“No, no, I’m fine. It was just a bad dream.” — Jesse Walsh after a second encounter with the one, the only: Fred Krueger
The Macabre Brothers share an affinity for bargain-bin horror films. It’s actually more like an addiction — hardly a month goes by without one of us wasting $5 on some dubious DVD title. Such impulse buys may not deserve a full review, but like porn, they’re worth a quick and shameful glance. In Basement Ramblings, we answer your most meaningful question: Is this month’s piece of crap worth the price of a Big Mac?
Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street series is easily one of the smartest, sexiest and most imaginative horror franchises out there. Fred Krueger — the smarmy, knife-wielding baddie played in all six canon films by Robert Englund (that Michael Bay-produced shit doesn’t count) — is wittier and more personable than Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers combined. And yes, that includes Rob Zombie’s troubled little Mikey. And yes, I called A Nightmare on Elm Street sexy, in its own gruesome way.
No disrespect to the hallowed Three Amigos of Terror, but the world of Elm Street will always be more interesting for storytellers than Camp Crystal Lake and Haddonfield. (That Freddy vs. Jason crossover was batshit enough to be entertaining, in an Alien vs. Predator kind of way). It’s a dream world after all, so of course just about anything goes: disembowelment by finger blades, rape by rancid phone tongue, death by television to chest, a la Johnny Depp’s final scene in the 1984 original. I could never look at a waterbed the same after seeing a waterfall of blood bellow out of his, kinda like elevators after The Shining.
While the Cleaver Twins are content to slash and terrorize and stalk like big, bad, lumbering middle linebackers, they’re still nothing but slasher villains: They exist to slice and dice, and audiences eat it up. I eat it up.
I’m pretty sure Craven understood this when he first dreamed of Fred Krueger: a twisted boogeyman who’s a slasher villain on the surface, what with those knives and all, but much creepier — and more understandably powerful — than The Brothers Vivisection (oh, nicknames). He’s a demon of his own making, a child murderer who somehow figures out how to enter the real world through a child’s best friend and worst enemy: dreams. Talk about sick shit ripe for cinema.
The first sequel, A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge, was released just a year after the original. Unlike most Craven-approved projects it doesn’t bear his name on the title card, and so, like many horror sequels, the creator didn’t have much of anything to do with the continuation of his creation.
The filmmakers pick up where the original left off: smack in the middle of Elm Street. It’s about five years after Nancy battled Krueger with coffee, caffeine pills and plucky teen determination, and there’s now a new family living in her home: the whitebread Walsh clan, with mom, dad, big brother and little sister. Word around town is that Nancy watched her boyfriend (that’s Johnny Depp) get murdered from her bedroom upstairs and the shock was enough to drive her mad. Never mind the fact she also watched two close friends get mutilated just days before — seeing Johnny Depp literally become a blood pool was the cherry on top of the crazy sundae.
That’s the story our main man, Jesse Walsh with the feathered ’80s coif, hears from Grady, the tan pretty-boy who befriends him for some weird reason. Seriously, no idea how or why that came together. One day, the two have a nearly bare-assed fight during gym glass, and so Coach Asshole makes them do push-ups in the sun. A few days later they’re BFFs. Sure, because the movie demands it.
Anyway, Jesse doesn’t get much time to whine about life as the new kid, though. His bedroom is blazing hot at night, and every time he shuts his eyes he sees nightmarish visions of a man with a clawed hand. It gets so bad that his nameless little sister scares the shit out of him with long, plastic fingernails, like the kind a 10-year-old wears with a witch costume on Halloween.
Then, from the same stock-character corner as Grady, comes Lisa. Actress Kim Myers looks like Meryl Streep with a ruby-red dye job, and, for almost a second, I thought the two actors might be related. (No dice.) Anyway, Lisa rides to school with Jesse everyday in his sweet ’80s convertible, but that’s all she does. She’s not porking him, or bumping him, or any of the other awkward slang terms the writers shoehorn in for a dose of reality, circa ’80s generic high school. Although they do come close to heavy petting for a second.
One fateful evening — just minutes after Lisa catches Jesse dry humping the air to “Touch Me (All Night Long)” by WISH during an early room-cleaning montage, and yes, that’s in this movie — the two discover Nancy’s old diary. There are the juicy details of her crush on Johnny Depp, just like any girl’s diary, followed by the chilling details of her encounters with Fred Krueger and the blood waterfall.
It’s the first time Jesse or Lisa has heard that name, but they both know he’s the same demented bastard from Jesse’s hot and hellish nightmares. How many child murderers with finger knives can there be? Nancy’s diary gives the audience the obligatory recap of every horror sequel, and, thankfully, it’s done in an organic way. Sure, it’s convenient she kept a diary about Freddy, but every legend needs to get passed on somehow.
Speaking of, that’s exactly why Freddy wants Jesse: he’s got a reputation to uphold dammit, and he could use a human boy to do the dirty work in the real world. He tells Jesse this during one of their early dream encounters, and as the film continues Jesse slips further and further into a madhouse of Freddy’s design. In one of the creepiest scenes, Jesse tucks his little sister into bed with Freddy’s clattering knives, a look of sick disbelief on the poor guy’s face.
