A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
You didn’t think I could let Forever Horror Month go by without a look at old Fred Krueger, did you? I think A Nightmare on Elm Street came out at just the right time. The slasher film craze had exploded, but then, began to water itself down with all the imitators. There were still good ones out there, but it was already time for something fresh to shake up the genre. Something to bring it back to a terrifying and original concept that was conceived by a master in Wes Craven. Where the effectiveness of some other horror films have diminished over time for me. A Nightmare on Elm Street still holds a chilling nerve in my spine.
In the town of Springwood, on Elm Street, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends are experiencing violent nightmares where they are stalked by a badly scarred man with a clawed glove of razors. When Nancy’s friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) is brutally murdered in bed one night, Nancy believes that it wasn’t Tina’s boyfriend who killed her, but the man who terrorizes their dreams – Fred Krueger (Robert Englund). Unfortunately, her claims are dismiss by her father, Police Lieutenant Donald Thompson (John Saxon), and her alcoholic mother (Ronee Blakley). So, Nancy, aided by her boyfriend Glenn (Johnny Depp), Nancy fights to stay awake to discover the truth behind Krueger, and find a way to stop him for good or never sleep again.
Right from the start, the film sets a dark, gritty, frightening tone with Freddy’s construction of his bladed glove. This film truly is a nightmare come to life with the shadowy boiler room being the perfect backdrop for Krueger. It’s damp, steamy, and filthy – a dangerous industrial environment for a sleazy, twisted killer. From there, the film haunts you with creepy, surreal images that touch your deepest fears. Once you are in Freddy’s realm there is no safe harbor. He wants you to know you’re trapped and ensnared in his sick, demented reality. He’s the master of the domain that is your dreams, and that’s what’s most frightening of all. He can violate you deep within your mind, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t go forever without sleep. Eventually, you are going to fall asleep, and that’s all he needs to have his way with you. Unlike other slashers, Freddy doesn’t just stalk and kill. He gains vast pleasure by psychologically tormenting his victims so that when he finally goes in for the kill, it will be all the more sweeter for him. Freddy is a glorious sadist. He both literally and figuratively feeds off your fear. It’s what gives him his power and pleasure. The glove was also a brilliant idea by Wes Craven. Most slashers just kill with whatever’s handy, but Freddy puts his own signature mark on his victims with a weapon custom built for himself. It’s a direct and distinct extension of his twisted personality.
Robert Englund instantly created an icon here built off of Wes Craven’s imagination. He absorbed himself into the weight and feel of this character through the amazing make-up effects, and the dingy, distinct wardrobe. The body language alone conveys a sickening individual who takes perverse pleasure in everything he does. Every little gesture with the blades, every wiggling of the tongue, every slinking movement creates a terrifying performance that burns itself into your psyche. The fact that Craven keeps Krueger so secluded in shadow, and only highlights certain aspects of his figure or face, enhances the intimidating power of him. This is the most vile rendition of Fred Krueger we have ever gotten, and I think it’s a real disservice to horror audiences that he became so campy and cheesy in the later sequels. I know Englund preferred going the darker route, but most directors preferred the comical punch. I cannot fathom why because Freddy proves to be his most frightening in his purest form.
Beyond just Robert Englund, the film is packed with a great cast. Heather Langenkamp steps into a strong lead role as Nancy. I love that the film sets up Tina as the potential protagonist, but swerves the audience when gruesome tragedy strikes. This allows Nancy to overcome her own grief and build herself up to a confident, smart heroine. Yet, she never loses her honest sense of compassionate emotion. Nancy does feel fear, very intensely, but she fights to conquer it every step of the way. Langenkamp looked and felt like a genuine fresh faced girl next door which made her performance vulnerable and realistic. The strength she brought to Nancy was incredible making an audience believe in Nancy through every terrifying moment.
