Freddy’s Nightmares – One Viewer’s Exercise in Masochism

So far, my Nightmare on Elm Street posts have been an exercise in nostalgia – revisiting familiar old favourites with the knowledge that some aspects may not really hold up to close scrutiny, while other aspects may always have been pretty damn dodgy, but with a willingness to overlook and/or embrace those faults as part of something I view with affection. The Freddy’s Nightmares TV show is something else entirely. What follows is a look at seven episodes from the first series which I selected on the basis that, from what I’d read, each of them involved Freddy Krueger in some way beyond his role as a horror anthology host. Warning: keep your expectations low. (No, lower than that.)

Freddy’s Nightmares ran for two consecutive seasons of 22 episodes each. The show was hosted by Freddy Krueger, as played by film series star Robert Englund wearing his classic Kevin Yagher prosthetic. Each episode comprised two related stories, generally bumping off one protagonist in the first half and switching over to a second protagonist (likely also doomed) in the back half. The plots were usually at least tangentially connected, but apparently that wasn’t deemed essential. The first episode aired in October 1988, two months after the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, with the series continuing to air on a (mostly) weekly basis until the end of May, roughly two months before A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child was due. Michael De Luca, who is credited as Executive Consultant for the series and would go on to write Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991), also wrote or co-wrote 7 of the first 22 episodes of Freddy’s Nightmares – which, in retrospect, was a bad omen.

Episode 1: “No More Mr. Nice Guy” (1988)

It sounded so promising – the origin of Freddy Krueger as told by Tobe Hooper, the director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), who had previously worked with Robert Englund on his follow-up movie Eaten Alive (1976). I’d read about the story – probably in Fangoria magazine – and was excited to find that one of the local video libraries had the episode available to rent. It started promisingly – a news flash about a series of murders was interrupted by a loss of picture, cutting to a test pattern of colour bars identical to Freddy’s jumper. Freddy appears to tell the audience they’re about to watch his personal nightmare – the story of his death – before the reporter from the opening finds himself unexpectedly deposited in front of a courthouse and reporting on Freddy’s trial…

… and that’s it as far as anything good is concerned. This story was a great disappointment to me at the time and possibly even more so 30+ years on. The script by Rhet Topham (976-EVIL), Michael De Luca & David Ehrman is embarassing and the story is blatantly different from what had been mentioned in the first film. Police Lt. Donald Thompson, father of Nancy from parts 1 & 3 and a man who was intimately connected with the case, is nowhere to be seen. He’s been replaced by Lt. Tim Blocker (Ian Patrick Williams), father of two blonde twins (Gry & Hili Park), one of whom was almost Freddy’s last victim. The details of why the case is thrown out of court have also been changed for no other reason than, I assume, being too lazy to check the original movie script on file. The entire premise of the first movie is undermined by the suggestion that Freddy fully expected to return to kill again after his death, with prophetic warnings and nursery rhymes provided by the traumatised twin. And before the end of the episode, Freddy has taken his first dream victim, Lt. Blocker.

Hooper’s work is uninspired and clumsy (although the decision never to show the Freddy’s face before his death is a good one); the story is unoriginal dreck with no understanding of what made the original film work; and the acting is generally poor. But the worst is yet to come.

Episode 7: “Sister’s Keeper” (1988)

A direct sequel to episode 1, and while it might normally make sense to write a story focused on the twin girls six months on from the death of their father, the success of the story is hampered by the fact that this show was their first acting job and they were barely able to manage their supporting roles in episode 1. (They would appear together again as Twin Club Girls in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and one of the twins appeared in an episode of Baywatch, but that’s the full extent of their acting careers.) They do their best with the material, but there’s not much to grasp onto.

