Until its recent demise and incorporation into the folds of its parent company (Warner Brothers), New Line Cinema could be considered the most successful of the upstarts that got into the motion picture business during the deregulation frenzy of the 1980s. Granted, it started a bit earlier than that, but it was not until one particular success that New Line moved beyond its origins of buying independent productions and exhibiting them on circuits consisting of things like university campuses.
That success was A Nightmare On Elm Street, a low-budget slasher horror production helmed by a man named Wes Craven. Prior to Nightmare, Craven was mostly known on the underground horror film circuit as the director of such “prestigious” titles as The Hills Have Eyes and Last House On The Left. As stated in a few interviews, Wes Craven liked to read stories in print and base ideas for horror films upon them. So when he read stories of migrants from South-East Asia becoming reluctant to sleep due to what they saw in the REM phase, then arguing with family about this fact before falling asleep and dying, Craven knew he had a base idea for a horror film with a difference.
(As Matt of Dinosaur Dracula and X-Entertainment fame puts it, Nightmare star Heather Langenkamp seemed to always look pissed off at whatever was in front of her. Damned if I could find a screen capture of her where she does not.)
Shot on an estimated budget of 1.8 million US 1984 dollars, A Nightmare On Elm Street‘s domestic theatrical gross is reported to have been over twenty-five and a half million. Odin only knows what New Line Cinema got back from home video sales and merchandising (“where the real money is made!”). But just as success garantees repetition in the music business, such is also the case in the film industry. Ten years and six sequels later, A Nightmare On Elm Street was a series as mixed in quality as it was influential to individuals who grew up in the era and became filmmakers.
In 1984, home video was where the film industry was making all of its real future-production money. A film could barely break even (in real terms, not gross reporting) at the cinema, and then make money hand over fist on home video. So when a film grosses more than 14.16 times its admitted production cost in the US theatrical circuit, then gets rented on home video more times than most people can count, clearly a sequel or three is going to be in the works. But the thing is, in 1984, the quality of home video and home viewing was shit. It is no exaggeration to say that if you have only seen a film on VHS, then you really have not seen it at all. And whilst everything was done to make the content of A Nightmare On Elm Street make sense on home video, the content also made it perfectly clear why the Japanese were already working on a high definition standard in the early to mid 1980s.
Hence, in 201X, we have all seven of the Nightmare films available on a format that makes the informed amongst us wonder how we ever put up with the things we put up with in the early to mid 1980s.
I am not going to bore you with a recap of all of the Nightmare films and their plots. If you have seen them already, you know all of them as well as their strengths and weaknesses. What I am going to do here is talk a little about each film, how it scrubs up on my format of choice, and how that is relevant in comparison to old presentations.
A Nightmare On Elm Street was the first and best of the series. Part of the reason for this is that its script went through a vetting process like no other film in the series had. Wes Craven, who is credited as the sole screenwriter, had to take his script and knock on every door in the business to try and get the film made. So he knew that he had to have something with a certain level of quality in order to not get shown every door in every studio. Clearly, New Line Cinema was the studio that bit first, and Craven accepted their terms.
Although motion picture budgets were miniscule in 1984 compared to what they are today, 1.8 million can hardly be deemed luxurious. Especially not when a number of scenes required special effects or literally pounds of makeup in order to execute properly. The only major cast member that even came close to being famous at the time was John Saxon, and one could have rightly or wrongly written him off as a never-was B-movie type. His role in Nightmare does not demand a whole lot of him, but he does manage a certain believable performance.
Just about everyone in the English-speaking world knows who Johnny Depp is. His real break in the professional acting world would come a few years later, but A Nightmare On Elm Street was his first film role. One reason he is an A-list star whilst the rest of the cast of this film faded into obscurity becomes apparent here. The film gives no basis to believe that the teenaged boy he plays is studied enough in the science of dreams, but he emotes and enunciates it so well that one overlooks the deficiency in the story.
A Nightmare On Elm Street has never looked better. From watching it in high definition, it becomes clear how this little B-grade horror got the director more work. Hell, if I were a studio exec and saw results this effective on a 1.8 million dollar budget in 1984, I would be inclined to hire him, too. Yes, the makeup design for Freddy Krueger is not very consistent with a man who has been burned to death. But the people who put the makeup on Robert Englund (the only other actor who proves himself of value in this film) really made their share of the budget go far, and this transfer finally gives their work the representation it deserves. But the real surprise is the remixed 7.1-channel soundtrack. Although there are only a few opportunities to drive effects through the extra channels, they are used to great effect. Chalk up another example of where presentation quality can and does affect one’s response to a film.
