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.”
Horror movies aren’t really my thing, and I was still in grade school for the prime of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Much as I did for my contribution to last year’s 13 Fridays series, I once again rolled into Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare pretty uninformed. I primarily knew Freddy as a pop-culture touchstone, perennially overdone Halloween costume and ubiquitous cardboard standee at the movie theater or video store. With the grotesque face, spooky hat and impractical-yet-menacing glove, I just assumed the movies must be pretty scary. Freddy was certainly creepier looking than Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, and the idea of a killer who could stalk your nightmares was terrifying to a kid still young enough for bad dreams to be full of monsters.
Imagine my surprise 31 years later when my first onscreen exposure to Freddy Krueger involved him wearing a pointy witch’s hat and riding a broom, doing a corny impression of the Wicked Witch of the West. “I’ll get you my pretty! And your little soul too!” I’d love to report that it gets better from there, but why lie? This is easily one of the 10 worst movies I’ve ever seen, up there with Nothing But Trouble, Leonard Part 6 and Forrest Gump. I’m not surprised it’s terrible; Evan was basically cackling with glee when he assigned it to me this summer. But I was genuinely flabbergasted that it wasn’t scarier.
I’m not trying to play tough guy or anything here the way some people do about horror flicks, sucking the fun out of being startled by claiming it’s not clever enough to get to them. It’s also not that I’m taking some pseudointellectual angle of “Nothing so mundane as a horror movie can scare me, I only fear climate change, nuclear war and a second Trump presidency because I’m a grown-up.” I’m saying this movie is completely disinterested in being scary. No jump scares, no lingering sense of danger, no slowly ratcheted suspense, not even the growing discomfort of a good psychological thriller. They’ve got Freddy playing every encounter for maximum campy comic value and in setups either too slow to develop or too goofy to ever feel tense.
The heavy-handed plotting does no one any favors here, as a good part of the film is just shuttling characters back and forth to wherever the story needs them to be. John Doe (Shon Greenblatt), a teenager in Springwood, Ohio, escapes murderous dream invader Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) only to be found wandering the streets with amnesia and dropped off at a home for wayward youth. Therapist Maggie Burroughs (Lisa Zane) discovers a newspaper clipping from Springwood and —determined to help John and disprove the dream-therapy theories of her colleague Doc (Yaphet Kotto) — arranges to drive him back to town to jog his memory. They accidentally bring three stowaways along, troubled teens trying to escape the shelter. There’s Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan), mostly deaf due to his abusive mother; Spencer a privileged stoner transparently rebelling against his wealthy father (and played by Breckin Meyer in his screen debut, kicking off approximately three decades of playing teenagers); and Tracy (Lezlie Deane), a kickboxing tough girl who is using Doc’s dream therapy to come to terms with years of sexual abuse.
The group arrives in Springwood and wanders into a town fair, immediately noting there are no kids to be seen anywhere. Within moments, the three teenage runaways are accosted by the true nightmare monsters of the 1990s — Tom Arnold and Roseanne Barr in a clumsy, self-aware cameo that breaks whatever flimsy hold the movie might have on the audience by this point. Maggie and John run off to gather exposition while the three teens steal the van and decide to hole up for the night in an abandoned house on — you guessed it — Elm Street.
As the kids fall asleep and pass into dreams, Freddy murders them with bad quips and savage puns. He goes after the hearing-impaired Carlos by amping up his hearing aid and then dropping pins by the handful and scratching that ridiculous glove on a chalkboard, finishing him off with a painful “Nice hearing from you, Carlos.” Painful, but not scary. And it gets worse.
Spencer lights a joint and is dragged into a trippy psychedelic TV show as he falls asleep on the couch, complete with a mildly funny cameo from Johnny Depp (who most prominently appeared in the original film). Freddy then traps Spencer in a horrendously animated video game so he can make several bad Nintendo Power jokes. The whole thing is so badly done. The drug sequence has lava lamp-style animation and fucking “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” playing in the background. It’s like pot-smoking as imagined by someone who listens to Christian rap. Like pretty much any video game featured in a movie, it’s clear no one involved with the idea had ever seen a video game let alone played one. The jokes sound so shoehorned in, you’d almost believe Nintendo paid for the promotion if the game onscreen wasn’t about someone’s dad beating them to death with a tennis racket. (Mind you: In the 1990s, such games would have been taboo. Now you can probably get four different versions of this on your phone where you pay a buck to change the color of the racket. But I digress.) Nothing about it is even trying to be scary. There’s no sense of menace or danger. It’s just another hilarious Freddy kill. Yet again, though, it gets worse.