While one of the two girls is still dealing with the trauma of their experiences, we are supposed to believe that the other has become a completely well adjusted popular girl whose only psychological issue is resentment for the attention her more fragile sister receives (despite this attention being uniformly negative and judgemental). The central conceit of the story is a life-swap allowing them to walk in each other’s shoes, but the “well adjusted” sister is so determined not to learn her lesson that it’s an exercise in frustration. There’s something interesting in the idea that when Freddy attacks one of the twins, the injuries appear on the other twin, but it’s never fully integrated with the character work. (Although the nightmare scene of their mother gleefully attaching knives to the tips of her fingers was pretty good.)

The story was contributed by executive producer Jeff Freilich, who by this point had 10 years of experience as a television producer and should have known better than to hang the episode’s success on such inexperienced shoulders. It was fleshed out by Michael De Luca (who continues to disappoint) and directed with such a flat, ham-fisted lack of basic competency in staging by Ken Wiederhorn that I’m astonished his career lasted as long as it did. His first feature film was Shock Waves (1977) – a Peter Cushing movie which somehow managed to make a battle between a shark and a Nazi zombie into a yawnfest – and there’s no visible sign of improvement in the intervening decade. Depressingly, it’s not the last we’ll see of him.

Episode 4: “Freddy’s Tricks and Treats” (1988)

Oh look, it’s Ken Wiederhorn again – and this time the producers have set out to show us that Michael De Luca isn’t the worst writer they have. The writing team of A.L. Katz & Gil Adler (Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice) have provided a misogynist tale of chastity-shaming which leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) stars as Marsha, a college girl who just wants to be able to focus on her study but keeps being hassled for sex by her boyfriend (Daniel McDonald) – who turns about to be her own imaginary construct who helps her to confront the traumatic death of her grandmother by… er… arranging for Freddy to haunt her dreams on Halloween and then to recreate the death scene in the Freddy’s nightmare house?!? The sleazy guy (Darren Dalton) who hit on her earlier turns up at the scene of her collapse to explain to the audience how clever the writers were to come up with this idea – well, theoretically he’s explaining it to bystanders, but as there’s no possible way that he could know what she was going through, or that the bystanders could understand what he’s talking about, either he’s speaking to the audience or the writers are incompetent. (I’m not ruling out both as an option.)

It gets worse. The second half opens with Marsha alone in her house doing a slow strip tease while two men watch through the window. It turns out that she’s now undergoing dream therapy from Mr Sleaze, who as a college student has somehow created a machine which can view and record dreams. He talks about showing the recordings to other people after she’s “progressed” enough with her therapy to strip naked before the dream ends; he’s using her dreams as part of his research project without her informed consent; and, to compound the ethical breaches and remove any vestige of plausibility, it turns out they’re actually sleeping together! At one point, she even wakes up with him strangling her in an attempt to force her to continue a terrifying Freddy dream (!!), because this will somehow provide the breakthrough evidence to force the faculty to reinstate a project rightly cancelled for its ethical breaches!!! Thankfully there’s a happy ending – Freddy drags him into the dream and kills him, with no evidence of lasting trauma for Marsha.

Episode 11: “Do Dreams Bleed?” (1989)

It’s another De Luca script, but this time mildly improved by some (inconsistent) flashes of talent from director Dwight Little (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers). Unfortunately there’s a new composer on the show who is determined to slather on schmaltzy synths more appropriate to the “heartfelt” (humour-free) end-of-episode scenes of an 80s US sitcom. Damon Martin (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) plays a parentally neglected academic and athletic overachiever who happened upon the scene of the most recent serial killer attack just as the killer was finishing the job. He undergoes counselling with the coach/school counsellor (Jeff McCarthy), whose approach is so belligerently badgering that you have to assume the school are hiring their counsellors purely on the basis of coaching experience. It’s screamingly obvious that he’s the killer, and after the kid appears on the scene just in time to stop him from killing the girlfriend (Sarah Buxton), the coach frames the student for the attack. He spends the rest of the episode in skeevy counselling exchanges with the girlfriend, and arranges for the framed kid to escape from custody to mask another attempt on the girl’s life – but while he ends up saving from the coach, everybody still thinks the kid is guilty and that the coach saved her at the expense of his life. Freddy appears to make disparaging comments about killers operating on his turf but is otherwise absent. The plot and script are disposable trash.

