SEQUELITIS: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2-5

For the month of October, we will be taking a look at sequels. To paraphrase Jane Austen: It’s a truth universally accepted that a moneymaking genre film is in need of a franchise. This is especially true in the horror genre, since those pictures seem to be structured as exercises in evil and evil (as we all know) never truly dies.

The 1970s and 1980s were a flush time for horror flicks. A boom was happening in the fiction world (thanks in large part to successful works from Stephen King, Thomas Tryon, William Peter Blatty, Ira Levin, et. al.) and that boom spread into the film world as well. Although the flicks that were booming were less about the same concerns and chills that the written works were dealing with, they were nevertheless riding on the coattails of the often more interesting attacks on small town mentalities, psychological breakdowns, and physical/mental/spiritual dreads that plagued protagonists and secondary characters in the novels of the time.

Wes Craven hit the big screens in the early part of the period with LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and followed it up with plenty of films exploring the shattering of civilized facades by savage, antisocial forces. He had a couple of sequels to those works, but none of his movies prior (or even after, until the SCREAM series performed its little meta tricks) seemed to merit the kinds of sequel-crazy attention that his A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) garnered.

The first Nightmare was a sometimes shocking, sometimes creepy piece about a the ghost of a mangled child-murderer who seeks revenge against the vigilante families who murdered him through the dreams of their teenaged kiddos. It’s long on mood and atmosphere, short on humor, and although some of the effects are on the clunky side, the movie has a relentlessness that still works. It launched careers (Johnny Depp!), featured some familiar genre faces (hellooo, John Saxon), and showed off new talent (Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri). It had imaginative terror sequences, grisly episodes, and a feel good finale that led into the obligatory (for the 80s) “It’s not really over, is it?” open ending, which led to bigger, bloodier followups.

I’m not interested in writing about that movie. Not this week, anyway. I’m more interested in what followed. There have since been eight sequels/reboots to date as well as an unrelated television series (well, it features Robert England playing Freddy Kruger as the host), costumes, novelizations, spin off novels, and comic books galore. Probably more destined for coming years. I’m mostly interested in looking at movies 2-5 this time around, since they are the ones to feature “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in their titles. There are plenty of wonderful other things to peek at, I am sure, but there are only so many words I want to write for one of these updates.

Before we get too involved with this particular series, though, we should probably consider what sequels are expected to do . . . What role do they fill? What service do they provide? What part do they play?

The answers to these questions are going to be wildly different if taken from an audience or production perspective. In the case of audiences, folks are looking for a character (maybe more than one) or a scenario that plays through to the next level. Sequels are a source of reassurance (a perhaps odd term to use when speaking of blood and guts horror films) through the familiar. A sequel can bend the familiar by introducing new elements or worldbuilding rules, but it cannot go too far. This is evident in the verbal furor over STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017); it’s not enough of a reassuring flick to please long time fans.

Answering the questions about sequel expectation/role/service from the perspective of the producers is easy. The answer has already been provided in my opening paragraph. The Jane Austen joke up top may be punchy silly, but it’s also true. Sequels are a way to fill company coffers through known properties. Directors and writers may have other intentions, but the real reason sequels get green lights is the assurance that they will return far greater revenue than is dumped into them.

I’d say my pithy little observation comes hand-in-clawed-hand with another rule, let’s dub it the Law of Dilution to be properly pseudoscientific. The Law of Dilution states: Sequels are seldom as good as the original film and even less frequently better. Sure, watchers of sequels can list plenty of examples of lousy horror movies that nevertheless offer little tidbits of interesting material to a franchise’s mythos. For me, a lion’s share of ALIEN-related flicks fall into this category; after a certain point, the movies aren’t terribly good but they give information, developments, even a single scene that’s worth considering and therefore get a kind of pass.

How many times can we say that a lousy sequel is actually a pretty solid horror film?

Nightmare on Elm Street 2 posterA NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE (1985) is one such feature. Although it’s number two and has little to offer the mythic lore of the movies that either preceded or would follow (often gets outright ignored, in fact, and for good reason) the second feature is an interesting horror movie on its own terms.

Synopsis: A few years after the first film, a new family moves into the house on Elm Street. Jesse (Mark Patton) is a conflicted lad, a shy outsider who has a great girlfriend and a strange secret. A presence in the house is haunting his nightmares, trying to take over his body and make him behave in strange and dangerous ways. The sadistic presence wants blood, and it will make Jesse claim that blood from his gym teacher, from his friends, and ultimately from the teen attendees of a big old pool party.

FREDDY’S REVENGE is one of those salacious titles intended to lure folks into theaters and get eyeballs on the screens, but which has little to do with the plot of David Chaskin’s screenplay. The movie is a complete sidestep from the first film, and that ambition is nicely done. Not content to be a slasher film, this one is a killer ghost story, a psychic possession tale, a werewolf story, and ultimately a brutal coming of age story. The supernatural elements are used in a metaphorical manner, but as to what that metaphor is supposed to represent is kept vague and therefore interesting. There are several reads to the picture, everything from drug abuse (which is stated explicitly by Jesse’s dad, played by the always watchable Clu Gulager) to the story of a closeted Jesse’s fighting his own homosexuality and ultimately coming to acceptance with his nature.