I promise I’ll stop recapping all of Freddy’s murders here, but Tracy’s nightmare is worth some discussion. As mentioned earlier, Tracy’s particular trauma was sexual abuse. Naturally, her nightmare starts with reliving those moments, an absolutely horrifying scene of a teenage girl trying to fend off her rapist father in her kitchen. It’s dark stuff, heavy in a way that doesn’t fit the tone of the movie at all, which is not sufficient to explain why director Rachel Talalay immediately jumps to Freddy playing it for laughs. Literally in the space of seconds, we go from a sobbing Tracy physically fighting off her father, with his groping hands and angry question of “No honey for daddy?,” to a grinning Freddy mockingly saying “What’s with kids these days? No respect.” Because nothing says comedy like implying the victim of a horrific sexual assault is simply a disobedient child, right? I’m puzzled by this whole storyline. Why include something so genuinely traumatic and dark in a movie mostly played for goofball horror-comedy? It wouldn’t be any more appropriate to use that kind of real-life trauma for straight-up horror either, but the shift in tone is so jarring here, it’s really impossible to imagine what the filmmakers were thinking. I know modern mores have us rethinking some of the problematic “jokes” of the 1980s and 1990s teen comedies in ways that weren’t as openly discussed at the time (John Hughes, anyone?), but this doesn’t come off as the same problem. Hughes’s blind spot is the male privilege of not recognizing that date rape is really horrifying and never funny, but it’s clear the director here understands what makes this scene terrible before she pivots to playing it for laughs. So maybe this part was scary, but not in the way anyone would expect.
The team is able to wake Tracy just in time, saving her from Freddy’s clutches, but in the process he’s able to kill John and reveal his true motivation here: Maggie is Freddy’s daughter, and blah, blah, blah, his bloodline can make him immortal, et cetera et cetera. Freddy pursues, Doc helps Tracy and Maggie learn to battle Freddy in lucid dreams, Maggie invades Freddy’s mind and learns about his childhood of abuse at the hands of a foster parent (another cameo, this time from Alice Cooper playing it remarkably straight), and how his real-life history as a serial killer ended when he killed Maggie’s mother and Maggie told the police before leaving town via adoption and blocking out the memories. Apparently some of the terrible effects here are because this sequence was actually shot in 3D for the theatrical release, but I don’t feel like I missed anything watching it without the added distraction. There’s some fighting, the good guys win, roll credits, yawn.
Sex abuse jokes aside, this might have worked marginally better had Talalay just picked a damn lane. Somewhere deep under the bad puns and gratuitous gore, there’s a throughline here about childhood trauma and how it shapes us, but even Wes Craven himself would gag at the thought of trying to pull that thread of gold out of this pile of shit. If it was ever there at all, it seems more like it happened by accident than anything else. Every time the movie gets even a little serious, it immediately jumps three steps back on the comedy scale and takes any hint of suspense with it. Lost teenagers wandering through a creepy town square while the townspeople give them ominous glares? Throw in Roseanne and Tom! Freddy forces Carlos to relive the moment in which his mom made him deaf by aggressively cleaning his ears? Too serious! Quick, have Freddy do some prop comedy like a slightly less terrifying Carrot Top. The scares never get going.
Englund plays Freddy with charisma; even in this disaster, I can see how Freddy was a character worthy of such a franchise. He’s genuinely chilling in the flashback scene where he murders his wife, before acquiring the glove and grotesque face. The failures here aren’t Englund’s fault. Suffice to say Meyer is the clear standout of the rest of the cast, but nobody’s expecting Oscar-worthy performances from the cannon fodder. It’s really just a failure of tone. Freddy’s Dead sends the horror icon out from his initial incarnation with a cheesy pun and a cheesier theme song (courtesy of Iggy Pop, of all people) but not a single scary moment to be seen.