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Nightmares On Elm Street

"Most of my nightmares involve me forgetting my lines in a stage play" offered Robert Englund when quizzed on the contents of his own bad dreams. For many people it brought to their attention the fact that Englund was in fact a classically trained stage actor. For others it just reminded them that embodying Freddy Krueger for so many years meant the actor wasn't likely to have the razor fingered killer stalking him in his sleep; the lucky bastard.

Despite turning in a performance of such brilliance it would see him type-cast for the rest of his career, Englund wasn't the first choice for Freddy. Horror perenial and veteran actor David Warner (he of lost bonce in The Omen (1976)) had been cast by director Wes Craven. But when scheduling conflicts cropped up Englund, best known as the character Willie from the television space drama V, nabbed the part. It was a role that made the Californian one of the biggest global stars of the eighties and Englund hasn't looked back since; but we're going to. To celebrate Halloween FilmsFilmsFilms have stuck on a pot of coffee and trawled through the back catalogue of Hollywood's favourite dream dweller to find out which episodes are worthy of a revisit and which really were nightmarish.


The legend goes that writer/director Wes Craven, seeking inspiration for his next horror hit, stumbled on an LA Times news article about a group of Asian men so fearful of going to sleep they stayed awake for days. When they eventually succumbed to a snooze some of them failed to wake up the next day, dying in their sleep. Turning this lightbulb of an idea into the script for A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) it became the film that launched a new horror franchise, the career of Wes Craven, and a film studio juggernaut in New Line Cinema. Six years after Halloween (1978) Elm Street arrived as a last hoorah for the slasher film, a genre that had quickly grown stale just a couple of years after Michael Myers' first outing. A late reprieve for the slasher film wasn't Craven's intention though; having written his script in 1981 he spent an inordinate amount of time shopping it around every film studio that would listen. Many of them kicked themselves in 1984 when the film became one of the box office smashes of the year and a bonafide classic. A few wonky soundtrack choices and some dubious dialogue aside, there wasn't much that Craven got wrong. Krueger was sensibly kept in the shadows for much of the story, the answer to who this mystery man was held back until well into the running time. His attacks were vicious and visceral, no cheeky one liners, no unlikely modes of death. And Craven had tremendous fun toying with the audiences sensibilities; we never quite knew if we were in the real world or the dream world. It was little wonder fans and New Line were crying out for a sequel.



When they saw the fantastic dailies Craven was providing for Elm Street New Line Cinema smelt the sweet financial success of sequels. Studio founder Bob Shaye wrangled long and hard with Craven to alter the original film's ending, and eventually Craven relented, agreeing to bring Freddy back for a final scare and an acknowledgment that Nancy won the battle but not the war. But Craven refused to have anything to do with part two, so in stepped writer David Chaskin and director Jack Sholder. Sholder had caused waves with his impressive debut Alone In The Dark (1982) a slasher film with an unusually star-laden cast (Jack Palance, Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau). Unfortunately, his second film A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985) was alot less enjoyable. What fans wanted was a movie which built upon the myth of Freddy from the first film, but aside from showing the old power plant where Freddy use to work, fans got nothing. Freddy's Revenge had an anemic plot; it appeared Freddy was attempting some sort of rebirth by taking over the body of teen lead Jesse (Mark Patton), though it wasn't explained how or why other than the fact that Jesse happened to have moved into Nancy's old house on Elm Street. There were few scares, few kills, few dream sequences, little tension, and next to no character building. The scenes we did get were reptitive; how many times do we need to see Jesse waking up in a sweat or his family eating round the breakfast table? The only sequence that captured the viciousness of the orignal was the Jesse to Freddy transformation in Grady's bedroom.The film received alot of negative press for apparently being homophobic, and while there were certaintly allsorts of dubious innuendoes and scenes throughout its hard to believe that the crew set out to make a film that was deliberately anti-gay. Much of it probably stemmed from the complete lack of chemistry between Patton and his on screen love interest, the Meryl Streep lookalike Kim Myers.



The series took a year off before New Line offered producer Chuck Russell his first directing opportunity for A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). Despite the second film's box office success (taking $30mill on a $3mill budget, one-upping the first film's $25mill haul on a $1.8mill budget) the critics and fans weren't impressed; there was too much in Freddy's Revenge that didn't make sense. To ensure he had a decent script to work from Russell chipped in on the screenplay with assistance from Bruce Wagner and Frank Darabont. The studio also convinced Craven to come back and tinker with the plot. The result was a proper follow on from part one, as we rejoin a grown up Nancy Thompson now working as a psychiatrist in a mental hospital. But when a familiar dream assailant is mentioned by one of her patients Nancy has to team up with a group of teens with their own dream powers to take on Freddy once again. The idea of having a group of teenagers with their own in-sleep abilities was a unique angle and it was pleasing to see Heather Langenkamp back in the fold leading the charge. Russell also provided the actress with a strong supporting cast that included a returning John Saxon, Laurence Fishburne, and Patricia Arquette who gave something close to a tour-de-force in her debut movie role as Kritsen. We were also treated to some Freddy back story as a mysterious Nun revealed more about "the bastard son of a thousand maniacs". Unfortunately, Russell wasn't able to couple these welcome improvemnents to the sort of scares that made the first film such a standout horror film. What Dream Warriors turned out to be was an adventure-horror, with a group of paranormally powered teens taking on a wisecracking villain. And perhaps that's part three's biggest failing; it was the film that turned Freddy from a paedophile serial killer into an MTV generation pin-up, "Welcome to prime time, bitch".