Episode 18: “The Art of Death” (1989)

De Luca and Wiederhorn are back, but this time Wiederhorn has contributed to the script. The first half is a by-the-numbers story about a put-upon comic artist geek (Carey Scott) with a crush on a pretty girl (Laura Schaefer) who has an asshole jock boyfriend. The artist’s creation The Phantom (Judd Omen) – who turns out to be a friend of Freddy in the dream realm – convinces Jack to use him to wreak revenge on the jock, who dies. The Phantom then kidnaps the girl, a claustrophobic who reacts badly to captivity. Jack seemingly defeats The Phantom but is wearing the costume when he turns up to rescue the girl and is ultimately jailed for the crime.

The first half, while still bad, is significantly better than anything else this pair have done so far. That’s because they’ve been saving themselves for the second half, a misguided riff on Repulsion (1965). Joan has been receiving psychiatric treatment for her trauma – but based on her exit interview, you have to doubt whether anybody checked what her overly casual therapist actually studied. “Did you have any bad dreams last night? No? Right answer, otherwise we’d have to keep you here for further observation!” Yes, clearly a lifelong claustrophobic who was abducted and chained up in a dark underground lair doesn’t require anything more detailed than that. Having been released, her friends don’t quite get that she might not be fully recovered and go away for a skiing weekend, leaving her alone in the house. The seemingly nice guy who turned up to see them off returns with a lame story about borrowing one of her housemate’s textbooks, and proceeds to turn into a raging abusive asshole as soon as he gets inside, terrorising her until she kills him in self defence. Then he turns up again – but nicer this time. And again. Her friends return to find her cowering in a cupboard and two dead bodies (one of whom is her therapist). Laura Schaefer actually gives a pretty decent performance, but there’s no way she can salvage the incompetent handling of the story in which she’s been placed.

Episode 21: “Identity Crisis” (1989)

This episode is an anomaly – the two halves are completely independent from each other and the producers have given two novices the opportunity to try their hand. Writer Rebecca J. Pogrow was the executive producer’s assistant and here provides the second script of her three-script career. David Calloway was the director of photography for the series and is given the opportunity to make his directorial debut – although it clearly wasn’t his strength, since he soon abandoned both careers to find his niche as a producer.

The first half sees corporate employee Jeff Conaway (Grease, Babylon 5) stabbed by muggers as he leaves work late to head home for his 40th birthday. What follows are his dying nightmares about being a relic of the 1960s made obsolete by a slick corporate world of superficial avarice and big guns. It’s heavy-handed and full of really obvious symbolism, but it sort of works – plus there’s a cute segment during a family dinner where we see Freddy sitting in a microwave delivering sarcastic exposition until he explodes.

The second half is a ridiculously over-dramatic story about a girl who doesn’t get on with her slut-shaming mum and suspects she might be adopted. She tracks down her real mother, a retired prostitute, and learns that her father was Freddy Krueger. She then goes mad and burns down the house with her adopted mother inside. In retrospect, it makes the first half of the episode look even more unsubtle and is an excellent argument in support of the creators’ respective decisions to change their careers.

Episode 22: “Safe Sex” (1989)

This might well be the best of the batch, despite not living up to its full potential. It was written by horror author David J. Schow, co-writer of The Crow (1994) and known as “the father of splatterpunk”. Director Jerry Olson had worked his way up as an assistant director on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) and was the production manager on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). This was his sole job as director before descending back to the level of assistant director for another decade. It’s a solidly middle-ground job – not as teeth-grindingly awful as Ken Wiederhorn, but not especially noteworthy either.

