Wes Craven might not have invented the Boogeyman, but he sure did perfect it.

When Craven unleashed Freddy Krueger onto the world in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, he became the architect of every bad dream every ’80s horror kid had for ten years. It’s not a responsibility Craven took lightly. For the rest of his career until his death in August of 2015, Craven remained one of the horror genre’s greatest defenders and ambassadors. As if that wasn’t enough, the man who created Freddy Krueger made another film just to answer for him with Wes Craven's New Nightmare, the seventh(!) in the Elm Street series and the best of all the sequels. He unleashed the boogeyman on all of us and, understanding its power, attempted to reclaim it a decade later.

Yes, yes, the Boogeyman is mentioned by name at the end of John Carpenter’s Halloween, when Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode declares him to be Michael Myers. But that’s just a crazy guy in a William Shatner mask chasing babysitters. He’s fully explained. He’s not supernatural. He’s there to kill them, not taunt and terrify them. That would be Freddy Krueger’s department.

There may be no greater creation in all of horror movie history than Freddy Krueger—not the wisecracking kids' toy of the later installments (though he certainly has his place), but the Krueger of Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street, still an unknown monster who comes to us in our dreams and uses our own fears against us before finally killing us. He doesn’t quip or even speak much. He exists mostly in shadow, scraping his metallic razor claws against the hissing pipes of a boiler room, slicing off pieces of his body to reveal bright green blood spurting underneath. He lets us know that he’s not human. Even worse, he lets us know that we are. It’s our humanity that makes us afraid. It’s our fear that makes us vulnerable. It’s our vulnerability that makes us dead.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about Freddy Krueger is that he was created by a man: Wes Craven, a former college professor and director of porn movies who had made several powerful and popular horror films (among them The Last House on the Left and Deadly Blessing) when he wrote and directed Nightmare in 1984. To younger horror fans, Krueger is just an icon or a myth that has existed for as long as they know—a campfire story passed down for years, but one without a knowable origin. A killer that attacks when you sleep is a masterstroke because it can’t be avoided. You can see Jaws and decide never to go near the ocean again. You can see Friday the 13th and stay away from the woods. But sooner or later, you have to sleep… and that’s when Freddy’s coming for you.

The way Nightmare marries the already-tested formula of the teen slasher with the creativity and imagination of the FX-heavy ’80s (Nightmare is at least in part responsible for ushering in the movement) is a huge part of what makes it not just a special film, but one of the best the genre has ever produced. Craven built on the films that had come before him by bringing in a metaphysical element that afforded him the opportunity to not just make what Roger Ebert grudgingly referred to as a “dead teenager movie.” He created set pieces of nightmarish beauty. He brought surrealism to mainstream pop entertainment.

It is filled with some of the most iconic images of any ’80s horror movie: Johnny Depp disappearing into his bed to the geyser of blood vomiting out afterwards; Freddy’s enormous outstretched arms, or his tongue coming through the telephone line to lick Nancy’s face; Tina’s trip around her bedroom, or Nancy’s impossible trek up a staircase that keeps giving way to pools of mushy goo.

Perhaps the most indelible image in a movie chock full of them is of Nancy asleep in the bathtub, Krueger’s razor glove appearing from beneath the water right between her legs. It’s a moment that’s about more than just Nancy’s vulnerability. It’s about the dread of teenage sexuality. Nancy isn’t only chaste because her status as the Final Girl requires her to be; she is holding off on losing her virginity because there’s something about it that scares her. While her friends have loud, raucous sex in the room next door, Nancy makes her frustrated boyfriend sleep on the couch. For just a moment, Freddy Krueger plays right into her fears. Despite his origins as a pedophile, Freddy is hardly ever sexual in his psychological torture through any of the films. Maybe that’s because Craven created a single image so powerful that it was no longer necessary. He gave us both the first and last word on the matter.

