Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare
(SPOILERS) Looking at Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, by some distance the least lauded (and laudable) of the original Elm Street sextet, you’d think it inconceivable that novice director and series old-hand – first as assistant production manager and finally as producer – Rachel Talalay has since become a respected and in-demand TV helmer. For the most part, Freddy’s Dead is shockingly badly put together. It reminded me of the approach the likes of Chris Carter and Sir Ken take, where someone has clearly been around productions, absorbing the basics of direction, but has zero acumen for turning that into a competent motion picture, be it composition, scene construction, editing or pacing. Talalay’s also responsible for the story idea here, which does offer a few nuggets, at least, but her more primary role actively defeats any positives.
To be honest, having seen her contributions to Capaldi-era nu-Who season finales, I’m not altogether convinced Talalay has come on in leaps and bounds since either, but she’s at least competent there. Her work on Freddy’s Dead, having convinced Bob Shaye she was the man for the job (she had to contend with sexist suggestions that she was going to girly it up), is comparable to similar instances where one is baffled a supposedly competent exec would take a chance on a first timer, entrusting them with the keys to a kingdom (be that David Goyer and Blade: Trinity or Mark Steven Johnson and Daredevil/Ghostrider). One is inclined to conclude nothing short of blackmail would induce such a decision.
The shame of it is, I could see Freddy’s Dead having been the series’ best since Dream Warriors. Freddy here is at his most eloquent – if you want to call it that – and his history is further explored in a manner that doesn’t feel too like retconning (even if it leads one to wonder just how many more previously unmined pockets of his past would have been unearthed, had the series continued). Many of the set-up gags work too – this is Freddy at his most cartoonish, outside of The Dream Master, and with it comes Englund’s most cartoonish mask – but the execution is generally awful, and Talalay’s ability to pull off the dream deaths is sorely lacking.
It was a fine idea to have his nightmarish endeavours accompanied by a riff on Night on Bear Mountain, and having him ride a broomstick à la The Wizard of Oz was probably inevitable (wicked witch Freddy: he bears the facial characteristics of your typical old crone, after all). But Talalay repeatedly shows zero sense of timing, whether it’s delivering gags, shocks, reveals or deaths.
The glove down a blackboard made me laugh, admittedly, but kills such as deaf kid Ricky Dean Logan’s head exploding, or Shon Greenblatt landing on a bed of spikes (after plummeting from the skies), or Breckin Meyer sucked into a computer game, fall flat (“Great graphics!”– no they’re lousy, bearing scant resemblance to game graphics and looking entirely like ultra-cheap animation). This, despite Talalay clearly having a commendably Looney Tunes, Wylie Coyote intent behind such sequences. She favours the use of handheld camera, but it suggests amateurishness rather than immediacy or audacity.
Talalay was further inspired in her comedic Freddy quest by her involvement with John Waters on Cry Baby, and specifically his penchant for celebrity cameos. Hence the appearances of Roseanne Barr, Tom Arnold, Alice Cooper (as Freddy’s foster father) and Johnny Depp. Who, rather ironically, given his form over the past half-decade or so, appears in a brief Young Ones-esque spoof infomercial (“This is you on drugs”). None of these really land, although they’re sound enough on paper.
Further misjudgements include the dreadful Goo Goo Dolls RAWK opening track, the “cute” Nietzsche quote followed by a Freddy quote, and the directive to include the 3D gimmick in the narrative for the last ten minutes. Admittedly, the last one isn’t Talalay’s fault, but inserted in such an egregious manner – Lisa Zane is instructed to don a pair of 3D specs – it’s pretty unforgivable. Aesthetically then, Freddy’s Dead is a disaster, with a series known for employing directors with at least some creative spark settling for someone with none whatsoever (Talalay would compound this with Tank Girl – again, she had a slew of decent ideas on how to approach the movie, but negligible ability to realise them).
Talalay cited some laudable influences including Carnival of Souls and Twin Peaks. At one point, a character comments “We’re in Twin Peaks here” – well, if only. She had Michael De Luca on screenplay duties, who’d ascend to New Line production head a few years later, and would also furnish the (very good) script for In the Mouth of Madness. And the (not so good) Sly Judge Dredd, so let’s not get carried away (he also performed a rewrite on The Dream Child). But there are some good ideas in Freddy’s Dead.
And some curious ones. Michael Almereyda’s original draft featured Alice’s teenage son, and this appears to be where the story’s time jump came from, and also the John Doe character (Greenblatt). The latter was intended as a shock death, presumably as per here, where it’s much less so because Greenblatt is such a non-presence.
None of the kids are up to much, though. Meyer obviously went on to greater fame, but his character is merely a purpose-fit stoner, most notable for being required to march in a jerky video game manner. As realised here, John Doe also has a character arc remarkably similar to Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049, convinced he’s an all-important chosen one (“Freddy won’t hurt me. I’m family”) only to discover he isn’t (“Oh, do you think I’m your daddy?”)
Zane is instead revealed as Freddy’s daughter (pretty clear if you watch the trailer first), and given the time frame – ten years on, so logically 2001, although official lore has apparently reframed it as 1999 – she must be in her forties (Zane was thirty when the movie came out). Zane is fine, and believably genetically related to Englund, but again, the material is dealt short shrift under Talalay’s undifferentiated gaze.
The picture’s opening on a plane might be argued as predictive if that 2001 date is retained (the movie was released on September 13 1991, rather than 11), particularly since the plane event turns out to be a deranged manipulation. It seems Freddy’s actual death was 1968 (so adding to the Manson era-esque flavour), with Katherine Krueger taken from him in 1966. The Welcome! To Freddy 101 offers “In 1493 Freddy sailed across the sea”, and the curious “1945 – Hiroshima and Nagasaki attempts fail” (as in, they were actually just another slice of false history?)
There’s also some tantalising ancient lore, courtesy of the welcome presence of Yaphet Kotto – he faced Roger Moore, the Xenomorph and now Kreuger – as Doc. He references “ancient dream demons” who “turn your own nightmares into reality” and Freddy later mentions “The dream people. The ones who gave me this job”. That in itself suggests an astral layer ripe for further exploration, just not in a series that habitually resorts to the lowest common denominator.
There’s also a fair amount of playing fast and loose. Dragging Freddy into the real world to kill him goes full circle to the original Elm Street, but Freddy is also referenced as “fucking with the line between dreams and reality”, whereby he didn’t just kill the teens here, “he erased them”.
Talalay expressed disappointment with the straightjacket of 3D and the lack of invention in Freddy’s demise, but the last twenty to thirty minutes are ironically the most visually coherent in the picture. It seems New Line basically drew a line under Freddy because they – rightly, what with the cash cowabunga of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – felt they could survive without him. There’d still be a last gasp, though (well, two, I guess). But if Wes Craven’s return represented a much surer hand at the tiller, the ideas would still eclipse the execution.