Since rising to dominance in the early 1980s, slasher flicks have been one of the best known and most enduring genres of horror, making universally well known stars of the blood-soaked slashers that propagate them. Hockey masks aren’t the same ever since Jason Voorhees came around in Friday the 13th (technically, its sequel — that knowledge could save your life), chainsaws have had an undeniably sinister edge to them since the release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Scream is still a thriving franchise, with Scream VI having just premiered 27 years after the first film. However, amongst a pantheon of slasher greats, one stands above all others: this of course being Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), debuting in Wes Craven’s 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. Despite not appearing in a new movie in over 13 years (capped off with a critically panned flop of a reboot), the knife-gloved dream invader has remained a pop-cultural icon, and the best that the slasher genre has ever produced.
‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ Still Holds Up
A Nightmare on Elm Street is unique amongst its contemporaries in that, unlike some other horror genres, slashers have always had a perception of being cheap, cheesy, and exploitative. The butt of endless parody and derision, it’s rare to find one that is more than just simple popcorn fun. While the Halloween series debatably sparked the genre (four years after Black Christmas, which potentially inspired it, but doesn’t utilize as many common genre tropes as its later siblings would) the original Halloween has definitely aged over the years. Despite doing everything a slasher film should do well, it now feels somewhat stale by modern standards as every element it introduces — its cast of sexually promiscuous teenagers, the asylum-escapee villain, the drawn-out pleasure the camera takes in the kills — has by now been done in much more interesting ways in other movies of the type. Similarly, while Friday the 13th is a household name, it’s long been considered a derivative series, and none of the movies are really that “good” beyond the visuals of their scares (the first is the highest rated in the series and doesn’t even star Jason as the titular killer). However, the slasher films of the 80s and 90s still had two iconic series that have stood the test of time — and it’s not without coincidence that they’re both Wes Craven joints. Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street hold up remarkably well both as good popcorn-eating fun but also as watchable movies in their own right.
Intensely original for its time, A Nightmare on Elm Street throws out the usual trappings of the slasher genre and pits the hapless teenagers against a killer who doesn’t stalk your local forest or abandoned warehouse, but instead stalks your dreams. Craven uses this inspired idea to create an overwhelming sense of dread in each of the interactions with the killer, stretching reality and believability with a villain that doesn’t have to contend with either. Following up on Halloween’s commentary of suburbia being a place that hides the darkness within it, A Nightmare on Elm Street makes this a primary focus of the plot, delving deep into suburbia’s obsession with ignoring the dangers that surround it. The parents in the film refuse to acknowledge the existence of Freddy in order to “protect” their children, unknowingly making them easy prey to him when they’re not around to protect them.
Freddy Krueger Is a Killer With a Personality
It’s funny to remember that while Jason Voorhees and Micheal Myers are some of the all-time most recognizable slashers of all time, they really don’t have that much going on. The two are wordless unstoppable killing machines motivated vaguely by revenge in the case of the former and by a somewhat metaphorical depiction of “true evil” in the case of the latter. While it can definitely be scary to pit helpless teenagers against a killer who doesn’t even seem to understand what they have to say, it doesn’t make for an especially dynamic watch, especially ten sequels in. Freddy doesn’t have this problem in the slightest — he’s devious and eager to do what he does, and it’s this angle that makes him such a delight to watch.
Wes Craven strove to make Freddy as unique as possible among other slashers of the time. While Micheal, Jason and Leatherface all donned masks, Freddy’s face was on full display. Other killers use big blunt weapons that require strength, while Freddy is a skinny guy using a glove with small knives attached to it. He was made to be different, to stand out in the relatively small world of slasher movies. Rather than just being scary, Freddy is also funny, or as funny as a man like him can be. Almost all the Freddy-centric movies have a few standout one-liners from him. What other slasher gets one-liners? The comedy lightens the mood a bit but never at the expense of the fear that’s necessary to this kind of production. You can laugh at Freddy while still acknowledging him as a truly terrifying force of evil. Robert Englund plays him with such a delightful deviousness and self-aware nature (especially in the ensuing sequels) that he can feel almost like a Looney Tunes character at times, but still retain that horrifying presence. Englund’s campy performance remains one of the best in the genre, and is debatably the reason Freddy has gone so far.
