A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): United States – directed by Wes Craven
Rated R by the MPAA – contains violence, massive amounts of blood, sexual content, some nudity, language
A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the most successful horror franchises in history, starting during the slasher film’s heyday in the mid-1980’s and continuing through to the 2010 re-imagining of the original film. It is understandable why Freddy Krueger has lasted for so many years; the concept of an unstoppable killer that strikes in dreams, when victims are most vulnerable, is compelling and horrifying. It is unfortunate that even the first film in the series is not particularly great, though still a fair deal better than Friday the 13th’s initial entry.
One of the best aspects of A Nightmare on Elm Street is the simple story and setup. There are a minimum of characters, and this is helpful even though it limits the number of deaths Freddy can cause. But each of the three primary deaths is brutal, and two are particularly gruesome and horrific.
The story revolves around four high schoolers who, unlike in most high school films, actually look like high school kids. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is dating Glen (Johnny Depp, assured and pretty in his first feature role). They are hormonal, but otherwise good kids. Their friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) is wont to get in trouble, not least because she sometimes dates the abusive Rod Lane (Nick Corri).
The action kicks off when the four of them spend the night at Nancy’s house, while her mom (Ronee Blakley) is away. Her father isn’t around; her parents have separated and her dad (John Saxon) is busy being the local police detective. During the night Tina and Rod engage in immoral sexual activity, meaning that one or both of them will soon die. Indeed, eventually Tina ends up being spun into the air by an invisible force, dragged around the walls, and slashed by invisible blades across her chest before being flung into a wall, bloody and dead.
Rod skips, because he has a criminal record and knows that the police will be after him. And, even though he was in the room as she died, he can’t provide any sort of credible record of the events. Nancy, however, has a strange feeling that he might be innocent. Her reasons are simple; her dreams have been plagued by a strange being, a man with an ugly sweater and claws for fingers. It seems that he has a great amount of power in these dreams, and the ability to hurt people in real life as they sleep. Oddly enough, all four of the friends had the same dream involving the man the night before Tina died.
Nancy spends much of the movie trying to explain things to the surrounding adults, even as more of the gang starts dying off. The adults have their suspicions but are hesitant to tell Nancy; the fear of empowering teenagers with knowledge is a major theme of the film. Eventually the adults start to understand, and may even know the origins of this strange dream creature, the one called Fred Krueger (Robert Englund).
It is a shame that A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t a better film, considering its large number of progeny. It reeks of hokey cheese, and some of the writing is atrocious. In many instances the kids are better actors than the adults, though Saxon does a believable job as the policeman (just as he does in most of the horror films made in the 1980’s). Even worse, Krueger is probably one of the weakest serial killers ever to haunt the big screen. He is lame and hammy; perhaps his asides are witty and clever? On the other hand, some of the concepts are rather creepy. A dead man, haunting the dreams of children, raking his razor-sharp claws across everything in the environment as he plays with his victims like a cat with a mouse in a small room ought to be terrifying. Instead, Englund’s Freddy is not quite bad enough to be laughable, and definitely not good enough to be scary.
Some of the dream sequences in A Nightmare on Elm Street are ingenious and scary. An endless bathtub, one that a person can be dragged into and to a great depth is rather frightening. The slight hole of light at the top of the water is an unreachable glimmer of hope. The idea of being forced to stay awake for weeks on end is also effective: Nancy and Glen’s attempts to remain awake are occasionally harrowing.
In spite of some interesting concepts, A Nightmare on Elm Street ultimately falls short as a film. Problems with the acting, writing, and antagonist mar the picture. It still satisfies as a horror film, providing a couple of brutal and bloody murders (though the small number of kills might be disappointing to some gore-hounds). As a cultural icon A Nightmare on Elm Street’s success is undeniable. As the ghost of many a young adult’s early life, when children may have caught part of the film on TV late at night, or at a friend’s house without their parent’s knowledge, Freddy’s influence is notable. Unfortunately, the film fails when viewed with no nostalgia, and is perhaps better left to those with fond memories of growing up with one of horror’s most persistent icons.