Nightmares are strange things, even by the standards of dreams (while I have not yet had a movie-induced nightmare, I have on rare occasions had the normal sort). Continuity is inconsistent, leading to being cheerful one minute and terrified the next, often by the same thing, or to walking around on an ordinary street only to find oneself falling off a cliff. Perhaps the most irritating thing about them, though, is what happens when you wake up. The further one gets from the dream, the harder it is to figure just what was so terrifying about it.
I find a similar phenomenon taking place with the second film in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. The further I get from having watched the film, the more dissatisfied I grow with it.
And the more dissatisfied I grow with reality for not providing a cereal called Fu Man Chews.
The film takes place five years after the original (though it was released in 1985, only one year later) and makes a few references back to it, but other than Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger, none of the original cast return. Krueger instead has a new teen to terrify. The details of what happened before are largely glossed over, but it’s clear that the town still has no idea that Krueger was lurking in the world of dreams. Now with the house in the hands of new owners, high school student Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) is starting to learn the hard way that Elm Street has a phantom serial killer. Only this time Freddy doesn’t want to kill the kid in his house, he wants to possess him in order to commit his murders in the real world.
This is the first and biggest way in which the film takes a misstep. While the decision to make the sequel different is to be applauded, the specific difference here throws away the major strengths of the original film. Part of what A Nightmare on Elm Street a solid horror film was the dreamlike quality of it, where one could never be quite certain where reality ended and the dream world began. That is jettisoned in this film, as Jesse’s nightmares are fairly obvious and most of the attacks come when he’s awake. Perhaps I’m being too literal, but it seems to me that a Nightmare film ought to heavily involve nightmares. Also, while one doesn’t expect deep characterization from a horror film, the relationship between Jesse and his girlfriend (Kim Myers) seems awfully flat considering how much of the film depends on their alleged feelings for each other. To be honest, there’s more sexual chemistry between him and his best friend (I had wondered if I was just imagining this, but looking into it, it appears writer David Chaskin did this deliberately; however, by doing so he sabotages the relationship that is the key to the plot.)
Sorry, babe, I have to leave your pool party go hang out with my best friend in our underwear.
It’s not the subtext itself that’s the problem, per se; it’s the effect that it has on the emotional overtones of the plot. The relationship between Jesse and Lisa drives much of the plot, but at no point does that relationship feel believable. It is difficult to buy into Lisa’s cries that she loves Jesse when one barely gets the impression that they’re more than passing acquaintances. Credit does have to be given to Mark Patton, however, for making his cries that he’s losing his mind believable.
A similar problem happens with the suspense. Freddy Krueger is barely on screen at all in this film (IMDb says 13 minutes out of 84, or 15%; that sounds about right). In and of itself, this again wouldn’t be a problem… but by making it a story of Jesse’s possession and his acts in the real world, it lacks that element of the hunt that was present in the nightmares of the original film. Freddy’s victims never see him coming in this film, and they’re barely characters in the film before his attack. With the original, it was possible for the audience to feel some fear for the characters as they were being stalked. Here it’s just straight to the kill.
The film was directed by Jack Sholder, his second feature film after Alone in the Dark. It is tempting to blame the film’s flaws on him, as a relatively novice director, but on technical grounds the film is done reasonably well. The problem is with the story, and with the emotional beats of that story. And though it’s the director’s responsibility to ensure that what gets filmed is worth filming, the story is ultimately the responsibility of the one who wrote it. In this case David Chaskin, himself a first-time screenwriter, wrote a film that did not live up to the premise of its franchise.