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FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES: Two Halves That Make a Whole
The 1980s and early ‘90s were a golden era for the genre of small screen horror. Along with such series as “Tales from the Darkside,” “Monsters” and the “Friday the 13th” series, the
The TV series aired from 1988 to 1990. It was mainly an anthology program (like “Tales” and “Monsters”) with the (usually) only reoccurring character/performer being actor Robert Englund who slipped on the bladed glove once more as burn victim Freddy to act as the show’s chief source of fright.
There are some interesting plots and great guest stars throughout the series but one of the most interesting aspects of the show was its basic structure.
When it was produced and sold to local stations (skipping the networks for the more horror-friendly world of first-run syndication), “Freddy’s Nightmares” was made available as either a weekly series of 30-minute episodes or a weekly series of 60-minute episodes.
Yes, depending on where you saw the series—what station and what area of the country—you either had a half-hour weekly “Nightmare” or one that lasted a full hour.
“Freddy” is not the only series in TV history to be offered with this unusual option. Joan Lunden’s onetime daily talk show “Everyday” (also 1989-1990) was made available to stations in either a 30-minute or 60-minute version. But for “Freddy’s,” as a fictional program, this option presented to its producers and writers an interesting challenge. In order to make sense as either a half-hour or hour-long program, that meant that each half (every 30 minutes) had to be completely self-contained--with a specific beginning, middle and end--and be able to stand on its own as a half-hour entertainment. But, it also meant that the show had to work (to some degree) when the two “halves” were put together.
Individually, many of “Freddy’s” half-hours are effective. When viewed in the right frame of mind and in the right setting (say, alone and late at night) they do deliver the required number of chills. But, when put together—as an hour-long episode—many “Freddy” installments become often something even more—intriguing, unpredictable and able/willing to more fully explore or pursue various themes and topics. In some cases, installments of “Freddy’s Nightmares” brings to mind various episodes of NBC’s “Law & Order” (“SVU” and others) which often begin one place before making unexpected pivots along the way.
Granted, sometimes the “Freddy” series “cheat” a bit to link the first half-hour to its second: a very minor character seen ever-so briefly (and perhaps rather unimportantly) in the first half hour suddenly comes to prominence in the second half and that person is then the thin “glue” that pulls the full hour together. But, other times, episode writers got truly creative and inventive and were able to fashion entire hours where a legitimate through-line was followed or a theme was more deeply explored which, in the process, crafted stories that are ever evolving, wonderfully structured and, ultimately, quite satisfying.
Riding in on the wave of the success of the big screen films and given even greater gravitas by the participation of Freddy himself (the great Robert Englund), “Freddy’s Nightmares” premiered big in the fall of 1988 on various stations all across North America in both its half-hour and hour-long incarnations. Originally, many stations (in either format) aired the series in their early evening or “primetime” hours. But, though the stations often obtained good sized audiences, they also garnered various complaints. Like the films that inspired it, “Nightmares” could get bloody and daytime and primetimes viewers in some markets balked. Many stations quickly reassigned the series to late-night hours while a couple of stations in Canada bowed to pressure and axed the series entirely. A few months after “Freddy’s” debut, the National Coalition on Television Violence rated the series an “F” as TV’s biggest violence offender. (Simultaneously, the group also denounced “Friday the 13th: The Series.”)
Critical response to the show was divided. Long-time TV critic Ken Tucker liked the debut episode, directed by renowned horror director Tobe Hooper and which focused mainly on the Krueger mythos. But other critics were far less kind. Author and TV horror/sci-fi aficionado John Kenneth Muir is NOT a fan of the show. On both his website and in his tome “Terror TV,” he lambasts the series for various reasons, particularly taking issue with what he sees as the overall cheapness of the series’s production values.
Still, the continued involvement of Englund/Freddy as host/narrator and occasion co-star allowed the series (in any length) to prosper. It was further aided by generous amounts of dark humor dribbled throughout many episodes and from being well cast with either familiar faces like Dick Gautier, Timothy Bottoms, Christine Belford, Patty McCormick and Mary Crosby or with soon-to-be familiar faces like Lori Petty, John Cameron Mitchell, Mariska Hargitay, and, quite famously, Brad Pitt.
Moreover, the series does often deliver what it promised to do. That is: supply viewers with some truly startling images and legitimately earned scares.
This is certainly true in episode one the series which, as mentioned, is a prequel/origins story and is titled “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” It details how crazed mad man Freddy Kruger got so burned and eventually invaded all of our dreams.
Though many markets aired the kick-off debut episode as a special one-hour presentation, the debut hour can be split in half and still make sense but when viewed in full, the two halves become a compelling and nearly seamless whole.
The series’ follow-up episode has a stronger split-in-two nature about it but still holds its own when viewed as a one-hour installment. It is titled “It’s a Miserable Life,” was directed by Tom McLoughlin, and stars a very young John Cameron Mitchell, long before be hatched “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” In the ep, Mitchell, is a teen dreaming of moving away from his small-town home and his family business, a fast food franchise. A hold-up one night on the drive thru—or is it?!—takes his life in an unexpected direction. That’s the first half.
In the show’s first half, Mitchell’s girlfriend (played by one-time “Knots Landing” star Lar Park Lincoln) is introduced. She, though, takes true center stage in the installment’s second half where the overall basic the story is continued and developed. Mitchell appears in this second half as well though his presence is not nearly as dominate as it is in the first.
Guest-star carry-over is one thing the series sometimes employed to link the two halves of an episode together. Consider the season two outing “Dreams That Kill.” It stars TV veteran Dick Gautier as a Jerry Springer-esque TV talk show host who Freddy warns not to talk about “killing dreams” as a possible, upcoming program topic. Though Gautier is featured most prominently in this episode’s first half, he’s pops up notably in the second even though actors Christian Bocher (later of “Stargate” fame) and Christine Bedford have the two primary parts.
Of course, also figuring majorly in this plot/episode is Freddy Kruger (a.k.a. Robert Englund). Freddy’s reoccurring cameos or supporting role in many episodes throughout the series functions as a unifying element that allows all disparate factors of this series to successfully hang together
The series also further tied itself all together by, sometimes, rather daringly, connecting hour-long installments with previously aired episodes-–yes, sequels of sorts. The aforementioned episode “Dreams That Kill” (season two, episode 11) was sequel/continuation of the season two, episode one installment “Dream Come True.” Then, episode 12 of season two, “It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To,” was a sequel/follow-up to season two debut episode, “Photo Finish.” And, back in season one, episode seven, “Sister’s Keeper,” was a sequel to the series’s premiere episode where it followed the twin daughters of the police officer seen in the first episode. The twins had played a part in the program’s first episode.
Whether it was shifting dynamics in the syndication market or burnout from constantly trying to top themselves or fatigue from the demand for half-and-half storytelling, “Freddy’s Nightmares” lasted only two seasons for a total of 44 hour-long episodes…or 88 half-hour episodes depending on how you want to count them. The series was issued on DVD and Blu-Ray at one time but, today, seems to be out-of-print. A handful of episodes can be found, for free, online.
Since the show’s demise, no other fictional show—that I know of, at least--has ever audaciously dared to follow “Freddy’s” two-part-one-episode structure. For the original creators of the series, the format might have been born of necessity but would prove to be, often, quite invigorating. But trying to do it again?
That’s something that probably even Freddy wouldn’t dream of.
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