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A Condolence on Elm Street

By  · Published on May 4th, 2017

How the Nightmare franchise kept things real even at its silliest.

Nightmare on Elm Street is the franchise with possibly the steepest sequel cliff of any of its contemporaries. The first was a classic, the second was clumsy but interesting, and the third was arguably as good as the original, but then…4…5…and 6 happened. The problem was that Freddy Krueger — the once terrifying, murderous invader of dreams — had become in the later sequels a scenery-munching quip-machine who spent more time mugging to the camera and selling lunchboxes than bothering to be scary.

Freddy’s one-liners weren’t the only standard of the franchise however, and silly as they became, the other recurring element was remarkable for its attempt to ground the series in reality. A Nightmare on Elm Street, and its sequels, are gonzo for funeral scenes! The original 1984 installment, The Dream Warriors (which is the subject of this week’s Junkfood Cinema podcast, as well as The Dream Master (Part 4), A New Nightmare, and the remake all feature actions unfolding during or after a funeral.

Why is this remarkable? Think about the other heavy hitters — or more appropriately the heavy slashers — of the 80s. Neither the Friday the 13th nor the Halloween franchises bothered to commit to film the final remembrance of any of their innumerable victims. This was usually because these films were structured in such a way that by the time the first body was found, the final killing frenzy of the third act had begun in earnest. Hell, Jamie Lee Curtis dies off camera in the Halloween series with naught but a publicity still in one scene to remember her. And hilariously the only person we see buried in the Friday the 13th films is Jason himself, and we only see that because some fool digs up his remains in more than one installment.

It could be argued that Wes Craven wanted to scare audiences with the first Nightmare to a degree that would surpass the butchering habits of hockey-mask-clad forest dwellers so he decided to build tension and character to maximize the impact of his boogeyman’s killings. The nod to Psycho in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, a supposed protagonist being sliced up in the first act, would certainly support this argument. Honestly though, another contention could be that Craven wanted to give a concrete, real-world foundation to someone as supernatural as Freddy Krueger. This would explain the dark grey origin of Freddy, a child killer (/possible molester) who was burned alive by a mob of angry parents. It’s also interesting to consider in this context the newspaper article about a Cambodian refugee that was the inspiration for A Nightmare on Elm Street.

In the documentary Never Sleep Again, Craven details an article he read about a man who had escaped the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime and the associated mass murder. This young man was being plagued by awful nightmares of the events, as one would imagine and one night, his host family heard him screaming in his sleep. By the time they got to his room, he was dead. In his closet, they found caffeine pills and a small coffee pot; so afraid was this man of his dreams that he had been doing all he could to stay awake.

Real world inspiration, morally complicated origin stories, and characters who weren’t just murder fodder? Even as a Voorhees fanatic, I have to admit these are the ingredients for a far more interesting horror film. The inclusion of funeral scenes in several Nightmare sequels (including Dream Warriors and New Nightmare, the only sequels with which Craven was involved), seems then a strategic device to remind both the characters and the audience that while Freddy lives in their nightmares, they live in the real world with real consequences to real violence and a finite amount of time on the Earth.

It should be noted that A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is such a successful sequel largely thanks to the script by director Chuck Russell and the now legendary Frank Darabont, based on a story by Craven. Russell and Darabont are writers who are fascinated with the idea of finding the heart inherent in any given situation no matter how sensational or supernatural. The combination of that heart and Craven’s grounded approach to the fantastical — along with some of the best characters the franchise has ever seen — give rise to the genuine discussion of whether Dream Warriors or the original Nightmare is the best of the franchise. Dream Master (Part 4), Dream Child (Part 5), and Freddy’s Dead (Part 6) are what really should have been buried, dearly beloved, but we’re not gathered here today to talk about that.

For more musings on Dream Warriors, including roughly five straight minutes of that amazing Dokken title song, give a listen to this week’s Junkfood Cinema Podcast. Brian and Cargill continue through their One Junky Summer series exploring the best, the most insane, and the junkiest flicks of the summer of 1987.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! During Summer of 87, there will be an entirely separate Summer of 77 miniseries just for Patrons! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.