A couple of years ago I started a feature around Halloween called “What’s All This Then?” The idea behind it was to try to catch up on bits of popular culture that I’ve been lax about visiting and see if I think it’s worthy of all the fuss. The first (and until now, only) subject was the Halloween movies (parts one, two, and three). Since it’s getting to be Halloween again, I thought I’d bring WATT? back from the grave and take a look at another classic horror-series that I’m not all that familiar with.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Before this project, I’d seen three of the Nightmare films: the odd-numbered ones, for some reason. Like the Halloween series, what attracts me to the Nightmare movies is the desire to see how it works as a complete story. I enjoyed the Halloween series a lot more than I thought I would, but it didn’t end up working well as a continuing story. Important elements kept getting added and dropped depending on the whims of whoever had the most power over the latest flick. I’m curious to see if Nightmare is handled any better.
Just in case you’re even less up on Nightmare on Elm Street than I am (though I don’t know how that’s possible), the story’s about a group of Elm Street teenagers who are all having similar dreams about a horribly scarred man with a clawed, metal glove. When one of them – Tina – is murdered by an invisible attacker while in bed with her boyfriend Rod, her other two friends Nancy and Glen (Johnny Depp’s first role) start to realize that there’s something more going on than just dreams. Nancy quickly becomes the focal point of the film as she uncovers the story of a child-murderer named Fred Krueger who was himself killed by the Elm Street parents.
It’s been years since I last saw the movie and I was surprised by how few deaths there really are and how – relatively speaking – tame they are. Only four people die. Tina’s the worst, getting carved up in her bed as she sleeps. Glen’s death features a geyser of blood, but his body goes off-camera before that happens. Rod’s is tamest of all. He’s in jail under suspicion for Tina’s death when Krueger ties a sheet around his neck and fakes a suicidal hanging. I’ll get to the last death in a minute.
I can see why audiences took to Krueger right away. Even though he’s a horrible, sadistic killer, he’s way more interesting – at least on a surface level – than the silent, personality-less Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. Krueger’s jokes aren’t really funny, but that he’s cracking them at all is pretty revolutionary for a slasher film. He’s also a lot quicker and more active than at least Michael Myers. (Next year I’ll have to catch up on Jason’s story; I don’t know much about how he operates yet.) He was such a different horror villain that Wes Craven didn’t need a particularly high body count to spice up the movie.
More important than Krueger’s personality though is Craven’s genius in making something as essential as sleep an object of fear. Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t harrowing to watch because of gory deaths. It’s exhausting because everyone can relate to the need for sleep and everyone can imagine how frustrating and maddening it would be if falling asleep meant death. Much scarier than kids getting chased through dark basements by a wise-cracking serial killer are the scenes of kids terrified to fall asleep because they know what’s waiting for them there.
Still, even though Craven tapped into something real and primal for the movie, it’s always been hard for me to like it because of a couple of things that happen at the end. Before he dies, Glen shares with Nancy something he read about our nightmares’ being powered by fear. That’s not exactly a revelation, but what he extrapolates from that is that if you stop being afraid, the nightmare goes away. And that ends up being how Nancy beats Krueger: she turns her back on him and he disappears. I always thought that was really easy and stupid, and it is, but what bothered me even more was the final scene.
After Nancy beats Krueger, we get a scene of her leaving the house for school. Glen, Tina, and Rod are all still alive and pick her up in a convertible. Then the roof goes up on the car and it’s the same pattern as Krueger’s iconic sweater. Nancy and her friends scream in terror as the Krueger-mobile drives them down the street, presumably to their deaths, while Nancy’s mom waves from the front door of the house. Then Krueger’s arm reaches from inside the house and yanks Mom back inside. The End.
I was never able to figure that out, because I always assumed that it was Nancy’s dream. And that doesn’t make any sense because Nancy’s supposedly defeated Krueger. His invading her dreams again in the very next scene completely destroys the point of the climax. I was quite ready to give the movie two out of five bathtub drownings, but then I saw the second movie and figured out that the last scene in this one wasn’t Nancy’s dream at all.
Four out of five bathtub drownings.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
It was Nancy’s mom’s dream.
This movie picks up a few years later (though it came out only a year after the first). Nancy’s old house has been vacant until the Walshes recently moved in. Teen-aged son Jesse starts having nightmares immediately.
He soon learns from friends at school about Nancy Thompson and her mom. The public story is that Nancy’s mom killed herself in the living room and Nancy went crazy, which totally explains the final scene of the first movie. Nancy did defeat Krueger, so he just went and killed her mom instead.
What’s different about Nightmare 2 – and the reason it doesn’t work as well as the first one – is that it’s not about dying when you fall asleep. Krueger’s not trying to kill Jesse; he’s trying to possess him. It’s a clever angle and leads to some potentially interesting dilemmas for Jesse as he goes around slaughtering people in his sleep, but it’s never explored very well. Outside of personal guilt over what he’s doing and fear of what he’s becoming, there aren’t any real consequences for his involuntary actions. He flees murder scenes – presumably leaving all kinds of evidence behind – but the police never so much as question him. When he talks to his girlfriend Lisa about it, the conversations are all about Jesse’s resisting Krueger’s influence and Lisa’s belief that he can do it. There’s never any talk about turning himself in or getting some help.
More damning than the lack of consequences though is that Jesse’s only real danger is metaphysical. His body’s being taken over by Krueger, so that’s a kind of death I guess, but it’s way less dramatic than being sliced apart by the boogie man. And way less scary.
There’s also another final scene that seems to come out of nowhere. Jesse and his friends – those who’ve survived the slaughter anyway – are on the school bus and Krueger attacks them. It’s obviously meant to remind us of the last scene from the first movie, but unfortunately it also does that by making as little sense as that one did. Krueger hasn’t been attacking people through their dreams in Nightmare 2, so how does he pull this off? Has he possessed someone else? I’ve got no idea and my vague memory of Nightmare 3 isn’t helping. I may adjust this rating after I’ve seen more if it makes sense, but for now…
Two out of five pool party massacres. (And one of those is simply because Kim Myers is absolutely gorgeous as Lisa.)