News

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: 97.939%
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

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

YouTube Esquire universal monsters aliens Peacock Anna Paquin criterion historical drama jamie lee curtis TCA Awards dragons Certified Fresh hist robots chucky Sony Pictures directors San Diego Comic-Con BBC America Box Office serial killer versus Acorn TV YA Academy Awards Chernobyl Polls and Games Film Festival Mudbound Baby Yoda Tarantino Musical sitcom IFC Films monster movies sag awards 2021 Apple TV+ films DC Universe Exclusive Video movie sequels Country fast and furious italian docuseries Avengers kaiju Emmys TV renewals Disney Plus dceu composers doctor who A24 cancelled ID canceled TV shows Hallmark latino NBC Trailer justice league talk show Awards OWN Adult Swim renewed TV shows MTV Spring TV Comic Book quibi Tumblr telelvision scorecard 2019 VICE Pop witnail thriller 45 Captain marvel TV Land stop motion sports Turner superhero joker Tomatazos parents Masterpiece Amazon Studios spider-man new star wars movies Sundance Musicals nature golden globe awards RT21 Rock Amazon Prime Video HBO Max ESPN cartoon Election boxoffice Grammys Fox Searchlight book Trophy Talk HBO 2017 FOX ITV Holiday hollywood Hulu USA Photos 71st Emmy Awards Rom-Com christmas movies USA Network TCA 2017 Freeform The Purge kong Opinion Heroines Winners Crackle romantic comedy rotten anime APB Television Critics Association crime casting Sundance Now Disney streaming service rt archives Set visit Holidays Stephen King natural history Comedy Central BET Awards A&E dramedy Arrowverse halloween tv zombie Quiz YouTube Premium Marvel Studios war CMT GIFs Schedule Cosplay news Amazon Prime GLAAD Kids & Family diversity period drama green book Netflix Ovation AMC docudrama Watching Series Super Bowl archives jurassic park Bravo canceled revenge zero dark thirty FX PBS blockbuster Rocketman 20th Century Fox Spectrum Originals unscripted Spike Lionsgate king kong TCA BAFTA game show TBS TCM die hard Hear Us Out Premiere Dates Paramount TIFF SXSW Mary poppins Mindy Kaling ABC Family harry potter book adaptation Animation Lucasfilm video on demand boxing blaxploitation psycho ghosts Toys New York Comic Con Pet Sematary Warner Bros. comic books television kids PaleyFest BBC comic Dark Horse Comics Crunchyroll Western werewolf cars CW Seed Mary Tyler Moore romance elevated horror crime thriller 2016 cops zombies Showtime Nat Geo TCA Winter 2020 E! all-time rotten movies we love TV SundanceTV WarnerMedia strong female leads Pride Month mockumentary obituary Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt blockbusters venice black facebook Drama Year in Review festivals LGBTQ Martial Arts Mystery screen actors guild RT History concert Winter TV crossover what to watch teaser Teen First Look DC streaming service Family Endgame true crime spinoff name the review golden globes Lifetime Christmas movies Reality Mary Poppins Returns binge Trivia pirates of the caribbean Film Pixar miniseries Countdown hidden camera HBO Go classics DGA Classic Film VOD science fiction stand-up comedy MSNBC Star Trek Marvel Television trailers space animated australia superman independent Binge Guide The Arrangement batman ViacomCBS Legendary Black Mirror politics ABC disaster Infographic 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards razzies mutant cancelled TV shows adaptation cinemax Travel Channel Comics on TV PlayStation theme song Song of Ice and Fire best based on movie WGN comics james bond Chilling Adventures of Sabrina The Academy Pirates DirecTV worst movies 24 frames critics Action Universal E3 comedies DC Comics X-Men Summer spain Awards Tour vampires scary movies Elton John free movies Christmas laika documentary Oscars supernatural Apple TV Plus OneApp finale 2020 spanish language comiccon Thanksgiving Shudder indiana jones prank Vudu a nightmare on elm street Disney richard e. Grant ratings Reality Competition Writers Guild of America Extras 007 See It Skip It Hallmark Christmas movies social media dogs spy thriller Character Guide Ellie Kemper Cartoon Network Sci-Fi satire Shondaland children's TV TNT 72 Emmy Awards Epix BET CBS Sneak Peek franchise Emmy Nominations mission: impossible travel singing competition MCU festival American Society of Cinematographers The CW remakes Black History Month Cannes TV One cancelled television FX on Hulu Video Games Ghostbusters fresh screenings political drama Disney Channel Walt Disney Pictures Fantasy Broadway NYCC TruTV cooking nfl breaking bad halloween tv talk popular Podcast Apple Superheroe award winner Fall TV Biopics LGBT Nickelodeon Logo stoner discovery Starz Funimation Interview worst Amazon toy story foreign psychological thriller deadpool Calendar emmy awards 4/20 First Reviews cancelled TV series FXX History asian-american crime drama sequel toronto nbcuniversal Pop TV video Nominations anthology police drama The Walt Disney Company cults spanish south america Lifetime transformers dark Discovery Channel CBS All Access El Rey godzilla cats VH1 21st Century Fox TLC twilight 93rd Oscars indie Comedy streaming Britbox Marathons slashers reboot series Fox News Brie Larson Turner Classic Movies National Geographic The Walking Dead heist movie Creative Arts Emmys technology GoT japanese Television Academy SDCC Alien Tubi Syfy Marvel child's play Superheroes Paramount Plus Horror BBC One women biography Rocky Disney+ Disney Plus medical drama Food Network hispanic Columbia Pictures Best and Worst reviews Valentine's Day adventure Red Carpet 2015 documentaries 2018 Music IFC President dc french Paramount Network Sundance TV The Witch Star Wars YouTube Red 99% Women's History Month rom-coms CNN movies Netflix Christmas movies football game of thrones ABC Signature