrative touches on parental responsibility (a squeamish Heather baulks at reading the gory details of Hansel & Gretel to Dylan), the effects of horror movies on those who make them (would you really trust Robert Englund as a babysitter, despite his mild-mannered demeanour in reality?) and the age-old question of why we feel the need for such warped storytelling, and bring such monstrous creatures to life with our imaginations. All-in-all it's a thoughtful, multi-layered movie, which may explain why it didn't play too well with a predominantly teen audience (who else would go to a theatre and see the latest Freddy flick?). It grossed just over $18M domestically, a long way behind Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) which turned over almost $35M in the US. It was received positively by critics, however (a whopping 84% on Rotten Tomatoes), and remains one of the most distinctive horror movies of the era.

Freddy Krueger's Creator Breaks Out of His Genre - New York Times (9 October 1994)


The Boogeyman as Brand

It was inevitable that New Line (once known as The House That Freddy Built) would want to cash in on their box office anti-hero. Their desire to milk as much money as they could from the franchise led to some uninspired sequels, and ever more convoluted attempts to kill Freddy off at the end of every movie in a manner which meant he could be brought back for the next one. The domestic box office gross (source: Box Office Mojo) bears little relation to the quality of each entry. Wes Craven's involvement in the series was inconsistent - he wrote and directed 1 and 7, and also wrote 3 and 8. There was also a TV series (Freddy's Nightmares) and a videogame for the NES, based on the 4th instalment, The Dream Master (Nightmare on Elm Street (Nintendo NES)).
Nightmare On Elm Street And Its Sequels - At A Glance
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

"If Nancy Doesn't Wake Up Screaming She Won't Wake Up At All..."

Nancy and her friends all start seeing the same sinister figure in their dreams - a shadowy trickster with the power to slaughter them in reality.

(Domestic Box Office)

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

"The first name in terror returns."

A new family moves to the Elm St. house, including the 17 year old Jesse, who starts seeing Freddy in his dreams. As the bodies begin to pile up, Freddy tries to possess Jesse, and is only thwarted when the teenager's girlfriend manages to cast him out using the power of love. Less of a sequel, more of a repeat of the first one, with a male protagonist.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

"If You Think You're Ready For Freddy, Think Again!"

Co-written by Craven and Frank Darabont (among others), this takes us away from Elm Street and moves the characters and mythology onto new turf. Nancy returns. She is now working as a dream researcher, goes to the aid of Freddy's latest victims, inmates of a teen psychiatric ward at the local Westin Hills asylum. They are all classed as suicide risks but Nancy recognises Freddy's handiwork in some of the early deaths, and realises that they are the 'last of the Elm St. children', the descendants of the vigilantes who put Freddy to death. She works with another doctor, Neil, and Kristen, one of the patients who has the power to pull other people into her dreams. Neil is being visited by a mysterious nun who tells him that Freddy's ghost is restless because he did not have a proper grave. The teenagers discover how to harness their 'dream powers' and Nancy leads a charge to finally, once and for all, vanquish Freddy by burying him in hallowed ground. Nancy dies in the final conflict, and at her funeral it is revealed that the mysterious nun is none other than the spirit of Amanda Krueger, Freddy's mother.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

"You shouldn't have buried me. I'm not dead."

The survivors of 'Dream Warriors' are now trying to lead normal lives, and make some new friends. However, Freddy returns to haunt their dreams and manages to escape (via a urinating dog) from his grave. In order to maintain his existence, he needs to bring more children under his terrifying influence. In a dream, he lures Kristen to his boiler room, and tricks her into acting as a channel whereby he can get into other kids' dreams. He kills her, but not before she has passed on her gift to Alice, who she pulls into her dream at the last minute. Now Alice has to figure out who Freddy is and how she can beat him before all of her friends die. She manages to eradicate him from her own dream by showing him his own face, but by now everyone, characters and audience alike, is hip to the fact that Freddy, inevitably, will be back.

A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Child (1989)

"It's a boy!"