The effects and Jack Sholder’s direction are good, making both real world and dream sequences surreal and eerie. It is difficult to tell what is happening where, which adds to the film’s ability to throw the viewer off balance.

The film opens with a school bus going off-road into a desert landscape that falls away, leaving the vehicle teetering atop a stony spike as the driver reveals himself to be a sneaky, scary Krueger. That part is dream. But what about dogs appearing in the final act, the ones wearing human faces? Are they for real? And in the film’s central, way cool sequence that tips its battered fedora to the famed transformation sequence in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), Freddy rips his way out of a possessed Jesse’s body like some hellish lycanthrope. Is that real? Metaphorical? Dream?

And of course, the movie gets props for me for showing one of the teachers enjoying his pastime in a rough leather bar. Too bad that teacher is such a butch bastard. Ah well, he gets his just desserts when he is tied to showers, spanked mercilessly, and then cut down.

On an intriguing side note (and possible spoiler): No girls get stalked or killed onscreen in this flick. All the kills are men. I expect this was part of the trouble fans had and continue to have with this flick. It’s got a strong (but unstated) queer vibe to it. This isn’t to say there are no females in the film. Jesse’s galpal Lisa (Kim Myers) plays a vital role in the piece, though it’s not one that involves her getting nekkid or being the stalk-toy of the bastard son of a hundred maniacs . . .

Upon retrospect with several subsequent sequels that adhere to the first film in a much more strictly loyal manner, FREDDY’S REVENGE may seem like a one off cash grab. To be sure, it was that. However, it is one of those few follow-up film experiences that is actually as interesting (taken as a standalone) as the franchise it serves. It deserves another watch, maybe paired with a lycanthrope or possession picture instead of a binge watch of the A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET SERIES.

Nightare on Elm Street 3 posterWhich leads to the next entry in the series: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987), which returns to the ideas of the first film and reinforces the mythic “rules” of the series. It therefore undoes some of the great leaps forward (or sideways) the second film made, such as allowing Freddy Krueger to flex his claw and muscles more directly in the real world though that itself was evoked in the first film when Nancy Thompson drags the boogeyman out of her dreams and into the real world for their climactic encounter. For the third film and later ones, Freddy gets to play only in the world of dreams lurking just behind our eyelids.

Synopsis: The house on Elm Street is a bit of a beacon, a nightmarish lighthouse calling the souls of teenager children into Fred Krueger’s clutches. A group of disturbed teens have all been dreaming of this particular boogieman, surviving his attacks only to find themselves in a hospital on suicide watch. Group therapy is intended to help, but when new shrink Nancy Thompson (played once again by Heather Langenkamp) shows up with theories of her own about the very real danger the man of these teens’ dreams poses, she empowers the group to embrace their own strengths and take the battle to him. They cannot remain victims. Like Nancy in the end of the first film, they must become warriors. DREAM WARRIORS.

With a screenplay credits featuring Wes Craven, Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont, and the film’s director Chuck Russell, there are plenty of ideas in this film to fuel a series. In fact, it does just that making this the first in an unofficial trilogy of pictures in the heart of the NIGHTMARE franchise, which could be dubbed the Dream Warriors cycle.

In film 3, the audience learns that teen victims can have powers of their own. One girl in particular, Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) has the ability to pull other people into her own dreams, which removes some of the isolating terror Freddy capitalizes on when he’s stalking and slashing his way through the offspring of those who killed him. However, getting together and using dream empowerment may not be all that is required to kill the bastard son of one hundred maniacs once and for all. This time around, adults also help out, trying to locate Krueger’s remains and laying them to rest. The third film feels more like a direct companion to the first film, with some familiar returning faces (of course Robert Englund returns as Freddy; Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon also both reprise roles they originated in the first feature) as well as a bevvy of new ones.

The film explores similar enough territory to the first film that it doesn’t seem to offend many fans of the franchise. Of course, it too breaks some rules in unexplained ways—Kristen’s power comes from . . . where now? However, the story presents a similar slasher premise with a virginal female character in the central role. The final girl triumphs and several (though not all) of her friends bite it. The movie bids a farewell to Nancy (though not Langenkamp who returns in 1994’s NEW NIGHTMARE, playing a fictionalized version of herself). This is sequel as comfort food, as reassurance. FREDDY’S REVENGE did unsafe things with the material and challenged audience expectations, but DREAM WARRIORS reinforces them; neither approach is inherently wrong, but the former can alienate the audience members who only want MORE, MORE, MORE of the SAME, SAME, SAME.

As I say, DREAM WARRIORS also feeds directly into the fourth film Renny Harlin’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER (1988).

