A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
Director: Wes Craven
Starring: Heather Lagenkamo, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund
'A Nightmare on Elm Street' was released in 1984 and was single handedly responsible for saving New Line Cinema from going bust. It spawned numerous sequels (and an inadequate remake) and gave us one of horrors most iconic villains. Freddy Krueger. But how has it stood the test of time and how influential has it been on the genre?
Plot wise, it wastes zero time in setting up the story. The film opens with Tina, a high school student being stalked in a boiler room by a burnt looking man in a stripey jumper with 'knives for fingers'. When the figure finally catches her he slashes at her night gown. Tina wakes up and she (and we) realise that it was all just a nightmare. That is, until she looks down and sees the slashes in her clothes.
Bad guy and concept all nailed within the first few minutes of the film. It's storytelling at it's efficient best.
Shortly afterwards we are introduced to our heroine, Nancy (Heather Lagenkamp) and her friends – Tina (who we already know) Tina's boyfriend Rod (who's an ass hole) and Glen (played by a young Johnny Depp!) Turns out Nancy is also having dreams where she is stalked by a guy in a stripy top. This information only freaks Tina out even more. Coincidently, Tina's mum is out of town and her friends agree to stay at hers for the evening to ease her fears.
Classic horror scenario right there. In these situations, the teenagers (who usually seem to have a veracious appetite for alcohol and sex) are usually stalked by a masked psychopath etc. But the threat here is not that easy to deal with. Awake, the characters are safe. It's when they fall asleep they are in grave danger.
During the night, Tina has another nightmare and this time she doesn't manage to wake up in time and Krueger kills her. Her boyfriend watches on in horror as she is dragged around the bedroom by a seemingly invisible force. He then does a runner and as a result, the cops (one of whom is Nancy's dad) believe he is the culprit. We then focus fully on Nancy as she tries to work out what is happening as those around her gradually succumb to Krueger's nightmare killing spree.
It's worth talking about the special FX. For a film made in the mid-80's, the effects hold up remarkably well. The scene where Tina is dragged around the bedroom like a rag doll is as impressive as it is disturbing.
And all of the nightmare sequences are handled with aplomb thanks to the nervy sound effects and the visuals which make the scenes seem almost normal, but not quite. At times the over-the-top high energy music that accompanies some of these scenes threatens to damage the atmosphere but there is almost something darkly comic about Freddy Krueger that somehow makes this acceptable.
Krueger is visually one of the most terrifying bad guys to grace the screen and a lot of credit goes to the make-up department for this feat. It took around three hours to get Robert Englund made-up to look like Freddy at the beginning of every day of shooting. Time well spent if you ask me.
One of the reasons that 'Nightmare' is so effective is that it lingers with the viewer after they have seen it. I remember my elder brother watching the film at a friends house (when he was about 12 years old) and he had trouble sleeping for days afterwards. A truly scary horror movie can lead people to fear going to bed. It can make them fear lying awake in the dark. But until 'Nightmare', no horror film had made people actually afraid of going to sleep. And you can fight sleep for a while but it's a losing battle and eventually you will succumb to it. There's no escaping it.
A lot of the people involved in the movie have gone on to have a big impact in the genre itself. Wes Craven had already made a name for himself off the back of 'The Hills Have Eyes' but 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' established him as one of the big boys. Indeed, he continued to make a Freddy film virtually ever year for the next five or six years such was the success of the franchise. Unfortunately none of them were quite as good as the original – as is so often the way.
Robert Englund was propelled from a nobody to a horror superstar and has been cashing in on his Freddy fame ever since. He has starred in dozens of genre films including 'Wishmaster', 'Urban Legend' and 'Hatchet' and is still making genre movies to this day.
Lin Shaye makes a brief appearance as Nancy's teacher and today's audiences will recognize her from 'Insidious' and 'Insidious 2'. And Johnny Depp...well I'm sure I read somewhere that he's done ok for himself. Actually, there is a nice scene where Johnny Depp's character climbs though an unsuspecting Nancy's bedroom window. Modern audiences who have seen 'Scream' will watch that scene and have a feeling of de-ja-vu.
The ending is a little bit of a head scratcher. You end up asking yourself 'how much of what I have just watched for 90 minutes was actually real and how much was a dream?'. It's a bit like 'Inception'. Just without the spinning thing-a-majig and Leo DiCaprio. As it happens, Craven himself wanted a much more positive and less ambiguous climax to the movie but at the end of the day, leaving it wide open for a sequel proved to be too attractive to New Line.
Thematically, there are a couple of things worth mentioning. Firstly, there is a clear divide between young people and adults in 'Nightmare'. A sense of mistrust between parents and children. A generational chasm. Nancy's mum and dad are presented as flawed characters. Although they clearly love their daughter, they (and the majority of the adult population) are responsible for the death of Freddy Krueger and the subsequent cover up of information regarding his death. They are also no help to their daughter when she needs them most. When Nancy claims that she has dreamt about Freddy Krueger and describes him in all his gory detail, her parents still refuse to spill the beans. Even when Nancy's friends are being offed one by one, they'd still rather keep their dirty little secret than deal with the problem. Parent's know best after all.
'Nightmare' brought horror back to suburban America. Your worst nightmare was not necessarily holed up in rural Texas (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) or living in the desert (The Hills Have Eyes), it was in everyday neighbourhoods and families and it was in peoples dreams.
The things that people considered to be safe were now under threat.
On that note I'll wrap the article up. It's after midnight and I am pretty tired.
I should try and get some sle......actually on second thoughts, I might just make myself a coffee.