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And now we come to the curious case of one Fredrick Charles Krueger: pederast, serial killer and beloved boogeyman of one of the biggest horror franchises of all time. The A Nightmare on Elm Street series didn’t start the slasher movie trend, or even perfect it, but it did take it on one hell of a ride. With the release of a new Blu-ray compilation – containing the first seven films in the series – we have a new chance to look at its various highs and lows. Hit the jump for my full review.

a-nightmare-on-elm-street-posterThe original A Nightmare on Elm Street benefited from a unique hook: the killer attacked his victims in their dreams, literally scaring them to death if they couldn’t wake up fast enough. Director Wes Craven hit upon the notion while reading a news story of a young man who died in his sleep, then crafted a monster to match it. Krueger (Robert Englund) thus became a surreal threat – the kind of nameless dread that children feel when staring at their bedroom closet – and his status as a disembodied spirit got around the ridiculous invulnerability of similar villains like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. It turned the dead teenager concept flat on its ear, as Freddy tormented his victims in unique and often terrifying ways before finally cutting them to shreds.

The concept proved a surprise winner at the box office, turning co-star Heather Lagenkamp into a bona-fide scream queen and launching the career of a very young Johnny Depp. New Line Pictures became a legitimate production company, specializing in horror but eventually branching out into other genres (and producing a Best Picture winner with Return of the King). Craven cemented his reputation as one of the genre’s shining stars, capitalizing on its success with such works as The Serpent and the Rainbow and the Scream franchise.

But the straw that stirred the drink was undoubtedly Englund, whose gleefully cruel performance quickly became a pop-culture icon. He evoked comparisons to the classic monsters in Universal’s stable, and the AFI even awarded him a spot on its 50 Greatest Movie Villains list. Freddy-based novels and comic books soon appeared, along with a line of merchandise that would put the greediest lunch-box baron to shame. He even got his own anthology series, Freddy’s Nightmares, which boosted his status as something far more than just a run-of-the-mill monster movie fiend.

That’s where things get interesting. Horror hits ultimately beget franchises, which in most cases are marked by a precipitous dip in quality. Halloween, for instance went quickly downhill after its immortal first entry, while Friday the 13th – never great shakes to begin with – was soon swamped by poor gimmicks and lazy repetition. A Nightmare on Elm Street looked to be no different. Craven was wary of sequels and publicly disapproved of his child-molesting killer slowly morphing into a joking clown as the series went on. And yet, perhaps because of the innovative concept of the first film, the sequels often did better than they might have otherwise. The second film, Freddy’s Revenge, was typical schlock, but the third and fourth entries displayed an imagination and intelligence rarely seen in such work. Craven came back to co-write the third film, along with Frank Darabont who went on to become a bright light in the genre himself. Part Three featured future stars Laurence Fishburne and Patricia Arquette, who did far more with their roles than anyone could expect. The same held true with the fourth film, co-written by Brian Helgeland of L.A. Confidential fame, and directed by eventual blockbuster helmer Renny Harlin. To be sure, it wasn’t brilliant, but you rarely see names like that attached to such material, and their talents elevated the movies from quick cash machines to something worth paying attention to.

a-nightmare-on-elm-street-robert-englundNaturally, it couldn’t last, as the fifth and sixth entries lapsed into banality. Freddy gained a convoluted backstory without making much of the opportunity, and they killed him off for good in the sixth one (which was partially filmed in 3-D). It looked to be the rather ignominious end of an unusually durable franchise.

Then, something strange and wonderful happened: Craven returned to shoot one more. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare threw everyone’s expectations for a loop just like the first film did. Troubled by Freddy’s popularity and seeming “heroic” status, the director crafted a self-referential story in an attempt to express his conflicted feelings. He, Englund and Lagenkamp play versions of themselves, stalked seemingly by their own creation who turns out to be a much older evil given form by the Nightmare movies. It anticipated the knowingness of Scream without that film’s smug attitude or condescension, as well as returning Freddy to his roots as a genuine boogeyman instead of a glorified theme-park mascot. Above all, it was quite scary, providing a more fitting end to the character while reminding us all why he held on for as long as he did.

Of course, that wasn’t really the end, since Freddy returned in the Freddy vs. Jason mash-up and during the mediocre 2010 reboot (featuring a very game Jackie Earle Haley playing Glenn Strange to Englund’s Boris Karloff). One wonders why they weren’t included in this Blu-ray set, though the seven films here prove more than sufficient to hold fans’ attention.

And as a set, it has a lot going for it. The movies themselves are a mixed bag, to be sure, but even the worst of them act as a nice throwback: with 80s haircuts and fashions in full display and Englund’s improvised one-liners providing tons of goofy fun. The first and the last films deserve all of the accolades they received, with the remainder serving as either interesting garnishes or for-true-fans-only misfires.

freddy-kruegerThe set itself is essentially a compilation of previously released discs, so owners of previous sets should move with caution. The first film appears on a stand-alone disc, while numbers two through seven are divided among three additional discs. A fifth disc carries the bulk of the extras: three documentaries discussing the development of the franchise, a pair of Freddy’s Nightmares episodes (completely with grainy video quality for that distinct retro feel) and a couple of Easter Eggs scattered here and there. Because these are previously released, the other four discs have extra features too, though they’re not nearly as extensive. That means a bit of searching back and forth for those who really want the full experience, though in most cases, the search is worth it. Craven goes into great detail about the genesis of the character, while Englund reveals copious tidbits about how the character’s quips and mannerisms developed. We even get some fascinating history on New Line, though at least one of the docs is embarrassingly self-serving considering the production company’s recent financial woes.

It all arrives in a self-contained box no bigger than any other Blu-ray. That may prove disappointing for those interested in a big, sexy display case (and Warners’ habit of double dipping suggest that such a set may arrive just to pull a few more bucks from our wallets), but the compact size may prove a godsend for those looking to save some shelf space. (It fit neatly into the spot formerly occupied by my old Nightmare 1 DVD.) For better or worse, these films helped define an entire era of horror filmmaking. The new set puts that legacy on admirable display, reminding us that some nightmares never truly go away.

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By Rob Vaux