Freddy Krueger...and the Evolution of a Franchise

5/03/2010 Posted by Admin


Freddy Kruger...and the Evolution of a Franchise

By our guest blogger, Jeremy Wilkinson

Now that Jackie Earle Haley is stepping into the shoes of the dream-walker Freddy Krueger, that horror icon is on everyone’s mind. Freddy has caused audiences to scream in terror for over two decades. There’s not doubt that he deserves to be called a legend in the horror genre, but it’s not clear if he’s the greatest. Freddy has stiff competition from other horror greats such as Pinhead from "Hellraiser" and lesser-known killers like Simon from "The Ugly." Throughout his career, his ability to invoke fear has fluctuated as new writers and directors tried their hands at weaving a nightmare. With the "A Nightmare on Elm Street" now remake in theaters, it’s time to take a look back on the highs and lows of the man Robert Englund made famous.

Note: This article will contain spoilers about the original movies.

From his first appearance in the original "Nightmare," Freddy Krueger was stamped into viewers’ mind. The burnt boogeyman had an odd fashion sense about him--a dusty fedora, old slacks, and a red-and-green sweater. Besides his skin, his most iconic look is probably the clawed glove he wears on his right hand. Jason’s machete may be famous too, but Freddy’s claw is not something you can just find in a tool shed (unless you’re in an Evil Dead film). Freddy handcrafted his weapon, and it reminds one of something animalistic. It gives the impression of a predator.

But the biggest difference between Freddy and other villains is how he went about his work. He invaded the dreams of those he stalked. In the dream world, Freddy has complete control. That is key to what makes him so scary. In theory, you can escape from other murderers if you had a car, or maybe airplane tickets. Even Pinhead could be bargained with, despite how scary he is.

There is no escape from Freddy Krueger. You can try and stay awake, popping caffeine pills or watching television, but your body will eventually shut down. While you dream, Freddy can toy with you in any manner he sees fit. He’s a painter, and your dreams are his canvas.

That is the basic premise of Freddy--a killer who strikes against teens where their parents cannot help them. It is a terrifying concept, but believe it or not, Freddy is not always scary. It really depends on what movie you see.

In the original "Nightmare," Freddy was the villain described above. He had a deep, demonic voice and would occasionally taunt the ones he attacked. Maybe he’d slice his fingers off, or maybe he’d take the form of someone close to you. Thanks to the relatively low budget, his manipulations of the dream world were limited, but never disappointing. Some of the more memorable tricks were the melting stairs, and when Nancy’s phone turned into Freddy’s mouth. Freddy was easily able to frighten viewers.

Then "A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge" came to fruition and thus began the killer’s slow descent in quality.  "Freddy’s Revenge" failed on multiple levels. Jesse, the main character, is haunted by dreams of the killer, and Freddy begins to possess Jesse’s body. Mark Patton plays Jesse. Mark cannot seem to make the character sympathetic. Jesse comes off as whiny for most of the film, not sympathetically fearful. The writers also decided to drastically change the rules of the game. Freddy ends up coming into the waking world through Jesse, and retains his powers of reality manipulation.

A huge flaw is that Freddy seems merely incidental in this movie--a cardinal sin when a film is based on a certain character. Yes, he is still the primary antagonist, but he was turned into a twisted metaphor for a character struggling with homosexuality--or, at least, that’s how it tends to come across. It’s not that Freddy is too sacred to represent an abstract concept--he often is seen as a representation of the dangers of neglecting children. The problem with this is that the whole idea is poorly executed. The few characters that have the most homosexual subtext are either annoying (like Jesse) or cruel (like the gym teacher). It often comes across as insensitive, especially when Jesse’s girlfriend saves Jesse from Freddy and they date, seemingly restoring the norm of heterosexuality in a character that might not be.

It’s not as bad as "Highlander II," but it’s not very good either.

While this marked a descent in the francise, it also marked another pattern. No matter how bad a "Nightmare" movie was, or how they butchered Freddy’s character, every movie had at least had an interesting thing going for it. In this film, it was the notion that Freddy could possess the living. If done correctly, this aspect of his powers could be exploited to increase, rather than detract, from the horror presented in the story.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors" followed Freddy’s Revenge two years later. This movie is the sequel that should have followed the first movie directly. In this entry, Freddy terrorizes teenagers in a psychiatric hospital. It’s a great premise that is well utilized. One possible reason for the higher quality of "Dream Warriors" is that Wes Craven returned as a co-writer. Craven had nothing to do with Freddy’s Revenge.

