Welcome, if you will, the silver tongued jokester of 80s horror. Who said that an evil child killer returned from his fiery grave to murder the innocent in their dreams can’t be funny? Well, other than common sense. On paper, Freddy Krueger is basically just terrifying, utterly terrifying. He’s burnt and physically scarred from head to toe, driven by unparalleled maliciousness, has razor claws like a wild animal and to top it off, he’s frightfully invasive, penetrating into your deepest darkest thoughts while you’re safely tucked away in bed.
Let’s paint a picture for a second. There’s this girl Tina, a slightly religious, slightly slutty teenager. She’s standing alone in a dark alley and sees a horrific man approaching her, whose arms stretch from his body like a spider as he reaches out, dragging his bladed fingers across discarded pieces of metal. Upon witnessing this surreal nightmare, Tina mutters to herself, “please God.” Freddy responds with gusto, raising the blades next to his face and hisses, “This is God.” There’s no gag, there’s no joke, just a truly unsettling threat and a vicious affront to religion’s inability to save poor Tina. Despite her dependency on the crucifix, she’s eventually split open and dragged kicking and screaming across the walls and ceiling of her bedroom like a sloppy red paintbrush. Once the crimson has settled in, her sliced up corpse falls lifeless back into the bed from whence it came.
So, what happened? How did Freddy go from intensely primal boogeyman to impersonating the Wicked Witch and assaulting his victims with whimsical witticisms? Let’s take a trip down through the Nightmare sequels and watch terror itself regress into playfully titillating, and quite frankly morbid one-liners.
1. “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy” –A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
In 1984, Wes Craven wrote and directed a low budget, high concept horror film that caused a huge splash in the already tired barrage of bland slasher films assaulting cinemas across the world. The original A Nightmare on Elm Street was a sleek, imaginative exploration into the horrors that ensue when hidden subconscious guilt is left unaddressed to fester in ones psyche. But that’s not all; wrapped up in this theme of psychological torment is an expression of the pain felt when the new generation is inevitably held accountable for the older generation’s sins. Considering the multiple layers of this ingeniously conceived film, I could literally write hundreds more sentences equaling the hyper-analytical fervor of the ones you just read. Alas, as delicious as that may be, this article is not about the original film, nor is it about the film’s thematic power. It’s about Freddy and how he became a clown.
So, Nancy is our heroine. Her boyfriend was just sucked through his own bed into what can only presumably be the world’s most brutal meat grinder. The result is a fountain of blood – a geyser really – roaring up from the hole in the sheets. Nancy gets a phone call. Freddy’s on the other line and gleefully exclaims, “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy.” The receiver of the phone suddenly becomes Freddy’s mouth and he hungrily proceeds to tongue her, licking wildly.
Here, Freddy is scary, disturbing, and has no consideration for people’s personal boundaries. He has a cruel schoolyard bully vibe, obviously taking pleasure in the suffering he’s caused. It’s this part of the Freddy character that the rest of the series latches onto. The idea that Freddy would kick you in the head, then make fun of the red stuff pouring down your face, is the essence of cruelty.
The sequels gradually lighten up on the mocking by adding some admirable cleverness. The idea that Freddy takes time to, or is even interested in composing elaborate jests and puns effectively strips him of his basic frightening nature: he hurts you for the love of causing pain, not for the love of word play. However, with each film that follows, save for number seven, the image of jester Freddy is run ragged until it finally collapses from exhaustion in number six.
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