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.”
Icons and monsters have been the subject of fan-service dream matches as long as they’ve been around. Going back to the 1930s and ’40s, fans clamored for Frankenstein(‘s Monster) to meet the Wolf Man or wonder what would happen if Godzilla met King Kong.
Freddy vs. Jason is a successful contemporary realization of this phenomenon, two pop-culture titans squaring off to establish cinematic slasher supremacy. Never mind that Halloween’s Michael Myers is nowhere to be found; he’s too busy chasing his relatives to be of much use here. No, it’s all about Freddy and Jason, the two icons of 1980s slasher films, rampaging like never before.
Screenwriters struggled for nearly a decade to come up with an acceptable script. The director, Ronny Yu – not exactly a stranger to American horror, having directed Bride of Chucky – was mostly known for stylistic Chinese action films. The film was not his vision, however, having gone through several drafts over the years. Directorial heavyweights like Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson were each tapped to make it at different points, as well as previous Friday the 13th franchise directors Tom McLoughlin (Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives), Joseph Zito (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) and Adam Marcus (Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday). Yu himself even turned down the job at one point. Scripts bounced around that included Freddy cults, and fellow horror icons Pinhead and Michael Myers were also rumored to be involved either in early drafts of the script or in sequels.
The story that eventually won out works in enough of the Freddy and Jason lore, makes a couple of sensible retcons that, while not working within canon, are logical at least, and has a few stylistic flourishes unlike anything in either franchise.
Freddy is still around but is only a shell of his former self. The children of Springwood, Ohio, have forgotten him, and parents have taken to medicating their kids (bringing back the fictional sleep aid / dream suppressant Hypnocil from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), leaving Freddy virtually powerless.
Jason is also dead, ambling about hell after his banishment there in The Final Friday. Freddy finds him there and, disguising himself as Jason’s mom, orders Jason to come back to life and kill again. His target, of course, is not Camp Crystal Lake but the town of Springwood – where Jason’s rampage would trigger repressed memories of Freddy, which would restore his power.
The kill scenes are more traditional in nature but employ a slow-motion technique that quickly becomes annoying. One sequence in particular, where Jason rampages at a cornfield rave, is ambitious for a Friday the 13th scene (even mirroring a similar scene in a backyard swimming pool in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge) but feels forced and out of place somehow.
The heroes of the story, inasmuch as you can call these characters “heroes,” are the usual motley crew of mass-murder stories, whose backgrounds are just complex enough to be annoying but not enough to get in the way:
Lori (Monica Keena) is traumatized by the death of her mother and still hung up on Will (Jason Ritter), a boyfriend who vanished. She also happens to live at 1428 Elm St., where Nancy Thompson, Jesse Walsh, Kristen Parker and others lived and were terrorized by the dream slasher with a burned face.
Lori doesn’t know Freddy killed her mother, but her father has pinned it on Will and had him committed to a mental institution, where he lives doped to the gills with other troubled teens.
Meanwhile, Lori is busy spouting off exposition and fending off aggressive attempts by her friends Kia (Kelly Rowland) and Gibb (Katharine Isabelle) to set her up with a douchey frat boy swigging from a flask because nothing says “hot teen boy” like a drunk scrub. The characters are even thinner than usual, playing like caricatures of past players in either franchise. Gibb’s boyfriend couldn’t be a bigger dick, acting disgusted with her and saying things like “BABE! You know I don’t like to be touched after (sex).”
As Jason begins to kill, memories of Freddy begin bubbling up. But adults have erased all evidence that Krueger existed in hopes of keeping him at bay. As Jason continues his rampage, however, Freddy slowly becomes strong enough to kill again on his own.
The teens learn of Freddy’s plot and decide they have to use Freddy’s secret weapon against him. They drug Jason and drive his body back to Camp Crystal Lake while Lori attempts to pull Freddy into the real world, where Jason can beat him.
Yu creates different versions of the villains than the ones to which audiences were by then accustomed. Freddy has a “demon” mode, a previously unseen “leveled up” version whose skin grows redder and whose face is more demonic. It’s an odd and unnecessary touch that somehow sort of works. Robert Englund again embodies the character — then the only actor who had played Freddy — and he anchors the film as the most familiar part of the production. Freddy gives more exposition here, but Englund is also visibly comfortable behind the latex and knifed glove.
Jason moves away from more traditional versions of the character, and Yu leaned into the murderer as a hulking mass. Kane Hodder, who had played Jason in the previous four films and had become synonymous with the role, was not brought back in favor of the taller, more imposing Ken Kirzinger. He mostly lumbers about, towering over everyone — particularly Freddy.
But in the end, Yu imbues FvJ with a style unlike any other film in either franchise. The action scenes are more kinetic, particularly when Freddy and Jason are battling each other. In the dream world, their fights are cartoonish, almost Looney Tunes-like, with Freddy taking advantage of Jason’s deep-seated fear of water and his mommy issues. In the real world, Jason’s brute force takes center stage, and the fights become bloody and brutal.
The climactic title clash between them is appropriately epic and dominates the third act. The fight is unlike anything in any franchise. In the dream world, their grapple is a knock-down, drag-out affair that employs mind games. In the real world, the pair throws the proverbial kitchen sink at each other, fighting through Camp Crystal Lake, a construction site where metal rods and assorted heavy construction equipment make fun props, and finally on Crystal Lake itself with propane tanks, fire and Lori, who learns Freddy is responsible for her mother’s death.
Freddy counters Jason’s strength with speed and guile, and by the time the two are fighting on a dock, there’s a strange sort of rooting interest. Jason becomes the de facto hero of the two, though allegiances take a backseat to the sheer spectacle of these two taking the fight to each other.
Of course, the resolution is appropriately vague and the victor is the subject of debate among fans. But the literal wink we get as the film’s final shot tells us the whole movie is meant to be just for fun.
And fun it was – leagues better than it had any right to be and a pretty rousing success to the point that rumors began that a sequel would incorporate Myers, the Cenobites of Hellraiser or, perhaps most fun, Ash from the Evil Dead series. None of those came to pass, but we are left with a movie decades in the making that became the iconic “versus” film of its era, hitting virtually all the right notes and proving that a picture like this could be a rousing success.