There's a disturbing subtext to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Freddy Krueger is a child murderer, but by the third film, he's quipped his way into the audience's heart. Okay, maybe that's a bit of an overstatement, but I think the latter half of the series depicts Freddy Krueger as a full-fledged anti-hero. The vaudevillian persona he adopts over time encourages the audience to root for him. In one sense, it's only logical: the victims are, for the most part, disposable characters—perhaps only with the exception of Heather Langenkamp's Nancy—but it's Freddy who is the center of the films. If he's not in some way an effective or compelling character, the franchise dies. Audiences don't line up at box offices to see the no-name actors whose characters get offed—they line up to see Freddy Krueger do the offing, in new, creative, and often humorous ways. This certainly isn't unique in horror film franchises, which intrinsically rely on the appeal of the villains to sustain the storyline; Jason, Michael Myers, and Leatherface have similarly been 'rehabilitated' as anti-heroes of their series. In fact, as the sequels pile up, the victims often become more bland, more stupid, or more irritating so that we won't suffer any residual guilt as we find ourselves empathizing with a serial killer. Clearly, these idiots deserve to die, right?
Freddy's backstory makes the empathy a little more problematic, however. (This history is elaborated later on with details that are intended, I suppose, to mitigate Krueger's psychopathology: apparently, his mother's pregnancy was the consequence of being raped by a hundred insane men in a mental asylum.) I really, really dislike the later Nightmare films because Freddy pretty much turns into a goofy cartoon character with horrible one-liners. I admit to stealing this from somewhere I can't remember—but somebody once referred to him as the Henny Youngman of horror. It would be an apt comparison, but even Youngman was funnier than Freddy. The troubling thing is that the films make Freddy more relatable not by making him more human and understandable, but by flattening out his character into a schtick. We don't understand why Freddy did what he did; we don't even care. We just want him to end up on top, right?
I know. I'm getting way too analytic with a dumb horror film. And as dumb horror films go, the first Nightmare on Elm Street is pretty good. Sure, the special effects are weak by today's standards and the acting is strictly amateur hour. (Sorry, Johnny Depp. Blame it on your youth and inexperience.) In fact, I think Ronee Blakley, who plays Nancy's overly tanned, alcoholic mother, deserves a special award for her lousy acting in this movie. She was really playing to the back rows. (If the back rows happen to be Turkmenistan.)
You know the story. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund, who you may also remember from the V miniseries in the 1980s) suffers the effects of vigilante justice when a hardcore posse of suburban moms and dads set him on fire for killing neighborhood children. Now, years later, he returns in the nightmares of the executioners' offspring—where he tries to kill them. This film focuses on four teenagers: a generic blonde girl who gets slashed to death early on, her verbally abusive boyfriend who gets blamed for the murder, a girl named Nancy with untamed eyebrows and a zit on her forehead, and Johnny Depp, who brings very little of his patented deppiness into play here.
Why is this one better than the other ones? Because Freddy is actually creepy here. He spends more time cutting bitches than he does prepping his bon mots. He's still a dark and mysterious character. By Freddy outing number four, I was pretty much sighing and grumbling. 'Oh, this old queen again?' He was just getting too Paul Lynde-ish for my tastes.