In Not Guilty, we look at movies that the general consensus tells us we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should embrace -- "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. This time we take on long-derided horror movie Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare has been lambasted over the near-30 years since its release by audience and critics alike. Even the Wikipedia entry on the film drags it in the first few sentences by citing its strongly negative reception. However, New Line Cinema took that critique directly to the bank; the film was the first of their features to include scenes in 3D, and thus returned an ample box office performance despite being generally panned. While it currently holds a 20% rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score is somewhat more forgiving at 33%—but not forgiving enough!
Though Freddy's Dead is often called out as the worst Freddy Krueger movie, I am here today to call it out as the best Freddy Krueger movie. While I do enjoy all of the Nightmare on Elm Street releases pre-2000 in some capacity, one of the strengths of Freddy's Dead is that it's not rehashing what we've seen before. Instead, it's choosing to satirize some of the most ridiculous aspects of horror sequels—and its own franchise, more specifically. While it does focus on some key elements of previous entries (troubled teens, untrustworthy adults and repressed trauma), this movie is unlike the others in many ways. It's even more appropriately timed when you take a second to consider that at this point, after so many sequels, horror audiences weren't really taking these movies seriously anymore. Rather than fighting to reclaim the same horror felt in the first Nightmare on Elm Street, the minds behind Freddy's Dead chose to poke fun at it—even going so far as to include the 3D glasses needed for viewing the film as a key element of the plot.
One possible reason Freddy's Dead received such a low approval rating is audience expectation. People walked into the theater thinking it was going to be a horror film, but that wasn't what they ended up getting. The point of this movie was to be completely representative of the early 90s—and in that time capsule capacity, it absolutely succeeds. There are no less than three whole songs by the Goo Goo Dolls on the soundtrack. Accepting this film as something that falls outside of the realm of horror by lampooning the genre is one of the biggest keys to understanding why it works.
While director Rachel Talalay had worked on many films in many different capacities up until this point, including several from John Waters and four of the five previous Nightmare on Elm Street films, Freddy's Dead was her directorial debut. Despite her impressive resume, during filming she was given notes by studio executives telling her not to make the movie “too girly.” With that somewhat infuriating aside in mind, Talalay's debut here is certainly one of the strongest ever made in a horror sequel, a subgenre famous for producing countless low-quality films. Talalay is a bit of a genre hero in general; she went on to direct the equally meta Tank Girl and several episodes of Doctor Who, among other career highlights. One of the key strengths of her work is represented by a playful sense of self-awareness typically unseen in Hollywood.
The cast of this film is mostly adequate, but a special mention should go to Lezlie Deane, who plays the role of Tracy. Besides taking on supporting roles in various horror sequels and TV shows in the 90s, it should be noted that she was also a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who was on the job for 6 weeks before she got fired for punching a choreographer. Her Wikipedia page cites several other fascinating tidbits, including the fact that she was also a member of a roller derby team and toured as a member of a queer band called Fem2Fem, which opened for Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson among others. In this movie specifically, Deane's turn as angry teen Tracy is kind of great. Like the rest of the kids, Tracy has had a troubled home life, and we discover that her outwards aggression is a result of long-term sexual abuse from her father. She is the epitome of the Final Girl, and definitely survives to the end of the film.
One of the most brilliant parts of Freddy's Dead is that the focus on the male protagonist is completely superficial. The original script revolved around a teen boy who saves the day, but that version was eventually scrapped. Also considered? A script by director Peter Jackson. Eventually, the story Talalay herself created was chosen, with Michael DeLuca penning the script. While the film initially zeroes in on the stereotypical white male teen with a bad attitude (aka "John Doe"), we later discover that the story isn't about him at all. The main character is actually Katherine Krueger, the daughter of Freddy, and the movie ends up centering around her childhood trauma and relationship with her father. This doesn't come as a complete shock by any means, but it's an interesting narrative move. The hubris of "John" looking at a picture labeled "K. Krueger" and responding, "It could be anything from Kevin to Kyle!" is pretty funny. In this film, "John's" obsessive need to center himself as the main character of the story is ultimately what costs him his life—and we never find out who he really was, anyway.
I know I've gone out of my way to make a point that this isn't really a horror film, but the death of disaffected teen Carlos, where his deafness is used ruthlessly against him, is very disturbing. Carlos is easily one of the best characters in the movie, so his death has more impact than the filmmakers likely intended. It doesn't change the story arc in the slightest, but the sadism of Krueger, typically played for laughs in Freddy's Dead, becomes genuinely unsettling during his slow torture of a deaf boy that had survived abuse at the hands of his mother.
Much more comical, however, is the death of Spencer (a young Breckin Meyer in his film debut), who smokes too much weed before getting trapped inside a video game, terrorized by a cartoon version of his dad hitting him with a tennis racket. Being a product of its time, Freddy opens up a game controller on his "power glove," a reference to a now-obscure Nintendo product —and, well, that's all she wrote for ol' Spence.
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare should probably not even be judged as a horror film, but recognized for what it actually is instead: a masterpiece in camp. We can all walk around in life pretending that this movie isn't amazing, but why not just let the magic happen? If nothing else, the cheesy one-liners and bizarrely time-specific cameos should keep you in your seat to the end.