It seems fitting to start this years October reviews with the film that started it all for me. I channel surfed into it when it was on network TV a couple of years after its release. It is one of the few movies to ever actually scare me. It sticks with me today for more reasons than one. While not the original slasher film, not by a long shot, with Halloween and Friday the 13th beating it by a solid 6 and 4 years respectively. Heck, Halloween had already had two of its sequels out before this was released and Friday the 13th had four. This one stood apart from the rest though. There was something new here. So let’s talk about A Nightmare on Elm Street.
It should be noted, this may not be spoiler free due to the age of the film.
Written and directed by Wes Craven, a name now synonymous with the horror genre, but was at the time relatively unknown. He had some mild success a full decade before with The Last House on the Left and the Hills Have Eyes, but he was aboard the New Line Cinema train to get a new “slasher” out. Where as Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees are “men”, he wanted to create something new. Something scarier and he went into the land of dreams. Sure we all have nightmares, but what do you do when you can’t wake up from it? When the Nightmare follows you? How do you fight something like that? This added a new level of fear to the teen slasher and it was unlike much we had seen before.
The script uses similar tropes from other slashers of its ilk, which were relatively new at the time. You have your imperiled teens, quaint suburbian life, a brief bit of recklessness from the teens, and a relentless killer after them who is seemingly unstoppable. What makes our killer here different was motive. Jason was about revenge on the “type” of teenager. The people who let him die and the stereotype that exists all the way into todays films some thirty years later. Michael was driven by something else, something broken in him but at the time was purely human. His type was similar to Jason overall though, with anyone getting in his way just as much a likely victim as well.
Then we had Freddy. Freddy went after the kids not because of anything they did, planned to do, might have done, or didn’t do; but instead he went after them for the sins of the fathers and mothers. This makes him an entirely different kind of monster. He tortures the children in order to make the parents suffer for their crimes of killing him. The original film doesn’t entirely address whether or not he actually committed the crimes he was accused of and that the mob burned him for. It hints at it with the opening credits that he was in fact guilty of something, but that ambiguousness adds to the horror that is Freddy Krueger. It’s never explained how he does what he does either, it just is (again original only), leaving that supernatural mystery to make him even more terrifying still.
All of this wouldn’t work without the right people though. Heather Langenkamp owns this film as Nancy Thompson, as much as Robert Englund does as Freddy. Her evolution from a scared teen, to understanding what hunts her, to trying to become the hunter is a classic to watch and sold for every single moment she is on screen – which by the way is most of the running time. Englund gives the definitive performance of what it means to chew scenery in this as he cuts his way through the cast. The supporting cast is equally as important here for their own parts, with the esteemed John Saxon as Lt. Donald Thompson, Nancy’s father, and Ronee Blakley as Marge Thompson her mother. It’s one of the earliest times, to my recollection, we dealt with a couple who had divorced in a horror film with their child literally caught in the middle of it. The reasons for the divorce, the tension between them, and even how they deal with their own guilt through the film is as telling as any lines of dialogue. When discussing the supporting cast, its impossible to not mention a certain young mans first role – Johnny Depp as Glenn, Nancy’s disbelieving but big hearted boyfriend.
From a practical and movie making standpoint, while the effects don’t always hold up. The make up varies from scene to scene if you look too close; but this is an acknowledged mistake by the filmmakers. The music follows Cravens usual style of simplistic piano/keyboard with a guitar. It doesn’t sound elegant, but man does it work. It, much like the Jokers Theme from Dark Knight, is so offputting and uncomfortable it makes you squirm a bit. The lighting and practical effects help sell the movie and make it work. CG could only damage it and the weakest sequence is the one with some CG in it. One of the best and most iconic is Freddy pushing through the wall over a sleeping Nancy. For the record though, the one that got me was Tina’s death in the beginning.
If you have not seen A Nightmare on Elm Street and love horror movies, you must see this. It is one of the triumvirate of slashers and arguably the best.
While it may not be scary to individuals now, this one will always hold a special place in my heart and my nightmares. It is probably one of, if not the, most influential film of my childhood.
If you want to know more about the Nightmare saga, I recommend Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy. It’s on Netflix and runs 3 hours and I enjoyed every minute of it.