This episode apparently had 4-8 minutes of footage cut for being too explicit. It follows two teenage boys, Dana (Andrew Woodworth) and Nicholas (Patrick Day), who have a crush on the school’s goth girl Caitlin (Devon Pierce). Dana is open about his attraction, but finds it difficult to talk to her. Nicholas is in denial about his attraction and suppresses it via vicious negging behaviour in her presence (oh yes, he also reads books about picking up women). Caitlin expresses her teen goth serial killer fascination through her obsessed with Freddy Krueger, who she sees as powerful – her deliberate choice to flaunt social norms is shown to be her way of exerting power over her surroundings and making others fear her.

Coincidentally, both Dana and Caitlin see the same therapist, whose different mode of dealing with each of them is very telling. He’s friendly to Dana, encouraging him to get out of his shell, accept his desires and act on them. He’s a very different person when seeing Caitlin. Despite the fact that she doesn’t wear her goth gear during her therapy sessions, the therapist is hostile and actively aggressive in all of his interactions with her, effectively telling her to get over herself and try being “normal”. When Freddy starts to kill people in her dreams, the therapist even dismisses out of hand the physical evidence of someone else’s blood in her bed, bizarrely dismissing it as “stigmata”, as if that could in any way be a reasonable psychological explanation! This is apparently just another symptom of her unwillingness to date boring normal boys, which is apparently supposed to represent deep psychological illness. It looks like the writer intended this to be a reflection of the hostility that “normal” society directs against the Other, but it doesn’t come through very effectively in the story, which ends up punishing her in a way which doesn’t feel consistent with Schow’s other work – perhaps this explains the ambiguous credit stating that the story was “developed by” executive producer Jeff Freilich.

The dialogue between the two boys is a convincing representation of the awkward interactions between teenagers who would like to pretend to greater sexual experience than they have. Dana’s dreams are appropriately revealing – he’s conflicted about his attraction since he believes that he’s supposed to be attracted to “normal” girls, expressing discomfort with her style of clothing and imagining her as a blonde, but at his core he’s terrified of sex and Freddy uses that terror to kill him. Immediately after his funeral, his “best friend” Nicholas neglects his girlfriend in favour of propositioning Caitlin and accusing her of being scared to go out with him – which, I’m disgusted to reveal, eventually shows sign of working. Disappointingly, Caitlin kills herself with barbiturates in order to stop Freddy using her dreams to kill other people, when a more satisfying ending would have been for Nicholas to become the victim of his own hypocrisy and meet his end in her dreams, after which Caitlin could give Freddy and the rest of the world the finger.

Verdict

Based on these episodes, Freddy’s Nightmares completely fails to work as either an addition to the mythos of the Elm Street movies, or as a more conventional horror anthology TV show. It can’t hold a candle to The Hitchhiker (1983-1991), a Canadian horror anthology which I was watching on TV around the same time and which I suspect would stand up better to repeat viewing. It’s also no match for Nightmare Cafe (1992), another horror series hosted by Robert Englund but actually created and produced by Freddy’s creator Wes Craven. It’s a crime that this series only lasted for 6 episodes compared to the 44 episodes churned out under the banner of Freddy’s Nightmares.

It’s possible that, buried among the dreck, there might still be some undiscovered highlights. Certainly the cast list raises some curious possibilities – among the actors appearing in the first season are John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Itch), Lori Petty (Tank Girl), George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Walter Gotell (The Spy Who Loved Me), Brad Pitt (Thelma & Louise), Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) and Dick Miller (The Little Shop of Horrors) – and there’s even an episode directed by Robert Englund (which may or may not be a good thing). But I strongly recommend that you consider carefully before making any rash decisions. Watching two episodes in succession – which I foolishly did more than once – left me unable even to watch anything good as a palate cleanser in their immediate aftermath, so deeply did they cause me to lose my faith in the existence of any worthwhile filmed entertainment. That may sound like an exaggeration, but you have no idea how close that statement is to the literal truth. Choose life.

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