A Nightmare On Elm Street
Director: Wes Craven
Starring: Robert England, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Johnny Depp, Amanda Wyss, Jsu Garcia (credited as "Nick Corri"), Charles Fleischer, Lin Shaye
One, two Freddy's coming for you
Three, Four better lock your door
Five, Six grab your crucifix
Seven, Eight gonna stay up late
Nine, Ten never sleep...again...
It wasn't until after I had finished watching all the Friday the 13th movies that I moved on to something else, which immediately was A Nightmare On Elm Street. At the time I was discovering these films, Freddy and Jason were the absolute kings of the 80s and a little guy named Chucky was starting to make a name for himself. The more sequels you had, the more I was interested in you, I suppose. These guys all had big card board stand up promotional displays at every video store when one was coming out. As a kid who was under the age to see a rated R movie it was hard not to ignore these. Plus they were these monsters and had the taboo of "your parents won't allow you to see it" to go with them, so I had to see them, of course.
When I first popped in A Nightmare On Elm Street, all I had knowledge of was Freddy Krueger. I just knew what he looked like, had a claw on his hand and made jokes with his kills. The guy was a cultural phenomenon and he was everywhere. From MTV guest appearances and music videos to commercials, having his own album, pinball machines, video games, to his own TV show. We will touch on this stuff later on, but I wanted to give you a feel for how I felt I kinda knew this guy before I even watched one of his movies. I had been through Jason, who I was totally sold on as being the best after his run of movies, how was Freddy going to be any better?
To my surprise, as much as I knew about Freddy, I also didn't know squat. This first film presents a completely different idea of the villain than what I thought I was expecting. He wasn't Jason or a guy in a mask who stalks teens and then stabs them. No, this moefoe gets you in your sleep. And what he does there affects you in the real world. So if you get cut, you're cut. If you get killed, you die for real. Freddy was also this character in the shadows, and I didn't find him very humorous. He was incredibly sinister and pretty damn scary. The film also felt very smart compared to its contemporaries, and really had me hooked. How do you escape this guy? Everybody has to go to sleep! While the film kept me in good suspense and I was well aware its "just a movie" going to bed that night after viewing the film for the first time became a suspenseful event in itself. I knew it wasn't real...but damn...what if? Right? Freddy had totally won me over.
He won over the filmgoing audience as well. Freddy sort of had a build to his stardom. And he singlehandedly revived the slasher genre. In 1984, the slasher film was on its way out. Heck, Friday The 13th, still very profitable at the time and coming off its highest grossing entry was ready to throw in the towel with The Final Chapter. Then Freddy came in and not only breathed new life into it, but it also revised how it would be as well. Freddy's push allowed slashers to remain and dominate horror all the way to the end of the 80s. Freddy was the killer that actually spoke as he tormented you. He had a personality, and wasn't just a silent stalker in a mask. Elm Street also added a fully embraced supernatural element to the slasher and brought an aspect to the tired genre that made audiences feel they were getting something brand new and different. After Chucky, the door would open for a villain like Chucky or the zombified Jason, even Wes Craven would do it again with Shocker.
By bringing in the element of fantasy and supernatural to the world of the slasher, Elm Street was clearly the most ambitious film of the slasher genre to come by. Impressively, it was all done on a super low budget by a company that hadn't really made any movies before. For what it was, Freddy's first adventure goes all out in the way of visual effects, and for being a dirt cheap movie in 1984, I still to this day fully appreciate what they were able to accomplish. Because of it being so low budget and so grand, some of the film's effects have become a little more apparent with age (that crash mat at the bottom of the staircase was not visible in the days of VHS). And with the advent of better home video presentations, things starting more apparent with each technology. However, a lot of the effects are still quite impressive, like the classic image of Freddy coming through the wall behind Nancy, or Ronne Blakley's skeleton sinking through the bed. Also, at the right impressionable age, a kid isn't really going to notice these things. And when you're caught up in a film's story, you're going to care less on the initial outing. And I'll never be one to fault a film because of when it was made and because of its limitations as long as you can tell they were pushing the limites and getting as much out of it as they could. And Elm Street is that kind of movie.
A Nightmare On Elm Street brings together a lot of personal fears and ideas from the mind of Wes Craven. He was inspired by many things in both film and reality. Classically the idea of being killed in your dream came from a real life news article about a boy who seemed to have this sort of thing happene to them. For the man doing it, he looked no further than his own experience of a wanderer in a fedora that used to stroll back and forth outside his childhood apartment window. There are effects in the film too, that seem to take inspiration from other movies. Tina's demise in the film looks like a riff of the scene with JoBeth Williams from Poltergeist, although, oddly and maybe because I saw it first, I think Craven takes this one to that next level. Craven also looked to himself for inspiration as the classic Nancy in the bathtub sequence was actually lifted and copied almost tit for tat from his little scene film Deadly Blessing. Its a crazy little cult movie that has a super young Sharon Stone and Ernest Borgnine. In that movie its a snake in the bathtub and not Freddy's claw. But, shot for shot its pretty much an identical sequence.