The nature of Freddy’s powers further enhances his personality to great effect. After all, a slasher is only as good as their kills. While other slashers have to be content with just being regular people in masks armed with knives, Freddy isn’t bound by this limitation. While Jason’s kills are still fun to see (especially if you’re a fan of gore) they can become a bit monotonous after a while. Alternatively, no two Freddy kills are ever the same — utilizing his claw glove in his first legendary kill but mixing up every subsequent kill since, from hanging his victims in their dreams to dragging them down into a pit and turning them into a geyser of blood. As the films go on, these kills get more and more cerebral and interesting to see. In the third movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Freddy at one point grows into a giant version of himself, puppeteering a boy by his own tendons into jumping out a window to his death. Later in the movie, he even turns into a strange special effects snake monster with his face — it’s the kind of stuff that can only work with Freddy Krueger. Gory and creative kills are an expected trope in slasher movies, but rather than just treating them as expected, the Nightmare on Elm Street series treats each one like its own unique set piece, a showcase of Freddy and the creator’s twisted imagination. It’s never so simple as a knife in the dark.
‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ Actually Has Good Sequels
An unfortunate trend amongst old-school slasher royalty (and most horror movies in general) is that for most of them, their best movie is usually their first, if not their only good entry. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has nine entries, and none of them are considered anywhere near as good and impactful as the first entry (and its most recent entry is by far its worst). Jason Voorhees fares no better. Every single entry that actually has Jason as its lead killer pales in comparison to the original, and the original isn’t even that good. The Halloween series managed one more good entry in 2018 after years of terrible sequels and reboots…before sliding the series right back into mediocrity with Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends. Once again, Freddy stands alone in that while his first film is debatably his best (and similar to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, his latest is unquestionably his worst), he has more than one good movie to his name.
A Nightmare on Elm Street was so successful that a sequel was basically all but guaranteed. The eventual sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was a somewhat shaky return to the series, following a new character living in the house from the first film (years before Bo Burnham would find a home there) and has little worth mentioning besides the bizarrely homoerotic subtext and its modern status as a camp classic. However, the third movie A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is an impressive and worthy sequel that amps up all the fun features that made the first movie so iconic all the way up to eleven. The film finally utilizes the potential of the premise by having personalized kills for its characters; Freddy killing a hopeful actress by turning into a TV, killing a recovering addict by turning his iconic knives into needles, or the aforementioned murder of a young puppeteer. The sequel isn’t perfect: Freddy’s origin wasn’t necessary, and the movie is at its worst and most stomach-turning (and not the fun kind) when it brings it up. However, the fact that the movie can actually hold a candle to (or even surpass) the original is quite the feat all on its own.
After years of more middling and increasingly cartoony sequels, the series also managed to pull off another genuinely great and creative sequel, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. The movie pulls the struggling series into a wonderfully meta version of itself, with the actors and creators of the original movies now at the mercy of a Freddy who has been brought forth into the “real world.” The movie delivers some great kills (most notably a recreation of the first kill of the series with a fun twist), but its most interesting feature is the existential horror and self-awareness that comes with the concept itself. Most notably, New Nightmare represents the first time that Wes Craven went full meta with his movies, an experiment that undoubtedly paved the way for his Scream franchise. No New Nightmare, no Scream. Not only is Freddy one of the best slashers, but thanks to one of his movies, we got an entirely different and iconic slasher film series. Ghostface’s devious performance is no doubt heavily inspired by Krueger himself.
Iconic, terrifying, funny and influential, Freddy Krueger exemplifies every single thing that makes slasher movies great. His kills are imaginative and visually incredible, his performance makes other slashers look dull in comparison, and he has an enduring legacy that even a horrible reboot can’t touch. Despite all of this, he’s remained dormant for years. Almost every other classic slasher has had a return in our modern era (usually not a very triumphant one), but he’s one of the few that’s remained dead and buried. This may change with rumors that famed modern horror director Mike Flanagan is interested in creating a new entry in the series himself. Krueger is so well known and beloved in his genre that it can’t really be divorced from him, no matter how much time has passed. He’s not dead…just sleeping.