John SaxonWes CravenA Nightmare on Elm StreetHeather Langenkamp
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Remade as: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
Medium: film
Year: 1984
Writer/director: Wes Craven
Keywords: horror
Country: USA
Actor: John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Jsu Garcia, Johnny Depp, Charles Fleischer, Joseph Whipp, Robert Englund
Format: 91 minutes
Series: A Nightmare on Elm Street >>
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 12 May 2008
Freddy Krueger is different. The other horror icons of his generation are faceless and personality-free. Any hints of characterisation are mostly just the inevitable wrinkles that build up by themselves on anything that keeps going long enough. Admittedly becoming a body-hopping slug (Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday) is one hell of a wrinkle, but even that's an idea that might have been designed to stamp out any lingering hints of personality. Meanwhile John Carpenter's script referred to Michael Myers as the Shape. These aren't people. You can't even imagine them talking. Murderers like them don't exist except in horror films, with their nearest real-life equivalents perhaps being those losers who one day get their guns and shoot a lot of strangers.
Freddy though is a true serial killer, or was when he was alive. More precisely he's a child murderer who managed to kill twenty before they caught him, but in other ways too he's the kind of man you wouldn't want within fifty miles of a child. No one suggests paedophilia, but he's certainly a sleazy piece of work who likes making suggestive comments to his surprisingly young victims. I think they're meant to be fifteen... and what's more, they look it. That's younger than one normally gets in a film like this. The sequels would eventually turn Freddy into a wisecracking showman, but here there's something genuinely disturbing about him. It helps that budget limitations keep him to the shadows and the special effects to a well-honed minimum.
No, this is a horror icon who's also an actual character with dialogue (!), a personality and a clearly defined set of goals. What's more, he has an instantly recognisable appearance, a trademark weapon and a modus operandum that's a million miles removed from the usual slasher template. Personally I think he's the second most distinctive and memorable horror icon anyone's yet created. [1] You couldn't call this film classy, but it doesn't chicken out on its central idea. Freddy lives in your dreams. That's a high concept anyone could understand. Admittedly its portrayal of dream logic is patchy at best, but I think that's deliberate. Real things can enter the dream world and, startlingly, vice-versa. It's often hard to tell whether we've slipped from one world to the other. We've all seen the "shock" (sic) twist of, "No, you're still in the dream!!!" a million times, but surprisingly Craven avoids that cliche. It would have painted the boundaries too clearly. Freddy's influence on reality is more fluid and insidious than that.
[1] - after Boris Karloff's Frankenstein's Monster.
Craven both wrote and directed this, incidentally. Its story is simple almost to the point of being simplistic, but when it comes to horror that's almost a virtue. Don't forget, this is the man who also did The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Admittedly those were in the 1970s, but this isn't just any old studio hack we're talking about here. Visually this film is screamingly 1980s, but I liked the way he takes his teenagers more seriously than I'd expected. They're not all good-looking. Their dialogue is more realistic than the usual US TV Buffy-esque wisecracking, while their parents are full of patronising misdirected concern and help to bring about their children's deaths through know-it-all arrogance, or alternatively have become alcoholics after their marriages broke up. They're even played by real teens, one of whom is Johnny Depp in his first film role. Depp had been accompanying his friend to the auditions, but Craven spotted him and invited him to read for the part.
Of course this kind of courageous casting has consequences. The acting's weak throughout, although the worst offender is an adult: Ronee Blakley as the lead character's mother. There's precious little sign of the Johnny Depp to come. Heather Langenkamp is okay as the heroine, despite a few poor line deliveries, but she has no chemistry with Blakley and their scenes together don't work. Craven's dialogue doesn't help, though. He gets the teens right, but not their relationships with their parents. "I'm okay, Mother." ("Mother"?) There's a strange formality to Langenkamp's lines in those scenes which she doesn't quite get to grips with, although I like that Craven's at least trying to portray the way in which we become different people depending on whether we're with our parents or our friends.
No, the only actor you might remember is Robert Englund, the only real star horror has created to date in my lifetime. He doesn't get much dialogue, but you can't fault his energy.
The film's great to look at. The visuals were always going to be crucial for a dream-based horror film, so Craven gives us surreal moments like a sheep in a corridor or stairs melting as you try to climb them. It's just plain fun to look at, which is perhaps the reason why it seems less gory than it is. Even at this early stage in the franchise, the strangeness of the killings reduces their impact. Over 500 gallons of fake blood were used to make this film, although that does include the geyser scene. It also has some indirect nudity... not cheescake shots, but stuff like girls standing against the light while wearing their nightdresses, or Langenkamp getting eaten by her own bathtub. It's nice to look at, but somehow it doesn't feel sleazy. In a strange way, this film has its own cheap, cartoonish integrity.
Thinking about it, what's impressive about A Nightmare on Elm Street is how willing it is to abandon realism. Horror needs reality. It's not impossible to break that rule, as indeed is demonstrated here, but even so one feels more on edge watching someone get stabbed by Michael Myers than by Freddy Krueger. You can fall flat on your face trying to mix fantasy and horror, but you can't say Craven doesn't give it his best shot.
Then there's the ending. I've seen it described as "bad", but I really liked it. There are unwritten rules as to how a horror film should end, but this managed to surprise me.
In some ways, this is a fairly thin film. It's clearly a tamer descendant of those 1970s nasties where the filmmakers just had a sick idea and followed it wherever the hell it led them. However it's easy to see how it spawned a wildly successful franchise and saved its studio, New Line Cinema, from bankruptcy. I even don't mind the idea of a remake, given the fun Freddy could have in a CGI age. Incidentally Craven had originally wanted him to look far more gruesome and only toned it down because they couldn't do it on the budget and effects technology available. It's probably hard to see this first film in the right spirit after all the self-parody of the sequels, but I still liked it. It's less shallow than it looks, with authentic serial killer touches like Freddy keeping trophies of his kills in his boiler room lair. I'm struggling to work out why it feels a little lightweight, despite all this good stuff, and the best I can do is to suggest that one somehow doesn't feel as if one's seen a full film's worth of story. However it's also quietly impressive and perhaps even groundbreaking in a notoriously conservative genre.
Oh, and John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas on Elm Street.