It’s goodnight and good riddance to a genuine horror icon
It was supposed to be a monumental event; Freddy’s Dead, long live Freddy!
For years, Wes Craven’s most memorable creation had been the undisputed king of horror, New Line Cinema taking a once in a lifetime concept and running it into the ground, forging a money-spinning icon who would exceed the expectations of even the most ambitious executive with dollar signs for eyeballs. During his original tenure, Krueger became a macabre poster boy for kids across America. Michael Myers may have triggered the slasher craze, Jason Voorhees was just as mindlessly compelling to teenagers queuing up for their weekend scare, but Krueger was MTV’s first bona fide horror rock star, a marquee attraction who left fans falling at the knees of razor-fingered commercialism.
The original Krueger was a monster in every sense of the word: a horribly disfigured child killer who took great pleasure in hunting terrified teenagers in their dreams, a sacred realm he would exploit in a ceaseless quest to fulfil every last sadistic whim. Though Craven hadn’t wanted a sequel to the original A Nightmare On Elm Street, producer Robert Shaye — who had taken a chance on a script that had been passed around with glib disinterest — convinced him otherwise, and so franchise anomaly Freddy’s Revenge came into existence, a movie that ditched the dreamworld concept for a straight-up possession story. That the movie proved divisive among fans is an understatement, but the sequel did great numbers — proof that audiences wanted more of horror’s fritter-faced bad boy. It may have been silly in parts, but Krueger has arguably never looked scarier, and a familiar cliffhanger told us that New Line weren’t finished with their star attraction quite yet.
Two years later we would get A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, a movie that would truly capture the commercial value of Robert Englund’s cackling gunslinger. For many, The Dream Warriors is the best of the bunch, though others feel it drew Freddy out of the darkness, triggering one of the most staggering examples of character decline in horror cinema. For me, both points are valid. Thanks to some breathtaking practical effects set-pieces, The Dream Warriors would expand on Krueger’s dreamworld omnipotence with craft and imagination, but the film would begin to tread camp ground, and when Freddy greeted self-harming psychiatric patient Jennifer with the immortal line, ‘Welcome to prime time, bitch,’ he may as well have been talking to himself.
New Line was once referred to as ‘the house that Freddy built’, and though The Dream Warriors laid the foundations, it was 1988‘s A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master that added the commercial doilies. It also raised the value of their property even further, becoming the most successful instalment in the entire series. All in all, the two movies would rake in almost $100,000,000 from roughly a fifth of that, the series transforming the long-struggling company into major Hollywood players who would one day bring us the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Dream Master would make humour the movie’s main focus, as New Line looked to market Krueger more broadly, with a series of mesmerising practical effects set-pieces that eclipsed anything they’d done before. Some of them were so expensive that they jeopardised other scenes — apparently this was the reason why unlikely karate expert Rick battled an invisible Freddy, a cost-cutting venture that allowed director Renny Harlin to stay within budget.
To be fair, the movie was somewhat imaginative, but its overriding intentions were clear. Krueger was no longer a character to fear. He was someone who could appeal to the mindless MTV generation, a cash cow whose potential for crappy, youth-oriented merchandise was somehow limitless. Such a mainstream fancy had Krueger become that the movie’s soundtrack was a veritable who’s who of pop, featuring tracks from Go West, Blondie and even actress-come-pop star Tuesday Knight, who as well as playing Kristen performed the track “Nightmare”, the song which plays during the opening credits. Gone were the uglier days of dank cellars and Charles Bernstein’s blood-curdling score. The movie’s primary goal was to tick all the correct commercial boxes, and it did so at the expense of the character’s integrity with a silver screen stand-up act that spelled doom for the franchise in the long-term.
The Dream Master may have started the creative rot, but for me A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child was where I kind of tuned out. I’m sure there are millions out there who dig the movie’s campier instalments; hell, I have a huge soft spot for the heavily censored and distinctly vacuous Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood without being able to explain exactly why, but The Dream Child offended me deeply. Even as a young Freddy fanatic I was somewhat nonplussed. At seven years old (yes, seven, and there were millions more just like me), The Dream Master was my absolute favourite instalment, so they must have got something right, but even then I sensed that something was awry as the series approached the barren ’90s. The formula that had enchanted me so successfully just a year prior was becoming harder to swallow, particularly a convoluted backstory and wacky fetus-based narrative that confused me more than anything else. I still bought into it, consumed the movie ad nauseum, but by that point it had been drilled into me. The Freddy I knew and loved was becoming something altogether different, and my enthusiasm for the character quickly began to fade.