It’s a clever use of the Nightmare milieu — Freddy travels from dreamscape to real world in the husk of an unwilling teen, like some kind of leech, or pathogen — and it mostly works. Mostly. By the time Jesse has spiraled into near-insanity, Lisa’s parents are hosting a pool party for a bunch of rowdy teenagers and Freddy’s ready for his time to shine. It’s the bigger, louder, bloodier treatment you see with so many first sequels — Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Sorority House Massacre II, to name a few — and it turns Freddy into a spectacle.
He is, I guess, but that’s for the fifth or sixth sequel, when all the good ideas are exhausted. The second sequel in any series should be fresh and new, especially with an anything-goes backdrop like Elm Street.
Where I found it
In a Nightmare four-pack at good ol’ Walmart. This compilation DVD — actually four silvery discs all jammed onto one little nub, like Walmart is repackaging old Blockbuster rentals these days — came with films one through four. I’m curious about all of them, but I’m legitimately stoked for Nightmare 3: Dream Warriors (1987). Young Patricia Arquette in her first Hollywood role (what?!) AND Laurence “Morpheus” Fishburne (what what whaaaaaaat??!) cashing a paycheck.
Why it caught my eye
It’s a collection of all the Nightmare films I’ve never seen, durr. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve only seen Wes Craven’s masterful original and his sole return to the series, the madly meta (and madly entertaining) New Nightmare (1994). Let’s see what the sequel machine has in store for Freddy.
Most of the scenes with Freddy. Take the opener: On a routine bus ride to school, Jesse, Lisa and her unmemorable friend get trapped when Fred becomes the bus driver. It’s a powerhouse special effects extravaganza — the visuals are a little rusty by today’s standards, but I sometimes miss the visceral look of miniatures — that ends with the bus teetering on hell spires as Freddy stalks down the aisle, sharpening his fingers and dicing at seats. The whole thing feels like the Nightmare version of “Terror at 5 1/2 Feet,” the Treehouse of Horror IV (1993) skit that’s in turn a spoof of the old Twilight Zone episide “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
And I’m cool with that, just like I’m cool with the first iteration of Freddy as a tongue-in-cheek jester. In the original, Craven wrote his baddie’s lines as half charming, half creepy, yet all insidious. Here, the screenwriters took that careful balancing act and went full campy, with lines like, “You’ve got the body, I’ve got the brains,” as Fred peels back his skin and skull to reveal his brain to Jesse. The line is cheesy (and they only get cheesier as the films go on, I imagine) but it works.
Every so often, the writers show just how terrifying high school can be for a pubescent new-kid-on-the-block like Jesse. One of my favorites — and one of the strangest — is the first death: Coach Asshole. When Freddy commandeers Jesse about halfway through the film, he leads the young, angsty, hormonal kid to an ’80s fetish club, where the same coach who humiliated he and Grady is dressed in a leather gimp suit. What’s he want to do? Whip the shit out of Jesse, of course, and so Freddy as Jesse takes the bait. Things get a little confusing here — Did Jesse really meet the coach at a club, or is he only dreaming? — but I’ll allow it, and only because it means Coach Asshole gets battered with sports equipment (balls, bats, tennis rackets, the rest) before
It seems like a weird non-sequitur, like the filmmakers wanted to seem edgy and a sex club was the answer. (Weird how that works in Hollywood, where bondage is risque but buckets of blood and gore are expected.) On the flip side, though, it makes a weird kind of sense. Who, as a teen, didn’t imagine (or gossip or dream) about a teacher’s life outside of the classroom? For me, it’s totally believable that Jesse would imagine his dickhead coach led a secret double life as a gay BDSM enthusiast. After all, the guy loves punishing students with push-ups — what’s to keep him away from a whip and ball-gag?
That said, it brings up icky questions about homosexuality: Why is it equated with punishment and death, even if unintentionally? That’s almost worse than a blatant attack. Which brings me to…
The tone. From start to finish the filmmakers are juggling a dozen juicy ideas, but, for one reason or another, they drop the ball about half the time. More than half, honestly.
What slays me the most is how this tonal shift changes Freddy as a character. Even though I enjoyed his campy dialogue here, I can’t help but think this film is responsible for watering down one of the sickest villains around. As Craven imagined him, Krueger is a demon dressed in scorched skin and rotting clothing — an apt visual analogy for a force of evil that preys on children with a disarming sense of humor. Yet by the first sequel, he’s already showing shades of a wisecracking goon. He’s becoming yet another genre type, and that’s kind of sad.
Nightmare 2: Freddy’s Revenge takes Wes Craven’s creepiest world and creation, gives them the bombastic ’80s sequel treatment, and manages to do just fine with a touch of imagination and plenty of satisfying gore. It might be the start of a downward spiral for one hell of a horror villain, but for now I’ll enjoy the ride.