Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, John Saxon
The 1980s was dominated by the gore film and the slasher genre, which overtook the horror movie at the start of the decade. These largely formulaic films led to several popular franchises that extended into the 90s, with some being around even today. The most high profile, at least in a relative way, was the one started by Wes Craven in 1984 and which led to four more sequels that decade, and several others afterwards. It also initiated the most famous icon to appear from the 80s horror film, in the person of Robert Englund, who portrayed the demonic Freddy Krueger. The film was A Nightmare on Elm Street, and has since been regarded as a trendsetter and a genre classic. Unlike, other genre fare, this film depicted a semblance of characterization, along with a villain that actually was captivating and thrilling. It's difficult to compare these to the early horror creations, like Frankenstein and Dracula, but the character was memorable and Englund had a ball with it, infusing a sly, dark humor that seemed to echo the performances of Vincent Price.
Having already reviewed Friday the 13th(1980) on this blog and seeing that today is that special day for the horror fan, I decided to review this seminal work from the same period, and what a difference!
A Nightmare on Elm Street has many flaws, but it's an interesting film and one that does what the best work of Wes Craven does, which is tap into primal fears. Rather than rely solely on jump scares or shock tactics, which are evident here, most of the film's fear is derived from the connectivity that the audience has with the mysterious realm of the dreamworld and that's where this film strikes a masterstroke and why it has endured past a seemingly endless and increasingly comedic series, which lapsed into self parody by it's second film, and an ill-advised remake, catering to the lowest common denominator. The original emerges as a unique and disturbing work and one of the most memorable of the 80s.
The film begins in a strange boiler room, where a young woman maned Tina(Amanda Wyss) is stalked by a cackling fiend clad in a fedora and sporting a glove, fitted with razor claws. Craven injects lots of imagery in the opening, including the symbolic, if obvious, lone lamb running across an empty hallway, a metaphor for all such films like this. The fiend catches up to Tina and seems to teleport from behind to attack, but she awakens in her bedroom, for it's all a dream.
The next day she tells her friends about it and they all have been having bad dreams, too. Some even admit to seeing a strange man in a green and black striped sweater with a fedora and a claw hand. Her friends, Nancy(Heather Langenkamp) and Glen(Johnny Depp) are concerned, so they spend a night at her house, while her Mom is away in Las Vegas. Tina's badass boyfriend, Rod(Jsu Garcia) shows up to be with her, and after they make love, Tina dreams again and this time we get a better look at the man in the dream: he's a hideously scarred monster who is able to torment by taunts and self mutilation. Tina prays to God, and the monster responds by lifting his clawed hand and intoning, "This is God!" before stalking her again. Toying with her long enough, he goes in for the kill, and in one of the goriest 80s moments, slashes the poor girl to ribbons before the eyes of her horrified boyfriend. Rod attempts to rescue her, but the demon proves too powerful and she is killed. Rod runs away and the police arrive and rightfully suspect him of the crime. However, Nancy does not believe this to be and tries to convince her father(John Saxon, B-movie regular) who happens to be the Sheriff. Rod finds Nancy and tries to explain his innocence, but is arrested for his troubles. Nancy falls asleep in class and dreams that Tina(who is in a body bag) is calling to her and goes after her, only to find the scarred man again. The fiend goes to kill her, but Nancy is able to wake herself up by burning her arm on a boiler, which carries over into the real world.
Nancy convinces Glen, who is her boyfriend, to watch her when she sleeps, so she can find the man and prove Rod's innocence, but that does not work and the man enters Rod's cell and kills him with rope, making it seem as if he has committed suicide.
The killer continues to stalk Nancy in her dreams, appearing in her walls like some phantom and when she naps in the bathtub, in a particularly memorable and suggestive scene, where his claw appears between her thighs. Her alcoholic mother(Ronee Blakely, in an over the top performance) decides to send her to a psychologist to study her dreams and predictably violent reactions occur, including Nancy coming back with the fiend's hat. She also learns his name: Freddy Krueger.
Nancy learns that Freddy was a child murderer that got off on a technicality, despite murdering dozens of kids during the years. The neighborhood parents acted as a vigilante group and burned him alive in a boiler factory, where he perished, or so they thought. Nancy's parents were among those responsible and that explains why she is being stalked.
Determined to put an end to her nightmare, she plots to bring him into the real world, so that he can be defeated and hopefully, arrested. She studies home defense and rigs traps for him and everything. However, she is not able to protect Glen, who is sucked into his bed like a blender and splattered all over his room, in a very gruesome scene. After that, follows one of the film's most famous scenes as Krueger calls Nancy, announcing that, "I'm your boyfriend, now. Nancy!" by sending his tongue through the receiver!
Nancy taunts Krueger and lures him into the real world, where a serio-comical melee ensues that resembles a darker, dry-run for the Home Alone franchise, as Freddy gets him in the chest with a hammer, falls down the stairs, gets set on fire and suffers exploding light bulbs filled with gunpowder! The burning Freddy is able to make it upstairs and murder Nancy's mother. Nancy realizes soon that what Freddy thrives on is fear and by denying his existence, his power, thus he will cease to be. Freddy's facade begins to crack and he lunges for the kill, but disappears as Nancy turns her back.
