I first encountered Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) as a child doing what I did best – perusing the pages of a 1994 copy of the Video Movie Guide. In my parents’ 1000+ page copy (sat atop the toilet for good bathroom reading), seemingly every American movie made to date was categorised by genre, listed alphabetically, and provided a two to three sentence justification (or damnation) of its existence. Excellence was marked by five stars. I sought out the turkeys; next to the title Freddy’s Dead was an actual turkey, stamped in black ink, the mark of a true cinematic zero.
That film’s director, Rachel Talalay, was the first and only woman to direct any film in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. A feat not just for this series, but for any horror franchise to date*. Talalay would go on to direct Tank Girl (1995), a tonally strange and ambitious film adapted from the Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett comic strip of the same name, and then have a career in television directing. She isn’t considered an auteur – but the fingerprints of that cult classic are all over Freddy’s Dead: post-apocalyptic wasteland, stylised steampunk inspired production design, quirky cuts and editing techniques that announce the camera and evoke the frames of a graphic novel. In two films, Talalay managed to do what eludes other directors for whole resumes worth of work – hone a style and create strong female characters that break expectations and barriers in the process.
In her vision of Elm Street, Freddy Krueger may as well be Frederich Nietzsche. “Do you know the terror of he who falls asleep?” reads the title card. “Welcome to primetime, bitch,” is the Kruegerian response. The comparison is laughable, but honest. Both Frederich and Freddy are nihilists, cultural icons, ostensibly of the belief that “God is dead,” and most importantly, both are men. The overarching concept of each instalment before it, “every town has an Elm Street,” solidifies Freddy Krueger as perennial boogeyman and the omnipresent ruling force of the mind. That force, with five films worth of male directors and storytellers behind it, is patriarchy. In The Final Nightmare, a woman has finally arrived to unravel it.
A John Doe with no memory of his identity arrives at a shelter for abused, and psychiatrically disturbed adolescents. A few nightmares later, he’s convinced himself of his parentage – one Fred Krueger of Elm Street. In search of answers – and sleep – the teens and their psychiatrist Dr. Burroughs take off in the shelter van. A hop, skip, and a jump later and they’re stuck in a vintage Elm Street wasteland; a slightly sideways and backwards vision of the original Nightmare, complete with empty schoolhouses, creepy sidewalk art, and a limerick obsessed teacher ranting about Freddy’s inevitable arrival. If every other Nightmare film before it was set in Wonderland, this is Freddy Through the Looking glass. Nonsense still rules, but it’s a dull, dreary, and histrionic version of Elm Street peaking through.
Fred Krueger has an established backstory in the Nightmare universe as a real life child killer, burned to death and accidentally immortalised by a vengeful pack of neighbourhood parents. Although never directly referenced in previous films, there’s the omnipresent implication of Krueger’s paedophilia; from his sexualized hyperbole to the very nature of that sharpened glove, the notions of childhood abuse in all its forms is alive and well in Freddy.
In fact, in the right light, Fred Krueger is the archetypal patriarch. With his striped sweater and khakis, dad-perfect puns (“Father knows best!” ) he’s just a heteronormative man with a wife, a child, and a hobby. Freddy Krueger, the boogeyman, is a monstrous vision of an overly empowered and dangerous father figure who knows your thoughts and invades your most personal space. The most frightening thing about Freddy Krueger has always been that in dreams, he can be anything his victim detests, and so he desires. But in Freddy’s Dead he’s not just a wise guy sticking his tongue down your throat, but a vision of a wife beater, child molester, and mental illness itself; an amalgamation of a real man and the kind of harrowing PTSD that abuse victims suffer the rest of their lives.
In shadow Elm Street’s schoolyard, a particularly odd interaction occurs between the gang and a couple (Rosanne Barr and Tom Arnold, no less!).The sight of a bunch of teenagers leaves Roseanne absolutely fawning over them, crying, “I want my children back,” while Tom bats her down with what seems his usual reminder, “But you know they bring him.” Under Freddy’s rule, the family unit is no longer a plausible reality, because of course, when pedophillic, nightmare-fuelled, hyper masculine rage is all that’s available, children no longer seem a responsible choice. Talalay’s vision of Elm Street is still haunted, but it’s crumbling; no longer viable for a villain like Krueger, the man who eats his young.
It should be no surprise then that John Doe turns out to be the Marion Crane of Elm Street, giving way to a story that’s really all about Dr. Maggie Burroughs – psychiatrist, grown-up, and surprise daughter of Freddy Krueger. The idea horrifies Burroughs while simultaneously delighting Krueger, who redresses her in a nightmare in girlish pigtails and a little pink dress. Burroughs, played by Lisa Zane in a powerfully early nineties pantsuit, is the picture of confidence and the sexiness that comes with it. Here, she’s dressed down and forcefully feminised by a man that claims not only to be her biological father, but her philosophical legacy. When she gets her hands on his glove, Krueger insists, “Let your daddy show you how to use it.” It’s gross and it’s crass and it’s everything this franchise has ever espoused to be. It makes it all the more powerful and subversive then when she impales him with it.
In horror especially, there have always been certain films that lend themselves to the “feminist mis-read.” We’ve been reading into final girls and sexual punishment since Carol Clover took on Halloween. In a genre that most often chooses to play with archetypes over fully fleshed characters, it’s easy to stretch our fears and social perspectives like a skin across the skeleton of an urban legend. Less often, there’s that special horror movie that comes around and simply serves its feminism up on a shiny silver platter. Freddy’s Dead may be a turkey in the eyes of the traditional film goer, but for the critic seeking comical, stinging, violent satire of the patriarchy, I’d go so far as to say it’s precisely what Rachel Talalay intended.
*That’s correct: there are no current horror franchises employing women as directors. Not Paranormal Activity, not Saw, not a one of Friday the 13th’s eleven sequels. If I’m missing one, please let me know. I think I’ve done my due diligence on this, but this truly seems to be fact, not fiction.
by Alex Landers
Alex is a child of the late eighties, a horror fan, and an unapologetic feminist. Playwright and visual artist, too. She writes film criticism at onecriticalbitch.com.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Women Film-makers
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