Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is having grisly nightmares. Something monstrous wants to kill her. Meanwhile, her high-school friends, who are having the very same dream, are being slaughtered in their sleep by the hideous fiend of their shared nightmare. When the police ignore her explanation, she herself must confront the killer in his shadowy realm.
Featuring John Saxon (Enter The Dragon) and Johnny Depp in his first starring role as well as mind-bending special effects, this horror classic gave birth to one of the most infamous undead villains in cimematic history. Reportedly naming Freddy Krueger after a kid who had bullied him at school, writer-director Craven hatches a shock-fest from hell that “goes straight to the heart of terror” (Seattle Times).
eyelights: its concept. its mood. its score. its ability to blur reality and dreams. its original effects and scare tactics.
eyesores: some of the performances. its lapses in logic. its non sequitur ending.
“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.”
It’s hard to understate the impact that Wes Craven’s 1984 hit ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ had. For starters, it brought New Line Cinema back from the brink, gave a much-needed boost to Craven’s career, created an icon out of Freddy Krueger and reshaped and influenced the horror genre for well over a decade.
Suddenly, horror didn’t just have Michael Myers and his genre offspring Jason Voorhees – they were now joined by the ghastly-looking Krueger, who didn’t hide behind a mask despite his grotesque third-degree burns scars. His likeness (a hat, red and green-striped sweater and a bladed glove) was everywhere.
At the time of its release, I was too young to get its impact. And by the time I noticed, it was too late: Krueger was not only everywhere, but he’d become a cartoon figure along the lines of ‘Tales From The Crypt‘s The Cryptkeeper. I wasn’t into horror to start with, and he seemed like just a big goof to me.
(That the first ‘Nightmare’ film I ever saw was the sixth, ‘Freddy’s Dead’, didn’t help…)
I was wrong.
It wasn’t until I saw the original film that I realized how genuinely scary Craven’s creation is. Here is a supernatural figure who can take ownership of his victims’ dreams, and not only torment them, but hurt and even kill them. He makes it nearly impossible for them to distinguish between reality and dreamscape.
We all need to sleep, and can do so in relative safety, but now… our dreams were deadly.
Don’t fall sleep, it warned.
The strength of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ is that Wes Craven blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s not so neatly that it’s only after the audience has clued into the picture’s conceit that they can tell the difference. Until then, scenes were trippy in much the same way as surrealist films can be.
One looks on quizzically, in wonder, at the images flashing on the screen.
Personally, I like that.
I really do.
Though the picture is deemed a slasher film, one could argue that this is tangential. What makes it scary is its nightmarish quality: a crucifix falling from Nancy’s wall onto her bed, voices whispering to Tina, the wall above Nancy’s bed stretching out to reveal a face and hands or Tina being dragged up the wall.
It’s not to say that ‘Nightmare’ doesn’t also indulge in traditional slasher scare tactics, like stalking, or jumping through windows/mirrors at victims, or gruesome violence, but that’s merely the end product of a much more intricate construction. If it didn’t tease the imagination on a deeper level it wouldn’t work.
Of course, when Craven indulges in violence, he goes all out, taking it to surreal levels, such as a geyser of blood shooting out of a bed after his victim has been sucked in. And yet Craven counterbalances this with a twisted, if not self-consciously campy, humour that makes a mockery of the gruesome proceedings.
This comes in the form of Freddy Krueger, the piece’s villain, as played by Robert Englund. Krueger is a nasty piece of work who relishes the horrors that he’s inflicting on his victims; he’s like a cat that cruelly teases a mouse to death. For Krueger, it’s all fun and games until someone -hopefully- gets hurt.
Then it’s a job well done.
Englund wasn’t the first choice for the part but he owns it. In fact, though Craven is the mastermind and his brilliance brought the movie to life, Englund is responsible for a large part of its success; he got into the spirit of things, being both playful and sinister. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part.
The rest of the cast is decent.
Heather Langenkamp imbues Nancy with the necessary smarts and courage to counterpoint Freddy. Johnny Depp is unusually normal as Nancy’s boyfriend. John Saxon is his staid self as Nancy’s father and a cop. Only Ronee Blakley really stinks up the screen with her Novocained turn as Nancy’s mother.
If Freddy Krueger is the series’ poster child, then Charles Bernstein’s iconic theme is its spirit. His score’s eerie mixture of dreamy nursery music and sinister movements contributed to the picture atmosphere as equally as Craven’s imagery did. In fact, disassociating them nearly renders both impotent.
(It’s so powerful, in fact, that, even though I’m not a die-hard fan of the series, I bought Varèse Saranbande’s limited edition boxed set containing all the film’s scores)
The picture works so well because it taps into our primal fears, but also because it combines this with familiar warnings:
- Don’t have premarital sex.
- Don’t be a delinquent student.
- Don’t fall asleep in the bath.
- Don’t be irresponsible.
If you do, the consequences will be terrible. Maybe even worse than you think: Freddy will come for you.
And there’s no escaping Freddy.
Though it’s a bit dated stylistically, ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ only really trips up in two places:
1. When Nancy asks her dad to wake her up in 20 minutes, thinking that this will be enough time for her to go after Freddy and pull him out of his dreamworld. Good plan, except that she then spends an inordinate amount of time booby-trapping her place and even has a chat with her mom – only after which she sets her watch for 10 minutes. WTF. That only took 10 minutes? It would made more sense to put the booby-trapping montage and chat before she went to see her father.
2. The ending feels like it’s been tacked on, for one last scare, rendering the finale impotent. Nancy’s defeat of Freddy was already a bit hurried, but now it was meaningless. Well, not only does it feel tacked on, but it was actually forced upon Craven by the studio, who wanted to keep open the possibility of a sequel. It was a good afterthought, given the film’s success, but it’s a poorly-conceived one.
Still, ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street’ remains potent. Thanks to Wes Craven’s craftiness, Robert Englund’s stellar performance, and some excellent effects and scare tactics, it’s still a remarkable horror film. It’s dated and it could have been polished a little bit, but it’s unsurprising that it’s one of the genre’s landmarks.
I’m glad that I gave Freddy a chance.
Date of viewing: July 30, 2017