Logline: A child murderer stalks a group of teenagers in their dreams.
Written and directed by Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a classic slasher film featuring Freddy Krueger, one of the most recognizable and iconic figures in horror cinema. With his trademark burned face, red and green sweater, brown fedora, and glove with knives for fingers, Freddy has become engrained in popular culture and has become as familiar as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and other classic monsters.
Freddy would go on to appear in six sequels, a crossover film with the Friday the 13th franchise, and a remake. Over the years, Freddy became a comedian and far removed from Craven’s original character who is dark and menacing. Freddy’s sly humor is certainly on display here but it is not cartoonish and over the top as in later films. The original Nightmare is still the best film in the franchise. It is dark, inventive, and highly entertaining. Craven’s vision is an original one. Unlike Jason of Friday the 13th who is essentially just a ripoff of Michael Myers from Halloween, Freddy is unique and an intriguing character. Craven drew inspiration for the film from a series of newspaper articles. A group of youths from Southeast Asia died in their sleep, after having complained of terrible nightmares in which something was chasing them. They stayed awake for days at a time until they finally fell asleep and died.
Nightmare was produced on a low budget by New Line Cinemas, which was nearly bankrupt at the time. The film became an instant success upon its release. The acting varies in quality. The cast includes many young actors, including Johnny Depp, who makes his film debut. His performance is nothing remarkable but one cannot deny his screen presence. Heather Langenkamp does a fine job as the heroine Nancy Thompson, a strong female lead who has a will to survive. The real star of the film, though is Robert Englund, who is simply fantastic as Freddy.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is the way in which it toys with the viewer’s perceptions and blurs the line between reality and fantasy. It is not always easy to discern whether a character is awake or dreaming and therein lies some of the fun. The look of the film is great with practical effects that remain impressive to this day. Charles Bernstein provides a strong score, including a great theme for Freddy that would recur in most of the sequels.
Whether it is in the high school, the bathtub, or the boiler room, Nightmare is full of great scenes. It is hard to forget Nancy’s dead friend in a blood smeared bodybag calling to her at school, or blood erupting from a gaping hole in Glenn’s bed after the teen has been killed. Then there is that eerie and prophetic children’s song which begins and ends the film. In my favorite scene, Rod watches in horror as an invisible force slashes his girlfriend and drags her up the walls to the ceiling. It is easily the film’s most frightening and unsettling scene. If the film features one problematic scene, it is the ending. I would be lying if I said the film does not lose any steam in its finale, but mostly because everything that proceeds it is so great. Craven had no intentions of creating a sequel for Nightmare but his producer, Robert Shaye insisted on the film’s “surprise ending.” In less than two minutes, the film jump scares the viewer and suggests a sequel will follow while muddling things in the process. The scene does not make a lot of sense but consider it a gimmick ending that the film’s producer insisted on as the onslaught of sequels was all too imminent.
With A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven reinvigorated the slasher flick, which he would do again in 1996 with Scream. It is a classic slasher; an imaginative and fresh tale featuring one of horror cinema’s most compelling creations. It remains one of my favorite horror films of all time and one that I never tire of watching. This Nightmare is always worth revisiting but remember, whatever you do…don’t fall asleep.
Rating (out of ****): ****