A Nightmare On Elm Street
Right from the beginning of Wes Craven's 1984 masterpiece, it's clear that this is a movie that aims to really scare the crap out of you and knows how to do it. The viewer is immediately thrust headlong into what turns out to be a vivid nightmare sequence, as the lovely young Tina (Amanda Wyss) flees a demented, burned madman with knives fitted over his fingers. Her attempts at escape seem increasingly futile as her pursuer's maniacal laughter draws ever closer, sometimes turning into an infant's cry or an unearthly caterwaul. Soon he has managed to get around behind her and take her by surprise. It looks like lights out for poor Tina. At that moment, she wakes up, but any relief she or the viewer might feel upon discovering that she's still safe in her bed is shortlived. Tina almost immediately discovers four slashes in the fabric of her nightgown; mementos left by the knived fingers of her nightmare assailant. This spectacularly effective opening establishes a deep and intelligent premise for A Nightmare On Elm Street and the rest of the film lives up to the strength and promise of its beginning.
The man out to get Tina is, of course, none other than Freddy Krueger, the vengeful spirit of a child killer who was eventually murdered himself by the parents of his victims and now stalks the realm of dreams. It seems like Freddy became a slasher icon almost instaneously upon Nightmare's release and it's pretty obvious why. With his dirty red and green sweater, Fedora hat, weaponized hands and horribly burned visage, Mr. Krueger is a terrifying figure. Unlike many killers in similar movies, however, Freddy is far from being the strong, silent type. He takes great pleasure in tormenting his victims with darkly humorous one-liners and various shenanigans which warp the boundaries of reality, making it evident that he has great confidence in his ability to always catch his quarry in the end. His antics grow increasingly cheesy in the sequels that come after, eventually getting to the point where they're more likely to inspire an exasperated roll of the eyes than a gasp of terror, but in this first chapter, Wes Craven's script showed just enough restraint. Krueger's taunts are barbed and horrific here, most notably when Tina gasps "Please, God" upon seeing him in another nightmare and Krueger responds by brandishing his glove of knives and saying "This is God." What's even scarier is that he almost appears to be right. As we witness him stretching his arms far beyond human limits and mutilating himself in various ways only to laugh and shrug the injuries off a second later, Freddy Krueger does seem to have near godlike power and resilience. Craven's screenplay and prowess as a director deserve a great share of the credit for turning Mr. Krueger into the consummate horror movie bad guy he is today, but an equal share must be reserved for Robert Englund's sinister portrayal of Freddy and the skilled make up and effects team that lended its talents to realizing Craven's vision.
I'm assuming that most who frequent this site have seen A Nightmare On Elm Street at least once and that it won't come as a huge spoiler to say that Freddy does inevitably manage to murder Tina. In one of the most wellcrafted and terrifying scenes in horror movie history, the damage Freddy inflicts on the young woman in her nightmare carries over into real life. Tina's ne'er-do-well boyfriend, Rod (Jsu Garcia), watches in helpless confusion as Tina is dragged up the bedroom wall and across the ceiling by the unseen Mr. Krueger, leaving a trail of blood in her wake from her quickly multiplying slash wounds. Her corpse falls back down to the bed in a virtual waterfall of blood, leaving Rod as the chief suspect in her murder, but Freddy is just getting started. Tina's good friend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp, in his first theatrical role) have been seeing Freddy in their nightmares, as well. We soon discover that he's been troubling Rod's sleep too. Now that Tina is just another notch on his belt, Krueger is free to turn his attention to the rest of them. It soon becomes evident that, of all his intended victims, Nancy will be the one to give him the most trouble. Going to great lengths to deny herself even the briefest moment of sleep, Nancy is a tricky target for a killer who gets his power from dreams. She's also the sort who fights back, and if she doesn't know exactly how to do that, she's more than willing to buckle down and come up with a plan. She bones up on her survival skills until she knows how to rig a series of booby traps that would make Home Alone's Kevin McCallister green with envy and devises a dangerous scheme to drag Freddy out of the dream realm and into the real world, where she assumes he can be defeated like any flesh-and-blood opponent.
The cast is solid pretty much across the board. Langenkamp delivers a line or two in a way that comes across as whiny in the aftermath of Tina's death, but for the most part, she is all fire and fight as Nancy, and a fitting final girl to go toe to toe with Freddy. Depp displays the raw talent that would later make him a megastar; everything he says and does as Glen feels completely natural and unscripted. Amanda Wyss makes Tina seem sympathetic and fundamentally sweet, even when she's engaging in some rather loud and raucous sex while her parents are away. Jsu Garcia's performance as Rod could be seen as the weak link of the bunch. He seems to be trying a little too hard to come across as a tough guy sometimes, but it could also be interpreted as being part of Rod's character to act that way.
