“One two, Freddy’s coming for you…
Three, Four, better lock your door…
Five, Six, grab a crucifix…
Seven, Eight, gonna stay up late…
Nine, Ten, never sleep again!”
What if the world of dreams provided no refuge from our troubles, but was actually the most dangerous place of all? That’s the brilliant conceit behind Wes Craven’s 1984 horror film, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
Meet Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), child killer, burnt to death by a bunch of vigilante parents after he got off on a technicality. Now he returns in the dreams of those parent’s offspring, pursuing and slaughtering innocent teens as they sleep.
One of the targeted teens, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), gets pretty fed up at seeing her friends mysteriously murdered, and strikes back, trying to stop this dreamland demon from taking more lives.
On the film’s release, Krueger quickly emerged as a distinctive rival to such slasher film boogeymen as HALLOWEEN’s Michael Myers and FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH’s Jason Voorhees.
While the more familiar name “Freddy” would begin to stick in the sequels, here the killer is mostly referred to as Fred, and he’s a leaner, meaner incarnation, a ghoul of few words not given to the playful witticisms that would later define him and help elevate him to the pantheon of beloved horror characters.
How is Krueger different from those unstoppable killing machines, Michael and Jason? Those two remain eternal adolescents, but Krueger represents the adult world, a dark, twisted version of it, full of sins and dark secrets as seen from a teen’s perspective.
Krueger has his own weird sense of style including the filthy red and green striped sweater, the black hat worn at a jaunty angle, and most ominously, his glove adorned with fingertip knives.
Mostly, Fred has personality, and unlike strong silent types like Jason and Freddy, he’ll talk to you. (“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy,” he quips, his tongue coming through the phone as Nancy tries to call her boyfriend Glen, played by young unknown Johnny Depp.) And while his wisecracks are kept to a minimum this first time around, artist that he is, he still likes to take a moment to strike terror before serving up the killing blow.
In one instance, he pauses while chasing Nancy’s friend, Tina (Amanda Wyss), so that she can see him slice off a couple of his own fingers. He seems to be saying, if I’m willing to do this to myself, imagine what I’ll do to you.
The surrealistic imagery made possible by the dream sequences provides for some startling visuals and makes the film distinctive from other slasher films of the era.
It must be said, though, that the rules about how you can die in a dream and what you can physically take back with you when you wake up seem loosely defined and arbitrary. This lends the story an “anything goes” vibe which actually works against the sense of peril for the teen characters.
It was a terrific concept nonetheless, and Freddy would return in many sequels and a 2010 remake.
One sequel, WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994) imposes a kind of “meta” take on the material, offering Craven, Englund and Langenkamp as real-life film professional versions of themselves, as Freddy tries to leave the prison of being a movie character and bust out into reality.
And, in grand FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN style, FREDDY VS. JASON (2003) brings the two titans of terror together as allies and later as battling demons. (Who will win?)
It’s been a while since we had a new NIGHTMARE film, but it’s probably a good idea to keep the coffee brewing. Dreamland awaits, and so does that unforgettable character, Fred Krueger.