Clearly I wasn’t the only one. Despite a fairly strong opening weekend of $6,000,000, the movie took a staggering dip at the box office with a US gross of $22,168,359. It still managed a healthy profit margin for a movie with relatively low expense (somewhere in the region of $16,000,000), but that was chump change compared with the previous two instalments, making The Dream Child the least successful instalment of the entire franchise. It’s hard to recall just how much of a commercial phenomenon Krueger was back in his late-80s pomp, but such a shameless venture had quickly taken its toll, a series of camp television spots, celebrity tie-ins and ungodly merchandise proving overkill for the casual fan. But there were still enough Freddy die hards out there to justify one last commercial punt, and those whose interest had waned would be thrown the kind of gimmicky bone that was tried-and-tested in the industry: they were finally going to kill-off Krueger.
This could easily have turned out to be a pro wrestling style, loser-leaves-town sham like 1984’s Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter, and one can almost taste the disgust of those who had it pegged as such, but you best believe that the majority of those people would ultimately part with their hard-earned cash to witness one of horror’s most legendary creations bite the dust — and in 3-D no less. Yes, New Line pulled out all the tricks to get butts in seats one last time. If Part 5 had proven a step too far creatively, they would make up for it with as many cheap embellishments as possible, including a plethora of pointless celebrity cameos from the likes of Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold, a returning Johnny Depp and even rock star Alice Cooper, here uncredited as Freddy’s abusive father. So transparent was their gimmickry that on September 12, 1991, a day before the U.S. release of the movie, Los Angeles declared it Freddy Krueger Day. Freddy Krueger Day! Did they know the first thing about the origins of this character?
As expected, the cheap tricks worked, Freddy’s Dead boasting the highest opening weekend for the franchise up to that point — a record that would stand until the release of the long-awaited Freddy vs. Jason in 2003. It was also a fairly successful swansong, the movie managing a rather healthy US box office gross of $34,872,033, a quite staggering fifteenth round comeback for a series that had risked sure footing for a killer blow. Though I was too young to see Freddy’s Dead at theatres, I still remember renting it and the lack of an impression that the lousy 3-D finale left on me, particularly since I had waited weeks to rent a movie in high demand from Freddy freaks across the country. As a UK resident, I was fortunate enough (or not) to see the 3-D finale in its entirety, parts of the effect having been removed from most home video releases. It even came with a pair of cardboard glasses, the kind that struggle to stay on, hardly work and puncture your ears with the kind of nasty little paper cuts Krueger himself would have been proud of. To say it was underwhelming is a gross understatement, but the quality of the final product mattered less than ever.
Funnily enough, I remembered very little else about the movie when I finally decided to return to it all these years later, and I’d seen it a fair few times as a younger man, so make of that what you will. I was somewhat shocked to find that the movie began by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche. Immediately after came a smart-assed quote from Freddy himself in what I imagine was supposed to be some kind of self-reflexive zinger, a shameless declaration of how silly things had become. Once again we open with a nightmare, but unlike Tina’s descent into the rotten bowels of Freddy’s boiler room, or even the equally unsettling desert bus ride in Freddy’s Revenge, there is no attempt to scare us here. Freddy’s Dead opens more like a Joel Schumacher Batman production on a diminutive budget. Though carrying an 18 certificate, this is horror in the very loosest sense.
It’s amazing to think that this movie received an R rating back in 1989. Times have obviously changed, but there’s about as much explicit material here as an episode of Eerie, Indiana. No females die in Freddy’s Dead, which in itself removes it from any semblance of its slasher lineage. In fact, there are only three victims in the entire movie, which ties it with The Dream Child as having the lowest body count in the series, and those who meet their demise do so in the most ludicrous fashion. The movie’s ‘Janet Leigh’ succumbs to a kill sequence right out of a Roadrunner cartoon, while stoner Spencer (Breckin Meyer) is given the more ignominious fate of death by Nintendo Power Glove — or at the very least its non-licensed, fraudulent derivative. There is one kill of note; that of Carlos, a cringing practical effects explosion that Robert Englund would cite as his favourite death sequence in the entire series. It’s rather creative, as are many of those sequences. It’s just a shame Freddy’s ceaseless tomfoolery gets in the way. As an adult, the sight of the once fearsome Krueger cracking jokes and dancing next to a blackboard left me pinching my temples with disbelief.