Another thing, when at a young age one isn't too attentive to is the acting in a film. You sort of take these things at face value and attach the way a performance is to just how a person is. Since I've kept Elm Street close to the vest all these years, its never really stuck out to me as much as it has many others who revisit this film after a long drought and they get a little older. Yeah, our lead, Heather Langenkamp struggles to carry the film. But, she sort of makes up for it in this sense of "normal" she brings to the table and that sort of works for me. Plus, now-a-days I get a sort of kick out of some of her readings as they become staples with quoting, that even later films would poke fun at ("Screw your pass!"). Ronee Blakley always rubbed me a little weird in the movie, but that's because I thought she was sorta drunk. You really don't get her full effect on the film until you see this movie in a theater full of fans. She's a complete hoot and gives this film an unexpected comedic turn. Aside from John Saxon and Robert England, most of the performances here range from average to beginner level. The thing is, this is sometimes the best you can get with the type of movie you're making. Heck, superstar Johnny Depp isn't even very good in the film. And really, nobody was complaining about the level of performances in any of these movies until later one when they would become bigger more "esteemed" productions. Call me dripped with nostaliga or close to the series, but I can see past it.
Speaking of cast and inspirations leaking into the film, not a lot of people mention it, but Craven paid some straight homage to Hitchcock and Psycho in a very successful way with A Nightmare On Elm Street. Amanda Wyss, who plays Tina, is a total Hitchcock blonde and tribute to Janet Leigh's Marion Crane. We start the film off with Tina, and its her dreams we see and meet Freddy through. She doesn't die in the first scene, but we then move on to her trying to convince her friends and shed light on the claw-wielding monster in her nightmares. The Act I turning point winds up being her death, which is quite the surprise as Tina has been our focus this whole time. Only at the beginning of Act II at the police station does the focus shift to Nancy and open us up to her life and her family. Sure, we all know now that Nancy is one of Freddy's two main nemesis final girls (And probably the more known and iconic one), but at this juncture in the first film its not a given. And the film seems to want us to latch to Tina from its outset to surprise us with her viscious and incredibly spooky death. The first kill we ever see Freddy commit is actually one of the best we'd ever see from him, and that's a hell of a way to introduce yourself.
Aside from the effects and taking slasher into another realm with supernatural influence, Wes Craven's film also lent itself to much better character development than its colleagues. These weren't just stereotypes, they were actual people with personalities backgrounds and sense that there was care for them beyond the fact the movie showed people with one another. The characters interact and have dialogue to show they mean something to one another. Helping matters, too, is that we get a funeral scene to help buffer matters. And its not for Tina, its for Rod Lane, the kinda rocker bully character who himself is surprisingly well rounded and one of the best characters in the film and of the genre (I'll get to that in the next piece). Through Nancy, we see that Rod may be a jerk, but he's still an innocent and her friend. Its a tradition in Craven films that tables are turned and the kids become the parents in these things, and this mostly took full force in Elm Street. Of course no one believes, so its up to the kids to go it alone but having to do so with the extra challenge of trying to keep their nonbelieving parents out of the equation.
Strengthening matters more is the background of Freddy Krueger and the reveal of the dark reaches these parents went to protect their children. But, their actions only endangered them more. This movie could have even become stronger and have a surprising twist had it not cut short Nancy's mother's original speech on the topic. Originally she added that Nancy, as well as her friends were not "only childs" as their older siblings were victims of Freddy Krueger. This brings it to a personal level and hits home with not only Nancy, but the audience who is proxied with her on how vile the man was. Like leaving out Jessica Biel's pregnancy detail from the Texas Chainsaw redo, I have no idea why it was expunged as it only makes the film's narrative much stronger. This scene first appeared on a two-tape VHS edition of the original film and a friend of mine showed it to me. I saw the two-tape version, but already had the movie on VHS and passed on it. It was never around again. And then when the film came to DVD, that scene magically wasn't a part of it. It wasn't until many editions later and now YouTube that it was finally back. I had kicked myself for years for not picking up that VHS version, because I loved that additional dialogue and many friends thought I was making it up that it existed.
An underrated player in the film has to be its score. For the most part, I think its pretty terrific and well thought out. A lot of slasher films at the time were looking for their score to be the new Halloween or Psycho theme and Elm Street very much took its own path. The main theme for the film is one of my all time favorites and I think one of horror's all time best. The one I'm talking about is with the the weird ambiance and the piano that sounds as if a spirit is playing it inside an old cobwebbed mansion. Its very sythy, whiny and unsettling. If you were alone in a dark room somewhere and it was playing you'd probably want to find your way the hell out. Granted, this score is not flawless. There are some really poor, forced and crummy sound synth action beats that I think does weaken a few moments in it. But i think its more of an 85-15 range on good to bad here. This main theme of A Nightmare On Elm Street I think belongs up there with Psycho, Halloween and The Exorcist quite easily. Its still very spooky on its own and a big player in making the film effective.
