How A Nightmare on Elm Street Made Us Root for the Bad Guy

On its 35th anniversary, we look back at the seminal horror film that changed the game by establishing its villain as more than just a somber, silent entity.

by | November 16, 2019 | Comments

New Line Cinema

(Photo by New Line Cinema)

During the casting for A Nightmare on Elm Street, director Wes Craven thought he needed a “big man.” After all, it was going to be a horror movie about an evil, dream-haunting psychopath who slaughters kids with a glove fitted with knives. In his mind, Craven was following the precedent set by Tobe Hooper in 1974 and John Carpenter in 1978 – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween both featured hulking, unstoppable man-monsters. Craven even interviewed Kane Hodder – the man who would wear the hockey mask once Jason Voorhees took center stage in the Friday the 13th series – for the part.

But a skinny, young actor named Robert Englund thought that most child abusers were weasels and creeps, not hulks. So he offered a different take on the lecherous Freddy Krueger, and not only would Nightmare take off because of it, but horror movies themselves would be changed forever.

Released 35 years ago this week, A Nightmare on Elm Street took the concept of the bad guy as the marquee character – the one people not only came to see, but to actively cheer on – to whole new levels. The faceless, voiceless, mask-obscured killing machines that preceded Nightmare had to make way for a mugging, self-referential, hammy villain-hero.

The Diva Who Shunned the Mask

In the end credits of Halloween, the character of Michael Myers isn’t even listed by name. He’s called “The Shape.” This is significant because Michael isn’t meant to “be” anyone. The whole point is that he just is, a silent menace in the periphery as the movie focuses on the guilt-ridden Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) and high school good girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). With his slow movement, white, expressionless face, and complete silence, Michael is a terrifying blank slate.

A few years later, Friday the 13th would completely obscure its main villain until the very end – revealing at last that the murders were committed by a revenge-obsessed woman scarred by the apparent death of her son, Jason, many years before. When Jason himself took the spotlight in the next few installments, he, too, was a silent, expressionless entity who at first wears a nondescript bag over his head before he even gets his signature goalie mask (in Part III).

And yet, by 1986’s Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives, we saw the movie literally opening with a tongue-in-cheek James Bond parody:

What happened? Freddy happened.

A Nightmare on Elm Street had the same bland, suburban setting as Halloween and a similar gang of horny teens as the Friday films, but there was a key difference. Freddy wasn’t just scary, he was darkly witty. He was creative. He was, well, a thousand times more interesting than anyone he killed.

Sure, people went to horror movies for the killer or the monster – this had been true since the 1950s. You went to see The Blob because you wanted to see the blob. But this was different. Audiences liked Freddy. He was the star, not just the threat, and things only got hammier as the franchise went along. It was because, rather than going with yet another “big man” monster, Craven and Englund delivered a performance. Freddy was a theatrical diva.

Would any other slasher work so well in a Fresh Prince video?

The other competitors had no choice but to follow suit. Although somewhat hamstrung by their lack of personality, Jason and Michael still went through increasingly bizarre and laughable incarnations in an effort to keep up with Freddy. This is why we eventually got cyborg space-Jason and Busta Rhymes electrocuting Michael Myers in the crotch after he shouts, “Trick or treat, motherf—er!”

Post-Nightmare, movie slashers had to be more than just killers. They needed to be in the spotlight, not the shadows. One-liners, theatricality, and insane death scenarios all became requirements. We’d never have IT’s Pennywise or Scream’s Ghostface without Freddy.

So to celebrate the mugging, one-liner-spewing dream-weaver on his 35th anniversary, let’s run down his greatest hits.

The Five Best Freddy Kills

1) A Nightmare on Elm Street: “Watch this.”

Freddy’s first outing really sets the tone, and this scene has it all. Rather than simply stalking and killing Tina (Amanda Wyss), he toys with her, throwing out one-liners and a few party tricks as he leads her to an overly elaborate demise. Freddy is playing to the crowd.

2) Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master: “Wanna suck face?”

Freddy kills an asthmatic girl by dropping this one-liner before literally sucking the air out of her lungs and leaving her a deflated corpse.

3) Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare: “Let’s trip out.”

Freddy’s satirical take on the “This is your brain…” PSAs from the ’80s and ’90s – complete with a cameo from former Freddy victim Johnny Depp – and an extended Super Mario Bros.-inspired kill is all the proof you need that he was a frustrated comedian.

4) A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child: “Bon Appétit!”

Dressing up as a chef and strapping a girl with an eating disorder into a high chair for the sole purpose of force-feeding her to death in front of her overbearing mother? Can you imagine Leatherface putting in this kind of multi-layered effort?

5) A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors: “Welcome to prime time, b—h!”

A scene that begins with former talk show host Dick Cavett turning into Freddy before killing Zsa Zsa Gabor can’t possibly get any more insane, can it? Oh, yes. Freddy literally pops out of the TV and pulls Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) face-first into the set with his mechanical TV arms. With an applause-baiting one-liner, of course.

A Nightmare on Elm Street went into wide release on November 16, 1984.

Adjusted Score: 99011%
Critics Consensus: Wes Craven's intelligent premise, combined with the horrifying visual appearance of Freddy Krueger, still causes nightmares to this day.
Synopsis: Freddy Krueger, a badly burned boogeyman with razors on his glove, haunts and kills teens in their dreams.... [More]
Directed By: Wes Craven