Less than a year later, part four arrived thanks to a job-lifeline Bob Shaye had thrown a young, scruffy looking Finish filmmaker who had taken to bugging New Line Cinema for a gig. The director was future Die Hard 2 (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993) helmer Renny Harlin. Down on his luck after two box office bombs (Born American (1986) and Prison (1988)) Shaye saw talent in Harlin and handed him the keys to their million dollar horror franchise. Unfortunately, Harlin had a dog of a script to work with, so while A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) certainly had visual style, it had no scares and a ridiculous plot. The writers had also latched on to the notion of Freddy as a one-liner spewing clown and ran with it all the way to another $49mill box office take. Considering the film cost just $13mill to make, New Line weren't complaining, and neither were the Freddy fans who turned up in droves to see it. Horror film aficionadoes were less than impressed though. Three of the Dream Warriors from the third film returned, including Kristen (alas Arquette chose not to come back, replaced by Tuesday Knight), trying to integrate back into normal society and put the nightmares behind them. But when Freddy tracks them down, Kristen has to transfer her powers into her friend Alice, who eventually banishes Krueger for good by resurrecting the lost souls of the dead that inhabit the killer. Taken from a non-horror perspective there was fun to be had from the vibrant set pieces, choice Freddy quips, "How's this for a wet dream?" , and some half decent characterisation from the John Hughes school of eighties teenagers. As a genuine scare fest though, it was long way from Craven's origjnal.



Krueger saturation reached a high point towards the end of 1988, with Krueger themed merchandise cropping up everywhere, from school yard lunchboxes to, ironically, bedtime pillow cases. Freddy even got his own television show in the October with Freddy's Nightmares. In the format of previous TV horror shows Tales From The Crypt and The Twilight Zone, the show featured Freddy introducing two different stories each week, all set in Springwood and all ending in horrific fashion for the unlucky protagonists. Eager to keep the Freddy bangwagon rolling New Line ordered up another movie, providing director Stephen Hopkins with his mainstream directorial debut. A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) arrived the following summer, and though it tried to offer something darker in tone than the previous two outings, it failed thanks to the continued obsession with making Freddy a court jester figure. Alice, in the form of actress Lisa Wilcox, returns for another round with Freddy, her nightmare commencing in impressive fashion by placing her in the mental home where Freddy's nun mother was raped by the many deranged inmates. Its all down hill from this gripping prologue though, with Alice having to fend off a Freddy hell-bent on resurrecting himself all over again through the mind of her unborn child. Wilcox and Englund performed gamely once more but there wasn't much they could do to rescue the film given the questionable premise they were saddlebagged with selling. It also seemed that even the Freddy fans were starting to tire of his schtick by August 1989 as the film only managed a box office take of $22mill on an $9mill budget.



Finally acknowledging that Freddy's time had been and gone New Line decided that Krueger would be brought back and killed off for the final time. As well as being two years behind the fans who had already placed Krueger on the slasher scrapheap at the end of the eighties, New Line's title choice killed off any chance of tension in the plot by announcing ahead of time that Krueger was going to die in the end; Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) arrived to a frosty reception from fans and a deservedly harsher greeting from critics. Set ten years after Dream Child, Freddy has somehow managed to kill off every child in Springwood. Needing to escape the dream world to continue his killing spree elsewhere Krueger tries to recruit his previously unmentioned daughter Katherine (Lisa Zane). Katherine/Maggie eventually saves the day through a final last act which, in an attempt to pull in the punters, featured the best "in your face action" early nineties 3D effects could offer; cue lots of unnecessary objects flying at the screen and crap cardboard red and blue "glasses". The only plus points for the film were some intriguing backstory scenes for Krueger depicted as an abused child, bullied at school and raised by an abusive drunk, and some small cameos for Roseanna Barr, Tom Arnold, Alice Cooper, and a returning Johnny Depp (sadly not as Glenn but as an actor on TV). Interestingly it was later revealed that Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackon wrote a script treatment that saw Krueger so de-powered that teens would take sleeping pills in order to fall asleep and poke fun at the once terrifying boogeyman. Alas, Jackson's screenplay was ditched.



