Director: Wes Craven
Producers: John Burrows, Stanley Dudelson, Joseph Wolf
Writer: Wes Craven
Stars: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAKES MENTION OF CHILD MOLESTATION AND SEXUAL ASSAULT. IMAGES CONTAIN BLOOD. (As always, see this post’s tags for trigger warnings for the film itself.)
SPOILER ALERT: THE DEATHS OF SOME CHARACTERS ARE REVEALED IN THIS REVIEW.
There’s something about eighties horror that stands alone. Is it the canned electronic music that is intended to portend action and build suspense? Is it the dated special effects? The ridiculous costuming? It’s all of this—which can be summed up as a total and complete lack of subtlety, sometimes endearing, often cringe-worthy. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) falls somewhere between these two extremes—it’s no masterpiece, but it’s a riotous ride, one that has managed to capture the hearts and imaginations of at least three decades of horror fans.
When friends Tina (Amanda Wyss) and Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) confer on their walk to school, both remark that they’ve been having nightmares … nightmares that are impossible to dismiss once they realize that they have both dreamt of the same hideous figure, a man covered in severe burns, wearing a green and red sweater and a hat, with handmade gloves that have razor blades in place of fingers. That very night, when Nancy—and her boyfriend, Glen (Johnny Depp), as well as Tina’s beau, Rod (Jsu Garcia)—sleep over at Tina’s to allay her fear of the nightmares, she is killed by an unseen force. Rod is accused of her murder and jailed, but Nancy knows the truth … and won’t rest until she faces the mysterious figure in her dreams during her waking hours.
Freddy Krueger’s (Robert Englund) story is bizarre. There is no explanation as to why he’s so strangely attired—at first glance, he’s nearly laughable; however, Freddy’s past is plenty dark. After days of hedging, Nancy’s mother, Marge, finally admits that she knows the man who Tina dreams of. He is “Fred Krueger,” a “filthy child murderer” who Marge, along with a mob of the parents of the neighborhood, set on fire—an act of vengeance on behalf of the children that Freddy kidnapped, molested, and killed.
Unlike Jason Voorhees of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) (Note: Though Jason doesn’t make anappearance until the second installment, his image is introduced in the 1980 film) and Michael Myers of HALLOWEEN (1978), Freddy is portrayed as not just evil, but abominable. Jason and Michael are silent figures of terror, disturbing in their total lack of humanity—but Freddy is a cackling, spiteful man, guilty of unspeakable acts even beyond mass murder. Ironically, he is a supernatural entity—another distinction, although Jason and Michael are too monstrous to be considered truly human—but his story is realistic. One only has to scan the morning paper to see the face of a man like Freddy.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is Wes Craven’s legacy, but not his best work. The stylish collusion of music, picturesque wide shots, and deft characterization that makes SCREAM (1996) a masterpiece is noticeably absent. The score is underwhelming, especially compared to the harrowing themes of both FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN (and although it might be unfair to compare the three, given that FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN—along with THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)—were so ingenious as to spawn the “stalker cycle” itself, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is frequently listed among these films, given its popularity). Some scenes are striking for their luridness—the famous scene of Glen’s death comes to mind—but none could be termed “picturesque.” Perhaps the greatest strength of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET’s visuals is a certain un-stylishness, a vividness so over-the-top and exaggerated that it invites appreciation, even in its ugliness. The most stylish moments in the film are the dream sequences—when Nancy looks behind her in the hallway at school and sees the dreaded green-and-red sweater, or when she steps on fall leaves indoors, or when she barely escapes death confined in her own bathtub. Meanwhile, the acting suffers considerably; Heather Langenkamp is certainly no Jamie Lee—her fake-sobbing is truly terrible and the frequent close-ups only emphasize her lack of skill.
That said, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is a fascinating watch, if only for its dense cultural commentary. The film is nothing if not a morality tale for the eighties, a time when divorce was at an all-time high and Reagan was prompting a moral panic on multiple fronts (most notably, the War on Drugs). Nancy is forced to defeat Freddy Krueger entirely on her own, a true Final Girl. Of course, her friends are finished off in short order and her parents, while ever-present—she lives with her mother and her father, a police officer, frequents her neighborhood on duty—are utterly useless. Marge is a heavy drinker, inarticulate and unhelpful. Donald, Nancy’s father, is practical to a fault and incredibly dismissive of both his ex-wife and daughter (though, he does prove helpful at one vital point). To summarize the family’s flaws in blunt moral terms: Marge and Donald have sinned. Not only have they divorced, been neglectful to their child, and succumbed to addiction—in Marge’s case—but Marge, at least, has also resorted to vigilante justice, burning a man alive. Theirs is a cynical depiction of adulthood, one ridden with error and disappointment.
Nancy, for her part, is aging rapidly—as a result of latent trauma, we can assume. “Oh, God, I look twenty years old,” she laments, surveying her reflection in the mirror. In an act of exaggerated adulthood—and as a practical necessity in sleepless times—Tina stores a coffeepot in her bedside drawer, which she whips out at opportune moments to keep her fueled. She is also, of course, adolescent and female, transitioning into her own sexuality. She is subject to misogyny at the hands of adults, suggesting that this, too, is an inevitability of mature womanhood: Glen’s father is quick to blame Nancy for the effect that Freddy Krueger’s haunting is having on Glen and Nancy’s own father is dismissive, far more likely to place weight in the opinions of male police officers. Of course, it’s ironic that Wes Craven took this tack—after all, when Nancy becomes an adult, Freddy Krueger, who exclusively targets children, will no longer be a threat. In fact, in the end, an act of maturity wins Nancy her survival.
Despite its flaws, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is a blast. Whether you’re groaning and covering your eyes at Heather Langenkamp or trying to figure out why the hell Freddy Krueger is wearing such a weird, outdated hat in the eighties, it’s nearly impossible to stop watching. Enjoy A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET for what it is—a little gauche, a little silly, a little disturbing, and very, very entertaining. Wes Craven’s greatest strength is in his ability to weave a sinister, fascinating tale, and this one will hook you faster than Freddy’s razor-hands.
Delightful in its brightness and playfulness. The gratuitous use of imitation blood is amazing.
Freddy Krueger as a character is horror personified—the epitomized picture of what society most abhors. Freddy alone is more horrifying than the film itself, which uses gore for the sake of style rather than to rouse the kind of disgust that defines true horror.
There are times when the viewer is primed to tense up, waiting for Freddy to strike, but they are so fleeting and he appears so predictably that no real suspense builds.
Perhaps if viewers were introduced to Freddy more thoroughly and given time to digest his story and gradually discover his revenge plot, there would be time to be terrified. Instead, Marge blurts out Freddy’s story and by then, Freddy is old hat to us (no pun intended), showing up only long enough to kill, then disappearing again. We know what to expect, it occurs, and the plot leaps forward. There are too many serious errors in pacing for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET to be truly scary, at least for me.
Entertaining and vivid as it is, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET can hardly be considered high-quality. The story is definitely compelling and the style is even appreciable in its own way, but the actress portraying the protagonist can’t act and errors in pacing take away from the audience’s discovery of the villain and his motivations.
I watched A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET on DVD. You can also rent it from YouTube and iTunes, starting at $2.99. You can purchase your own copy of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET at Barnes & Noble at $12.99 for the DVD ($11.59 online) and $14.99 for the Blu-Ray ($12.00 online). You can also buy it used starting at $7.86 on the Barnes & Noble Marketplace.