News

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.

#1
Adjusted Score: 97.946%
Critics Consensus: Wes Craven's intelligent premise, combined with the horrifying visual appearance of Freddy Krueger, still causes nightmares to this day.
Synopsis: A group of teenagers are terrorized by "Freddy Krueger", an evil being from another world who gets to his victims... [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

CBS All Access true crime Star Trek what to watch sitcom Interview Awards Tour thriller First Look Martial Arts Binge Guide cancelled TV series quibi Britbox TCA 2017 mutant name the review crime thriller Pop Rocky Mudbound The Walking Dead Tomatazos Video Games Infographic Discovery Channel golden globes tv talk reboot New York Comic Con documentary El Rey Mary Poppins Returns Tarantino Pirates RT21 Creative Arts Emmys 24 frames diversity NBC comics adaptation YouTube Masterpiece Character Guide Sundance Now SXSW crime drama GIFs Marathons Cosplay cinemax cooking Schedule streaming Polls and Games vampires Arrowverse Black Mirror LGBT YouTube Premium TV Land Election Acorn TV Animation romance 71st Emmy Awards screen actors guild HBO Max First Reviews Comedy Central PBS indie Song of Ice and Fire psychological thriller Comedy Film Festival San Diego Comic-Con Columbia Pictures anime A&E Academy Awards award winner Cannes free movies Spike cats Spring TV See It Skip It travel game show ratings dc TLC Nat Geo FX unscripted Adult Swim romantic comedy spinoff space game of thrones Horror ESPN Pride Month politics Set visit ABC Family social media Food Network based on movie Esquire period drama FXX MCU batman crime Crunchyroll science fiction Certified Fresh E3 Fall TV Emmy Nominations Epix Netflix Christmas movies Superheroes Kids & Family USA Network Christmas Women's History Month renewed TV shows south america Disney streaming service WarnerMedia 2019 CNN Dark Horse Comics DGA AMC The Witch X-Men Best and Worst IFC adventure comiccon Summer latino Valentine's Day The Arrangement foreign hist Hulu binge werewolf boxoffice dragons Cartoon Network Grammys Turner Classic Movies Teen Pet Sematary ITV Tubi Premiere Dates hispanic directors Sci-Fi screenings OneApp Holiday Endgame Warner Bros. WGN mockumentary transformers Mystery Mindy Kaling Reality Competition National Geographic animated Sneak Peek Musicals cancelled Rocketman Elton John Winter TV Hallmark Writers Guild of America Action Showtime DC streaming service Countdown FOX Marvel Television Academy Starz richard e. Grant DC Universe psycho halloween Lionsgate video Anna Paquin 45 green book Disney+ Disney Plus Apple HBO Shondaland Crackle E! Lucasfilm The Purge rotten movies we love theme song dramedy Fantasy talk show Lifetime toy story Box Office 2016 versus RT History spain Fox News Turner TBS BBC MSNBC History police drama Amazon Prime TruTV blaxploitation cops Superheroe Extras cancelled TV shows VH1 Paramount Network GoT docudrama Sundance TV 2018 Apple TV+ slashers stand-up comedy Emmys CBS SDCC aliens Holidays spy thriller doctor who finale Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Shudder IFC Films Ghostbusters VICE Reality Mary poppins Brie Larson Quiz ghosts Apple TV Plus Spectrum Originals Hallmark Christmas movies Winners Freeform Ovation strong female leads CMT elevated horror zombies facebook series joker ABC political drama kids Western 2020 Trailer composers Rom-Com BET breaking bad APB discovery American Society of Cinematographers PaleyFest war christmas movies Universal Drama cancelled television Opinion medical drama President Amazon Prime Video blockbuster sequel Biopics Bravo DirecTV 2017 Chernobyl CW Seed Syfy TV sag awards Year in Review casting canceled singing competition TCM SundanceTV Tumblr Country Logo Baby Yoda Paramount cults 007 zombie Film The CW cars crossover technology Vudu BBC America children's TV 2015 Nickelodeon harry potter DC Comics Oscars comic anthology independent Classic Film jamie lee curtis NYCC Comic Book Disney canceled TV shows OWN LGBTQ disaster TV renewals witnail Photos TNT Marvel Television Awards historical drama Netflix revenge Mary Tyler Moore Red Carpet TIFF serial killer TCA Winter 2020 Stephen King Sundance book supernatural Toys Trivia justice league Nominations Calendar Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt GLAAD Family Marvel Studios Super Bowl Amazon miniseries Watching Series Music Sony Pictures Captain marvel Avengers TCA biography YouTube Red natural history television Disney Plus Heroines teaser Pixar Trophy Talk YA Lifetime Christmas movies Ellie Kemper 21st Century Fox sports dceu spanish language Comics on TV nature Walt Disney Pictures Podcast Rock zero dark thirty A24 cartoon movies robots spider-man 20th Century Fox MTV Disney Channel Musical Peacock festivals USA Star Wars Thanksgiving