With the main film series dead and buried, Bob Shaye approached Craven with the opportunity to take a unique stab at New Line's marquee horror franchise in order to breathe new life into it. Back in 1986 when ideas for the third film were being discussed Craven put forward the intriguing notion of setting the story in the real world with the actors from the original movie portraying themselves, stalked by a real-life incarnation of Freddy Krueger. The idea was rejected and the Nightmare franchise went on to paint itself into a comedy corner. If there was to be a new instalment fresh ideas were needed, so Craven dug out his notes and set about making the Elm Street sequel he always wanted to. Two years prior to the post-modern accomplishments of Craven's Scream (1996), Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) offered a whip-smart horror film that was a genuinely scary tribute to fright films and the Elm Street franchise. Heather Langenkamp stars as herself, happily married to her make-up artists husband and with a son Dylan. At the same time Langenkamp is pitched a new Elm Street film the actress starts experiencing her own Krueger nightmares. Starting to question her own sanity, Langemkamp visits with actors John Saxon, Robert Englund (ingeniously placed as a subtle red herring thanks to his bizarre painting hobby) and even Wes Craven himself who provides clues as to Kruegers possible manifestation in the real world. Langemkamp ends up in a life or death struggle for her sleep walking son Dylan as Krueger finally reveals his hand. Though light on the series' trademark gore (save for the killing of a hospital nurse in tribute to the death of Tina in the original film), for the first time since part one a Freddy outing had real tension and scares. The use of actors playing themselves also allowed Craven to have all kinds of fun messing with the standard traits of cinema plotting, a delicious concept which drew the filmmaker to Kevin Williamson's Scream script a year later.



Fans had to wait almost a decade to see Krueger return to the big screen, and for New Line Cinema it was a worthwhile wait. Ronny Yu's Freddy vs Jason (2003) took a staggering $115mill at the box office off of a mere $30mill budget. How it managed to rack up such an impressive haul is staggering when one considers how dire the film is. It can only be attributed to fans desperation to see their Fedora wearing horror superstar on a cinema screen again. A veteran Hong Kong director, Yu could shoot a top notch action sequence in his sleep. Horror was brand new territory for him though, as it was for script writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift. The result was a glossy, music-video version of Vorhees and Krueger's worlds, in which the villains from two of horror's biggest franchises took turns in beating on each other. With no hero caught up in the mix, viewers were left watching a tension-less final third with no one to cheer for, no one to fear for, and little reason to stay tuned in; neither the Freddy or Jason rights-owners would ever allow the script to declare one outright winner in the concluding battle. Englund of course donned the Fedora again in what, to date, would be his last outing. But long time Jason actor Kane Hodder was left on the sidelines, replaced by Ken Kirzinger for reasons no fan could fathom.



With a raft of classic horror remakes pulling in box office dollars at the end of the noughties, it was only a matter of time before Elm Street got a rebooting as well. Mindful of protecting the melty-faced man who had built their studio, New Line Cinema took their time in deciding whose hands they placed Elm Street 2.0 in. Picking up the phone to Wes Craven would have been the obvious choice, but instead New Line plumped for a music director who despite having a massive list of successful music videos in his back catalogue had still not been tempted to the big screen. Samuel Bayer had gotten his directorial career off the ground by shooting the generation defining video for Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit; it only got better from there with almost every big-name music star calling on his talents over the next fifteen years. For his feature film debut Bayer included Kyle Gallner, Katie Cassidy and Rooney Mara in his cast. But most enticing of all was the Krueger casting. Looking for a fresh start, New Line passed on Englund and gave the role to Jackie Earle Haley. Intriguingly, Haley had been a good friend of Johnny Depp's when the pair were starting out in their careers and had accompanied Depp to his original Elm Street casting auditon. That Haley had won plaudits and awards four years prior for playing reformed paedophile in Little Children (2006) wasn't lost on fans. Even Englund gave Haley the seal of approval. Despite all these pre-production plus points, A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010) was a disappointment. The plot was there, almost identical to the 1984 classic, as was the atmosphere and Krueger in his familiar, creepy garb and glove combo. Wisely, Bayer and Haley steered clear of the wise cracking Freddy and tried to embody all that was menacing about Englund's Elm Street debut. But there just didn't seem much to care about amongst it all, most notably the lifeless, cold CGI work that replaced the original's impressive and much scarier practical effects. The final teen pair of Nancy and Quentin weren't particularly likeable or relatable to, and the story, so close in step with the original, moved forward with a risk-free, dull inevitability. Haley was signed up for three films but, despite the profit Bayer's remake pulled in, a second outing seems like a distant prospect at the moment.


As we found in our previous look back over the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises, if you're looking for real scares this All Hallow's Eve, head as far back as you can and blow the dust off of the original instalment; its guaranteed to give you nightmares.


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