It's all about the dreams. Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, Dracula, all those iconic horror film villains were meant to be real, creatures who existed in the same waking world as everyone else. But Freddy Krueger, the serial-killing pedophile of the 1984 hit "A Nightmare on Elm Street," was a dead man who disrupted people's dreams, and had the ability to kill them while they slept. That was one seriously frightening concept.
"I tapped into a universal kind of mystery and fear about dreaming, like 'Jaws' tapped into a fear of the water, and being eaten by an animal," says Samuel Bayer, director of the contemporary update of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," which opens Friday. "In some strange way, Freddy is kind of real, you can dream about something and be terrified of it, and it can come back and haunt you again."
"Freddy became an archetype of a horror figure," adds Joe Gervasi of the horror and specialty film website diabolikdvd.com. "Because he's haunting people in their dreams, they're at their most vulnerable. The rules that would generally apply to life or films suddenly didn't apply; it was something unique and different. They had to negotiate this world of dreams."
Which is a major reason why director Wes Craven's film, made on a budget of less than $2 million, grossed $25.5 million. It also spawned six sequels and a 2003 Freddy vs. Jason (of the "Friday the 13th" franchise) throwdown, as well as a TV show, novels and comic books. All told, the films, every one made on a modest budget, have grossed nearly $300 million domestically.
From creep to comic
But along the way, Freddy Krueger, with his striped shirt, fedora and gloves accessorized with sharp blades, morphed from a truly creepy villain into the kind of costumed character kids like to emulate at Halloween. Krueger became, for all intents and purposes, the horror-film equivalent of a standup comic.
In the first "Nightmare," which featured the film debut of Johnny Depp, Krueger (played in the TV show and all the films by Robert Englund), who has limited dialogue, attacks and kills several teenagers in their dreams. One of the teens' mothers reveals that Krueger was a child murderer released on a technicality, who was hunted down and burned to death by neighborhood parents. The teen then realizes if she can pull Freddy from his dream world, she can strip him of his powers.
From this point on, except for 1994's "New Nightmare," a thoroughly postmodern flick that director Craven used to remark on the entire "Nightmare" franchise, the films featured Krueger on a series of neighborhood rampages. But as the character became more familiar, he also became more toned down. Instead of a horrific pedophile, which might have turned audiences off, Krueger became more of a wisecracking, all-purpose bogeyman.
"You had to stop taking it too seriously," says Bayer, "and I don't think Robert Englund took it that seriously. He gave it a comedic bent, and it was tongue in cheek, and that made it easier for kids to be fans of Freddy Krueger."
"There were no rules for the series; Freddy could appear anywhere, in any form," adds Mike Mayo, author of "Videohound's Horror Show." "At first, he was only in dreams, then he could be in reality, it was so fluid, they could be creative, and that appealed to younger viewers. And the 'Nightmare' series really appealed to kids a lot. In the series, adults were seldom involved, it was just the kids and Freddy."
What about Fred?
So maybe it's not so crazy that the original "Nightmare" is being "re-imagined." After all, Bayer says, "Sometimes, these franchises run out of steam, and you have to recharge something to make it more interesting for modern audiences. Freddy had lost his power to scare everybody, and I don't think that's what Wes Craven wanted when he made the first movie." (Craven declined to comment for this article.)
This time out, instead of one of the teens' mothers telling what happened to Krueger in a simple conversation, the contemporary "Nightmare" provides more back story, shows more of what made Fred Krueger become Freddy Krueger, and what happened to him.
And the character of Freddy? "When I did research," says Jackie Earle Haley, who plays Freddy, "I wanted to get in the mind of a serial killer, and then I thought I was going down the wrong road. I realized I was not playing a real-world serial killer, I am playing the main character in a campfire story, and that's why I think we have fun with the character. There's something oddly fun about giggling while we try to share a scary story. 'Nightmare' is not supposed to be scary; it's supposed to be fun, and sickly dark."
The bottom line, Haley adds, is that "Freddy Krueger has become so iconic that people are aware of Freddy who aren't aware of 'A Nightmare on Elm Street.' I think by starting this series over, we get to introduce it to a whole new generation, and the older generation gets to see a version done with 2010 sensibilities and filmmaking chops."
A dream lineup of Freddy Krueger films
Here's a quick guide to the "Nightmare" films:
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Pedophile and serial killer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), burned alive by angry parents, returns in dreams to kill neighborhood teens in Springwood, Ohio. Heroic Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) defeats him by bringing him out of the dream world and stripping him of his powers.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)
Freddy possesses a teen's body and uses him to kill. The boy is saved by his girlfriend, who helps him break away from Krueger's ghoulish aura.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Freddy is killing the remaining Elm Street kids. After attempting suicide, some have been confined to a mental institution, where an intern and a doctor help them find their dream powers so they can defeat Krueger.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
One of the characters from Dream Warriors unwittingly releases Freddy's spirit, and he goes on another killing spree. This girl transfers her dream powers to another teen, who uses them to release the souls of the kids Krueger has killed from Freddy's body, which kills him.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
Freddy uses Jacob, the unborn child of a character from "Dream Master," to resurrect himself and go after new victims. The spirit of Freddy's mom pops up, tells how he was conceived and convinces Jacob to use Freddy's powers against him.
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
Freddy wants to create more Elm Streets after he has killed every kid in Springwood, but his daughter Maggie pulls him out of the dream world and blows him up.
New Nightmare (1994)
Wes Craven, director of the original, returns to the series. He, Langenkamp and Englund play themselves, as they fight Freddy Krueger, a real evil entity trapped in the fictional world by all the films that have been made. Langenkamp has to play "Nancy" again to defeat him.