I have already written a great deal about the second Nightmare On Elm Street film. One IMDB comment or forum post that I read recently states that it is both the best and the worst of the series. The BD it is on is both the best and worst way it has ever appeared or sounded, too. Suffice to say that at the proper framerate, and in 1920 by 1080 progressive, jump cuts can get painfully obvious. Oh, and Freddy’s Revenge also features an exploding parrot, so if you like to get stoned before watching films, do so with this one. (The exploding parrot sequence contains one of those jump-cuts that can keep a stoner amused for weeks, too.)
I cannot even remember if I bothered to watch A Nightmare On Elm Street 4 (etc) on DVD. What I do remember is seeing it a handful of times whilst it was available on home video and thinking “wow… this is the American horror film?” or something to that effect. Even at the start, it goes right out of its way to announce its intention to be absolutely fukking terrible.
Every story, hell everything we do pretty much in life, is based around conflict. In Nightmare 4, the conflict is not so much between one Fred Krueger and a bunch of teenagers whose parents probably do not even remember who he is. No, the conflict is more between selling out and making a halfway decent story. Unfortunately, the selling out won in a big way here.
I do not believe the fault for that is entirely with director Renny Harlin, either. Harlin‘s output is mediocre and often given to playing like a music video, that is true, but unlike some people who get all the accolades these days (not naming names, but it rhymes with Bolan), the shots in Nightmare 4 at least enable the viewer to discern a story from all of the images on the screen. The problem, essentially, is that the story in question is well… blah. Following on from the extremely surreal events of the third film, Nightmare 4 begins with a recount of sorts of who the major characters that survived the third film are, what one of them can do, and how we transition from that leftover cast to the new one. Patricia Arquette was unavailable for 4 due to being pregnant, so they replaced her with an actress who not only looks nothing like her, but is substantially taller and heavier-built to boot.
Not that that is particularly difficult. If you had told me that the lass playing Kirsten Parker in Nightmare 3 was all of nineteen years old, I just flat-out would not have believed you. Even today, she barely looks old enough to remember when home video was on cassettes. I guess that is one positive effect of being so tiny.
(Note that this is not meant as a slight against Tuesday Knight. Given the lousy script and barely-there direction where the actors are concerned, she comes across a lot better than many other people would. Problem is, one just cannot help comparing her to Arquette, and she comes off second best in every conceivable way when the comparison is made.)
If I could sum up the problem with Nightmare 4 in one word, it would be unbelievability. The first film took a pretty far-out concept and turns it into something that whilst asking a lot from the audience, also did a lot of work to sell its premise. The second film did likewise, although it also based itself on a premise that was far less concrete and far less believable. Nightmare 3 did far better than 2 in the regard of giving the scenario a foundation, but by 4, the producers and whichever monkey they selected the typewriter output of had given up any pretense. Not only does Nightmare 4 do nothing to establish any rules of engagement, it clearly could not care less about the actual laws of the real world as they apply to making the story believable.
A good example of this is what happens when characters are killed. This being 1988, it was the beginning of films failing to recognise that there is a distinct difference between a child and an adolescent, and one well beyond the physical.
Can I make this any plainer, Rowling, Nile, et al? Childhood is not perpetual. It was designed to end, and with good reason. In fact, compared to other apex predators of Terra, Homo Sapien already has an extremely long gap between birth and sexual maturity. So cut it out with this bullshit about everything we see or hear having to be designed for babies. It is getting to the point now where my nightmares consist of it being pushed into my brain, ha ha.
But anyway, that is getting away from the point I was moving towards. The Homo Sapien is not an easy animal to kill, not even for others of its kind. And whilst that clawed glove is a pretty visually-arresting weapon, without having a good deal of expertise in close combat, a man is just as likely to fatally hurt themselves with it as they are to hurt anyone else. Throughout Nightmare 4, not only is Freddy seen to swing his glove at people in a manner that makes one wonder how he fails to hurt himself, the lack of blood in fatal scenes involving the use of that glove is, ironically, incredibly unrealistic. Living Humans are not like dead Humans. When you cut them with an extremely sharp knife, they bleed profusely. At minimum, they bleed in pools. If you cut them in a particularly vascular area such as the ear or the upper leg, they will piss blood everywhere. And when you kill a Human being with a close-combat weapon, especially a Human being that is old enough to be called fully-grown, it gets very, very, very messy. The intended victim might be stronger, have greater martial skill, or just be flat-out luckier. Nailing them fatally often entails torrents of blood.
