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How A Nightmare on Elm Street Made Us Root for the Bad Guy

On its 35th anniversary, we look back at the seminal horror film that changed the game by establishing its villain as more than just a somber, silent entity.

by | November 16, 2019 | Comments

New Line Cinema
(Photo by New Line Cinema)

During the casting for A Nightmare on Elm Street, director Wes Craven thought he needed a “big man.” After all, it was going to be a horror movie about an evil, dream-haunting psychopath who slaughters kids with a glove fitted with knives. In his mind, Craven was following the precedent set by Tobe Hooper in 1974 and John Carpenter in 1978 – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween both featured hulking, unstoppable man-monsters. Craven even interviewed Kane Hodder – the man who would wear the hockey mask once Jason Voorhees took center stage in the Friday the 13th series – for the part.

But a skinny, young actor named Robert Englund thought that most child abusers were weasels and creeps, not hulks. So he offered a different take on the lecherous Freddy Krueger, and not only would Nightmare take off because of it, but horror movies themselves would be changed forever.

Released 35 years ago this week, A Nightmare on Elm Street took the concept of the bad guy as the marquee character – the one people not only came to see, but to actively cheer on – to whole new levels. The faceless, voiceless, mask-obscured killing machines that preceded Nightmare had to make way for a mugging, self-referential, hammy villain-hero.


The Diva Who Shunned the Mask

In the end credits of Halloween, the character of Michael Myers isn’t even listed by name. He’s called “The Shape.” This is significant because Michael isn’t meant to “be” anyone. The whole point is that he just is, a silent menace in the periphery as the movie focuses on the guilt-ridden Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) and high school good girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). With his slow movement, white, expressionless face, and complete silence, Michael is a terrifying blank slate.

A few years later, Friday the 13th would completely obscure its main villain until the very end – revealing at last that the murders were committed by a revenge-obsessed woman scarred by the apparent death of her son, Jason, many years before. When Jason himself took the spotlight in the next few installments, he, too, was a silent, expressionless entity who at first wears a nondescript bag over his head before he even gets his signature goalie mask (in Part III).

And yet, by 1986’s Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives, we saw the movie literally opening with a tongue-in-cheek James Bond parody:

What happened? Freddy happened.

A Nightmare on Elm Street had the same bland, suburban setting as Halloween and a similar gang of horny teens as the Friday films, but there was a key difference. Freddy wasn’t just scary, he was darkly witty. He was creative. He was, well, a thousand times more interesting than anyone he killed.

Sure, people went to horror movies for the killer or the monster – this had been true since the 1950s. You went to see The Blob because you wanted to see the blob. But this was different. Audiences liked Freddy. He was the star, not just the threat, and things only got hammier as the franchise went along. It was because, rather than going with yet another “big man” monster, Craven and Englund delivered a performance. Freddy was a theatrical diva.

Would any other slasher work so well in a Fresh Prince video?

The other competitors had no choice but to follow suit. Although somewhat hamstrung by their lack of personality, Jason and Michael still went through increasingly bizarre and laughable incarnations in an effort to keep up with Freddy. This is why we eventually got cyborg space-Jason and Busta Rhymes electrocuting Michael Myers in the crotch after he shouts, “Trick or treat, motherf—er!”

Post-Nightmare, movie slashers had to be more than just killers. They needed to be in the spotlight, not the shadows. One-liners, theatricality, and insane death scenarios all became requirements. We’d never have IT’s Pennywise or Scream’s Ghostface without Freddy.

So to celebrate the mugging, one-liner-spewing dream-weaver on his 35th anniversary, let’s run down his greatest hits.


The Five Best Freddy Kills

1) A Nightmare on Elm Street: “Watch this.”

Freddy’s first outing really sets the tone, and this scene has it all. Rather than simply stalking and killing Tina (Amanda Wyss), he toys with her, throwing out one-liners and a few party tricks as he leads her to an overly elaborate demise. Freddy is playing to the crowd.


2) Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master: “Wanna suck face?”

Freddy kills an asthmatic girl by dropping this one-liner before literally sucking the air out of her lungs and leaving her a deflated corpse.


3) Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare: “Let’s trip out.”

Freddy’s satirical take on the “This is your brain…” PSAs from the ’80s and ’90s – complete with a cameo from former Freddy victim Johnny Depp – and an extended Super Mario Bros.-inspired kill is all the proof you need that he was a frustrated comedian.


4) A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child: “Bon Appétit!”

Dressing up as a chef and strapping a girl with an eating disorder into a high chair for the sole purpose of force-feeding her to death in front of her overbearing mother? Can you imagine Leatherface putting in this kind of multi-layered effort?


5) A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors: “Welcome to prime time, b—h!”

A scene that begins with former talk show host Dick Cavett turning into Freddy before killing Zsa Zsa Gabor can’t possibly get any more insane, can it? Oh, yes. Freddy literally pops out of the TV and pulls Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) face-first into the set with his mechanical TV arms. With an applause-baiting one-liner, of course.


A Nightmare on Elm Street went into wide release on November 16, 1984.

#1
Adjusted Score: 97.946%
Critics Consensus: Wes Craven's intelligent premise, combined with the horrifying visual appearance of Freddy Krueger, still causes nightmares to this day.
Synopsis: A group of teenagers are terrorized by "Freddy Krueger", an evil being from another world who gets to his victims... [More]
Directed By: Wes Craven

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