Nightmare on Elm Street 4 posterSynopsis: Following the events of the third film, Kristen Parker (this time played by Tuesday Knight) and her few remaining dream warrior pals find themselves once more targeted by the nightmare master. This time, Kristen acts as an unintentional gateway for a whole new group of kids, including Alice (Lisa Wilcox), Rick (Andras Jones), Dan (Danny Hassel), and more. These are kids who know nothing of Fred Krueger’s evil and are wholly unprepared for their encounters. Sure it’s only been four years on our planet earth, but it’s been . . . a decade or more since the first film’s events in the franchise’s universe?

Renny Harlin has a rep these days for action blockbusters of varying quality. However, the two horror movies that started his Hollywood career are pretty solid entertainments. PRISON (1987), which we reviewed earlier this year), and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER are both solid rollercoaster rides. DREAM MASTER in particular benefits from a slick production and good use of budget. The film looks great and sounds great (hell, it has a soundtrack that includes Dramarama’s terrific “Anything, Anything, Anything”), even though the screen story (which may or may not relate to the scripts from Brian Helgeland and Jim & Ken Wheat) goes off in a weird direction for its conclusion—Fred Krueger is a guardian of a negative gate, huh?—and ultimately defeats evil by imaginatively . . . showing it a mirror?

Needless to say, the story’s internal logic is not fully there. This probably has more to do with the Writers Guild strike interrupting the process as well as numerous ideas for the cash cow franchise than with already existent screenplays in various stages. That said, there are several isolated moments that are worth watching. Some effects are hella fun as are some characters (I particularly enjoyed Brooke Theiss’ turn as the health obsessed Pat Benatar wannabe Debbie). It’s a shame that the African American kid (Ken Sagoes) who survived the third picture (that one broke the unspoken “kill the minorities first” rule of horror flicks from that period) is the first to get axed here aaaand the African American girl (Toy Newkirk) is the first of the new batch to get the wind eternally taken from her sails . . .

The film is problematic, sure. However, it feels of a piece with the previous picture and leads to the next piece, Stephen Hopkins’ A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: THE DREAM CHILD (1989).

Nightmare on Elm Street 5 posterSynopsis: Alice (Lisa Wilcox) returns to find herself and her friends in danger when Freddy starts to intrude on her during waking hours. What’s happening? Well, it turns out that infants spend a high proportion of their time in dream state, and Freddy is slipping in through that. The child also seems to have Alice’s inherited ability to draw friends into his own dreams. Before you know it, Freddy has been reborn and Alice is once again cast in the role of the defender of a diminishing number of pals.

Stephen Hopkins has a great visual style and an eye for staging. The material is perhaps less involving that it might have been, but I expect this is because of editing. Watching the movie today, I get the feeling this one went through a couple of cuts after test screenings.

This film feels the least complete of the lot. It has some ideas that it presents and then lets slide. A shame really, since it could have done quite a bit with the dream worlds evoked in an unborn infant’s mind. Alas, the final film is targeting audience members on the younger side (teenagers) and feels almost embarrassed about tackling a topic like pregnancy. Teens may have been a key part of the audience, but I’m pretty sure adults were in the seats as well for these features. Ah well. At least it has the motorcycle transformation sequence wherein a character merges with his bike to become some bizarre bit of modern art sculpture, a figure that would not be out of place in a postapocalyptic horror show . . .

After the DREAM CHILD there was only one place to go: killing off Freddy or at least the present incarnation of him, which director Rachel Talalay’s next film does.

So, what do we learn about sequels from this? Well, As the Dream Warrior cycle went on, the filmmakers seemed to box themselves into tighter and tighter ideological constraints, making Freddy Krueger more of a pop culture icon, a rock star, and less of a boogeyman. Perhaps a reinvigoration ala the FREDDY’S REVENGE style of genre mold breakout could have helped the series continue to grow. Perhaps not.

I started out writing this entry as a way of exploring the second sequel and saying “Check it out, this Halloween season. It’s worth a visit.” Instead, I got off track and into thinking about a bunch of the franchise’s entries and about sequels in general. For now, I don’t have much of anything pithy to say yet in general about the topic. Hopefully by the end of this series, I will have a clearer picture of this topic. I look forward to the journey, and I hope you will join me for the next installments of this limited series.

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The films under discussion here are available individually or collectively. ‘Tis the seasons for scary movies, so why not give them a gander?

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE (DVD /streaming)

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (DVD /streaming)

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER (DVD)/ streaming)

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD (streaming)

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET COMPLETE SERIES (DVD parts 1-4, 5-8/Blu-ray)

Next week we will finish off a series we started checking out already. Another New Line Cinema darling that got short changed for its last two installments, they got relegated to straight-to-video. Of course, I am talking about Critters 3 and 4!

CRITTERS 3 (streaming)

CRITTERS 4 (streaming)

CRITTERS complete series (DVD/Blu-Ray)

 

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