Get ready for Freddy. Recurring Nightmares is a 10-week look at the entirety of the Nightmare on Elm Street series that started on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, and runs through Halloween 2022. (Yeah, only nine movies, but also one TV series; the rhyme does go, “Nine, ten, never sleep again,” after all.) It will run parallel to other series we’re running in late summer / early autumn, including another round of No Sleep October essays. Every week will feature an essay about a piece of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in chronological order, written by Midwest Film Journal contributors and staff writers. Some have seen the whole franchise. Some are novices and neophytes, jumping into the movies without watching the rest of them to offer unvarnished thoughts … or, as Freddy would say, “How sweet. Fresh meat.”
During my childhood in the 1990s, the horror aisle always stood out as the Mount Rushmore of the video store, with three distinct faces jutting out of the shelves — Michael Myers’ ghostly visage, Jason Voorhees wearing his signature hockey mask, and the fire-scarred Freddy Krueger. (Take your pick for the fourth face of Mount Horrormore — Pinhead?) Anyway, Freddy was the only one who seemed like an actual man behind a mask. Ironically, Michael and Jason chose theirs to appear human, but victims’ families inflicted the burns upon Freddy’s face. And that’s why he wears a discernible expression of bitterness and desperation to exact revenge.
The short-lived anthology TV series, Freddy’s Nightmares (which ran from 1988 to 1990), explores the dream demon’s origins in its pilot episode, “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” Robert Englund reprises the series’ titular role, bringing just as much menace without makeup. Until the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, this episode was the first full-fledged depiction of Freddy’s life before he became the dream invader we all know and love. And it remains the most compelling glimpse into his past. Directed by horror master Tobe Hooper, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is largely the same old magic act from Freddy, but it has a few surprising tricks up its sleeve that add some depth to his mythos.
The franchise was four films deep by the time this episode aired in the fall of 1988, following the summer release of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. As fellow MFJ member Mitch Ringenberg wrote in his essay on that film, director Renny Harlin aimed to make Freddy “the James Bond of horror,” focusing on “scenes where he sports sunglasses or spouts ‘How’s this for a wet dream?’ before drowning a kid in his water bed.”
Right from the opening-credit sequence, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” establishes itself as a much darker portrait of Freddy. As the prosecutor clicks through a macabre slideshow in the courtroom, the camera creeps in on Freddy sitting in a shatterproof glass booth, lit only by the pictures of the kids he killed. When the prosecutor tells the jury that one victim was identified only through dental records, Freddy angrily tries to snap his shackles, as if bitter about being reminded of his crimes.
Freddy gets off scot-free, which is all the more maddening to watch now, as the new Netflix series Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story reminds us how often and long the justice system can fail to live up to its name in real life.
The parents of Freddy’s victims become vigilantes, hunting him down to his hideout in the boiler room of the Springwood power plant. Although we never get a fully clear idea of his motivation, it’s here that Freddy seems possessed by his hellish surroundings. He talks to rusty chains and sharp tools as if he promises to feed them more children. Writers Michael De Luca, David Ehrman and Rhet Topham suggest Freddy is merely one of the devil’s many henchmen. Perhaps that’s why he says “I am forever” when the parents threaten to kill him. He knows he’s bound for a supernatural existence beyond suburbia.
Hilariously, just a few moments after warning his fellow parents against stooping to Freddy’s level, Springwood Police Lieutenant Tim Blocker (Ian Patrick Williams) says, “Tonight, the law is on vacation,” and he burns Freddy alive.
Then, halfway through the episode, we’re back to Freddy wreaking havoc in dreamland. The exploration of his past feels like it’s cut woefully short in favor of familiar territory. However, the episode remains interesting for the way it depicts Lt. Blocker grappling with his decision to kill Freddy. In his nightmares, we see Blocker walking down death row toward the electric chair.
The episode ends on a shockingly bleak note that clashes with the outlandish vibe of The Dream Master. Freddy then breaks the fourth wall and asks, “Who’s next?” He points to the audience with one of the razors on his glove and says, “Maybe one of you,” leading us to believe no one is safe in this Elm Street iteration.
Although Freddy is much more disturbing in this episode than the film sequels we had up to this point, he doesn’t get much to do, especially in waking life on the streets of Springwood. Considering the character is based on Wes Craven’s childhood bully and a neighborhood vagrant, it would only be natural to see how he engages with the ordinary reality that inspired his creation. After all, as Craven said himself, Freddy is meant to represent formidable figures in everyday life or “the paradigm of the threatening adult.” He’s the creepy guy at the town power plant, the teacher who’s a bit too tough in class, the parent who turns toward abuse behind closed doors.
Unfortunately, as personified on Freddy’s Nightmares, Freddy would mainly serve as a comedic host (a la Tales from the Crypt‘s Cryptkeeper) for stories only loosely connected to his world. It’s a pity we didn’t get a more fully realized prequel about Freddy’s time as “the Springwood slasher.” Perhaps it’s best to let our dreams fill in the details.
Both seasons of Freddy’s Nightmares are available to watch for free on Tubi.