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A Nightmare On Elm Street
Tonight's Feature Presentation

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)

Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Johnny Depp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley

Written and Directed By: Wes Craven

The Short Version

The last of the “big three” slasher characters makes his debut in a big, “500 gallons of blood” way.

So does Johnny Depp, for that matter.  On both counts.

Even in this first film, Freddy shows he’s not going to be like anyone else.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a genuinely creepy horror flick... and it should have been better.

This movie is still required viewing for slasher fans in any case.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

SLICED MONTEREY JACK.

Tasty, and you didn’t expect it to be served as anything but slices, did you?


Pairs Well With...

BOTTOM SHELF VODKA.

Seems to be the mother’s favorite, anyway.

“What’s the Coroner got to say?”

“He’s been in the john puking since he saw it.”


Once upon a time, an already established horror filmmaker by the name of Wes Craven (who had burst onto the scene in 1972 with The Last House on the Left) combined some creepy childhood memories of a school bully and a vagabond in an ugly sweater with an idea he came up with after reading about a group of traumatized refugees who died for no apparent reason while in the midst of having nightmares.  The result was a unique take on the burgeoning slasher genre called A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Even though Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees were already using their own sharp implements of doom as printing presses for money, it would take Craven three years to sell his movie, and then the only studio that would take it was some upstart called New Line, whose fortunes would either be made or broken on the success or failure of Craven’s effort.

Today, New Line is known as “The House That Freddy Built,” so I guess we all know how that turned out, don’t we?

Our story begins in an affluent suburb, on what we can only assume is Elm Street.  Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) is being troubled by nightmares about a strange, burned man with knives that protrude from the gloved fingers of his right hand.  She’s not alone; many of her friends have been having the same nightmare, and indeed, her friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) is even more troubled by them, to the point of having woken up with a slashed nightgown.  Since Tina’s afraid to sleep alone in the house after this frightening event, she asks Nancy and their respective boyfriends over to spend the night.

Before the night is over, Tina is dead, and her room covered in blood.  The cops suspect Tina’s boyfriend, Rod (Nick Corri), but Rod swears his innocence.  Nancy believes him, especially when he describes four slash marks that appeared out of nowhere, and when she awakens from her own nightmare with the killer’s hat still in her hands…

When speaking with the many, many slasher fans I have known over time, regardless of any given fan’s age, A Nightmare on Elm Street is the answer most often given when I ask either what movie got that person into being a slasher fan or what movie within that genre stands as their favorite. 

All things considered, it’s not hard to understand why.

Freddy Krueger is a killer unlike any other within the genre, in almost any category by which you might choose to judge him.  For one thing, he is the most modern of the bunch, and the easiest to figure out.  He is, plain and simple, a very standard formula serial killer whose preferred targets are kids and teenagers.  (Craven’s original story had him as a molester instead, which was revived for the 2010 remake.  The decision was made in 1984 to change his backstory to that of a killer instead, ostensibly to avoid sounding like the day’s headlines, but really, as I think popped up in the back of someone’s mind, the change also probably made sequels a lot more possible.  Serial killer stories are popular.  Serial child rapist stories are not.  I don’t normally like censorship, but here, I think the tweak was a very intelligent move.)  Yes, he’s now an interesting form of undead, but nevertheless, his psychology is completely straightforward and leaves no room for subtlety.  And he’s also an 80s man (regardless of when he burned to death, the character is an 80s guy); he’s easily relatable.  Hell, he even talks. That makes him a million times more approachable than the other guys.

Even the look and feel of his movie is more modern.  That’s pop synth making up the soundtrack, and some of the locales are industrial.  Summer camp?  Please.  Did anyone even go to summer camp after the 60s, really?

Freddy also stalks a creepier world than his counterparts.  Once you get past the point that they’re damn hard to kill, those others have only reality to work with.  Freddy, however, stalks the world of dreams, and in dreams, anything can happen.  This allows for an infinitely huge number of possibilities, and A Nightmare on Elm Street takes great advantage of them.  Sure, Jason can poke an arrow up through the mattress and out the front of your throat, but Freddy can make the bed swallow you whole and then spit your remains back up in a vomitous geyser of blood.  That, folks, is slasher innovation, and a damn fine kill, I must say, which still stands as one of the top five slasher movie deaths of all time.  You’ll also never see scenes like the “gooey stairs” sequence in anything but a dream world, and that, too, is simply too awesome to be denied.

