By the mid-1980s, the slasher craze was losing momentum, a flood of HALLOWEEN imitators and FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels having taken cinematic bloodletting about as far as it could go, and beaten the formulaic plots into the ground. As often happens when a popular horror trend is dying, a film comes along that revitalizes the genre by taking viewers somewhere they’ve either never been before or haven’t visited in a long time. After years of monstrous but basically human nut cases in masks stalking teenage girls, Wes Craven’s surreal and supernatural A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was just such a film.
Inspired by a news article about people dying in their sleep, Craven crafted a clever tale of a slasher-style killer who actually murders his victims in their dreams, meaning that eventually every kid would have to face this monster. To meet Jason Voorhees, you had to go to Crystal Lake. Michael Myers could come after you in your home, but he was still a physical being and could be fought and even presumably destroyed (though no one’s succeeded yet!). Freddy Krueger, on the other hand, cannot be avoided. We all have to sleep sometime, and we all dream. And in the lawless, mystical world of our dreams, Krueger is omnipotent and indestructible. The premise alone is terrifying, probably the most brilliant narrative innovation in the history of horror folklore since the advent of the vampire.
Craven executes the unique concept with great skill, thrusting the viewer right into the bizarre world of the dreamscape the instant the film begins. After a creepy credit montage of the unseen madman crafting his trademark bladed glove, we encounter a young woman named Tina (Amanda Wyss) treading fearfully through an illogical world that combines the mundane (a trash-lined alley) with strange, metaphoric imagery (such as a bleating lamb), stalked every step of the way by the mysterious antagonist. When the charred creature attacks, she awakens to find that the knives extending from his fingertips have actually sliced through the fabric of her nightgown. Just like that, the audience knows that no one in the film is safe at any time, awake or asleep.
Beginning with Tom Savini’s groundbreaking work on DAWN OF THE DEAD, make-up effects in horror cinema in the late 70s and early 80s were used primarily to make dismemberment and evisceration as believably graphic and disgusting as possible. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, by contrast, uses state-of-the-art make-up wizardry to cleverly enhance the story rather than simply gross the audience out. There is certainly an abundance of shocking, stomach-churning gore (as in the “wall-crawling” death of Tina in the early going and the geyser of blood that once was a young Johnny Depp’s Glen), but there are also numerous memorable effects involving Freddy himself, bits which emphasize both his unearthly nature and his twisted sense of humor. From his repugnant burnt visage to his impossibly long arms to the telephone receiver which becomes his chin and flickering tongue, Krueger is a horrifying, demonic apparition masterfully realized by effects supervisor David B. Miller. When he lops off the tips of his own fingers or slices open his own abdomen, unleashing a flood of green ooze, it is clear that Freddy is thoroughly enjoying terrorizing his victims. Since actor Robert Englund is not an overly tall or imposing figure in his own right, the importance of the amazing make-up work in this film in making Krueger a suitably fearsome villain cannot be overstated.
Englund does a fine job breathing life into the monster, striking a perfect balance between macabre wit and unrepentant evil. He is helped along considerably by a remarkably solid cast, led by Heather Langenkamp, genre legend John Saxon and future pirate Depp. Langenkamp’s Nancy is to 80s scream queens what Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode was to 70s horror heroines – smart, resourceful, vulnerable, tough, and, above all, completely real. Depp shows flashes of the talent and charm that would make him a superstar in the 21st century, while Jsu Garcia (PREDATOR 2, CANDYMAN: DAY OF THE DEAD) and Wyss (BETTER OFF DEAD, BLACK MAGIC WOMAN) are excellent as Nancy’s ill-fated friends. This group of teenagers is inarguably the best, most sympathetic cast of characters in a fright flick since HALLOWEEN, and probably the last such group that managed to be as believable as they were attractive in the period between the 70s drive-in and DAWSON’S CREEK eras. Saxon was born to play cops in scary movies, and he’s typically great here. Ronee Blakley is a bit uneven as Nancy’s alcoholic mother, though the scene where she reveals the truth about Krueger is one of the best in the film.
Skeletons in the closet (the figurative kind, not the literal variety) are a common element in teen terror tales. Young people instinctively detest being lied to by adults (ask anti-smoking activists, who have learned that emphasizing tobacco company cover-ups does more to turn kids off cigarettes than warnings of health risks), and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET derives a lot of its power from the fact that its parents just might know something about what is killing their children but refuse to say. Unlike other films that use this device, however, the script does not vilify the adults or turn them into oppressive caricatures. The adults of Elm Street genuinely care about their children, and believe they have done what is necessary to protect them. This isn’t a case of out-of-touch, uptight, overly conservative middle-agers not trusting or having any faith in their kids; it’s an instance where loving mothers and fathers are raising young people in a town with a history so terrible and so evil that no kid should ever have to be exposed to it. Craven and cast work very hard to make the grown-ups in the film every bit as credible and three-dimensional as their offspring, and their efforts give the movie an emotional depth uncommon to the genre.
A plethora of unforgettable images assault the viewer in NIGHTMARE, all enhanced by a great score by Charles Bernstein and Craven’s masterful direction. The composer’s haunting, ethereal main theme is skillfully blended with the kind of sharp, synthesized beats common to film scores of the time, an odd combination that works perfectly in such a surreal visual adventure. In addition to the gory deaths and make-up tricks mentioned above, we also see a walking corpse in a body bag leaving blood trails in a school hallway, Freddy threatening to burst through a wall onto a victim by stretching it like latex, a gloved hand reaching up from the soapy water between Nancy’s spread legs as she takes a bath, and dozens more now-iconic scenes. Craven deliberately allows the transition from reality to dream and back again to be almost undetectable throughout (For example, watch Blakley’s body language as she steps into the hall and invites Nancy into the cellar and note how closely it mirrors that of Krueger’s entrances. Is Nancy dreaming or awake?), keeping the audience guessing the whole way. The powerful imagery, excellent music and expert psychological manipulation all add up to an incredibly intense and evocative experience, even after multiple viewings.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET changed horror. After a half decade of “real world” screen shockers, Freddy Krueger ushered in a new age of supernatural celluloid monsters and helped shift the emphasis from gross-out gore for gore’s sake to creativity and imagination. Because audiences responded so enthusiastically to a creature that defied natural laws, studios began to build new series around all manner of fantastic terrors, from living dolls to pinheaded demons to evil leprechauns, with no concept too outlandish to get a shot. Though his own franchise would endure some highs and lows as the character became a cultural icon, the dream killer’s first outing remains a chilling, disturbing and groundbreaking effort that holds a rightful place in the pantheon of all-time great fear films. It is, indeed, a horror fan’s dream come true.