In 1984 Wes Craven redefined the horror movie forever, bringing his own rules to the game, avoiding the clichés that had gone before, making an exciting, inventive, gory, wickedly clever, and above all-scary film. A Nightmare On Elm Street, spawner of sequels, influencer of crap is the movie horror fans hoped for in the early eighties, but is also an effective satire on small town life, our fascination with serial killers, our fear of the unknown, and the sins of our forefathers.
Nancy is fourteen. She has a cute boyfriend who would do anything for her, two friends (who frequently mock Nancy with their own sexual experience), and a load of baggage. Nancy lives with her alcoholic mother, while her father is the local Sheriff – her parents divorced some time before the events of the movie. One night when the four friends are staying together, Nancy’s best friend Tina is brutally murdered by a hideously disfigured man, seemingly while sleeping. Her boyfriend Rod watches on, horrified, while Nancy hears the screams from outside. Rod flees, and the cops look for him believing he is the only possible killer. It isn’t long before the Police catch up to Rod, but Nancy becomes convinced that someone else killed Tina, a man named Fred Krueger. Night by night she is haunted by increasingly violent dreams where she is stalked by a man with a razor fingered glove, and so tries to investigate further for fear that she may be next.
As the movie progresses Nancy’s relationship with her mother becomes increasingly strained, with the daughter frantically taking pills to avoid sleep and seemingly becoming unhinged, while the mother is unable to act or react in a responsible manner. Nancy’s mom takes her to psychiatrists in a vain attempt to keep her own guilt in the shadows, refusing to own up to the fact that her past has caught up with her, not knowing that everything she is doing is wrong. She goes so far as barring Nancy inside the house and refuses contact between Nancy and Glen – her boyfriend. Glen’s parents are only too happy to oblige, not wanting their son to associate with the loony across the street. Eventually, we learn the sordid history about Krueger – he was a child murderer who stalked the town a few years ago, was caught, but escaped unpunished by some loophole. The residents took the law into their own hands, burning and killing Fred, but somehow he has found another loophole and is getting revenge by killing the children of Elm Street once more in the place they should feel most safe – their own homes, their own dreams. With no-one to trust, Nancy needs to overcome the enemy alone.
This is one of the most imaginative horror movies ever, blending dreams with reality so the viewer never knows whether a character is asleep or not. The fact that we don’t know what is real and what is a dream gives a sense of tension throughout as we don’t know when Krueger will appear. Craven uses all the force which caused his previous films to be censored and banned but makes his themes more subtle, and substitutes the realistic and grim visuals of The Last House on the Left for the fantastical sights here. For the most part it is the fault of the parents that their kids are killed- they created the monster by trying to kill the monster, but more importantly they then feel like their job has been completed, not realising when their kids are still in danger. There is a total lack of understanding between the two generations, and little trust in the abilities of the youth. It is not only a tale for those nearing adulthood to be afraid of the world – that in the end we have to rely on ourselves rather than those who have protected us so far – but it is a story about the older generation’s fear of the next generation. They want to be leaders but have their own insecurities, they want to be respected but show little in return, they want to protect but cannot see when something is really, seriously wrong.
The young cast is good, particularly Langenkamp. Garcia and Wyss have little to do, Depp has a bigger role and shows some of what would make him a legend. It is Langenkamp who carries the film, and she is excellent in her portrayal of fear, paranoia and helplessness, all the things we face when we are teens. We forget these things as we get older, but they rarely leave us, and often in forgetting do we lose the ability to cope when confronted once again. Nancy screams, but thinks; She is not the typical stupid teen over a hundred other Slashers. She makes an assertive step towards saving herself and her friends, while trying to hold her family together. She takes on the traditional roles of both father and mother, becoming hunter and protector, indeed she proves to be the strongest character in the film, preceding Ripley by a few years. She knows her own survival is down to herself.
The older cast members are also very good. Blakley is brilliant as Marge, hapless, hopeless mother who cannot cope with Nancy, with her break-up, with her guilt, giving in to booze like so many others. Saxon is also good as the father trying to get on with his life, burrowing himself in his work to forget the evils of his past, yet coming across as the most sympathetic adult. And of course, Englund steals every scene he is in. He is terrifyingly believable, the perfect example of what lurks in our nightmares, waking and dreaming. His one-liners are darkly comic as he takes sadistic joy in following and killing kids. In later films they become increasingly silly, but here we get the sense that these are the exact words that would come from the maw of a paedophile and serial killer.
The effects also stand out, with the famous bloodbath bed scene, and Tina being torn all over the ceiling becoming some of the most famous images in horror history. Kreuger looks monstrous, those blades will be heard in our dreams, while the dream world is filmed with care – we can tell that there is something not quite right about the surroundings, and we are subtly unsettled. A highly effective film, scary, funny, thought-provoking and unnerving, and with one of the most frightening villains ever committed to film. This inspired many clones, but this is still the king and continues to influence many films, horror and beyond. And count the number of Simpsons references.
Features wise I would go for the 2-Disc special edition as it is slightly more expensive but has plenty of commentaries and documentaries to keep your nerd heart pumping.
*Originally written in 2004 – I never realised that it was basically a plot summary (and I’ve even removed some chunks for the above revised edition) – so apologies for a crappy review of one of my favourites movies.