FIRST AMONG THE FRANCHISE: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Every installment of FIRST AMONG THE FRANCHISE will present an overview of one famous film series, then showcase the one film within that series that is both the best overall movie, as well as the film most representative of the themes, mood and style of that franchise. Readers can then voice their own opinion by voting for the franchise entry they think is the best in the poll linked to at the end of the article. This week: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
Every week FIRST AMONG THE FRANCHISE will focus on one movie franchise, presenting an overview of its history before showcasing the one movie in that series that is both the best overall film and best represents what that series has to offer.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
Year Franchise Started: 1984
Number of Installments: 9
Year Latest Installment in the Franchise was Released: 2010
When filmmaker Wes Craven conceived of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET the core idea was unlike virtually anything that had come before. While a dead killer returning from the grave to get revenge on those that put him there was a story that people had heard dozens and dozens of times, it was Craven’s idea that his murderous creation, Freddy Krueger, would use nightmares to come back to life and hunt his victims that made for such a unique and horrifying tale.
Initially, Craven had a hard time finding both the funds he needed to make the picture and a distributor for the film once it was completed. Then fledgling studio NEW LINE CINEMA (who had only distributed a few shorts and one full length movie, and had never financed any films) took a gamble on Craven and his script for a somewhat surreal little horror film, and agreed to both finance and distribute A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. It was a risk that would end up paying off in spades for NEW LINE, and for years afterwards the studio became known as “The House that Freddy Built.”
With his script ready and his financing secured, all that Craven had to do was make the actual film. For the teen-aged leads he assembled a cast of strong actors with little in the way of prior experience (one of whom was Johnny Depp, making his film debut), cast John Saxon in a relatively small, but important supporting role, and then went in search of his Freddy. He started out looking for a large, thickly built older man for the role… so when a slight, harmless looking young actor named Robert Englund came in to audition, his odds of landing the part seemed pretty slim. It probably didn't help that at that time Englund was best known for playing the character of “Willie,” one of the few lizard aliens that didn't want to eat people, in the made for TV miniseries “V,” its sequel “V: THE FINAL BATTLE,” and the “V” ongoing series, which lasted one season.
Robert Englund’s audition must have really been something, however, because despite his unimposing stature and friendly features, Englund impressed Wes Craven enough for him to change Freddy from a slow, large, brutish killer along the lines of Jason or Leatherface, into the short, thin and somewhat manic maniac that Englund would portray.
While the burned to a crisp make-up design wouldn't really become the iconic look that most people think of when they hear the name “Freddy Krueger” until part 3 or so, the basics were all there in the original: Sneering, hairless head covered in burns (with makeup designed and applied by David Miller); filthy red and green striped sweater (which, in the first film, had no stripes on the arms); battered fedora... But probably the most important aspect of the characters design was, of course, the glove.
Created by Jim Doyle, Freddy’s signature weapon was a crudely welded together metal claw consisting of four wicked looking blades attached to metal plates bolted onto a leather glove; the design was both simple and convincingly lethal looking. Other than small tweaks here and there, it would remained unchanged for all 7 movies in the original storyline, and was only slightly modified for the recent Nightmare remake.
When at last all of the required pieces came together and the first A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET film was released into theaters, it was a huge success. More importantly, it was NEW LINE CINEMA’s only success at that point, therefore, as the only commodity the studio could exploit, the Nightmare franchise was born.
From 1984 to 1991 Freddy managed to slash his way through six films before his daughter sent him to hell at the end of FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE. After that came 1994's WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, a sort of side story to the Nightmare series which takes place in our world, where Freddy is a character in a series of films released by NEW LINE CINEMA and Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp play themselves. Finally, in 2003, with the assistance of a certain hockey mask wearing, indestructible mongoloid, Freddy managed to escape from hell in FREDDY VS. JASON. Krueger bit off a bit more than he could chew with that particular scheme, however, and a ticked off Jason ended up sending him right back into the hellfire.
Then, in 2010 New Line released a remake of the original Nightmare. For the first time in anything more than a brief flashback sequence, an actor other than Robert Englund - Jackie Earle Haley (who gave an amazing performance as Rorschach in WATCHMEN) - played the role of Freddy Krueger.
So, to recap, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise contains nine films. They are:
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE (1985)
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987)
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER (1988)
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD (1989)
FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE (1991)
WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994)
FREDDY VS. JASON (2003)
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010)
Before I reveal which of these is FIRST AMONG THE FRANCHISE, and is the one film in the Nightmare on Elm Street series that does the best job at presenting the core concepts at its heart while also being a well made, scary, entertaining and memorable film – here are the runner-ups.
FIRST RUNNER UP – A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
The original Nightmare is still a very good film. Great lighting and cinematography combine with a creepy musical score and strong lead performances to bring together a movie experience that remains creepy and fun almost 30 years later. Only a ridiculous “jump scare” ending holds this movie back from perfection.
SECOND RUNNER UP - FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE
This movie is a lot of fun to watch with some friends after chugging a few beers, smoking a couple of bowls or otherwise getting nice and relaxed and in the mood to be entertained. It never tries very hard to be scary, and suffers from too many issues to be a truly good film, but Freddy’s Dead is wildly entertaining. This is a Freddy so stuffed full of the souls of his victims that he’s gotten a bit drunk on his own power, and now is just having a good time. It’s worth watching just to see Freddy turn a victim into a video game character and butcher him using his own, customized Nintendo POWER GLOVE. Not, under any circumstances, a film to ever take seriously, but always a ton of fun to watch.