For me personally, it was a sad state of affairs. By the time of The Dream Child‘s release, the great Robert Englund had been reduced to a performing circus bear — albeit a willing one. Revisiting the movie I almost pitied what he had been reduced to. After all, this was an actor who brought one of the most evil horror entities to life, and Freddy’s Dead is even more micromanaged than its predecessor. I’m sure Englund didn’t care too much. When the money’s there you take it, and the actor did very well for himself over the years as the face of Krueger. In fact, he should be applauded for carrying some of those later instalments, despite the material at hand. Englund is an incredible talent who had paid his dues in the industry, and he had more than earned the truckloads of money delivered to his doorstep as the series careened headlong into the bowels of commercial hell. Without Englund, there is no Krueger, something Robert Shaye quickly found out after trying to replace him for a cheaper option in Freddy’s Revenge, a decision that he quickly reneged on. For this reason, I’m glad those later movies exist.
All of this may sound a little harsh to those of you who prefer this variation of Freddy (and I’m sure there are many of you out there), but strangely enough Freddy’s Dead didn’t offend me half as much as the previous instalment. I think the reason for this is that the damage was already done. Either this kind of commercial claptrap had grown on me or I’d simply accepted what the series had become. The Dream Child killed Krueger with its convoluted backstory, fairy tale staging and insufferable puns, something I doubt I’ll ever be able to forgive it for. Does that make Freddy’s Dead a better movie? Not at all. In fact, it’s guilty of all those things and then some. The movie is so far off the pulse of humanity you can almost taste the boardroom; you can feel the sticky corporate fingerprints all over it, a situation no doubt exacerbated by the fact that director Rachel Talalay became so sick that production was delayed and the last several hours of shooting were left to someone else, including that all-important, 3-D finale.
The plot is a rather familiar one. Once again, Freddy is looking to be reborn, and once again he is using a member of his bloodline to do so. The idea that Krueger wants to return to the real world has always troubled me. It seems to me that Krueger works best when he remains elusive to the real world. That way he can torture his victims further by having folks think that they are crazy, that the razor-fingered killer who they dream of is just that: a harmless dream. By maintaining his anonymity he can also pin the murders on those kids with something of a bad rep, like Rod in the first movie. With absolute omnipotence, the dreamworld provides a limitless canvas for Freddy’s sadistic indulgences. He is untouchable, ethereal, completely and utterly infallible. Rather than escaping to a realm where such privilege would cease to exist, you’d think he’d be pretty content with his predicament.
There is so much unnecessary backstory here that you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a different character entirely. We even see actor Englund unmasked for long spells, which totally destroys the mystique of a character who is supposed to be supernatural and beyond the realms of tangibility. Freddy’s Dead was originally intended as a more direct follow-up to The Dream Child but the studio’s failure to entice actress Lisa Wilcox put an end to that, her character Alice Johnson originally set to be a major character. John Doe — the movie’s Psycho esque, quasi-protagonist — was also supposed to be Jacob from the original movie, but who cares, right? Instead, why not turn one of the most vile horror creations the industry has ever known into a sympathetic character driven crazy by his abusive father? Then we can shackle the infamous child molester with a white picket fence daughter in an icky development that sees actress Lisa Zane dress up like a school girl for a dream sequence, and it doesn’t help that she’s hotter than fried butter. Even more disturbing is the fact that Freddy’s Dead brought back repressed memories of molestation for co-star Lezlie Deane; this, a movie that shamelessly tapped into the youth demographic.
In the end, the character deserved more than to go out with a ruthlessly marketed popcorn fart. After all, this was a monster who once rejuvenated the creatively barren slasher formula, offering something fresh and inventive to fans who had trawled through so much derivative nonsense during the early part of the 1980s. The movie may have proven less offensive than The Dream Child, but that just meant I was past caring, and, more crucially, that New Line were past caring. Way past caring. Before The Dream Child, each instalment at least had something worthwhile, be it Craven’s genius in creating the almost seamless delineations between dreams and reality, Englund’s sadistic charms or an imaginative practical effects set-piece, but by Freddy’s Dead there’s nothing left: no real plot (asides from a thinly-veiled Flatliners rip-off in which each character induces sleep in a controlled environment), no characters worth remembering and an antagonist who belongs to a Punch and Judy set. The movie is humourless, bereft of horror and micromanaged beyond inspiration, prancing around like a second-rate pantomime struggling through its final tour. The set-pieces exhibit a degree of visual flair, but the cut-and-shut formula is wearing thin, and the class clown can only be humorous for so long. The moment I saw Freddy hovering Witch-like on a broomstick I cashed myself out.
For those of you who prefer the character’s sillier incarnation, I apologise for such unabashed cynicism — these things are subjective, after all — but for me Krueger has always worked best in the shadows, not in the extravagantly staged, glittering lights of celebrity.
Sweet dreams, bitch.