Indeed, with one exception, all of the visuals in A Nightmare on Elm Street are excellent.  From extremely bloody horror effects for the kills and the psychologically tortuous dream sequences to that amazing, awesomely conceived glove, the folks behind the camera of this one nearly always get it right.  Only the tongue coming out of the phone can be said to look stupid; the rest?  Some of the sharpest slasher stuff you’ll see.

This is only enhanced, of course, by spot-on direction from Wes Craven, who, as the author of this story, knows exactly what needs to be done to make it play to its best potential.

And let’s not forget that man behind the burn makeup, either.  Wes Craven originally considered following the standard slasher convention of casting a stuntman as his killer, but he very quickly realized that he needed a true actor for the job.  Robert Englund is simply amazing as Freddy Krueger, making the character very much his own in the course of a single very impressive effort.  He does this facing a much greater challenge than any of his slasher counterparts; he may be hidden by makeup, but he does have to speak, and that adds a whole new dimension to things when you don’t have the inherent eeriness of silence to hide behind.  By the time this movie is over, you can’t imagine anyone else as Freddy, and that’s probably the best tribute that can be paid to the incredible work of Robert Englund.

And yet…

I understand all of these wonderful things about A Nightmare on Elm Street, and do indeed recognize it as a landmark achievement within the slasher genre, and as an excellent horror film.

I’m also not nearly as taken with this movie as I was by Friday the 13th or Halloween.  Yeah, A Nightmare on Elm Street is good, and I enjoy it, but I just can’t go nuts for it. 

I think part of it has to do with the fact that Freddy talks.  Again, I recognize the excellence of Robert Englund’s performance, but the fact that he speaks makes A Nightmare on Elm Street feel less like a slasher than it does a standard killer flick at any point while he’s talking.  Some of the atmosphere just evaporates.  Similarly, while I love the vomiting bed, that sort thing feels like it belongs in a different brand of horror movie.  If you’re going to have a killer with a glove made of finger knives, shouldn’t we be seeing him do the actual killing?  Look again; how many of Freddy’s victims does Freddy actually visibly kill?  (I accept that he kills Tina personally even though he’s invisible, but a lot of the rest feels like a ghost story.)

Another part that bugs me involves the parents, whom I think were given a larger amount of screen time than they deserved simply because they were played by the “big names” undeservedly given top billing by the studio.  While they do actually figure more into the plot of this film than parents do in most slashers (and in so doing provide proof of the teenage conspiracy theory that parents are indeed hiding important things from them that the teenagers really need to know in order to survive), they just take up way too many frames.  Ronee Blakley isn’t bad as the mother, but she’s really only got two worthwhile scenes, and you’ll spend the rest her camera time actively hating the person who did her wretched makeup job.  (Along with whoever said she could tan.)  John Saxon, though… how this guy ever earned top billing in anything, I’m still trying to understand.  Before this one’s over, you’ll want his character to get a very personal handshake from Freddy.

As for the kids, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a mixed bag.  One thing that many modern audiences recognize, of course, is that this marks the feature film debut of a certain Mr. Johnny Depp, but what is less recognized is the fact that whether or not he would go on to become one of the biggest box office draws of modern moviemaking, he’s actually pretty good in this movie.  He has a rare opportunity for a male actor in a slasher film, and he takes advantage of it: he’s a boyfriend character with real screen time as something other than just as make out object.  Not to say that his part is incredibly deep, of course, but it’s deeper than most, and he plays it straight up, enough so to identify him as an actual “actor” as opposed to “someone we got to play the part.”  In these films, there is a difference.

As for our heroine… on the one hand, Heather Langenkamp does a very good job doing what the screenplay tells her to do, and part of that happens to involve her playing a “Final Girl” who gets to put way more thought and active effort into defeating the killer than most others in her place.  However, she also gets to scream and whine a lot, and unfortunately, she’s really good at that, too.  Too good.

(This is, I think, a personal quirk with me, but I’ also pretty sure I would have liked her character better if she didn’t address her female parent as “mother.”  A sweet heroine calls her female parent “mom;” only snotty, haughty, unsympathetic characters – or psychos – actually address someone directly as “mother.”)

At the end of the day, as noted, A Nightmare on Elm Street is good, but it just feels like it ought to have been better.  It’s still more than good enough to have earned its proper place as a classic, though.

 Bottom line, if you’re into slashers or any kind of horror at all, A Nightmare on Elm Street has more than established itself well enough to be required viewing.  Whether or not you decide that you appreciate all of the things that make Freddy different from others of his ilk, one thing is for sure: you will never forget his inaugural effort.  Nor, for that matter, are you likely to forget the blood-vomiting bed.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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