THIRD RUNNER UP - FREDDY VS. JASON
Besides providing fans of both the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises with the deathmatch we’d been waiting for since 1993 (when Freddy’s gloved hand appeared up at the end of JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY and snagged Jason’s hockey mask), it also presents us with the most perverse and evil Freddy that we've seen since Nightmare 3. Not without its flaws (many of which are due to director Ronny Yu insisting that the film be as close to 90 minutes long as possible) and miscalculations (not bringing back Kane Hodder to play Jason resulted in a portrayal of the masked killer that was all wrong for this particular film. Hodder’s ability to communicate total rage using only his body language was sorely missed here), nevertheless FREDDY VS. JASON remains a monstrously entertaining film, and a solid entry into both of the franchises that spawned it.
Now, at long last, I present the best that the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise has to offer. The film that is not only the most entertaining installment in this series of nine feature films, but also the single movie that best represents the ideas, style and mood of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. First among the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise is…
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS
When A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE was unleashed upon movie goers in 1985, not only did the film fail as an entertaining follow up to the original, but it also failed to recognize or utilize any of the things that were unique and interesting about A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and its lead villain Fred Krueger. With a nonsensical plot that hinged on the idea that Freddy would, for some reason, rather be a living, breathing vulnerable serial killer again, instead of a virtually indestructible dream god, the first sequel in the Nightmare series left a lot to be desired.
Fortunately, along came A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, which not only ignored Nightmare 2 and acted as a direct sequel to the original film, but was also every bit as good as the second film was bad.
The script to Nightmare 3 does everything you want a great horror sequel to do… Actually, scratch that – it does everything you want a great horror MOVIE to do, period. Filled with likable, relatable characters trying to pull together and survive against a horrifying enemy that virtually no one else believes even exists, the surviving “Elm street children” that the narrative follows are some of the best written and acted characters seen in any slasher film. Primary writer Frank Darabont (who goes on to make films like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE and THE MIST, as well as producing the first season of THE WALKING DEAD) knows the secret to making horror films scare the audience is introducing characters that they like, and don’t want to see get butchered. This may sound like a pretty basic concept, and it is, but you would be surprised how many other 80’s slasher films failed to grasp this idea.
As good as the characterizations and dialogue are, a couple of poor performances could still have dragged the whole thing down, but, fortunately, acting is, across the board, top notch in this film, with actors like Patricia Arquette and Laurence Fishburne in early roles.
Besides the likable main characters, the writing in Nightmare 3 shines in a couple of other areas as well. Firstly, Freddy is given a bit of a personality for the first time, and while he has a few, very dark humored, one-liners to say, this isn't the silly, over-the-top clowning Freddy of FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE. Robert Englund plays the role with the right combination of swagger and sinister, and, for my money, this is the only time the balance between Freddy’s humor and sadism is gotten exactly right. He has enough dialogue to make him interesting, but not so much that he comes across as being more focused on getting a laugh than he is in gutting victims.
Krueger’s look is also perfect. This is the first movie that features a Freddy that actually looks like the Freddy you think of when you imagine the character in your head. Kevin Yagher, who designed and applied the Freddy makeup from Nightmare 2 until Nightmare 4 (and also created and operated the Crypt Keeper from TALES FROM THE CRYPT), adds a few subtle touches to the full-head burn design (such as a slightly demonic-looking brow and a bit of a witch nose) that serve to give Krueger a look that is a little more monstrous and a little less actual burn victim.
The most important thing that A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS brings to the Nightmare series is its interpretation of how Freddy operates in the dream world. The set pieces exploring this are imaginative, well realized and, unlike some similar scenes in later sequels, never feel shoehorned in. Freddy turning into a giant worm and attempting to eat one of his victims; Freddy attacking the teen in the wheelchair with a huge, blade and drill covered wheelchair of death; Freddy attacking the guests on a talk show one character falls asleep watching, before then coming out of the TV to kill her, too – these are the sorts of sequences that separate the Nightmare films from any other slasher franchise, and they are never done more consistently, more impressively or less intrusively than the dream scenes that were conceived and brought to life for Nightmare 3.
In fact, for a movie made in the mid 1980’s, Nightmare 3 still looks fantastic today. Both the cinematography and the lighting are great, and the whole thing genuinely comes across like you are watching A Nightmare on Elm Street movie that Steven Spielberg was somehow talked into directing. The same confidence and high degree of polish you find in any of Spielberg’s films is also present here. Chuck Russell, who also directed the criminally underrated remake of The Blob, delivered the most beautifully shot A Nightmare on Elm Street film to date, and did so without any other aspect of the movie suffering as a result.
Over the course of the film more is revealed about Freddy’s backstory, and between this new information, the spectacular dream sequences, the perfected Freddy makeup, the stunning cinematography and the likable and well acted characters, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS ends up having an epic, horror/fantasy feel that is unique among slasher films. The original Nightmare film may have paved the way for Dream Warriors to exist, but Dream Warriors took the ideas and execution of the first film and raised them to the next level. More than any installment before or since, this is the movie that defined who Freddy Krueger was and how he went about his nasty work. Not only is A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS the best entry in the Nightmare Franchise, it’s also one of the greatest horror films ever made, period.
For a gallery of images from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, click HERE.
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