Now, all-acceptors will tell you that Nightmare 4 was the most successful of the films in financial terms, and in terms of raw business data, they are sort of right. We can discount the merchandising and spin-offs and crap, because at least four out of the seven films had such shite attached. Thing is, making a film that is financially successful on the back of merchandising is not that difficult. It is probably more indiciative to look at what happened to the series after the financial “success” of 4. Two films followed in the next three years, and whilst the sixth made slightly more than the fifth, both performed substantially less than this one. Word travels fast when a shitty film comes out, and when one film in a series is essentially made for babies, it takes a lot of effort on the part of the marketeers to convince audiences that the next will be any different.
I will be brief about Nightmares 5 and 6. In fact, I have written extensively about the latter already. A sort of tirade about how many different ways one can miss an opportunity. But the point I want to repeat here is simple.
In the late 1980s, a few “comedy” shows appeared on television that, although starting out vaguely promising, soon devolved into the endless repetition of skits with catchphrases uttered as commands to laugh. That is basically what the Nightmare series turned into in episodes 4, 5, and 6. Freddy says stupid thing, so you will laugh or scream or whatever, damn you. Calling it insulting is an understatement. And this is reflected in how the films are remembered. Even the original, which was pretty highly regarded by film-loving boys in the 1990s, has been diminished by the increasing lack of respect towards the audience that subsequent films have shown.
I will say this much about Nightmare 6, however. Although Robert Englund is an extremely professional actor who goes to great lengths to divorce what he thinks of the film he is in from the performance that he gives, his body language in the film makes it clear to an audience that he would rather be in things like V or The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane. Good actors, and Robert is that, desire challenges. The Nightmare On Elm Street series appeared to stop being that for Robert around episode three. And when Robert is asked to ask what is with kids today, no respect, and so on during a scene in which his character is assuming the form of and impersonating a rapist who is the father of the individual who has just kicked his arse, I sure hope that Robert‘s body language is what it looks like to me, and he has just told director Rachel Talalay that she has another think coming if she thinks he is ever going to do another scene like this.
Obviously, original Nightmare director Wes Craven had similar feelings concerning Nightmare 6, because he pitched a script to New Line that was more like the original. I had read somewhere that Wes Craven did not regard any Nightmare film other than the first to be “canon”. I cannot say that I blame him. When one creates a character, one invests certain parts of themselves into it. Although I cannot be certain without asking Wes directly, I am very sure that Freddy Krueger represents something important to him. Someone or something important. How do I know this? Because I have written things myself with many characters that meet this description. So when I tell you that if I made a character like Freddy, and people in the Hollywood business tried to make audiences confuse him with the Freddy they shoved into Nightmare films 4, 5, and 6, I would be pretty incensed about it to say the least.
So Wes was likely very honest in his pitch to Warner Brothers. You have made enormous amounts of money shoving your fist up the bottom of something important to me, and I would like a chance to make you some money out of correcting that. The story in New Nightmare only bears a slight resemblance to that in the original, and revolves more around the blur between reality and the canon of fictions that all creative artists deal with in some fashion. It was also partly inspired by the fact that original Nightmare heroine Heather Langenkamp was being stalked by an overzealous fan. After doing what any decent writer/director would do, and asking for permission to incorporate these events into the film, Craven did so upon receiving a positive response.
In essence, New Nightmare is less about Freddy and more about the real people who made A Nightmare On Elm Street. A scene was written in which Robert Englund has a nightmare where he was stuck in a spider-like web and greeted by a giant spider Freddy. There are, of course, ways to make such a scene work, but Craven apparently dropped the scene (likely before production began) because he felt it did not fit the overall tone he was aiming for. Whilst Jack Sholder or Chuck Russell would have made such editorial decisions, subsequent directors, especially Rachael Talalay, would not.