Johnny Depp, in his very first acting role, is also great showing off the charm and talent we’ve come to know from him. As Glenn, he’s funny and sweet. I also believe casting John Saxon is always a rock solid choice. He brings a fatherly warmth to Donald Thompson showing concern for his beloved daughter. He’s also entirely believable as a commanding police officer with a fine screen presence which just exudes strength and confidence. Ronnie Blakley is quite remarkable as this drunken mother who is clearly unable to cope with the crime she helped commit. Amanda Wyss puts in a great performance selling the intense fear of Tina, and showing the subtle terror that trembles underneath. Overall, everyone in this cast does an immensely solid and greatly admirable job. They make this a film filled with character you can genuinely cared about, and thus, seriously fear for.
Wes Craven shows such a talent for suspense here. He carefully unnerves an audience with subtle sounds and glimpses of terror, firstly. Then, when Freddy finally reveals himself, it’s a truly scary sight as he torments Tina with a grin and a despicable laugh. Just as Freddy torments his victims, Craven uses those moments to freak out his audience to build up the suspense and tension. He prolongs the fear with masterful skill so that the pay-off will be frightening beyond your imagination. The kills are gruesomely brilliant with no lack of gore or blood. The screen is soaked in crimson many times in the movie., and the violent impact of those four blades slicing into flesh is always terrifying and shocking.
All of the special effects in A Nightmare on Elm Street are absolutely impressive and truly ambitious. Today, as the lackluster remake proved, a lot of these effects today would be done with severely unconvincing and unimpressive CGI. Back in 1984, everything was done practically, and the results are just astonishingly excellent. Even knowing how they did it takes away nothing from the viewing experience of the film. The movie magic is still there, and it is still massively effective. From Tina being dragged up the wall and ceiling of her bedroom to Freddy’s form pushing through the wall above Nancy as she sleeps to all the subtle tricks and slight of hand to achieve so much, these are timeless, classic images that are the result of talented, innovative minds. They entirely sell the chillingly surreal qualities and power of Krueger. It’s amazing that they achieve so much on a budget that was less than $2 million. Compare that with the $35 million budget of the 2010 remake which couldn’t pull off the same effects with even a fraction of the artistic quality or effectiveness.
Charles Bernstein beautifully score this film with just the right approach. The main theme is instantly recognizable with its sort of nursery rhyme melody, but has a haunting, foreboding quality lying behind it which is purely brilliant musicianship. The score, in general, is purely enveloping with a wide, rich range using synthesizer in gorgeous fashion. It disturbs and unsettles at nearly every dark turn. The sound design works in tandem with the score by fully immersing an audience into Freddy’s world. The sounds of the boiler room come to magnificent life in a full surround sound experience. I think it’s one of the best audio presentations of any horror film I’ve ever heard.
Again, what really sets this film apart from its slasher brethren is the psychological aspect. Freddy isn’t a killer you can simply outrun. He’s lurking in the dark recesses of your dreams, waiting for you to fall into his clutches. It’s amazing to me that Wes Craven is such a sweet, easy going, regular guy, but is able to delve so vividly into the chilling imagery and nature of nightmares. Scary experiences from his childhood forged many of these inspirations, but so much touches a frightening nerve, such as the bloody corpse of Tina in the body bag beckoning to Nancy, that it demonstrates Craven’s creative brilliance. He taps so deeply into the mechanics of horror, and is able to craft beautifully gruesome images that could dig their way into your own subconscious. I think Craven is at his best when he’s pushing horror to a higher level beyond the visceral. Whether it’s the psychological aspects of this franchise, or the mystery aspects of the Scream films, he has a unique quality to inject into horror films that I really enjoy.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror classic that goes beyond just the slasher genre. It was created by a team of greatly talented and dedicated individuals in front of and behind the camera. No other film in the franchise quite matches up to the dark, pure horror quality of Wes Craven’s original. While there are sequels with their own enjoyable and respected qualities, there are many which simply lost sight of what horror was, and diluted the powerful and effective tone of fear the franchise was built upon. Regardless of disappointing sequels or poor remakes, the 1984 original will always stand as an eternal horror classic.