CINEMA CLASSICS: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

In honour of Wes Craven, here’s a review of his milestone from the archives. We’ll always have Freddy.

Who made it?: Wes Craven (Director/Writer), Robert Shaye (Producer), New Line Cinema.

Who’s in it?: Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund.

Tagline: “If Nancy Doesn’t Wake Up Screaming She Won’t Wake Up At All…”

IMDb rating: 7.5/10.

“They call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

– George Carlin

Long before the pizza-faced dream demon became a joke, Wes Craven’s 1984 classic expertly captured the dread of a nightmare; personified by the man in the red and green Christmas sweater and fedora, Freddy Krueger. There’s something about this immortal bogeyman that speaks to the grim flip-side of contemporary America. He is, after all, a monster created by community. A filthy child murderer (or child molester in the original script), he was burned alive by liberal, God-fearing parents and comes to represent the antithesis of that white-picket fence existence. It’s no mistake that Craven chose the name Elm Street either. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated on an Elm Street two decades before. You could say Krueger is Craven’s Lee Harvey Oswald.

Freddy (given life by the great Robert Englund) also had an iconic weapon at his disposal: that instantly recognisable glove with knives for fingers that sliced and diced their way into the annals of horror history. Next to Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers, the ingenuity of Freddy instantly stood-out from the crowd.

The film’s disturbing atmosphere is established with a masterful montage in a place familiar to fans of the series – a grimy, darkened boiler room, where Freddy’s grubby hands fashion the gauntlet that gave me at least one sleepless night as a child. It is a place where we find Tina (Amanda Wyss), the supposed heroine of the tale, who has been dreaming about this horrifically scarred man for days. It is a dream shared by her friends Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp, yes that Johnny Depp), and Tina’s boyfriend, Rod Lane (Nick Corri). Slowly, they come to realise that this man in their dreams isn’t just a shared hallucination – he’s a real killer with one hell of a grudge. If Tina and her friends die in the dream world, they die in reality. As Heather intones later on, there is only one rule to survival: DON’T FALL ASLEEP!

It wouldn’t be wrong to call Elm Street Craven’s finest hour. His slasher parody Scream (1996) might be the more technically-proficient production, but it’s nothing compared to the fertile idea on display here; we all have to sleep, right? As with The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Craven found his idea in truth. After reading a series of disturbing articles in the LA Times about traumatised refugees dying mysteriously in their sleep, the struggling director knew it was the hook for a frightening film. Add childhood memories of the school bully, actually named Fred Krueger, and Craven had everything he needed for a suspenseful potboiler. That’s if he could find a company to back it. All the studios turned the project down, except Disney, who wanted to transform the concept into a child-friendly animation. Imagine that film for a moment. Salvation came in the form of nascent production house New Line Cinema, who at that time specialised in distributing titles around college campuses, including the ill-informed pot “classic” Reefer Madness. CEO Robert Shaye recognised an original concept when he saw it, and gave Craven a $1.8 million budget to make it their first banner release (the initial attempt, 1982′s Alone in the Dark, went straight-to-video).

While the tight funds are always apparent now while watching Elm Street, Craven had assembled a first-rate team that defied the low-tech credits. Jacques Haitkin’s photography is still impressive, managing to effectively blur the line between the dream world and reality. Coupled with Jim Doyle’s archaic but imaginative practical effects, the film is still a visually engaging piece unlike anything the slasher film had seen at that point. A good example is a prelude to the first murder, in which the wall over Nancy’s bed contorts into the shape of her nocturnal tormentor. It’s hard to believe the effect was achieved by stretching a sheet of spandex over the bed and having Doyle do his best Robert Englund. It’s all the more amusing considering the 2010 remake copied this shot with many thousands of dollars in CGI and looked considerably more phony in the process.

The first murder sequence also demonstrates why the core idea was so refreshing. Craven, ever a fan of misdirection, leads us to assume that Tina is the protagonist of the story, only to kill her first in the most violent slaughter of the film (an idea that he would resurrect over ten years later with Drew Barrymore in Scream). Her encounter with Freddy could be the most brutal of the entire series; dragged across the ceiling, in a rotating room set similar to one used by Christopher Nolan in Inception, Tina is ripped open as Rod watches in one of the film’s flimsiest make-up jobs. Dated prosthetics aside, it is still a gut-wrenching set-piece that makes the film’s genius clear. The characters have no escape from Freddy, making it a tense waiting game to see who nods off first.

