Maybe more than any other character in the pantheon of horror villain legends, Freddy Krueger was custom built to put the fear of god into us. Nothing about his presence was thrown together haphazardly. Instead, nearly every aspect of his design had a tremendous amount of thought put into it. From makeup effects great David B. Miller’s inspired work creating the Krueger’s crispy kisser, to the subliminal mind games played by creator Wes Craven when choosing certain aspects of his look (the razor glove was meant to resemble the clawed paws of a prehistoric predator while the colors of his sweater were chosen due to the difficult time the human eye has processing red and green together), we were meant to feel Freddy’s menace on a subatomic level.
As the franchise rolled on over the years, that visual blueprint was more or less stuck to religiously. After all, why mess with a good thing? But that’s not to say that all the Krueger designs were created equally. While each has its own distinct charm and represents where the character was at in that point in its history, some stand out more than others.
For #RobertEnglundDay, here are my own painfully nerdy thoughts on Freddy’s style in each of his cinematic excursions and how they rank in this writer’s heart of hearts.
9 – The Dream Child (1989)
Freddy Krueger’s design in The Dream Child is representative of the franchise’s fifth entry in general, in that it is very much a mixed bag of a picture. Original makeup guru David B. Miller was brought in to create a new Freddy prosthetic that would take less time to apply to series star Robert Englund, but the end result was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde affair. At times, the makeup looks fine despite having a noticeably cheaper aura about it, but there are moments where Freddy looks less like a horrifying burnt-up boogeyman and more like a dude in a rubber mask. While his business attire might have left something to be desired, we do get to see Krueger cosplay as a superhero AND a maître-d’. This might not have sparked nightmares for its audience, but it certainly made for some wonderful action figures years later.
8 – A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
Some might think its sacrilege to include the failed reboot of the Nightmare franchise on this list. However, whatever led to the film failing, its rendering of Freddy wasn’t one of them. Jackie Earle Haley’s performance is a highlight of the film and his Krueger’s appearance wasn’t the abomination some have made it out to be. The costume design was pretty darn close to what we saw in the original (right down to the sweater being knit by the same woman who made it back in 1984) but it was Freddy’s face where a new direction was taken. The makeup’s success is varied, depending really on which scene you’re watching. Sometimes, it looks genuinely disturbing, featuring details (like the addition of a blind, milky white eye) that make this Krueger a beast all its own. Unfortunately, the movie’s blending together prosthetics and CGI wasn’t entirely seamless, and that distraction does a huge disservice to the character. Overall, it was a valiant effort that was bogged down by technological limitations and overshadowed by the incredible work that came before it.
7 – New Nightmare (1994)
When Wes Craven returned to Elm Street for this proto-meta reimagining of the Freddy mythology, efforts were made to make the character scary again. His trademark sweater, hat, and scorched skin were all kept, but additions were made to his appearance that made him unlike any other version we’d seen before. Since now he was an avatar for an ageless evil entity rather than a short pervert with a penchant for one-liners, some physical alterations needed to take place. The character’s physique was pumped up, a pair of combat boots were popped on his tootsies to add some inches to his height, and his facial features were given a structure that made him look more monstrous. Coupled with this was the switching out of Krueger’s homemade mitt with a weird bio-mechanical claw that would have looked at home in Tetsuo: The Iron Man. These aspects of the redesign worked to varying degrees in terms of making the man of our dreams spooky again, but there was one that cannot be forgiven: they gave Freddy a duster. Very few people can pull off this polarizing piece of clothing. You either look cool as hell (see: Brandon Lee in The Crow) or painfully lame (think Mac in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Turning Krueger into a demonic beefcake metal fetishist was all well and good, but there are some lines that should never be crossed.
