A Nightmare on Elm Street
“A Nightmare on Elm Street:” Every other film in Wes Craven’s career stands in its shadows, even his earlier and later successes. Though he had worked almost exclusively in the genre before, for Craven, there was no escaping horror after this one. The film birthed arguably the most iconic horror series of the eighties. It made Freddy Krueger a house-hold name, allowed him to join the pantheon of iconic movie monsters, and transformed Robert Englund into the closest thing we have to a modern day Boris Karloff. The movie more-or-less built New Line Cinema and Craven would spend most of the next decade trying to recreate its success. “Elm Street” is a film that turns normal movie nerds into horror fan boys.
But is it good? The story is well-known at this point. The high school students of Springwood, Ohio are all having nightmares about the same man. A strange figure in a red and green sweater, with a burnt face, and wearing a glove with claw-like blades on each finger. The dreams start out as just disturbing but the teens quickly discover that sleep can kill you. Nancy Thompson, after loosing her friend, sets out to solve the mystery, discovers who Freddy Krueger is and that her parents are hiding a huge secret.
A horror film’s success is often measured by whether or not the film is scary. If there’s anything “Nightmare” does better then anything else, it’s produce memorable, freaky images. The opening nightmare sets the tone, slowly building with creepy music, claws scraping against pipes, and the inexplicable appearance of a sheep. A figure pushes through the wall above a sleeping girl’s bed, linking this story of nightmares to many previous ones. Perhaps no image is more famous then that of Fred Krueger walking down an alley way, arms extended out so that his claws can touch the walls and produce the trademark sound effect. How about a dead girl in a body bag, standing up, centipede crawling out of her mouth, spools of muddy eels squirming at her feet? Or maybe the same body bag pulled along by an invisible force, a moment that always got me? If nothing else, “Nightmare” knows how to construct a killer jump scare.
Good as that moment is nothing really tops the Blood Geyser. It is one of those indelible horror moments. The sheer amount of gore on-screen was probably unprecedented for 1984. Beyond that, the scene is disturbing for another reason. The wall is covered with dinosaur stickers. A stuffed animal, a vulture, sits over the boy’s bed. Despite being teenagers, Freddy’s victims are still children. A parent has lost a child. An innocent is gone. Perhaps most squarely, this scene gets at the central premise of the series and why it is still scaring people to this day.
Freddy Krueger would eventually devolve into the one-liner spewing clown of the horror genre. However, in this first film, he’s a fully-formed boogeyman. Moreover, the character reads almost totally as a child molester. His stalking is always accompanied by whispered threats, maniacal laughing, glares from behind pipes, and heavy breathing. His attacks are filled with vaguely erotic groans as he pushes his victim to the ground, squirming under the bed covers. The glove rising out of the tub water between Nancy legs further empathizes Freddy’s status as a sexual predator, as does the later, infamous “I’m your boyfriend now!” moment. And if all of that’s too subtle for you, Freddy even suggestively flicks his tongue during one of the nightmares. Even the greasy, pizza-face make-up design seems to suggest this.
a frightening encounter Craven had as a child. The director describes him as somebody who “enjoys frightening children.” He relishes the chase, taunting his victims. My favorite example of this is Nancy’s stairway becoming cement potholes and Freddy wearing his previous victim’s face. It’s no wonder the later sequels would reveal that the character literally lives on fear. Unlike the sequels, this Freddy has no time for cheesy one-liners, a declaration of “This is God!” or “I’ll kill you slow” coming the closest. Furthermore, the claw glove is one of most unique and immediately iconic horror weapons ever devised. Even the movie realizes this, as the opening credits are devoted to its construction.
Freddy represents something else too: Upper-middle class suburban guilt. Ultimately, the teens’ fates are the fault of their parents’ actions. The sins of the parents are revisited on the children. This is almost blatantly illustrated when Nancy’s mom puts iron bars on the windows. The kids are trapped in prisons of their parents' devising. Despite burning the guy alive, none of the adults are willing to accept Freddy’s return as reality. Both Nancy and Glenn’s parents putting their offspring in peril has to be intentional. Before the last act, Nancy’s mother tells her that all she was trying to do was protect her. But you can’t protect your kids from the real world, from the literal and symbolic horrors of the world, or even the ones that lurk in the shadows of their own mind. The whole movie is about adults abusing and manipulating the youth for their own means. Freddy himself is the biggest example of this.
From a technical aspect, the movie is more touch-and-go. Craven’s direction is composed mostly of slow, creeping pans. It’s his writing that shines more, despite a few clichés here and there, such as character discussing a plan that’s destined to go wrong, a toothless method for beating the bad guy, and a shock of white hair. Even this early in his career, the filmmaker seems to be commenting on common horror tropes. Freddy getting his ass beat by a teenage girl is probably a comment on Jason and his like, the unkillable killer, while the dream sequences give an actual reason for the killer to teleport around. Craven also deploys what has become his most enduring trademark: The improvised booby trap. Freddy gets hit over the head with a glass vase, hit in the gut with a sledge hammer, falls down the stairs, and thrown back by an exploding light bulb. Despite being almost certainly intentional, the villain getting so soundly thrashed by a young girl is kind of comical. (Especially when a not-totally convincing stunt man is rolling down the stairs on fire.)
The young cast is a mixed bag. Heather Langenkamp’s performance is uneven. When she’s pissed off but quiet, like when scolding her boyfriend or announcing to Freddy that she isn’t afraid of him, she’s great. However, Langenkamp gets broad when going for big emotions. Amanda Wyss is immediately likable so it’s a bit of a shame that Tina is the “Psycho”-style fake-out protagonist. Johnny Depp is fine if a little flat while Nick Corri is cartoonish and dickish. John Saxon, star of several giallos, gets to play the investigating detective. He’s stern but tough. Ronee Blakey is an odd performance. An Oscar-nominated actress, Blakey seems intentionally zoned out for most of the film. Okay, the character is an alcoholic and zoned out a lot but the delivery is still startlingly off. Of course, the movie’s biggest star wound up being Robert Englund who has no problems playing up Freddy as a creepy, repulsive figure, even if his power and style makes him alluring.
In the final scene, a mother smiles as her child is dragged off to god knows what fate, feeding soundly into the film’s theme of parental cluelessness. However, it makes the movie lack an ending. A sense of satisfaction is sacrificed in the name of one more scare. And it’s not even a great scare, as a green-and-red cloth top is more silly then frightening. However, Craven is at least smart enough to cap the movie off with one of his trademark moments of startling nihilism.
Freddy Krueger is here to stay. Rachel Talalay couldn’t kill him, Jason couldn’t kill, and neither could Michael Bay and Samuel Fuller. The sequels tried to neuter him but the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” remains an effective horror boo-show. The film is almost as good now as it was when first released. [Grade: B+]