Before we dive headfirst into a review "A Nightmare on Elm Street," let me preface things by saying: Wes Craven was an English and Philosophy professor before getting into the film business. There have been times in his career when he has seemed to have his finger directly on the pulse of whatever issue is plaguing America's subconscious.
The man knows how to scare his audience. What he does not know, however, is how to write dialogue for teenagers.
It's real kids - with real problems!
If the uninitiated boot up "A Nightmare on Elm Street" for the first time, they might be struck by the silliness of lines that include "Hey, up yours with a twirling lawn mower!" and "Screw your [hall] pass!"
They might also find the acting of lead Helen Langenkamp to be a bit on the amateurish side. As such, these folks might write off the movie entirely as a dated mess from the 80's. And that would be a shame.
Oh Heather, but we love your hair
Because I'm here to argue that "Nightmare" is one of the most imaginative and finely crafted horror movies of the past 30 years. It's one of those movies I wish I could view again for the first time, just to experience the awe and terror of some of its most memorable scenes: most particularly the sequence where Freddy Krueger first emerges from the darkness of an alleyway to taunt Tina.
The lighting and shot composition in this film are impeccable: everything is framed and lit perfectly to evoke the sinking dread of a dream you can't wake up from, and the vast power of someone who could actually manipulate your dream space. Wes Craven was really at the peak of his considerable talents with "Nightmare."
Screenshots can't really do this scene justice; you have to watch
the movie to see just how wet and atmospheric this corridor is
Wes Craven's choice of camera angles and shot composition is just brilliant
Although his impact has been lessened over the years, thanks to being printed on t-shirts and watered down by oneliner-spouting sequels, watch "A Nightmare on Elm Street" again and you'll realize just how scary Freddy Krueger is. He is a sick, sick bastard.
There are moments in this movie, blink-and-you'll-miss-them moments, that are truly deranged. Freddy peels off his face, slices off his fingers, and cuts his own body open just to freak out the teenagers on Elm Street (his body is filled with green pus and maggots, in case you're wondering).
Oh that Freddy Kreuger, he'll do anything for a laugh
How about the scene where Freddy Krueger sticks his face through a small window in the door of Nancy's house, literally *wearing* the skin Tina's face and talking in her voice, before casually ripping it off and taunting Nancy as Freddy again? Freddy declares "I'm your boyfriend now" and then licks Nancy's face - through the bottom receiver of a telephone.
Freddy takes crank calls to a whole new level
Combine that with the fact that Craven wisely filmed Freddy almost exclusively in shadows - we never get a full glimpse of his face and makeup - and you start to realize just why audiences were scared shitless by Robert Englund back in 1984. Before he joined the ranks of Pinhead and Chucky as "slasher movie monsters kids wish they could hang out with," Freddy was truly the stuff of nightmares.
Freddy under the covers: another blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment
that I just love
What's so great great is, cornball dialogue aside, the kids in this movie are likable. It's not like "Friday the 13th" where the audience is salaciously encouraged to root for the demise of a bunch of unlikeable jocks and sluts. Nancy isn't just the "good girl" - she's a good person. She tries to be there for her friends and she manages to be more mature than both her parents; her mother is a full-bore alcoholic while her father is consumed by his job as a police officer.
The movie is not a portrait of what happens when a demonic monster invades picture-perfect suburbia. Even before Freddy rears his flame-broiled head, the cracks are showing. In "Nightmare," not only are teenagers forced to suffer for the sins of their parents, but parental units are completely ineffectual. The scene where Nancy's mother slaps her daughter across the face still shocks me every time it happens.
There's an interesting subtext of the movie where Nancy and adults around her perceive her to be aging faster due to the stress of Freddy's return. At one point Nancy looks in a mirror and remarks, "I look 20 years-old." I think this is more than just a canny nod to the fact that Hollywood frequent casts 20-somethings as 15 year-olds. Due to her parents' refusal to atone for the actions of their past and the fact that they themselves escape from reality through alcohol or work, Nancy is forced to grow up a hell of a lot faster than normal.