Note there's no '5' in the official title, despite the number appearing on promotional material. The survivors of 'Dream Master', Dan and Alice, are dating and about to graduate. Sure enough, happiness is short-lived for our protagonists, and Alice has nightmares about a young nun who is locked up in an asylum, about to give birth. It's Amanda Krueger. The child she spawns is Freddy, back in business. As Alice's friends start dying, she discovers she is pregnant. She meets her future child - his name is Jacob, and Freddy is using him to get at Alice's friends. With a little help from the trapped soul of Amanda, Alice manages to defeat Freddy and give birth to a normal child.

Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

"You Think You Know About Dreams... You Know Nothing!"

New Line really did intend to kill Freddy off with this one and even managed to squeeze a cameo out of Johnny Depp. They also shelled out for a 3-D finale. Freddy has been up to his old tricks in the town of Springwood, Ohio, and has slaughtered all the children there, bar one, a "John Doe". Freddy ejects John - alive but amnesiac - from the town, and the confused kid makes his way to a shelter for troubled youths, completely unaware of his past. A well-meaning doctor, Maggie Burroughs, thinks a road-trip back to Springwood might jog his memory, and takes him back, oblivious to the stowaways who've hitched a ride as a way to escape from the shelter and their troubled backgrounds. However, the kids are just fresh meat for Freddy, who has used John to bring Maggie to him - it turns out the doctor is actually Freddy's daughter. Freddy uses his connection with Maggie to escape from Springwood. She discovers that he can be destroyed by pulling him into the real world (something Nancy was attempting all the way back in the first instalment), which she manages to do in the bloody climax, stabbing her daddy with his own glove and sticking a pipe bomb in his chest. Reduced to pulpy smithereens, it really seems like this time, there might be no way back for Freddy.


"This time, the terror doesn't stop at the screen"

Wes Craven was firmly back in the saddle for this one, writing and directing. It's based on the premise he came up with for the 3rd entry, which was rejected by New Line. This time, it's all real, with Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Wes Craven and producer Bob Shaye all playing themselves, in an earthquake-ridden Los Angeles (this was really happening in 1994), wondering what kind of monster they unleashed on the world by creating the original. Craven finds himself writing a new "Nightmare" screenplay, from scenes he dreams on a nightly basis that start to connect very uncomfortably with reality. Heather has to reprise her role as Nancy in order to close the door on Freddy - it turns out he is the manifestation of an ancient evil force, one that needs to be safely contained in stories. If it is trivialised - or unfairly sequelised - the evil becomes real. Freddy riles Heather/Nancy by stalkiing her young son, Dylan. She pursues Freddy onto his home turf, a soggy dreamscape, and manages to eradicate him. Or does she?

Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

"When the son of a hundred maniacs battles an unstoppable killing machine, none will survive!"

After it seemed like every last drop of blood had been wrung from Freddy's famous glove, some genius came up with the idea of a boogeyman death match. Freddy gets bored of being stuck in hell, and co-opts the spirit of Jason Vorhees, in order to head on up to the real world and kill some more kids. First stop is Springwood, Ohio, scene of Freddy's crimes in "Freddy's Dead", where they unleash carnage on the local kids. Some of the plucky teens realise they are being assailed by supernatural killers, and use the knowledge they have about the monsters' past escapades to attempt to defeat them - they head back to Westin Hills Asylum to get supplies of a dream suppressant, and, failing that, plan to pull Freddy out of a dream in order to dispatch him back to hell. The fun really begins when the horror icons turn on each other (that's what the punters pay to see, after all) and fight to the death. Or do they?


In keeping with studio policy in the 2000s, Freddy's next appearance wasn't a sequel, but a remake of the original movie. The Jackie Earle Haley starrer failed to make much of a critical impact, although it took a respectable $115,664,037 worldwide (according to boxofficemojo.com), which is why studios will keep remaking our favorite things.

Finally, here's a great infographic from HalloweenCostumes.com

Freddy Krueger Evolution Infographic
Image Created by HalloweenCostumes.com