We dissect the so-called "final" chapter of the Nightmare on Elm Street series for better and for worse.
It was 1991, and Freddy Krueger was boring.
Once upon a time, in the year 1984, Freddy had been one of the most terrifying new faces in horror. He was edgy, distinct, and from the edge of reality itself. Millions of people were entranced with a mass scale personification of the boogeyman they caught glimpses of out of the corner of their eyes during the hardest parts of their formative years.
And so a public obsession was born, one that was just as much about the underlying darkness of the 1980s that was desperately trying to be day-glo-ed away as it was about Halloween decorations. People needed a face to summarize everything that was unusual and uncertain during this decade, and Freddy Krueger made the perfect mascot. For the first time in history, a horrifically scarred child molesting serial killer was a hot commodity.
Then a point of exhaustion came when the 1990s arrived–an era in which Freddy Krueger was synonymous with waves of leftover merchandise that nobody wanted.
Naturally, he needed to die.
An endpoint to the franchise was proposed, one that would encapsulate a decade’s worth of nightmares. New Line Cinema released Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare in the fall of ‘91, promising that this was it. No more Robert Englund camping it up and shedding his mystique one sadistic wisecrack at a time. No more troubled, perfect looking suburban kids falling prey to Rube Goldberg style executions designed to prey on their character flaws. But most of all, no more teen slasher flicks. (They went into hibernation until their glossy and domesticated rebirth in the late ‘90s.)
As countless other articles out there will tell you, Freddy’s Dead is considered to be one of the lowest points of the Elm Street legacy. It’s easy to see why too. It looks at everything that’s genuinely frightening about the franchise in the eye and gives it a juicy, spit-filled raspberry straight out of third grade recess. And what’s worse, it hardly does the character that it’s sending off justice.
“I personally have worked to turn Freddy into a combination of the Freddy we had before with a few elements of Bart Simpson added into it,” director Rachel Talalay said in the the making of special you can watch below. “He’s just really become an evil, evil child.“
It’s been said before, but Freddy Krueger is treated as the Snidely Whiplash of horror films in The Final Nightmare. He doesn’t even feel like our Freddy. He was tamed by the pop culture machine that made him a household name in the first place. And just like an incompetent cartoon villain, he relies on the same formulaic approach as he always has, yet this time, he approaches the proceedings with more bad jokes than ever.
Was this a symptom of the film itself or just a byproduct of his overexposure? After all, Freddy Krueger was no longer the man in the shadows he was in Craven’s original. His scarred face was plastered on yo-yos and plush toys. He even had his own greatest hits album for crying out loud.
Freddy’s Dead didn’t “ruin” Freddy Krueger; it merely worked with what it was given to keep up with the times and please test audiences and studio execs alike. Essentially it was the ultimate Hollywood goodbye: a mercy killing under the guise of a retirement party, complete with celebrity keynote speakers and everything. This was a ceremonial act of sorts, a way to sacrifice the old Freddy Krueger for everything silly and goofy and not scary about him. It was intended to be “The End,” but only to that iteration of Freddy that wasn’t shocking anymore. But in retrospect, was this satirical romp what the series should have ended off on, tonally speaking?
This tonal disparity is what turned off so many fans and critics alike about Freddy’s Dead. It was advertised to be “the best” because it was “the last”–and the poster artwork suggests it was going to be a dark and appropriately nightmarish ride. The mismarketing was necessary (it was the final Nightmare on Elm Street film for Christ’s sake!), but it was so far removed from what made the original film so scary and effective, not to mention repulsive and attractive.
No, Freddy’s Dead doesn’t work as a horror movie, does it? And despite bing punctuated with the requisite gory dream sequences, it can barely even be considered a Nightmare on Elm Street film either; it’s more of a commentary on one. It trades dread and atmosphere for the kind of tongue-in-cheek irreverent optimism that was curiously prevalent in most horror films from the early ‘90s. In that way, it can be described as a time capsule, just as Freddy vs. Jason or the 2010 remake can be. It’s also the first instance in which the Elm Street franchise started being 100 percent about the marketing initiative rather than the movie itself.
What’s more frustrating is that even though Freddy’s Dead is mostly a comedy, it’s not a funny one. The audience is asked to sit through skits and gags like they’re guests at some kid’s demonic birthday party, and Robert Englund is the clown. But rather than making balloon animals, he cuts someone’s ear off! There are a couple of chuckles here and there, maybe, but since the humor matches that of the golden age cartoons the film pays homage to, it can only be described as amusing at best.
If you want to get technical, The Final Nightmare can be classified as a fantasy/adventure film with horror elements. That’s probably because it emulates Elm Street’s more successful attempts like Dream Warriors, which worked well because it was primarily a horror film that used fantasy themes as window dressing. But Freddy’s Dead doesn’t understand that. Rachel Talalay plays up the comic book magic and downplays the scary stuff. Yet I’m a fan of her work and this film, even if I’m sitting here vivisecting it at the moment (I guess if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t feel strongly about it, right?).
The cast isn’t as strong as that of Dream Warriors, but they’re a solid bunch nonetheless. Shon Greenblatt does the tortured broody schtick well, Breckin Meyer fits the token stoner role perfectly, Ricky Dean Logan plays a good sassy Latino, and Lezlie Deane can be likened to the Jodie Foster of the grunge era. They spend their time exhuming the franchise, poking its dead corpse with a stick, and laughing off any menacing thrall its iconography ever held over us.
Lisa Zane holds her own as the leading-lady-in-stealth-mode, especially given her character Maggie’s rather shallow characterization during the first two acts. But the “I’m Actually Freddy’s Daughter!” twist is a good one and transforms the whole movie into a different experience altogether. In this regard, The Final Nightmare might be the cleverest of all Elm Street entries because even if it’s not hilarious, it is incredibly self-aware. It plays pranks on its audience as its main character has now embodied the trickster archetype. It’s meta, through and through.
But maybe that’s reason why most of Freddy’s Dead seems superficial and patronizing–it’s designed to be. Maybe it’s Talalay’s shot at Gremlins 2 level chicanery, one big practical feminist joke played on the audience that most will not be sophisticated enough to understand?
Or maybe it’s kind of like a lesser Mulholland Drive. Maybe the first half is a farce, a construction where all the formulaic ingredients the audience expects from a Freddy movie is disposed of as quickly as possible in zany ritualistic acts of Saturday morning schadenfreude. Maybe the second half is where the real narrative starts when Maggie, the true protagonist of the film, wakes up to find herself in a reality where she is both a victim and a survivor.
The real key to decoding Freddy’s Dead‘s mixed messages is embedded deep within in its emotional mission statement: empowering those who have survived child abuse. Neutering Freddy Krueger by giving him a past, exploring his psyche, humanizing him, making him slightly empathetic, and turning him into a horse’s ass was the final nail hammered triumphantly into the coffin. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare wasn’t about scaring people; it was about providing closure. It was the ultimate demystification of an icon that became so popular because he symbolized deep personal traumas that countless people are afraid to speak of. Taking his power away and turning him into the devil’s two-bit jester was an act of catharsis felt by those who needed it the most. That, we can all agree, is the film’s greatest victory.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, follow Stephen Harber on Twitter and Instagram, or check out his comic book project Occult Generation. We’re not saying those things are so boring that they’ll put you to sleep…or are we? Anyway, sweet dreams. Read more of his work here.