Nightmares on Elm Street

When I saw the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street last year, little did I know that I would end up seeing the entire series.

Minor spoilers follow.

Surprisingly (or not), the first movie was far superior to its remake. There were none of the annoying “is it real or not” games with the audience, and I really liked the naturalistic acting, especially that of Heather Langenkamp. It’s a far cry from the deliberation of modern Hollywood: when she’s scared and uncertain, you really believe it. There’s a strong theme of teenage independence (suited for the demographic): parents and adults are unreliable, “caring” but not truly listening to the kids, and Langenkamp’s character struggles for her survival with her own resources. The kill scenes are clever and inventive: the ceiling death would have been revolutionary, and I really liked the blood geyser. There are minor but well-placed special effects, such as when Freddy walks through the bars of the jail. I didn’t like the ending (I don’t like those kinds of endings).

The second movie tried to do something different and didn’t really work; the focus is on Jesse turning into Freddy, and victims are killed despite being awake. There was a huge homoerotic subtext: Jesse wanders into a gay bar, flees from almost sleeping with a girl to stay with his half-naked male friend, and the killings appear to be males whom Jesse has ambivalent feelings for. The ending dragged out a bit too long.

The third movie returned to the original themes, with the institutionalisation of adult disbelief in the hospital. There was lots of Freddy crossing over, and more of a schlocky, gross-out, semi-humorous aspect to the scenes. Langenkamp was great, but there was too much of a “superfriends” syndrome.

The fourth movie continues the move into spectacle and action, with fancy death scenes for the victims (and eventually Freddy, whose one I liked). The action moves back to high school, and the rather silly mythos is expounded upon, and old characters killed off fairly unnecessarily.

Freddy never dies, and the fifth movie finds a way to resurrect him – the identity of the dreamer was a nice touch. It’s similar in many ways to the fourth movie, with Freddy gaining an over-the-top backstory, developing quite a personality, and setting up elaborate and grotesque kills tailored to each victim. Once again the cast is cleaned out; I really thought that Alice should have pretended to be normal rather than freaking out and having people disbelieve her.

Just about out of ideas, the sixth movie moves to the big city, with a stint in a Silent Hill-style Springwood full of crazy people. Without the tenuous character continuity of previous movies I had a tonne of trouble engaging with the movie, and the invention of even more of Freddy’s past, and dream demon mythology (on top of the gates) seemed gratuitous. The 3D elements haven’t aged well at all, and the animated sequences look poor. It’s always the girls who defeat Freddy, and this time it’s via the original method from the first movie.

Wes Craven injected a badly-needed shot of originality with The New Nightmare, taking an innovative, refreshing post-modern approach. As befits the man behind the genre parody/homage Scream, it’s set in the “real world” where the actress Heather Langenkamp discusses her roles in prior movies on talk shows and looks after her son. Her naturalistic acting is brilliant here, she’s very expressive without being over-deliberate or indicative. By inverting the setting, we side with Heather in disbelieving the supernatural, accept her use of sleeping pills, and feel her unease with mundane dangers of earthquakes and stalkers. The theatrical atmosphere of the past several movies is gone, and the realistic feel really makes us identify with the characters and rediscover the horror elements (rather than acting as voyeurs to gruesome kills). I really liked the deft integration of Hansel and Gretel, the protector Rex, the allusion to Tina’s death in the first movie, and the literati-friendly nature of the evil entity portrayed here. Some of the special effects don’t age well, but they’re easily overlooked.

So, to wrap up: the first movie is innovative and interesting, the second to the sixth are laboured and miss the point, and the last one fantastic in the way it sheds the missteps of the others.

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