A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

12 Apr

A Nightmare On Elm Street 1

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you…3, 4, better lock your door…5, 6, grab your crucifix…7, 8, gonna stay up late…9, 10, never sleep again…”

There’s a true boogeyman haunting the dreams of young people, and his name is Freddy—Fred Krueger, to be exact. With a horribly burned face and sporting a dirty red-and-green sweater, a Fedora, and gloves with knives for fingers, he’s the man of your (bad) dreams. But if he kills you in your dream, he actually kills you in reality, which pits the kids who dream about him into real danger. That’s the basic idea for Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” a surprisingly-effective slasher film with the most intriguing premise of the lot and more to offer than such films as “Friday the 13th.”

The movie is about a group of typical teenagers whose dreams are invaded by the supernatural boogeyman, Freddy (Robert Englund). It begins as Tina (Amanda Wyss) wakes up from one of these shockers only to find evidence that…maybe it wasn’t a dream.

Dun-dun-DUNNNNNN!!!

Tina tells her friend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) about the dream, only to discover that she too dreamed about the same “creep.” (And one look on Nancy’s boyfriend Glen’s face indicates that he had the same dream as well.) That night, as she enjoys a rousing night of pleasure with her boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri), she then falls victim to Freddy and is ripped to shreds. (This is yet another example of how sex leads to death in horror movies.) Rod is sent to jail on a murder charge, although Nancy doesn’t quite believe he did it, as her nightmares only get worse and worse. She becomes convinced that Freddy is responsible for her friend’s death, and finds that she, Glen (Johnny Depp, in his first big-screen role), or Rod may be next. So the best way to stay alive is not to fall asleep.

The “nightmare” gimmick is usually not an effective element for a horror film because you see very often a scene in which a character dreams of certain doom and then wakes up in a cold sweat. Come on, who are they trying to fool, especially when it usually occurs early in the movie? It’s a tired, predictable, overdone gimmick that just doesn’t work anymore. But “A Nightmare on Elm Street” centers an entire movie around that element, in that even though you know for sure (and the characters know for sure) that there are many dream sequences, that is where the terror happens: in the notion that the doom in the nightmare becomes the doom in reality. But also, there are some parts (especially in the final act) in which no one, particularly the audience, surely knows what is real and what isn’t. The movie walks that fine line between fantasy and reality mostly, and that’s where the chills come from—uncertainty, suspense, and toying with expectations.

There are enough necessary (sometimes unnecessary) jolts and chills to make horror-film buffs tense, but it’s also a story that makes you really think about the situation. There’s a lot that people can read in the psychology of this idea (such as the notion that Craven based this idea from children who died in their sleep), and also how the gimmick can work in this movie. That way, audiences are attentive and interpreting.

The horribly-scarred Freddy Krueger has of course grown to become an iconic figure in the horror-film genre, thanks to his taking center-stage in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequels. Unlike “Halloween’s” Michael Myers/The Shape or “Friday the 13th’s” Jason Voorhees, Freddy does not wear a mask and is not silent. He has a sick, twisted personality that goes with his sick psychoticism. This is a truly an iconic horror-movie villain. But he’s not the center of this original “Nightmare on Elm Street” film, necessarily—he’s just more like the looming demon waiting to strike. We get part of a backstory, but that’s all we know about him in this movie. This makes it more effective, but the less we know about the killer that was Freddy Krueger, the more creepy he is. (The sequels, however, go into more detail stating more of his story and why he’s able to haunt dreams, which doesn’t make him scarier.)

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” is more about Nancy and how she tries to figure out how to save herself, even if it means trying to stay awake. Her police lieutenant father, Donald (John Saxon), is too much of a hardass to pay attention because he’s more concerned about keeping the small community, where they all live, safe from danger. Little does he know that his own daughter’s subconscious is the greater danger. But Nancy’s mother (Ronee Blakley) actually does know something about Freddy and eventually tells her what happened to him and why he’s after certain young targets. Nancy decides to fight back and find a way to bring Freddy out of the dream world and into the real world so he can be stopped.

There are some effectively chilling sequences that occur in these nightmares (one of the most memorable involves a bathtub transforming into a bottomless pit), and like just about every good horror film, the terror is present thanks to a good deal of attention to atmosphere. The lighting is effectively done whenever the dream calls for a certain way. The special effects are good. And the music score is efficiently eerie for the movie.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” is an effective horror film. The ideas are interesting, the tension is existent, and Nancy as a heroine is not a dumb, screaming idiot (she’s smart and resourceful), therefore able for us to like and root for her. I’m not quite sure I follow the ending, but I guess the point is to leave things open for interpretation. Craven does the material well, as it really seems he gets the genre and knows what his audience wants while also giving them something more in return. It’s a nicely-done chiller.

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