It’s worth pointing-out that Kruger, billed as “Fred” in the credits, has the least amount of screen-time in the series here. A thoroughly dark, disturbing visual, he is far from the comical trickster the sequels would turn him into. Englund has a field day with his limited appearances, creating a portrait of a killer so vile he’ll slice off his own fingers if it gets him a scream.

But his malevolent presence wouldn’t mean a thing if Craven didn’t make us care about the characters, a must for any horror film to work. The shift of focus from Tina to Langenkamp’s Heather is effortlessly done, and like Scream‘s Sidney Prescott, she is a well-drawn heroine who might just have the brains and know-how to escape her unusual situation. The director was also smart to tie her back-story into Freddy’s mythology; her divorced parents, Lieutenant Thompson (genre legend John Saxon) and stay-at-home drunk Marge (Ronee Blakley), were partly responsible for toasting Krueger alive. That parental guilt – a motif of Craven’s ever since The Last House on the Left – is brought home when Heather’s mother reveals Freddy’s glove tucked away in the family basement. The perversion of the American Dream is now complete.

Yet while the themes are there to be discussed by horror fans until the end of days, A Nightmare on Elm Street is still a slasher movie made to provide some cheap thrills. It’s just an incredibly well thought-out slasher movie. Famous sequences abound, such as Heather’s close-call in the bathtub, or when the youthful Depp is literally sucked into his bed and spat-out in a stream of gore reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). The fantasy element brings weight and power to the type of sequences that were becoming passé in cinema at the time, including the work of Craven’s pal Sean S. Cunningham in Friday the 13th (1980). A Nightmare on Elm Street at least tried to be innovative with the slasher formula, and Craven’s efforts continue to pay-off handsomely. It remains one of the most entertaining entries in his expansive filmography.

A Nightmare on Elm Street made plenty of careers, least of all Englund’s. While Craven was a name known to horror fans since the early 70s, it was Freddy Krueger who made him a household name, as well as a PR-styled “Master of Horror.” More importantly, however, it made New Line Cinema a force to be reckoned with. The studio went on to produce countless classics, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and were so grateful to the commercial impact of Elm Street that it was dubbed “The House That Freddy Built.”

It isn’t a perfect film, however. Wes was never the best writer of dialogue, and his “teenspeak” here is pretty dreadful. Not to mention certain effects that really haven’t passed the test of time, including the climactic use of a dummy that ends the picture on a humorous note. But none of the imperfections matter one jot. The clarity and internal logic of Craven’s story elevates the material into something more than just a humble slasher pic. It is, hands down, one of the greatest films to carry on what the peerless Halloween (1978) started. The 80s horror movie was now limited only to a filmmaker’s imagination and budget.

Best Scene

Terrifying kids since 1984.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Wes Craven’s original concept for Freddy Krueger was considerably more gruesome, with teeth showing through the flesh over the jaw, pus running from the sores, and a part of the skull showing through the head. Make-up artist David B. Miller argued that an actor couldn’t be convincingly made up that way and a puppet would be hard to film and wouldn’t blend well with live actors, so these ideas were eventually abandoned.
  • The scene where Nancy is attacked by Freddy in her bathtub was shot using a bottomless tub, which was put in a bathroom set that had been built over a swimming pool. During the underwater sequence, Langenkamp was replaced with stuntwoman Christina Johnson. Langenkamp spent 12 hours in the bath during filming.
  • In relation to the famous red and green sweater, in the script, the sweater was red and yellow (based on the colours worn by Plastic Man, who, like Freddy, could change his form; the idea was that whatever Freddy changed into would be yellow and red). However, when Craven read an article in Scientific American in 1982 that said the two most contrasting colours to the human retina were red and green, he decided to alter the colours.
  • The doctor in the dream clinic scene is played by Charles Fleischer, who went on to voice the title character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
  • The original glove was used in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and was also seen in Evil Dead II. However, when Craven loaned the glove to the A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors set, it was lost, and has never been located since.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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