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

dragons Star Trek TBS cooking teaser diversity superhero Syfy Endgame spanish language Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt asian-american lord of the rings Countdown festivals Hear Us Out Box Office 24 frames werewolf Polls and Games concert documentary scorecard richard e. Grant criterion zero dark thirty vampires American Society of Cinematographers Dark Horse Comics Netflix Christmas movies cults cancelled TV shows YouTube 73rd Emmy Awards Fox Searchlight Writers Guild of America true crime new star wars movies E3 TLC Winter TV BBC transformers The Walking Dead Acorn TV Summer twilight Food Network posters trailers target suspense Avengers comiccon TruTV what to watch Pacific Islander FOX canceled Year in Review NBC RT History latino unscripted Trivia Mindy Kaling rom-coms Nickelodeon National Geographic crime thriller Turner Classic Movies Disney Plus romantic comedy The Academy Amazon Prime spanish streaming 007 Wes Anderson Emmys deadpool E! films comedies Video Games Tarantino TCA TNT cancelled TV series zombie GLAAD Rocketman Set visit television james bond golden globe awards dark Super Bowl Pirates black IFC Films TV One Podcast children's TV TV renewals stop motion 1990s Women's History Month TCM marvel cinematic universe basketball Drama political drama Christmas GoT Mary Poppins Returns Interview ViacomCBS Academy Awards YA canceled TV shows hidden camera psychological thriller independent cancelled television superman DC Universe miniseries child's play WarnerMedia HBO Max PBS Masterpiece biography 72 Emmy Awards discovery fast and furious BAFTA Martial Arts Schedule HBO Go cancelled french Shondaland japan Hallmark Christmas movies obituary royal family aliens Paramount Awards Apple festival critics football Extras DC Comics travel heist movie satire Funimation sequels Spectrum Originals Ellie Kemper rt labs critics edition elevated horror Trophy Talk Oscars singing competition Hulu Binge Guide 2015 TIFF classics doctor who Musicals Rock cops book adaptation Superheroes movie Britbox australia Crunchyroll Marathons Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ghosts rt archives venice a nightmare on elm street sequel natural history Peacock 45 MCU screenings young adult Music Creative Arts Emmys chucky Bravo Nat Geo crime drama south america toy story critic resources 2021 Arrowverse USA Network The Witch USA all-time remakes Paramount Plus supernatural Alien jurassic park BBC America Animation Cosplay Film Fantasy CMT PlayStation olympics versus parents indiana jones italian cartoon Lifetime mutant Pride Month Cartoon Network Shudder nature worst movies Valentine's Day First Reviews TV movies green book Character Guide high school rotten video on demand cinemax YouTube Red Disney streaming service Showtime 4/20 golden globes 2016 nbcuniversal History stand-up comedy Infographic VOD Certified Fresh Hallmark El Rey Heroines anime Watching Series documentaries 20th Century Fox comic book movie Calendar GIFs Best and Worst 2018 war Horror Rom-Com Lucasfilm tv talk ABC Signature hollywood anthology fresh adenture Comedy comic NBA Broadway renewed TV shows Holiday mission: impossible 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards laika spinoff Walt Disney Pictures directors politics Anna Paquin dceu Toys LGBT A24 Superheroe Starz binge nfl Opinion TCA Winter 2020 Classic Film dogs police drama Apple TV Plus marvel comics TCA Awards reboot crime WGN Family live action streaming movies Star Wars DGA blaxploitation Comic-Con@Home 2021 telelvision Discovery Channel Turner science fiction Netflix OneApp spain Sneak Peek Paramount Network Biopics 93rd Oscars prank free movies Legendary strong female leads Freeform Ghostbusters Ovation Sony Pictures blockbuster international best Lifetime Christmas movies Warner Bros. Travel Channel FXX IFC DC streaming service popular movies Columbia Pictures Television Academy The Walt Disney Company new york Winners Photos video Pop 99% dramedy Fall TV SDCC Sci-Fi MTV slasher Baby Yoda new zealand kids Disney Channel psycho spider-man ABC Rocky archives Marvel Studios Cannes ITV Musical legend action-comedy VH1 adaptation Esquire 2019 casting Pet Sematary Mary Tyler Moore ID Comedy Central monster movies mockumentary talk show ESPN Mudbound Tubi facebook Marvel comic books hispanic heritage month harry potter Holidays See It Skip It name the review NYCC Black Mirror saw serial killer APB Quiz Disney Song of Ice and Fire Elton John halloween YouTube Premium Country robots Universal biopic Nominations Amazon Studios MSNBC Film Festival Teen christmas movies quibi Trailer Spring TV reviews Action Comics on TV worst emmy awards 2017 jamie lee curtis Election San Diego Comic-Con composers docuseries Kids & Family BET Awards know your critic X-Men BET Tomatazos CW Seed social media Stephen King Exclusive Video TV franchise AMC LGBTQ President indie CBS All Access mcc HBO witnail theme song 21st Century Fox wonder woman Grammys Black History Month screen actors guild boxing dc The Arrangement Mystery news romance disaster Sundance TV blockbusters TV Land godzilla kaiju VICE universal monsters crossover SXSW japanese breaking bad adventure dexter Crackle 2020 CBS slashers zombies period drama Red Carpet OWN Thanksgiving series Captain marvel joker Image Comics New York Comic Con SundanceTV Tumblr gangster award winner FX on Hulu Marvel Television debate Brie Larson justice league Reality women Pixar Sundance Now technology scary movies Reality Competition hist finale toronto kong batman The CW cars rotten movies we love historical drama Awards Tour DirecTV sitcom sports stoner space halloween tv thriller CNN Television Critics Association spy thriller Lionsgate scene in color animated comic book movies book Logo Mary poppins Sundance Apple TV+ TCA 2017 Fox News Comic Book PaleyFest The Purge Premiere Dates 71st Emmy Awards king arthur king kong Emmy Nominations revenge 90s RT21 Spike First Look ABC Family Disney+ Disney Plus Amazon feel good FX foreign Adult Swim ratings Tokyo Olympics Pop TV die hard medical drama BBC One comics razzies rt labs game of thrones cats aapi Amazon Prime Video docudrama Chernobyl Epix game show Western Vudu based on movie hispanic A&E boxoffice sag awards pirates of the caribbean