A Nightmare on Elm Street
Several teens in a small town all seem to be struggling with the same affliction: they keep having strange dreams. But these aren’t just any dreams. These dreams all take place in a sweaty boiler room surrounded by pipes and blood, and a mysteriously burnt man wearing a striped sweater and a glove with knives embedded in the fingers. And the strangest part about these dreams is that the teens seem to be inexplicably having the exact same one. The kids don’t put too much stock in the coincidence at first, until one of their classmates, Tina, falls asleep one night and is accosted by the knife-wielding man in her sleep. Except this time the dream is different. This time Tina gets stabbed and slashed to death, and her poor boyfriend has to watch in horror as she’s killed before his eyes by an invisible assailant. Naturally the police don’t believe his story about some sort of “Dream Killer”, but Nancy, Tina’s best friend, does…. because she’s been having the same types of dreams about the strange man too. Nancy then makes it her personal mission to get to the bottom of this strange phenomena that seems to be plaguing her friends, and along the way discovers the origins of a ruthless killer and a town’s deep, dark secret.
To horror fans, Nightmare on Elm Street really shouldn’t need much of an introduction. The film was all but considered a horror classic when it was released, thanks in no small part to the talents of horror virtuoso Wes Craven. The film not only helped boost Craven’s career and cement his horror legacy, but it also created an enduring horror icon in the visage of Freddy Kruger, the burnt boogeyman who haunts kids dreams. The film and the character were so successful that they spawned six additional sequels, a crossover and a television series (and a reboot, but most wisely choose not to talk about that). Not to mention a plethora of related materials like books, comics and one video game released on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989 that was a very early project developed by a Rare Limited, a studio that would go on to create other video game properties like Banjo-Kazooie, Battletoads, and Goldeneye 007. So yeah, the series and the character became popular, but this one lone, low-budget film is where the whole thing started.
I hadn’t watched the original film in some time, maybe not since I had an old CRT television. So the first thing I noticed was how nice the movie looked. The film was much brighter than I ever remember it being. The colors were more vibrant (I think this is the first time I really noticed Heather Langenkamp’s eyes. They’re a very pretty shade of blue), the lines were more crisp, and Freddy was a lot gooier than I recall him being. It’s nice to know that the film has been well taken care of in the years since it’s release and that it was filmed on such good film stock. It really helps everything on the screen pop and bleed. It’s so effective, that even though I’ve seen it so many times before, there are still a few more instances where the visuals still managed to impress or catch me off guard. I appreciate that.
I really love this movie and I think one of the main reasons for that (other than Robert Englund’s performance of Krueger is just downright perfect) is that the main female character doesn’t go out of her way to totally piss me off. In a lot of slasher movies the girls have a bad tendency to just sort of run around screaming and tripping over themselves the moment a bad guy makes an appearance. Or they trip because they insisted on wearing heals in the woods. That’s another thing that pisses me off. So thanks for making some of us look bad, ladies. But in this film, instead of running and screaming into the night, Nancy completely ignores that mindset, pretty much tells Kruger to Eff off and wakes herself up. And she remains remarkably consistent with that thought process throughout the film as well. (Though why she initially followed Krueger down into the basement still puzzles me. Would you follow the image of your dead friend being dragged down the hall in a body bag by disembodied hands? I mean, I know that was a dream, but what the hell, Nancy?). But even after all the crap she gets put through, Nancy doesn’t get scared of the creepy killer, so much as she just gets super pissed off. By the end of the movie she’s educated herself, boobby-trapped the house, and goes looking for him. It’s really too bad that all the adults around her are hopelessly useless, so all of her hard work ends up being in vain. Still, I appreciate her go-to attitude none-the-less.
One thing that really helps make the film work is Kruger himself. Craven modeled him after the worst of adulthood. He’s the evil father, the dirty old man, or that constantly angry adult who would rather see child die rather than lend them a helping hand. He’s the ultimate boogeyman modeled after a parent’s and child’s worst fear, or someone evil coming in the middle of the night to attack you while you’re most vulnerable. And the most disturbing part is, he really gets a kick out of it. Because Freddy isn’t just some silent masked killer come to stalk you in your dreams. That alone would be frightening enough. But what really helps make Freddy stand out, is that he has personality. Other iconic killers of the time just stalked and sliced you. Freddy taunts, and torments, as well as terrifies. And his little witticisms show that he absolutely enjoys his work, too, on a clearly profound and dark level. But while lot of the outright comedy and wisecracking that the series would become known for would come later in the entries, even in this installment it’s clear that Freddy has a deeply dark and twisted sense of humor, and after the slew of Halloween clones containing some form of lumbering, silent stalker, I’m sure Freddy’s dark and bloody humor was a breath of fresh air.
Of course, that’s not to say that the film is without fault. Popular though it may be, Nightmare on Elm Street was still a rather low-level production with only a little over 1 million to work with. So even though the film may be super polished, there are still a couple cracks. The scenes between Nancy and her parents, especially those with her mother, seem unreasonably forced. If Freddy is the culmination of every child’s deep-seeded fear, than Marge is possibly the embodiment of every cliche related to terrible parents in horror movies. She’s boozy, she’s disinterested, she’s neglectful, and when she’s not being one of those three things, she’s usually yelling. She’s basically a poorly written excuse for Nancy to not really have anyone around to keep an eye on her as she fights the supernatural demon her parents created.
Then there’s the kids themselves. Craven wanted the cast to primarily be unknowns (this is Johnny Depp’s first film role, after all) and while they all do a decent enough job, there are times where the “unknown” moniker really shines through, either due to them either not emoting or projecting enough, or even just emoting a little too much. The moments aren’t consistent, so they’re not enough to impact one’s enjoyment of the film, but when they do pop up, they are noticeable.
Yes. Good. Shame. You should feel shame. You’re a terrible mother.
Nightmare on Elm Street is a standout classic among horror classics. It was one of the first horror films to successfully distort the line between the real and the imaginary, and the inventive premise of an individual who could come in and kill you in your dreams in gruesome and creative ways, especially when you’re least able to fight back, is still as disturbing now as it was when it was made. Add in an iconic villain that still endures to this day, and you’ve got a recipe for success. Not too shabby for a film whose premise came out of a few newspaper articles from the Los Angeles Times about the mysterious deaths of refugees and the song “Dream Weaver” by Gary Wright. Guess it’s true what they say. Inspirations can strike at any time, even when you’re listening to pop on the radio. Out of that, we managed to get this chilling, surrealist experience, and while the film may not be perfect, it’s still a really fun and creative ride, even today. If you’re a fan of horror movies, there really isn’t a reason not to watch this.
Nightmare on Elm Street is available on a variety of streaming services.
Nightmare on Elm Street is also available on DVD and Bluray.