In another departure from standard slasher operating procedure, the parents of our teen protagonists have a sizable part to play as well. They actually maintain some level of presence in the lives of their children and display real concern for their well-being, even if they tend to set forth rules and boundaries that unintentionally make Freddy's job easier. John Saxon is integral to the script as Nancy's father, Lt. Donald Thompson, who is in charge of bringing an end to the escalating bloodshed. Ronee Blakley turns in a particularly strong performance as Nancy's mother, Marge, who eventually reveals to her daughter who Freddy Krueger was and exactly how he died.
One of the most impressive things about A Nightmare On Elm Street is how consistently it manages to top itself. Tina's nightmares of Freddy are spinetingling, vicious and memorable, but the nightmares Nancy starts having a bit later in the film become even more elaborate and disconcerting. As if being tormented in her sleep by Freddy himself weren't enough, Nancy's dreams also feature numerous appearances by Tina's ghost, who first pops up wrapped in a bloody tarp and returns later as a moaning, worm-infested corpse who has split open and seems to be going completely to rot. The scene where a fat centipede emerges slowly from Tina's dead mouth is especially hard not to turn away from. The landscape of Nancy's dreams also seems to bow to Freddy's control more with each nightmare. By the time the film reaches its last half hour or so, Nancy can't even flee up a flight of stairs without each step turning into quicksand under her feet.
The fact that Craven remembered how random, chaotic and unbeholden to the laws of physics dreams often are when writing his script imbues A Nightmare On Elm Street with a level of authenticity that most other horror films can't even approach. It also makes it next to impossible to predict where Freddy's next attack will come from. He can, and often does, literally spring up anywhere or appear as anything. There is not a single moment in the entire movie where the viewer can be absolutely certain that the characters are safe from Freddy's wrath.
Like Insidious , which is number 14 on this countdown, A Nightmare on Elm Street is also one of the few horror movies that boasts music which worms its way into my brain and sticks there every time I watch it. Composed by Charles Bernstein specifically for the film, the score is downright nerve-wracking and has an appropriately dreamlike quality. It may have a distinctive 80s sound to it, but in my opinion, it's still some of the best horror movie music there has ever been.
Not everyone is in love with A Nightmare On Elm Street's somewhat ambiguous ending. After Nancy figures out a way to rob Freddy of the power he has over her and her dreams, he vanishes, seemingly vanquished for good. Nancy initially seems to get the happy ending she wanted; she steps out of her house into a beautiful, bright day and discovers that her friends have all been returned to her from death. She leaves her mother smiling and waving on the porch as she hops into a car to head to school. If this all sounds too good to be true, that's because it is. Nancy and company soon become trapped in the car, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Freddy's red and green sweater. It speeds away of its own volition, with the shrieking teens inside. Nancy's mom is still all smiles on the porch as Freddy's razor sharp fingers reach out from behind to yank her bodily through a window in the door that shouldn't even be quite large enough for her head to fit through. It's clear that the characters are still trapped in a nightmare in the closing reels of the film, but what exactly that was meant to imply left many scratching their heads. Did Nancy really defeat Freddy? Did she actually survive his attempts on her life or are we meant to assume that she is speeding off to her death in the movie's final moments?
These questions were not definitively answered until years later, when Heather Langenkamp returned as the very much alive Nancy in the third installment of the Nightmare series. The official story is that Nancy did indeed manage to convince Freddy that killing her was a lost cause, so he turned his attention to her mother instead. Marge Thompson and Nancy's friends all met savage deaths at Freddy's hands, but Nancy was able to save herself, at least for the time being. For my money, these answers weren't really necessary. I find the complex ending Craven ultimately went with (the result of the studio's desire to leave potential for sequels in place) to be more intriguing than frustrating. With the exception of New Nightmare, which represents Wes Craven's attempt to get a new beginning for the franchise, none of the other films in the series are anywhere near as good as the original, and their attempts to retroactively explain its ending only serve to dilute the franchise. I prefer to think of Nancy's story ending with her being whisked away by the Freddy-mobile to an uncertain fate. Nightmares seldom hold themselves to a story structure that demands concrete resolution, so it seems fitting to me that a horror film about nightmares should have a murky ending.
A Nightmare On Elm Street has more than earned its honored place as one of horror's biggest triumphs. It's a deeply scary film with a wickedly smart premise that succeeds on nearly every level. While it never skimps on the gore, it's clearly far more than just a vehicle for one bloody kill scene after another. At its heart, this is a film that probes into the nature of dreams and exposes the power that our fears have over us. It tells us that turning our back to our fears will keep them from devouring us and then ends with an implication that maybe that isn't true after all. Perhaps most importantly, it provides us with one of the scariest boogeymen of all time; a horrific, gleeful murderer who we have no hope of eluding as long as we are still prone to the biological imperative of sleep.
Stay tuned for my next installment!