"Dream Warriors" also had a higher budget than both the previous films. This is evident when you see the things done in the nightmares of the protagonists. Murders became more elaborate. It’s shown off near the beginning when Freddy attacks one of the main characters in the form of a giant worm-like creature. Later still, Freddy uses a boy’s tendons as puppet strings, and makes the boy walk off a building. The film’s special effects are beautiful to behold, in a macabre sort of way.

Thanks to good writing and gory effects, Freddy once again became a meaningful menace.

That said, "Dream Warriors" began a trend that ultimately would  ruin the character. Freddy always had made comments to those he killed, but in "Dream Warriors," these comments were more frequent and a little more comedic. It worked well in this film, but not in others.

The following two sequels--"The Dream Master" and "The Dream Child"--both had their high points. The special effects were still a sight to see, with some creative kills. However, the quality had decreased and Freddy became yet more comedic.

By the time "Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare" was released, Freddy Krueger had become the horror equivalent of an '80s action hero. One-liners were freely spouted, and many of the attributes that made him frightening were gone. Freddy was a catchphrase machine, who just happened to kill teenagers in their dreams. It’s got all the makings of a great B-movie, but it fails because that is not what Freddy was supposed to be about. His character had changed too much. Other horror franchises had similar evolutions. The "Child’s Play" movies have became tongue-in-cheek comedy horror films (which actually works for that franchise), and "Hellraiser’s" mythology has slowly been watered down.

An example of the poor quality comes early on. “John Doe” (Shon Greenblatt) has a nightmare that his house is falling from the sky. Freddy pops by a window and says, “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little soul, too!” Not only is this not the Freddy from the first movie, these lines he spouts out are not funny. Maybe you’ll laugh, but much like an Ed Wood movie, you’re likely laughing because it’s so bad.

Other characters do not fare better. Springwood has been devoid of children for years, and all the adults there are crazy. Not convincingly crazy, mind you, but rather a child’s definition of crazy. Every ‘crazy’ person is played in an over-the-top fashion similar to how Freddy is now being portrayed. This is easily the worst film in the series.

It’s too bad, too. Had this been a movie independent of the "Nightmare" series with a different villain, it might have been an enjoyably cheesy B-movie.

As stated before, every movie has at least one good point. In "Freddy’s Dead," the audience is shown much of Freddy’s back-story. It’s actually interesting to go back and see events that contributed to the making of a murderer. It’s still poorly done in spots, and certainly does not match up with the tone of the rest of the film, but it’s still a nice touch.

Even though the writers had committed character assassination against the villain, there was room for another film. Wes Craven came back as a writer, producer, and director. Once again, in the hands of a competent horror director, Freddy became terrifying.

In Wes Craven’s "New Nightmare," Heather Langenkamp returned for the second time. Instead of playing Nancy, however, she played herself. "New Nightmare" brought Freddy into the “real” world, where all the actors from the first movie played themselves. Freddy was just the most recent form of an ancient evil that was trapped in various forms by storytellers. Now that the series had ended, the evil began to bleed into reality, stuck in the form of Freddy Krueger. Many scenes paid homage to the original, while still showing fresh material.

Freddy may not have shown himself too much, but every time he did he brought fear with him. There were still shades of the Freddy from later entries, but more often than not his comments were meant to unsettle. The climactic battle in a fairytale-like setting for the lives of both Heather and her son was a great cap to the original seven-movie series.

By the time Freddy vs. Jason was playing in theaters, Freddy Krueger had gone full circle--from titan of terror to hack comedian and back again. "Freddy vs. Jason" was not a phenomenal entry for either series, but it’s still enjoyable if you can forgive its flaws. And Freddy’s portrayal in it was far superior to "Freddy’s Dead."

At his lowest, Freddy couldn’t hold a candle to the icy menace of Pinhead, or even to the tiny terror known as Chucky. But at his best, Freddy is easily one of, if not the best supernatural horror killer to ever have been created for a film. Thankfully, the character was able to rebound from previous movies and will be remembered for his ability to keep audiences awake late into the night.

Robert Englund has played Freddy in every film except the remake. " A Nightmare on Elm Street" is currently in theaters. Many thought Englund couldn’t be replaced. What are your thoughts on Jackie Earle Haley? Does he live up to the legacy?

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  1. SoonerFan said...

    No, Haley doesn't come close to Englund!!! That's like asking if Laurence Fishbourne could accurately perform the voice of Darth Vader. He may be good, but not James Earl Jones. The same goes for this film.

    More here