The costume and makeup design for New Nightmare‘s Freddy is also noticeably different, and in a positive way. In fact, parts of the costume design reflect the difference in how Wes Craven approached the character compared to everyone that has approached it since. You see, the reason Freddy’s best-known attire has that combination of colours and pattern is not because it was marketable (New Line Cinema did not discover it was until well after the fact), but because Craven had read that of all the colours known to the Human eye, those two are the hardest to process when in such close proximity. And the new costume in which Freddy appears toward the end of New Nightmare has similar designs behind it. Freddy has always been sold to the audience as a man who murdered children, but New Nightmare marks the first time since 1985 where he really “looks” (that is, convincingly emotes and appears as) the part.
So what can I tell you about the BDs that these seven films are presented on? Well, the first point that people who know anything about video compression should be aware of is that the latter six films in the series, that is every one of them other than the original, are split over three discs. 2 and 3 are on disc two, 4 and 5 are on disc three, and 6 and 7 are on disc four. The fifth is devoted to “extras” for some reason.
The reason this matters, or has the potential to matter, is because of the manner in which video compression algorithms work. On a frame by frame basis, video compression algorithms analyse the picture and its motion, or rather the differences between each frame. Although the algorithms used on BD are a massive improvement upon the one used with DVD, a moving image consisting of slightly more than two million pixels demands a lot in terms of storage space in order to look as good as it does on a sixty-five inch screen. The more material is on a disc, the harder the material has to be compressed. So when you put two feature-length films with multiple soundtracks and extras onto one disc, obviously people who know their arse from their ear about video and audio compression are going to have some concerns about quality.
What quality concerns there are in the transfers of Nightmare films two through seven derive from the source materials. Hell, the same can be said for all of the films. Oddly enough, in audio terms, the first one turns out the best. The second and third have decent audio transfers, but four and five in particular may as well be stereo, and pretty weak stereo at that. In audio terms, the highlight of this set is definitely the first film. If you told me earlier this year that films from the early to mid 1980s were being remixed in eight-channel, I would have told you that it was a gimmick. The thing is, whilst this particular soundtrack is nowhere near as powerful as eight-channel mixes of more recent films such as TRON: Legacy, sound is a very important factor in the atmosphere of A Nightmare On Elm Street, and whomever created this mix did not forget that. The screech of Freddy’s glove against surfaces especially benefits from this.
Visually, the transfers are a definite improvement on any medium the films were previously offered on. Films three through six in particular reflect the fact that they were shot primarily with the aim of making a profit on the home video market, but daytime sequences in particular show the extent to which a better medium means a better viewing experience. This does not mean, of course, that I will be avidly watching each film in sequence repeatedly. Like Wes Craven, I tend to regard the ones he did not direct as non-canon. Suffice to say that the pictures are all clean and faithfully reflect the errors that the directors allowed into their finished product. For instance, the first three films reflect that they were slightly underlit, whilst blooming is frequently visible in the fifth. But they also present the films in the best manner that they are ever going to enjoy (barring an upgrade of television standards to true 35mm film resolution). In one shot of the third film, when Freddy bares his torso to show the collection of imprisoned souls, one of the puppet faces can be seen to visibly drool a syrup-like liquid. Even DVD did not make this effect this easy to pick out.
And no, Nightmare 6 (aka Freddy’s Dead et cetera) is not presented with the 3D sequence in 3D. A 3D rendering of this sequence is included as an extra, but the film proper uses the 2D rendering. Even when the film was in its theatrical release, everyone knew that this was just a gimmick to try and get audiences into the theatre for one last Freddy. It was marginally successful, with the film making a couple of million dollars more than the one before it. But I think the impact that it made can best be summed up by reminding the audience that prior to Avatar, the most successful film to feature what they call 3D was Friday The 13th, Part 3, which predates Freddy’s Dead by no less than nine years. Would I like to have the option to recreate the “3D” experience on a home television? Sure, but the likelihood of me actually taking advantage of that option is non-existent.
Do I recommend this six-disc set? Well, it depends. If you are a fan of the whole series, and do not already have it, knock yourself out. If you can pick it up for the price I paid (29.98 Australian dollars), it works out to 4.28 and fractions dollars per film. Even at the sticker price when I picked it up (36.99 Australian dollars), it works out to 5.28 and fractions dollars per film, which is pretty okay considering it is an owned copy that is cheaper than burning it and can be rewatched anytime one pleases. I tend to think of it more as splitting the costs between the first and last films, so it works out at either 14.99 or 18.495 Australian dollars.
And if you like to study filmmaking through examples of things being done both poorly and extremely well (relative to the budget they were done with), then A Nightmare On Elm Street as a series is a fascinating case study, to put it mildly.