Though the sequels would become increasingly silly, the first film is unrelenting in its desire to terrify us both with images and, more importantly, with ideas. We can watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and scream and squirm for 90 minutes, but when the credits roll we are released from its grasp—the ride has come to an end. Nightmare stays with us because its imagery digs into the same subconscious from which it seems to spring. Taken on its own (before Freddy Krueger would become a kids’ toy and an MTV staple), the first Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t just the filmmaker’s masterpiece, but one of the best and scariest horror movies of all time. Wes Craven wasn’t fucking around.

At the end of the original Nightmare, Nancy Thompson finally defeats Freddy by refusing to be afraid of him anymore. She takes back whatever power she gave him and makes the decision that she will not allow him to control her. In making New Nightmare a decade later, Wes Craven was doing the same for all of us. Two years before he brought meta horror to the mainstream with Scream, Craven made his most cerebral, self-reflexive film, bringing back the actors from the first movie to play themselves. The “characters” in New Nightmare hadn’t just seen a bunch of horror movies but had actually made them. While the original Nightmare on Elm Street played directly on our subconscious fears, New Nightmare played directly to our brains; it’s a movie that’s less about scaring us and more about examining why we are scared—what power that kind of collective fear can give to what is essentially a man-made myth.

New Nightmare is very nearly a masterpiece, and it’s a movie that should not have been. The series had been run into the ground with increasingly tired sequels, finally bottoming out with the lamentable Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1991. Craven had barely been involved in the franchise since falling out with New Line around the time of Part 2 (though he did come back to do a draft of Dream Warriors, much of which was later rewritten by Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont). The series’ creator had long since distanced himself from his baby and the studio had publicly killed the icon that had essentially built them.

It was into this environment that Craven introduced New Nightmare, scorching the earth by deconstructing his most iconic creation and challenging our preconceptions of what a studio horror movie could be. He wasn’t making “another Freddy Krueger movie,” but instead reflecting on what exactly Freddy Krueger meant. It’s the kind of would-be stunt that only Wes Craven could pull off, and the movie’s triumph is that it manages to be more than just a graduate thesis committed to celluloid—it’s a cool and scary horror movie at the same time. Craven still had a gift for staging a set piece, whether it’s Heather Langenkamp’s on-screen husband having a nightmarish late night drive or the fate of Julie the nanny (Tracy Middendorf of MTV’s Scream). The film doesn’t just address our fears in theory; Craven puts the nightmares into practice.

For almost any other filmmaker, New Nightmare would make for a brilliant final movie—a reflection, summation and commentary on the body of work that preceded it. But for Craven, it really just marks the halfway point; he would revive and redefine horror again just a couple years later with Scream and would continue to push in new directions for nearly the next 20 years. With no shortage of classic horror films to his credit, these two Nightmare movies—arguably his two best—make for perfect bookends. Craven gave birth to the Boogeyman and, realizing what he had unleashed, tried to make the world safe again by destroying it.

It’s impossible to conceive of Wes Craven being gone, but he leaves behind an incredible filmography, millions of horror fans and his greatest creation, the Bastard Son of 100 maniacs who inspired seven sequels (plus a remake) and countless nightmares. The original ’84 Nightmare on Elm Street remains, as far as this writer is concerned, the best horror movie of all time, and New Nightmare its greatest follow-up. Give both films another look and witness a Master of Horror working at the top of his game. Just whatever you do… don’t fall asleep.

  • Patrick Bromley
    About the Author - Patrick Bromley

    Patrick lives in Chicago, where he has been writing about film since 2004. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, Patrick's writing also appears on About.com, DVDVerdict.com and fthismovie.net, the site he runs and hosts a weekly podcast.

    He has been an obsessive fan of horror and genre films his entire life, watching, re-watching and studying everything from the Universal Monsters of the '30s and '40s to the modern explosion of indie horror. Some of his favorites include Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), Dawn of the Dead (1978), John Carpenter's The Thing and The Funhouse. He is a lover of Tobe Hooper and his favorite Halloween film is part 4. He knows how you feel about that. He has a great wife and two cool kids, who he hopes to raise as horror nerds.