The next day, all is sunny and idyllic and all of Nancy's friends are alive and ready to go away in a car, and Nancy joins them. Her mom waves goodbye, but suddenly the car traps the kids inside and the familiar colors of Freddy's sweater are seen on the sunroof. Nancy's mother continues to wave, as little girls sing a song about Freddy, and the clawed hand reaches out and grabs her mother into the house for the closeout.
Was it real or fantasy? The audience is left to decide, in this appropriately, vague and strange ending to a similarly abstract film experience.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is a very clever and terrifying film that manages to rise above the endless stream of "dead teenager" flicks that populated the genre during this period. Craven's films were rarely great, but he was keen on understanding what made his audiences tick and it's a stroke of genius that he chose to exploit the world of the nightmare, which up to that time had scarcely served as genre film material, save for the underrated, The Night Walker(1964), probably the scariest film that revered horror filmmaker, William Castle made.
Freddy Krueger works as a perfect representation of that arch-villain of our childhood, the boogeyman, which had also served as the basis for John Carpenter's Halloween(1978), with it's character of Michael Myers. However, that film focused less on the mystery and fantasy of such a character, but rather, of him as a force of nature, almost an inevitability. In this film, Freddy Krueger is a demon, rather than a slasher, capable of conjuring our worst fears and taunting us with them, serving as his ammunition, our anxieties and terrors. Robert Englund would increasingly inject more comedic aspects into the character and they are evident here, too, but in this first film are seen as an extension of the character's sadistic and cruel qualities. Make no mistake, Freddy is a figure of fear in this first film and even the makeup emphasizes this, for surely, this is the most terrifying incarnation of the character yet realized. Englund, with the use of speech, makes his character memorable and more individual, as opposed to the nameless stuntmen who portrayed Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers throughout the years. This recognizable, "once human" character, proves that the terror that is more relative to humanity, is indeed more frightening. Despite, limited screen time and development, Englund creates a truly unforgettable screen gargoyle.
The teen cast is more able than is usually expected in films like this, led by Heather Langenkamp, probably the best of the 80s teen heroines. Her character is pretty, without being particularly glamorous, presenting one of the few realistic heroines to emerge from the Hollywood horror film. She's intelligent and resourceful, without being unrealistic or drawing attention to itself, like some later films would, by pulling in antiquated conceptions of "female empowerment' to explain the heroine's stance. The fact that Nancy is depicted as an emotional and thinking character is explanation enough and it makes her interesting and empathetic. And the audience responded, for not just did she repeat the character twice(though technically the third was as herself) she has been constantly imitated in many like-movies, all that have failed to capture the aura of this original film.
Amanda Wyss is setup as the protagonist and makes for an especially tragic heroine, since we get to know her a tad better than in similar genre offerings made at the time. Her stalking of Freddy in the first two reels are tense and disturbing and among the most memorable in any film of the decade. Her gruesome demise is justly famous and horrifying in it's bloodletting, which was toned down in fear of an X-rating.
Johnny Depp is decent in his first starring role as Glen, the dopey boyfriend, who gets grinded up by Freddy. He has little of the eccentricities that made his later Hollywood persona, though it is fun to see a future star meet a gory demise in a b-horror movie, no matter what. He never shunned this film, either, later making a cameo in the sixth film in the series, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare(1991).
John Saxon makes a welcome appearance here, having made several genre and cult film appearances in the previous decade as well. He has a toughness and authority in the role, some describe as wooden, but it fits the role and I think his disbelief and stress make the character come to life and this remains one of his best remembered roles.
On the other hand, Ronee Blakely, is very broad in her role of Nancy's mother, using florid gestures and overacting that are best served in a soap opera, rather than a serious dramatic role, though I may be giving this film too much credit. It undermines some of the film's power, admittedly, though not by much. Considering the high quality afforded the rest of the cast, it's a small discretion.
The film's plot is a little murky at times, the "is it a dream" angle probably not gelling with all audiences. Craven's intention was to create a world much like a dream and this abstract way of interpreting the horror film was a rare move in the 80s, echoing past dabblers like Vampyr(1932) and Repulsion(1964), which also revolved heavily on dream-like imagery, as did the framework of the early anthology film, Dead of Night(1945). The premise utilized is effective and memorable, though it grew tired as imitations and sequels became more frequent, and for some viewers, the power may have been lessened some.
However, the impact of this film, while hardly subtle, was significant enough and the film was essentially so well made that it remains a landmark in the horror film. Some regard this as the finest of the 80s horror films, and certainly it's invention itself, would surely nominate it, but a slight emotional edge is lost in this little picture and it rarely captures that core complexity that served films like The Changeling(1980), The Dead Zone(1984), The Fly(1986) and even, Near Dark(1987), so formidably. A Nightmare on Elm Street does succeed as a truly scary film with enough of an audience identification with the core theme that it alone has earned it a place among the great horror films, though to be fair, Craven has done much with the low budget and the iconic performance of Robert Englund is justly recognized as one of the greats of the genre. Flaws and all, A Nightmare on Elm Street still stood above most of it's 80s competitors and remains a unique and captivating experience, welcoming the viewer back for repeat visits back to that cursed street and into the dreams, where one of horror's all-time great figures still haunts with fervid imagination.