The Ten Day Nightmare: Day One – A Nightmare on Elm Street
A Nightmare on Elm Street – one of horrors most popular and imaginative series, starring one of the most iconic cinematic boogeymen of all time, Freddy Krueger. What exactly made this franchise so special, and why did Freddy become the most beloved child-murderer of all time? Over the next ten days, I’ll take a look at the entire franchise, offering my reviews of each of the movies (and even some selected episodes of the short-lived television series). Just a warning, though – these are meant to be retrospective reviews, primarily intended for fans of the series. Since I’m assuming most of you will have already seen the films, there will be definitely be SPOILERS AHEAD. So read at your own risk. Now, let’s kick things off with a look at the one that started it all…
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
Written and Directed by: Wes Craven
In the town of Springwood, Ohio, young Nancy Thompson and friends are all strangely being plagued by nightmares featuring the same man – a hideously scarred figure wearing a glove outfitted with razors. When it is revealed that being murdered by this man in your dreams means death in real life, it’s up to Nancy to discover his true identity and the source of his power, before it’s too late.
By 1984, the slasher sub-genre that had exploded in the wake of 1978’s Halloween and 1981’s Friday the 13th was, if you’ll pardon the pun, in desperate need of some fresh blood. Although many of the imitators that had followed had been successful, the clichéd formula was already beginning to wear thin, and it was clear the genre needed a sudden influx of creativity if it was going to live on. Enter Wes Craven, who actually seemed an unlikely candidate to turn things around for the better. After all, his previous two horror films, Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, were mostly exercises in brutality themselves. Were they effective as horror films? Sure. But indicative of the imaginative heights he was about to reach? No way.
In fact, Craven seemed an odd person to be involved in the slasher genre at all, given his strict Baptist upbringing (he didn’t even see a movie until he was in college) and almost over-qualified credentials (a masters degree in Philosophy, and former gigs as an English teacher and humanities professor). Though, if you think about it, these qualifications are actually what made Craven the perfect guy to bring something new to the slasher table. While obviously not opposed to the more common “blood’n’guts” approach, Craven was also interested in using the genre as an outlet for his heavy interest in symbolism and dreams. He was particularly fascinated by a series of articles he had read in the LA Times during the ‘70s, concerning several Cambodian refugees that had died in their sleep shortly after complaining of horrific nightmares.
Understandably intrigued by the stories, Craven wrote the script for A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1981, only to have it turned down by nearly every major studio he pitched it to. Finally, the independent New Line Cinema corporation, which until that point had only distributed films and never actually produced their own, decided to take a risk and give Craven the green-light. The production was not without nightmares of its own – at one point, New Line was unable to pay the cast and crew for two weeks. But, in the end, the movie’s critical and financial success put New Line on the map, and forever after the company would be known as “the house that Freddy built.”
Now, with the background out of the way, let’s get to the review. This is supposed to be the part where I slavishly declare A Nightmare on Elm Street to be a perfect film; a flawless masterpiece of the genre. But, sorry, no dice. The “masterpiece” designation is certainly arguable, but this is far from a flawless film. As stated in my TGIF13 Friday the 13th review, hardcore horror fans have a tendency to over-praise certain “classics” of the genre while also ignoring their faults, and the first Nightmare is no exception. In truth, Craven’s film is guilty of a lot of the same problems fans love to criticize modern horror films for – most notably, questionable acting and poor character development. Nancy Thompson might be remembered as a fan-favorite horror heroine, but her character is noticeably underwritten, and things aren’t helped by Heather Langenkamp’s less-than-impressive screen presence. The same can be said for the rest of the teen characters, as well. None of them ever rise above being more than simple stereotypes (though Johnny Depp, at least, shows some raw charisma in his screen debut, but even he is still a long way off from the talented actor he would later become).
Meanwhile, there’s also some rather dubious logic at work here. Beginning a tradition that would continue throughout the entire series, Craven’s script is at times frustratingly unclear regarding Freddy’s powers and how far into the real world they stretch. After all, we’re led to believe he can only kill you in your sleep, but he also somehow animates the bed-sheets in Rod’s jail cell and cause them to strangle the kid. How does that work? Likewise, the entire last act is one big mess of confusion. Nancy pulls Freddy into the real world (at which point her MacGyver-esque booby traps turn the film into a sort of dark Home Alone), and this is supposed to leave him essentially human and powerless…but after killing Nancy’s mother (whose skeleton then disappears into some sort of otherworldly vortex thing), Freddy simply vanishes after Nancy turns her back on him and “takes back” all the energy she gave him. Huh?
Am I the only person who has always found this ending to be not only sort of baffling, but also kinda silly? To be fair, a lot of this can be explained away by underlying hints that the whole movie might be one big dream – we are in fact never quite sure whether what we are seeing is in the “real world” or not. So whether this stuff bothers you will probably depend on how well you can tolerate the inherent cheat of such storytelling.
Now, that all being said, let me finally admit that, yes, there is a reason this movie is the classic it is. I focused on the negatives first just to get them out of the way, but thankfully, this is a film where the good far outweighs the bad. There’s a lot to admire here, especially when compared to the majority of unimaginative slasher crap that was being churned out at the time. There’s an obvious level of intelligence that the other slasher films of the era never even came close to, as Craven’s script plays not only with universal subconscious fears, but also with common themes such as the rite of passage into adulthood and the subjugation of teenagers by adult authority figures. There are enough hidden meanings and messages bubbling underneath the surface that one could easily write a series of academic essays on this one film alone. Heck, even Freddy’s trademark red and green sweater was chosen after Craven read that those were the two most clashing colors to the human retina – so, yeah, it’s obvious that he put a whole lot of thought into this, hoping to elevate it to another level.
