(essay by Robert)
1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is a film that explodes beyond its slasher framework by transgressing the boundaries of reality and imaginary. The film makes no apologies for its preponderance of blood and abruptly challenges us to look hard at the psychological and sociological burdens of the characters. Craven created a film that is so violent that the true concepts can be lost. The real genius of the film is in the undertones of his commentary combined with the gripping dream imagery.
The dream motif and the concept of capturing the feeling and obscurity of dreams/nightmares was by no means original. It was Craven’s seamless connection between the dreamworld and real life that hit home: he does this both literally and figuratively. The dream/reality transitions in the film are subtle and are a wonderful horror mechanism. More symbolically, Craven built a relatively complex story-line going back decades to insert a very tangible and somehow believable link between the dreams being experienced and real “awake” events (most importantly death). Nightmares are a universal yet personal experience. Somehow, regardless of how silly they seem in the day-light, they are startling and trigger real fear. There is security in knowing that all we have to do is wake-up and the door is closed on the dream. The idea that this door does not lock and that somehow someone, other than ourselves, can penetrate and control both our dreams and reality is an amazingly chilling notion that touches at the most vulnerable place. This element undoubtedly is what makes the film so intriguing and relatable.
In the early 1980’s, America was in the middle of a perfect storm of surging conservatism, growing sense of invulnerability, and widening economic divide which fueled the film’s concepts. Craven wanted to create a film that exploited all of these. This is under-evaluated in most discussions of the film. Craven’s use of sleep and dreams were the perfect instrument for commenting on consciousness and awareness. In traditional slasher form, he uses a cast of beautiful teens to carry out the battle. Entrapped in safe and secure suburbia, the group, led by heroine Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), is fighting; above and beyond Freddy; the past sins of their parents, the turbulent transition from adolescence to adulthood, as well as the typical horror explorations of sexuality.
Craven is relentless in his accusations against the elder generation. They set in motion not only their children’s horrific face-off against Krueger but more importantly the unwinnable war against the real world created by their decisions. Without the parents, there is no story. Most of the face time goes to the high-schoolers but the guilt and burden of the elder generation (including John Saxson and Ronnie Blakely) is glaring against the trite suburban background and cannot be overstated. Notice that every character’s parents are either separated (Tina and Nancy), completely non-existent (Rod), or blindly aloof (Glen). This certainly is no coincidence and is particularly interesting when we learn Freddy’s back story (he had been burned alive by the parents). As Freddy stalks each of them, their parents either miss all clues, deny any responsibility or blatantly try to hide the truth. Their temporary and violent solution from years prior has come back to pay vengeance on their children in their nightmares. This theme is continued throughout the sequels.
On screen, Craven delivers an astonishing experience that stands up incredibly well today. The unforgettable and unique dream/death sequences make use of special effect after special effect and yet do not grow tiring. The very low budget invoked a brilliant level of creativity to pull together the essential visuals of the scenes. Perhaps the most explosive (and important) is Tina’s death dream- One of my absolute favorite horror scenes of all time and maybe the most memorable death sequence of the 80’s. The scene ends with Tina (Amanda Wyss) fighting with Freddy under bed sheets (one of the many thoughtful dream/reality transitions) then, by invisible force, she is slashed, flung through the air, dragged across the ceiling and finally callously dropped lifeless. This brutal depiction happens before the eyes of her boyfriend (Jsu Garcia/Nick Corri) and declares both to him and the audience that something beyond belief is unfolding. Other scenes throughout the film, including a very effective wall-impression of a hovering dream menace, the famous bathtub shots, and the classic final moments of Glen (Johnny Depp) are horror staples.
Also essential to the reverie-like atmosphere are sound, setting and lighting. The screeches of Freddy’s claws are one of the very few examples in history of non-musical sound being so distinctly associated with a film. The musical score (Charles Bernstein) is a strong fit and follows the trend of the time. There is also the nursery-rime chorus that helps build the loitering backstory. The most memorable of the settings is the boiler-room dream lair – what a perfectly daunting and appropriate house for this maniac. The structural identities of pipes and metal walkways along with the complimentary flames and steam bursts create apt commotions and allow Freddy plenty of crevices and corners to hide. The dark and shadowy in-dream lighting is vital to the sense of helplessness but Craven and his team also did a fantastic job of utilizing a type of day-time haze to further confuse the transitions.
Freddy (Robert Englund) is unforgettable and unmistakable. Possibly the single most recognizable modern horror villain (of course this is debatable), he represents everything scary. His turn-away disfigurement, his deadly and primitive weapon, his dream-world invincibility, even his boiler room dwelling and dirty raggedness are unsettling. His human history of a child killer/molester is a lingering macabre detail that trumps any all of these. Tying closely to his slasher predecessors, his scars and burns creates a sort of pseudo-mask that further exemplifies the consistent contrast of make-believe and reality. Freddy, as the villain, also has a certain bizarre humor that wonderfully points to that strange eeriness and perplexity of dreams.
It is easy to jumble the original with the swarms of sequels that followed. These films have their moments (some good ones…some very bad ones) but it is unfortunate that the brilliancy of the first is at least partially dulled by the subsequent series and recent remake (which maddeningly misses the point). This is also magnified by the pop-cultural endearment of Freddy particularly amongst children (so very ironic considering Freddy’s backstory). The series as a whole is another discussion. Putting these aside, Wes Craven got it right in 1984. The original Nightmare is one of the exclusive horror films of all time and has a rightful place amongst the genre’s finest efforts.
(this film appeared on Robert’s list at #1, Kevin’s at #18, and Troy’s at #50)