The horror genre is not an easy one to navigate and commonly alienates large audiences with extreme images and challenging themes. But, for one reason or another, the Nightmare on Elm Street series has endured where others have failed.
A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984 to huge critical and commercial success. Including the subsequent sequels, the series has racked up a total profit of over £300,000,000 worldwide and that’s excluding Freddy Vs Jason. It is also one of the few horror franchises to introduce the world to a fictional entity as instantly recognisable as Mickey Mouse…
Freddy Kruger has been infesting our nightmares for nearly two decades and in that time he has cemented him self as one of the most popular horror icons. But, his journey to iconic status is one fraught with peril and, unfortunately, one that is not unique to him.
It is a path tread by the likes of Jason Voorhees, Pinhead, Mike Meyers and Leprechaun respectively. The problem is, the longer a franchise continues the higher the stakes. Settings, situations and special effects tend to become more elaborate in order to up the ante, to meet the increasing expectations of the audience.
As a result, this encourages a gradual incline of stupid and/or silly instances. The famed villains’ attached to these franchises suffer equally, becoming figures of slapstick ridicule.
For instance, by A Nightmare on Elm Street 6: Freddie’s Dead –we won’t even begin to approach the irony of that title- the horror element was almost completely buried under snot nosed, nineties comic cynicism. Freddy becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, kills Breckin Meyer in a video game and even invokes the spirit of Reefer Madness, dancing to Iron Butterfly in front of a poorly rendered ‘pyschedelic’ animation. In summation, the longer you drag out an idea the higher the risk of ‘clown shoes’.
However, I would argue that the main reason these films continue to appeal should not be attributed, largely, to Kruger. Though he is an essential and alluring element, it is the wildly chimerical death sequences that generate the majority of audience interest. These sequences are gifted with the setting of dream, Kruger’s realm is in the mind and that is where he lures his victims in order to murder them. This allows him to toy with and torture them in ways only limited by his own imagination which, it seems, is violently limitless. Some of the series highlights include the Tetsuo: The Iron Man, visual style of the motorbike crash in Dream Child and the Kafka-esque, cockroach metamorphosis in Dream Master.
In essence, without the dream element Freddy would be nothing more than a serial one liner that possesses a borderline obsession with the word ‘bitch’.
The combined elements of dream and character are bought to a head in the seventh installment, Wes Craven’s: New Nightmare.
This is the post-modern one where the actors and film makers who created the first film are terrorized by a real life manifestation of Freddy. He escapes the films and enters our world, haunting the dreams of those who constructed his celluloid prison. It sounds more exciting that it is. Really, it’s just one hour of grueling fake outs and screaming protagonists and another consisting of perplexing meta-jokes and fan servicing.
It’s an interesting idea with a shaky script and poor pacing.
What it does do is highlight the relationship that exists between film makers, movies and fans. At one point the film goes as far as to admit that Kruger has become a ridiculous, comic monster as the series has progressed.
Robert Englund talks about his recent nightmares, nightmares haunted by Freddy. He refers to him as ‘Darker, more evil’ than the current manifestation of Fred. This was Wes Craven’s attempt to deliver to the fans what he promised in the first film, a Freddy that is actually frightening. However, he also acknowledges that the character has gained significant popularity since the first film when he depicts a scene in which Englund, dressed as Freddy, walks onto a talk show set to the pleasure the screaming fans sitting before him.
In other words, funny Freddy sells, he’s popular but not that scary… Then again, neither is the one in New Nightmare.
As much as Craven wants to make Freddy scary again, he can’t seem to help himself from adding the occasional misguided punch line.
It’s hard to be frightened by a Kruger that tries to make out with Nancy – three times heroine of the franchise – down a phone line -a notable rehash from the first movie- his grotesque tongue stretching out like one of Mr Tickle’s mischievous appendages.
By this point in the series, it seems, Craven wants to bring the terror back but finds it difficult to shake off what has come before.
Since New Nightmare we have had Freddy Vs Jason, an entertaining example of fan boy pornography that further cements Kruger as a Jerry Lewis like jester.
At the end of the movie, Jason walks out of Crystal Lake holding Kruger’s severed head, it winks and we smirk. So, Freddy – as six so wrongly suggests – is not dead, he just needs a bit of a make over, a fresh lick of paint to get us excited again.
And so, should we be excited about the imminent re-boot? Well, there’s much to be anxious about.
To begin with, it’s directed by Sam Bayer, a great technician to be sure, his influence on the MTV generation of film directors in nothing to be sniffed at. The Saw films, for example, appear to be nothing more than direct extensions of Bayer’s 90s video catalogue.
However, his usual auteur signatures of cranked footage, scratched reels and single, over exposed negatives spliced within a ‘clean’ cut may amplify a music video but would certainly require more thought before being implemented in a feature length film.
Michel Gondry and Jonas Akerlund are just a couple of examples of video makers-come-feature directors that failed to deliver with their first film projects. Both Human Nature and Spun felt like extended music videos, suffering from an episodic approach to narrative and scattergun visuals.
Ultimately, this is decisively unsteady ground for Bayer and the film may suffer as a result.
However, this ‘re-imagining’ does have one particularly lethal trick up its striped sleeve, Jackie Earle Haley.
Casting Haley as Kruger may be the unfiltered adrenaline boost that this franchise so sorely needs.
The fan boys have cried bloody murder at the dropping of Robert Englund as the dream time killer. But, frankly, he was never any good at playing it straight. Kruger always had the potential to be terrifying, the idea of him was solid, but Englund always infused the character with too much of a ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ personality, blunting his daggered digits.
With all due respect to Englund, Haley is an actor that carries far more weight. His disturbing turn in Little Children and captivating, if silly, portrayal of Rorschach in Watchmen prove what a talent this man is.
This casting will hopefully distance the character from what he has become and may even make Craven’s dream come true, of a Kruger that is genuinely menacing.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) is released on April 9th. Funny, scary or just plain disappointing, it’s hard not to become excited about the prospect of another Elm Street film which, in a small way, is testament to the franchises enduring popularity.