If, however, you’re not looking for deep meaning and just want to enjoy the film as a straight-ahead horror flick, it works incredibly well on that level, as well. It’s a pretty lean and mean film, and while some might find the actual narrative a little simplistic, I admire its no-nonsense pacing, which throws you right into the horror from the very first scene and then never really lets up for the entirety of the movie. Sure, this is probably one of the reasons the characters aren’t as strong as they could have been, since the movie never really takes any time to slow down and develop them (likewise, even Freddy’s back-story is eventually just haphazardly tossed in, in a moment of way-too-easy exposition), but it nevertheless keeps things moving and keeps you involved the whole time. And, most importantly, it is scary, earning great mileage from its “anything can happen at any time” approach to storytelling. Sure, the dream aspect may allow the movie to “cheat” at times…but it’s an amazingly effective cheat. Horror films have always loved to use the “it was only a dream” revelation as a go-to shock moment. Here’s a case where we’re confronted with that possibility during pretty much every single moment of the movie, which in turn never really allows the audience to get their feet under them and know when to relax.
The dream aspect also, of course, lends itself to all sorts of interesting images, another nice change from the usual slashers, which were often pretty visually drab. The calling-card of the genre up to this point was to see which film could offer up the most boobs and the bloodiest deaths. And while that’s all well and good if you’re into that kind of thing, Nightmare was able to raise the bar by mixing the bloody fun with high-concept storytelling and eye-catching imagery. In fact, with its surrealist visuals (not to mention the bordering-on-corny-but-actually-kinda-cool synth-pop score) Nightmare often feels like it owes more to the dreamy works of Dario Argento than it does to the rest of its slasher peers. There’s a lot of cool stuff here that does indeed seem to come right out of a nightmare, from melting stairs to phones with tongues to creepy little girls to, uhhh…sheep? Well, OK, maybe that last one isn’t that scary, but the rest of it sure is, and the film leaves you with a lot of unsettling stuff to remember when all is said and done.
And then, of course, there is Freddy himself. This pretty much goes without saying, but if there’s one thing you can point to for why this movie took off like it did, it’s Krueger. Memorably played by Robert Englund (a performance that would both make Englund a star AND more or less typecast him as nothing more than a “horror guy” for life), Freddy is without a doubt one of the best onscreen boogeymen in cinema history. Now, I’ve always thought it somewhat odd that Craven even bothered to give Freddy his trademark razor glove in the first place, as it seems somewhat unnecessary given the idea of the film. Here’s a guy who has near-total control over the realm of dreams…that’s scary enough, no? And yet, he also comes packing a somewhat practical weapon that would seem more at home in a traditional, non-supernatural slasher. But, whether necessary or not, there’s no denying the power it adds to the iconic image of Freddy, and it’s yet another reason the character instantly became one of the all-time movie monsters.
Freddy is especially terrifying here, before the gradual softening of the character which occurred in the sequels. Sure, there are a few small hints of Krueger’s twisted sense of humor (a one-liner here and there, or the demented look of glee on his face as he cuts off his own fingers to scare Tina), but for the most part Freddy is kept mysterious and scary, rather than the clown he would eventually devolve into. Heck, even the burned make-up design (courtesy of David Miller) is darker and more sinister-looking in this film than it ever would be again (with the possible exception of New Nightmare and the “demon Freddy” in Freddy vs. Jason).
While I’d like to say that Craven’s work here really gave the slasher film a renewed lease on life and opened the door for new creative heights within the sub-genre, it’s a sad truth that not many of the films that followed were able to match the quality of this one. In fact, the very next film in this series would be a grim reminder of how the “money over quality” mentality always seemed to sink these films. But, oh well, that’s a story for tomorrow. For now, let’s give the devil his due and bask in the awesomeness that was Freddy’s big-screen debut. All in all, A Nightmare on Elm Street is an understandable milestone of the genre. Yes, it has its fair share of problems. But if you can give yourself over to it – and overlook some of the more glaring gaps in logic and the amateurish acting of its young cast – it’s still quite the effective piece of horror. While its reputation has perhaps led to some exaggerated opinions of the quality of the film itself, it is a strong story with an excellent villain and some very striking set-pieces. And, most importantly, the primal fears its plays on have helped it stand the test of time. It holds up today, and I’m confident it will continue to do so. Not bad for a movie that pretty much every major studio wanted nothing to do with.
BODY COUNT: 4
It’s sort of tough to come up with an exact body count in a lot of the Nightmare films, since there are often kills that might just be part of a particular character’s dream, and not an actual death, per se. That’s certainly the case with Nancy’s mother, who we see bite it TWICE in the film’s final act. You could argue both are just part of Nancy’s dream, but I’m gonna go ahead and count the her fiery strangulation on the bed. I’m not counting her being pulled through the door at the very end, which I think is just supposed to be another of Nancy’s nightmares. That means this film has a body count of four, which is pretty low for a slasher film of the time. But, since this movie has so much other stuff going on, I doubt anyone even noticed or cared.
This is actually kind of tough, as Tina’s gravity defying slaughter is both horrifying (mostly due to her boyfriend looking on but being unable to help) and yet also very cool in that sick way that only horror fans love. But, in the end, I’ve gotta give the award to Johnny Depp’s Glen, pulled down into his bed by Freddy and reduced to a ridiculous geyser of blood that then absolutely drenches the room. It remains one of the most memorable images in horror history.
FREDDY’S BEST LINES:
“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy.”
FINAL SCORE: 3.5 out of 4 Razor Fingers
Posted on December 1, 2014, in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Franchise Post-Mortems, Reviews and tagged A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger, Horror Movies, Robert Englund, Slashers, Wes Craven. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.