Friday, March 16, 2012

Freddy's Dead

Film: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I’m constantly amazed at how little respect Wes Craven gets as a director. He’s a favorite among horror fans, of course, but for the rank and file movie person, Craven’s name rarely comes up as a director of note. Yet, Craven has been at least partially responsible for some of the most influential and innovative horror movies in the genre’s history. In addition to today’s classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven also wrote and directed the original versions of Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes and directed Scream, the most important current series in the genre. Why he’s not better respected, I can’t imagine.

While Scream is the current king of the slasher film genre, A Nightmare on Elm Street is arguably his best film. The idea, like many great ideas, is ridiculously simple. In a small town, teens are plagued by a series of nightmares. When the teens start dying in extremely gruesome ways, a mundane reason for the deaths is sought. But, of course, the real reason is hardly mundane. Instead, a killer from the town’s past has returned and is haunting the dreams of the kids. Why? Because the parents of these children killed him years before. There are subtle touches here, primarily the fact that the dream world of the killer and the waking world are tightly intertwined—events in the one significantly affect those in the other. This allows Craven to play with reality in significant ways and keeps us as the audience guessing about the reality of the events that unfold in front of us.

Okay, so that’s the basics. So let’s talk about the specifics of what makes this film so good and what makes Craven such an innovative director. We start in the dream of Tina (Amanda Wyss) and get our first short look at our killer, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). And from this we assume that Tina will be the character we follow through the rest of the film, because this is a pattern that has been established for us by a decade of slashers up to this point. But Tina turns out to be the first victim. The wounds inflicted on her in the dream are made manifest in the real world, and in one of the great horror scenes ever filmed, she is flung about her bedroom, dragged up the wall, and essentially gutted on the ceiling before falling back down to the bed. It’s both unexpected in terms of its visual effects and unexpected in terms of the victim.

It then becomes evident that our real main character is Tina’s friend, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp). Nancy’s father (John Saxon) is the local police chief and her mother (Ronee Blakely) is a bit of a lush. It’s slowly revealed that there’s a real backstory here. Years earlier, a series of child murders led to a man named Fred Krueger, who was arrested, but then released on a technicality. Reacting to this, a gang of parents cornered him and burned him alive. And now, Nancy has realized that he has found a way back, and found a way into the dreams of the children of his killers, and is knocking them off one by one.

As a premise, it’s a pretty simple idea, and it’s a perfect premise for a good spook story. But again, Craven is far too smart to let just a good premise be enough for his film. Rather than rely on that, he plays constantly with the audience’s expectations of what is happening and whether or not any given moment is waking reality or someone’s dream. What this does is create a situation where there is always something at stake. Krueger is essentially all-powerful inside the dream world, making that world terrifying. And because our characters realize this and attempt to stay awake for as long as possible, they frequently drift off into waking dreams—and it’s almost impossible to tell precisely when we shift from one to the other. What this does is give those shock moments a great deal of extra punch.

Craven also doesn’t skimp on the blood. Tina’s death is brutal and terrible, and because it happens early, it sets the tone for the rest of the film. A later death, that of Nancy’s boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp in his first role) comes complete with enough blood to fill a bathtub. The gore, of course, is part and parcel with the genre and expected, and because the violence occurs in dreams, Craven is free to exaggerate it to his heart’s content.

The true genius of this film, though, is the creation of Freddy himself. Freddy Krueger became a household name almost instantly and quickly became far more important than the film and the franchise itself. While he eventually became little more than a carnival barker and a sideshow attraction, in this film, Englund plays him with a sort of maniac glee, a very evil little boy who has finally managed to get away from his parents for a time to cause a little mischief. Eventually, this would give way into mugging for the camera and fan service, but in this original, Krueger is a figure of real menace. Even more, he knows he’s a menace and he’s significantly powerful when his victim is at his or her most vulnerable.

And so there you have it—a film that is visceral and fun, innovative but plays straight with genre conventions. It’s genuinely one of the great films from the 1980s.

Why to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street: One of the most original horror visions every created.
Why not to watch: The series quickly became self-parody.


  1. I don't watch much for horror films, but I finally saw this a few years ago because of its place in cinema and cultural history. Predictably, it didn't do much of anything for me, but that's because I'm usually not scared by slasher flicks. I find myself a little bored waiting for the next inevitable killing, then sometimes looking away if it gets too graphic. I am far more scared by films such as 1963's The Haunting where almost everything scary goes just unseen. That's just me and the horror genre, though. As you pointed out, Nightmare on Elm Street did make a truly iconic character out of Freddy. Good review.

  2. Like you, I don't tend to find movies like this that scary. Point of fact, I actually fell asleep part way through last night and had to skip back a couple of scenes. There's irony there somewhere. And for the record, that I fell asleep doesn't reflect on the film--I was dead tired.

    I like this one not because it scares me, but because the idea is so damn good.

  3. Perhaps "Swamp Thing" left such a bad taste in the mouth of the rank and file that Wes Craven is still considered a hack. Not by me, of course, I certainly have enjoyed growing up with his work (even "Swamp Thing" is a kitschy pleasure, though mostly because I was a fan of the original comic) but I believe there is a reason why, while horror/slasher movies sometimes make it into "The Book", sequels to such movies seldom do.

  4. Hey, Hitchcock had Jamaica Inn, Fincher did Alien 3.

    I'm not even concerned with The List here--Craven is looked down on by "serious" movie lovers because of genre, often without seeing the guy's work.

  5. I'm with you on the brilliance of this film. The way Craven effortlessly transitions from waking phobia to illusory dreaming is the right balance between shocking and subtle. I think it's one of the most creative horror films ever made.

    I've not seen some of Craven's earlier films, but I am also a big fan of Scream.

  6. Scream really is great. The thing I like about Craven is that he assumes that his audience is smart, or at least he does in his good films. Scream works as well as it does because it plays on the knowledge and expectations of the audience. It might still be scary if you aren't that bright, but it really stands out for the thinkers in the audience.

    That's true of this one, too. I like it when a director assumes that I can figure some of this stuff out for myself, and expects me to do at least a little of the work.

  7. Here's another one from the "movies I should have seen 20 or 30 years ago" category. I missed it when it came out and just somehow never got around to seeing it.

    I taped it off IFC and my niece and my brother and I had vague plans to watch it together eventually, but after four months went by and it didn't happen, I went ahead and watched it by myself over the weekend.

    I really wish I had seen it in 1984 so I could say "WOW! That's so cool! What a great idea!" instead of seeing it in 2017 and saying "OMG! 1984 Johnny Depp!" and "That Simpsons episode where Willy was Freddy Krueger was really funny!"

    But I found it very entertaining even so.

    1. The problem with films like this that become so iconic and influential is that, if you see them years after the fact, they look derivative. Of course, the truth is that everything else is derivative of that film.

      This is one of those cases. If you don't know the conventions and ideas this started, it's tempting to think that you've seen it all before, and this suffers because of it.