Gosh, from underrated player lets go to the main player as I haven't even got to Robert England yet. Robert came crashing in and pronouncing "I am FREDDY KRUEGER" with this one. Although, New Line Cinema would not realize it until they were shooting the next film, how integral he was to the role. Freddy, unlike his Jason and Michael-like peers, is an actual performance. Most of those guys were just stunt men. With Freddy, not only did you have to be physical, but he interacts with the characters on a social and mental level. For the role, Craven original tried casting David Warner. Warner couldn't free up, so they went with the little known England and a legend was born. In this film, England has a blast, but he knows where to draw the line and amp up his intensity. Freddy takes pride in taunting his victims in a more haunting and disturbing manner. Its also worth noting that Freddy's swearing kind of adds to his scare-factor in a way I'm not sure many could pull off. He has no problem calling people "bitch" or "fucker". And as he keeps failing with Nancy, you can see a corner being turned and this whole thing not becoming fun any more for him. Granted, things get goofy when he has to go through the obstacle course (Craven influencing himself again, Last House On The Left), but its all made up for with the great scene where he takes Nancy's mother and rises through the bed.
Now the ending. It seemed pretty easy to me when I first saw the film, but I think many people have gone through and overthought it over the years. And in no way do I think any interpretation should tick people off. When I saw it I believed that it was pretty cut and dry between what was real and what was a dream sequence until the final scene. That final scene being Freddy's ultimate trickery, making Nancy confidently believe she had escaped him. Now, there are some that believe this entire film is a dream, hence fully buying into the title "A Nightmare On Elm Street". That the film is just that, one big nightmare, and none is actually happening. That's a pretty cool angle too. I'm all down for a movie that is a good mindfuck. If you buy into that angle, then a lot of issues people could have with the film, be it plot holes or others, would be irrelevant since everything is a dream. However, when I still watch it, my mind is very cut and dry and switching between reality and dream. Its a classic, Twilight Zone ending, and I'm a huge fan of those and I think its fitting of many of horror's greats. And we get to end on the creepy jump roping girls singing an innocent playground song that is such a horror in itself in something of such purity.
Prior to this, Wes Craven had two notable films far apart from each other in Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Both were notable horror films, but more on the grindhouse underground level. He was given opportunities to expand to bigger things with TV movies and an adaptaion of the comic Swamp Thing, but it turned out to be failures. And by the time Elm Street rolled around he was back to square one again. It would be this film that catapulted him up the ranks and labeled him as the "Master of Horror" he's known for. Retroactively it would help that he had those two earlier gems to pad his resume after his breakout hit. It didn't immediately take off, though, it had to build. It also got an assist from its biggest competitor and winner in the race, Silent Night Deadly Night by that film pulling itself from the theaters following scoring a profit and giving into its protests. It was a home stretch with little to no competition and word of mouth strongly urging people that this was the new thing. Freddy and his maker had arrived.
A Nightmare On Elm Street has long been one of my all time favorite films. Its stayed with me for many many years. I have bought this film multiple times on VHS, DVD and now Blu-ray. I even couldn't wait for the Blu-ray set to come to the US and ordered the UK edition the minute it became available (Lucky for me, it would be another 2 years before it streeted in the US). I was lucky enough to experience it at an influential age and during its prime in cinema where the film flat out worked for everyone. I'm not ignorant, I see the cracks, but I also am able to reach back in to my conscience and see what it is that I always loved about the film and further appreciate a lot of its strengths and achievements. Unlike many of its contemporaries its well written, deeper film with strong characters that I think shine through their respective actors performances. The film is also next level for the slasher and more ambitious and out there than anything else of its time was. The world of Freddy was open and lent itself to many possibilities. A lot of those the franchise would realize, but still leave a lot of that potential on the table at times. The film also marks a real start of New Line Cinema, which appropriately would be called "The House That Freddy Built" as the Springwood Slasher's films would start paving the way for bigger endeavors for the studio, eventually leading to the likes of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Thirty years later, I am still enamored with A Nightmare On Elm Street and its stands tall for me among the history of the slashers.
Does the film still work? I dunno. I'm sure with a teenager who is told an old horror movie is "scary" will instantly try to think they're better than the film and set out to try and "beat" the movie rather than sit back and let it be what it is. But, I think at the right young impressionable age (Probably younger than when the film came out), a viewing of this might lead a young one to have some trouble going to sleep at night. If anything, I think the consolation here is that if its not scary, its still a highly imaginative movie with an iconic villain, strong characters, good themes and most of all, its a fun watch.
NEXT TIME: Touch me baby, drive me crazy, touch me (touch me)...all night long