During one of her more tense nightmares, Nancy returns from the dream world with Freddy's fedora - the first sign that she might actually be able to harm the murderer - and a newly grayed lock of hair on her head. She takes something from Freddy, but he's taken something from her.
Nancy also happens ludicrously brave. She devises her own plan to lure Freddy out of her dreams and into the real world so he can be rendered mortal and defeated. She counts on her lunkheaded boyfriend, played by Johnny Depp, to help her out but he doesn't take her serious enough. Take note, this is probably the one time in his career when Johnny Depp could be considered a total dork.
"Glen, you bastard…I just asked you to do one thing, to stay awake and watch me and to wake me up if it looked like I was having a bad dream, and what did you do, you shit? You fell asleep."
In the 80's, you really could buy a shirt "half off"
Nancy doesn't wait to die; she lays traps and antipersonnel weapons (seriously) around her house to stop Freddy in his tracks. And it almost works too, until we get to the studio-dictated twist ending where Freddy lives and Nancy is trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of torment ("Hey! Your friends and family are alive and well, but only so Freddy can keep killing them over and over again!").
Although this creative infringement caused Craven to bolt from the sequel, I have to admit I don't mind it for the simple fact that it's opening notes of false happiness seem to parody the entire decade of the 80's itself.
"Oh, honey, doesn't it just feel great to wake up to a misty morning,
dressed like a J Crew ad, and ready to play tennis?"
Wes Craven handpicked Heather Langenkamp to be in the film precisely because she seemed real and down to earth. Picking someone "non-Hollywood," as Craven put it, measured that Nancy would feel like a genuine teenager. It also meant that her acting abilities might not be as shrewdly rehearsed as kids who grew up in the business. There are those who might chortle at some of her line deliveries.
But as Wes said himself in 1994's "New Nightmare," Nancy may have been written as a resourceful character but it is Langenkamp who gave her her strength. And to her credit, Langenkamp has always been proud of her role as the heroine of "Nightmare" series, even going so far as to help make a documentary chronicling its entire history (the forthcoming "Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy).
And I haven't even mentioned the fantastic score by Charles Bernstein, one of those perfect 80's horror soundtracks, that combines a propulsive electronic beat with a haunting, sing-song melody on synthesizer notes that seem to melt as you're listening to them.
Pay attention to the masterful way that Bernstein incorporates the "1, 2, Freddy's coming for you" children's song into his score and how the music manages to be both fun and scary, just like the movie itself. Bernstein's soundtrack really adds a whole other level of enjoyment to "Nightmare."
The idea of a phantom able to kill you in your dreams is absolutely genius, and Wes Craven was able to capitalize on it with a smart script. Notice the scene where Nancy enters the safety of her house, and the frantic music suddenly stops. Nancy runs upstairs - the audience thinks she's headed for safety - and suddenly her feet sink into the steps and a rumbly synth note kicks in, reminding us that as long as you're asleep you're never safe from Freddy.
This is a master class in horror filmmaking, one of the few American movies that is as colorful and delightfully macabre as a Dario Argento flick. All of the special effects, which are practical, hand-made, and non-computer enhanced, still hold up terrifically after over 30 years. That's more than you can say for most movies with CGI from just 3 or 4 years ago.
Sorry, Glen's mom...
that's your son's blood you're watching funnel to the ceiling.
If any of "Nightmare's" power has waned in the intervening years, it's only because of the mass merchandising of the franchise (which was out of Craven's hands) and the resulting familiarization of Freddy Krueger.
But just pop the original "Nightmare" back in and you'll soon be reminded of its surreal power. Perhaps it'll be during that opening scene, when Tina turns her head to see a sheep bleating in front of her while a man laughs menacingly from somewhere unseen, and she realizes that her world is about to be turned upside down...
God, I love this movie