A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Director: Wes Craven
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, John Saxon, Johnny Depp, Amanda Wyss, Ronee Blakley, Jsu Garcia
(out of 4)
WARNING: SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD
Some 22 years later, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street still manages to offer up a creepy supernatural atmosphere and retain its ability to disturb through its creative dream sequences, even if, in 2007, I can no longer be scared by it (having seen the film countless times as well as its innumerable offspring and knock offs). But it is necessary to point out the importance of the film in the realm of both horror and 80s cinema. Most people today know who Freddy Krueger is, but the first Elm Street is the only one where the character is kept truly dangerous and frightening, and ironically, it’s the one with the smallest budget but the biggest ambitions.
A Nightmare on Elm Street concerns a small group of 80s teens who are haunted by the ghost of dead child killer Fred Krueger (played with gusto by Robert Englund) in their dreams. The catch is that if they die in their dream, they die for real. Eventually, it’s up to resourceful Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) to stop Freddy by bringing him into the real world and finishing him off. The main plot of the film makes for a superb jumping off point for Craven to work all sorts of literal and subtextual magic. If nothing else, you have an intriguing take on the 80s slasher movie, post Friday the 13th. The boogeyman comes to your dreams – no longer out there (woods, big city, etc.), the danger is now with you everywhere. He has burn scars all over his body, wears a dirty hat and red-and-green sweater, and uses a glove with knives for fingers. Not only are your parents part of the problem (all the parents in A Nightmare on Elm Street are either delusional, self-absorbed, drunks, or a combination of all three) but they caused the problem in the first place (torching Freddy in his boiler room). Consequently, the movie is a perfect example of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons (Exodus passages as well as Euripides, Horace, Shakespeare). Speaking of Shakespeare, there is an effective dream sequence where just before Nancy sees her dead friend in a body bag being dragged across the school hallways, her classmate whispers a passage from Hamlet: I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
It cannot be overstated how much the movie represents (criticizes) the era in which it was made. The parents (John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Donna Woodrum, Ed Call, Sandy Lipton) of Elm Street are worn out, tired. Nancy’s parents are divorced and they hide things from her; their brand of paternalism is not to be trusted. They have to deal with blowback from things they did in the past. The small town suburb is no longer a source of protection, and it harbors dark secrets. It’s an anti-Reagan film alright, but it also plays upon suburban paranoia, predating films like Blue Velvet and Arlington Road.
The teens, played by Amanda Wyss, Jsu Garcia, and a new-at-the-time Johnny Depp, are likeable, and their death scenes are effective and gory. England, of course, is the one who holds it all together. Here he plays Freddy with a subdued menace, which would be thrown away in subsequent sequels in favor of silly one-liners. But in this film, Freddy is a repulsive killer, and Craven wisely keeps him in the shadows most of the time, for a more unnerving effect. Another good move is how the editing delivers seamless flowing between the dream world and the real world. The result is disorientation regarding whether a character is dreaming or not. The suggestion that the entire film may be a dream plays into the idea that Reagan’s America, in Craven’s view, was collectively asleep. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a classic of the genre and proof that slasher films don’t have to be one-note, one-dimensional affairs.
- Bill Gordon
The new release of the Nightmare DVD sports a nice remastered 1.85:1 print with DTS and Dolby 5.1. The commentary track featuring Wes Craven, John Saxon, and Heather Langenkamp is the same as in previous releases, but there is a new second commentary track carrying interviews with Wes Craven, producer Robert Shaye, co-producer Sara Risher, and others. There are new Infinifilm segments, the most interesting of which is the history of New Line Cinema and how the Elm Street movies made it successful. Different versions of the ending are included, but it’s really just the same ending but edited in slightly different ways. (My personal opinion is that the ending can be interpreted as both Nancy’s dream and her mother’s. This seems apparent when Nancy is driven away but the camera still focuses on her mother and her mother’s point of view. )