The big three horror movie franchises—Halloween, Friday the 13th, and, yes, A Nightmare on Elm Street—are so iconic that anyone can tell you their stories. Halloween is about Michael Myers trying to kill his sister Laurie Strode. Friday the 13th is about Jason killing promiscuous camp counselors. And A Nightmare on Elm Street is about “the bastard son of a thousand maniacs,” Freddy Krueger, the demonic murder spirit that haunts the dreams of children.
It’s safe to say that the big three horror movie franchises changed considerably from initial film through each iteration. Laurie Strode is just an unlucky babysitter in Halloween—it takes Halloween II to establish her as Michael Myers’s sister. The massacres in the Friday the 13h films are from the evil Jason—except for the first film, where the deaths are at the hand of his mother [and his iconic hockey mask isn’t even introduced until well into the events of Friday the 13th III].
It’s actually pretty miraculous that the character of Freddy Krueger came so fully formed in the first film. The elements are all there—the razor fingers, the fire-scarred face, the surreal dream kills, the dark backstory of the child murderer let go on a technicality. There were certain elements of the story that were built upon—A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors established that he was the “bastard son of a thousand maniacs,” mentioned above, and took the souls of his victims he killed. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare introduced “Dream Demons,” which give Freddy his power. The meta-sequel Wes Craven’s New Nightmare spun off its own canon, establishing their Freddy as a personification of pure evil that’s taken the iconography of Freddy Kruger as its vessel, but outside of this film’s shenanigans, the essential story of Freddy Krueger remains fairly consistent from beginning to the ostensible end of the franchise.
Not that Freddy Krueger didn’t change. The first film he’s a menacing figure of surreal mayhem, and he gradually morphs into a cartoon killer, taking perhaps a bit too much influence from Bugs Bunny. New Nightmare returned a lot of the menace to the character, but his zany killer persona had been too well established to completely abandon it. By Freddy vs Jason, he was back to full slasher-Looney Tunes mode.
The horror franchise, however, is a unique beast in the world of film series. Characters change and stories are developed, but that takes a back seat to rehashing the same formula each iteration. If Jason isn’t shambling through the woods after a recently shagged camp counselor, for example, is it really a Friday the 13th movie? Even though there might be 5, 6, or more sequels of a horror movie, the characters and story are rarely developed so much that audience members are lost jumping into the franchise after not seeing any of the other sequels. Audiences aren’t keen to following byzantine plots through a series in what is essentially the ultimate popcorn movie genre.
Taking a recent example, Jigsaw of the Saw movies requires audiences to have seen the original film, but gives viewers who haven’t seen the rest of the series an opportunity to jump in [the series is an especially apt example since they reject to normal horror franchise aversion to complicated plots to developing, over the course of their 8 films, one of the most convoluted narratives around. Multiple killers, callbacks, and plot threads develop and even viewers who’ve seen prior movies in theaters may need a refresher prior to seeing each subsequent film’s release]. The Nightmare on Elm Street movies develop on small bits of Krueger’s legend, but each entry offers a jumping in point for viewers who may have not seen the last film.
Instead of narrative, plot, and character to introduce variety, new entries in the film rely on style. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 introduces body horror to the mix as the protagonist slowly is taken over by a Freddy Krueger possession. The third film in the series, Dream Warriors, is a pop punk action film, keeping some of the horror elements but giving the potential victims super powers to combat Kruger. Dream Child, the fifth film, is more Gothic fantasy and bathed in blue filter for much of the film. By the time Freddy’s Dead arrived in 1991, the producers seemed to give up and embraced the laziest of gimmicks, the red/green anaglyph 3D.
All of that, however, was birthed from the initial film—surreal and imaginative, stylish and almost Brother’s Grimm-like in its narrative. Like John Carpenter before him, Wes Craven didn’t originally intend for the film to birth a slasher franchise. Whereas Carpenter’s initial iteration of Michael Myers benefited from his broadly sketched narrative, however, Krueger is a more concrete construction, uniquely situated to be dropped in multiple styles and modes of horror films.
Though the original series has most likely met its end at this point [Robert Englund has announced he’s too old to play the character any more], the potential for future films is still there. All that is needed at this point is a new imaginative director and style to spare.