REVIEW: A Nightmare on Elm Street [1984]

“Midnight, baseball bats and bogeymen, beautiful”

How great is it that the credits for A Nightmare on Elm Street list Robert Englund as playing Fred Krueger? Even though his character is called Freddy throughout it and all subsequent films, the first installment never anticipated the kind of pop culture phenomenon he’d become. Billed as the new ‘masterpiece of fantasy terror’ from the director of The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House on the Left—I guess I never realized how popular those two were—this is what I most associate with the name Wes Craven. And Hollywood continues to go and remake them all despite their somewhat young ages, with a new Scream trilogy in the works to complete the cycle. What I didn’t remember, however, was how serious the original Nightmare was. All the entries to follow made Krueger into a jokey caricature of the villainous manifestation he began as. I can only hope that the newest re-imagining will go back to when that dark abyss of malice existed, before Roseanne and Tom jumped aboard.

Hellraiser and its sequel will always be my favorite 80s horror due to their aesthetic and overall creepy crossover of fantastical mythology and reality. Having only seen Nightmare once, or at the most twice, I definitely sold it short in how effective it was at bridging that same void. The idea to create a monster that kills in your sleep, existing on a plane of consciousness that can only be reached when your inhibitions are down, yet still inflict whatever damage in dream in the real world also, is quite ingenious. But Craven goes even further by instilling a sense of history and purpose to Krueger—he isn’t picking these kids at random, he has a vendetta to settle. A child molester and killer in his former life, the parents of Elm Street took matters into their own hands once a judicial clerical error set him free. With all the sequels jumbled in my head, I could have sworn I’d see his fate sealed in a blaze of gasoline fire as young Nancy is told the story, but I guess that only occurs later on down the line. Instead, we see a foursome of high school friends cope with the fear of the unknown, something they themselves can’t fathom. If only they knew of the horrible secret their parents have been hiding, perhaps something could have been done.

Every victim is crucial to Nancy’s life, our heroine at the center of the tale. Daughter of divorced parents—both had a hand in Krueger’s demise—she is also a friend of Tina and Rod, as well as girlfriend of Glen, the boy across the street. Soon realizing that the four have begun to experience a collective dream state, conjuring up the same burned face, knifed-glove wearing terror, it is Nancy who discovers the only way to be saved is to not fall asleep. It is the perfect catch-22 because the longer they all stay awake, the more prone to catnaps and daydreams they become. No longer solely worrying about what to do at night, the kids begin to nod off during class, while taking a bath, and even sitting down as guard for another. Freddy comes calling as soon as the brain begins its REM slumber, wreaking his own brand of horror by scrapping his knives against metal, cutting himself open to show the maggots ravaging his decomposing body, and relishing in the labored movements he takes, torturing his prey with the anticipation of violence. I would never laugh at someone who saw this film upon its release in 1984 and seriously couldn’t sleep without fear of his own bogeyman coming out to play.

What makes it all so effective, besides the terrifying performance of a make-up clad Robert Englund—who unfortunately devolves into more cultish prankster in sequels than the serial killer who speaks little more than raspy, growled taunts—is the atmosphere created by Craven and company. The score still stands up almost thirty years later, never becoming a hokey 80s-style overbearing nuisance. Mixed with the foggy mist of both the boiler room each dream eventually leads and the nightly outdoor jaunts on Elm, you will find your heart racing a bit, waiting to see what might happen to Nancy and her friends, constantly wondering if and where Freddy is, lurking for that opportunity to jump out and slice. Add to all that a few amazingly well done death scenes and A Nightmare on Elm Street really does become the film that brought gruesome terror back to the cinema. It was now possible to delve into a new world of possibilities for the genre, entering imaginative places where anything was possible. Looking back now, I can honestly say that without Craven’s vision, Hellraiser may never have been made.

The other casting then becomes second fiddle to the art direction and tone. Englund is a big part of course, but it is interesting to see just how little of his prominently placed personality later on is actually included. More a physical manifestation of fear and death, it is his body language and amoral attitude that resonate without the need of one-liners or close-up quips. Hiding his face and keeping him in the dark is far more effective than the risk of him hijacking the tension by coming out of the shadows. As for the others, I will admit that I thought Amanda Wyss was pretty effective as Tina, portraying the fear realistically at all times while Jsu Garcia’s Rod is a bit heavy-handed and Johnny Depp’s Glen somewhat amateurish. But you give both the benefit of the doubt, as well as Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy, because they are young frightened teens. The innocence and naturalistic emotional range supercedes the acting talent that may be lacking.

You won’t worry too much, though, especially when events like a bed devouring someone, a tub opening up into an infinitely deep sea, and characters crawling around on the ceiling with blood pouring out—what a great effect, assumedly with a room built upside-down—soon occur. Even the ending is thought provoking in its open-endedness. Was everything that happened an elaborate nightmare? Was the ending a new dream starting back at the beginning, or is it Nancy dealing with new issues by imagining all who died back at her side? Whatever the true meaning, I’ll admit that the sheer fact a sequel was made one year later belittles its effect. For that split second of letting the film wash over me without thoughts of what was to come, the feeling of dread was palpable enough to prove that, in its time, A Nightmare on Elm Street truly was a masterpiece of its genre and still a benchmark legacy that won’t soon be forgotten.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


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