6 – Freddy’s Dead (1991)
On the surface, Mr. Krueger’s appearance in this contentious chapter of the Nightmare franchise seems like a disaster (I once heard someone wonder aloud whether they had rented his mask and clothing from a local costume store) but in the context of Freddy’s Dead and what director Rachal Talalay was going for, it’s a homerun. This is Elm Street by way of John Waters (many of the film’s crew- including Talalay herself – had worked with the Prince of Puke in the past) so it only made sense that Freddy’s design would need to reflect the film’s embrace of camp. And it made sense: by this point, thanks to the success of the sequels and a massive amount of merchandising, the character had permeated the pop culture zeitgeist completely. Krueger was now less a boogeyman and more a brand name, so the fact that he had a glossy, almost mass-produced look to him not only fit the tone of the film but felt like a commentary on the transformation the character had gone through during its existence. It might not have been scary, but damn if it didn’t work.
5 – Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
If you do an image search for some of the early Freddy vs Jason makeup tests, you’ll see that Krueger could have looked disastrously different from what we eventually saw when this long-gestating dream project finally hit the big screen. Thankfully, what fans got instead was a solid design that was reminiscent of his look during his 87-88 heyday. This was a welcomed return for those who weren’t thrilled with the revisions made in New Nightmare, and it made for a nice cinematic send-off for Robert Englund (he’d go on to appear onscreen in full Freddy garb one last time in a 2018 episode of The Goldbergs, but this film feels more like his true swan song as the character). While it doesn’t bring anything to the table that distinguishes it from other installments, this was a more than serviceable take on the Springwood Slasher.
4 – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The “O.G.” It’s no wonder Freddy Krueger struck such a chord with so many people in this first outing. Combined with Robert Englund’s meticulously intentional physicality is a look that’s instantly iconic. Parts of Freddy’s character design are admittedly rough around the edges at this point. His sweater is just a tad baggy and the style of his hat appears to change at times (there’s a couple of shots where Krueger looks to be wearing a pork pie hat, as if he’s some sort of deranged Buster Keaton), but these elements would be nailed down in future installments. His burn makeup might be the grossest it’s ever been. Krueger’s face in his debut is disgustingly craterous in a way not seen in future sequels, as if large chunks of flesh were torn from his flaming visage upon his death. His style might have been perfected later on, but this was still a hell of an entrance.
3 – Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
A year after the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger was resurrected for the first time. However, this installment would see his design handled by some new blood as David B. Miller passed the baton to up-and-coming special makeup effects artist Kevin Yagher. Just as the sequel went in a different (and divisive) direction from the original, Yagher decided to make some changes of his own. A more pronounced bone structure was introduced: while Krueger’s flesh appeared to be hanging from his face in the first film, this version’s was stretched taught across his skull. High, jagged cheekbones and unnervingly sunken eyes were the result. A hooked, almost witch-like nose was also added, and the combination of it all made this Freddy uniquely terrifying in his own right. His clothing was further refined as well, with his sweater now being a bit more form fitting and frayed. While not without its missteps (the addition of demonic red contact lenses would be axed in later films), this Krueger was not only frightening but a big step forward towards the character’s final form.
2 & 1 – Dream Warriors (1987) & The Dream Master (1988)
Freddy at his fiercest. After a two-year hiatus, Krueger graced our dreams once more in a pair of stellar pictures that represent the high-water mark for sequels in the Nightmare franchise.
Both featured Kevin Yagher on makeup duty and his work in these films is iconic, blending together the best elements of the ideas he brought to Freddy’s Revenge (skeletal bone structure, witchy nose) with the stomach-turning textures of David B. Miller’s original burn makeup. Krueger’s iconic sweater was similarly on point, displaying a lived-in rattiness that gave it just the right amount of believability, and his claw was spot on. What’s more, these movies featured the first instance of the Springwood Slasher playing dress up (you gotta love part three’s Tuxedo Freddy) and accessorizing (those shades in part four are absolutely scorching). Top marks, all around.
Peel back the makeup and celebrate Robert Englund with SCREAMBOX Original documentary Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story, streaming now.