A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
Such was the level of investment in the slasher movie, just five years after its official birth the genre was close to burning out. Step in horror maestro Wes Craven with his A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) which gave the slice and dice film a much needed shot in the arm. Whether this was a good or a bad thing is debateable given the slasher output during the latter half of the decade, but Craven’s film remains a true fright fest that gave the genre one of its most recognisable and charismatic villains.
Wes Craven’s pre Elm Street work had been hit and miss. The director’s first foray into horror was the controversial The Last House On The Left (1972). A joint project with fellow director Sean Cunningham (Friday the 13th (1980)) the graphic update of The Virgin Spring (1960) had one redeeming quality, a drive to broaden the horizons of acceptable movie violence. This was followed by The Hills Have Eyes (1977), a slightly more adept slice of scary cinema from the ‘cannibal’ sub-genre and a film that showed the first signs of Craven as a terror specialist. Craven then struggled with various genre outings Deadly Blessing (1981), Swamp Thing (1982), Invitation to Hell (1983)¸none of which were well received by critics or fans. It was around this time that Craven stumbled upon a series of interesting articles from a Los Angeles newspaper.
The clippings told the story of a number of Asian refugees who upon moving to the US began to experience nightmares so severe they refused to go so sleep. Some of the men involved died in their sleep soon after, leaving medical staff baffled. Seeing the unexplained as a blank canvas for a horror tale Craven pounced on the story and came up with the idea of a serial killer whose modus operandi would be the nightmares of his victims. Continuing his run of scripts with excellent horror titles, he called his screenplay A Nightmare On Elm Street; it was a captivating title befitting the amazing premise and terrifying film that would follow.
Since 1984 Elm Street’s power to scare has become diluted. The concept of horror sequels and their diminishing returns remained steadfast; the further away from the original film, the worse the movie becomes. For some franchises its difficult to cast your mind back to a time when the first outing was considered top notch cinema. Seven sequels (thus far) and one Elm Street remake, a television series Freddy’s Nightmares, a Freddy Krueger rap song, lunch boxes, computer games, action figures, and a much more besides, have all dragged the film’s lead villain through the mud. No other horror icon has fallen so far so fast. Wiping the slate clean is a tall ask, but fortunately thirty four years later it’s a mind-wipe that’s still worth the effort.
Despite reinvigorating the slasher genre, Elm Street was more than standard stalk and slash fare. In concept it’s a ghost story, a killer returning from beyond the grave to exact revenge on a new generation of Elm Street residents. The serial killer Freddy Krueger was once a human inhabitant of Springwood, preying on young children and mutilating them for kicks (whether he also molested them is a plot point the series has swung back and forth on almost at will). Though caught and arrested Krueger escaped sentencing on a courtroom technicality. Taking arms against this injustice, the parents of Elm Street found Krueger and burnt him alive in his own boiler room lair. Now in the present day, Krueger returns to take revenge on the children of the parents that killed him, his murderous tool this time the dreams of his victims, reaching them while they sleep.
This inspired idea allowed Craven to present the true contents of our nightmares, something which had rarely been seen in mainstream cinema. Up until this point movies were telling us what we should be having bad dreams about, the Wolfman, the Mummy, zombies, vampires, and the like. Elm Street took the logic defying frights of our dreams and placed them on screen to terrify viewers all over again, a tactic laid out in the opening scene.
The brief opening credits are shot against the grimy backdrop of a murderer forging his weapon, a dirty leather glove with five inch razor blades for fingers; the killer is hidden from view. We then join Tina (Amanda Wyss), blonde, dressed in a flimsy nightgown, and alone outside on at night for reasons unexplained. But despite the typical slasher movie victim set-up Tina’s predicament is a step beyond slice and dice cliché; she’s in a nightmare. This familiar twisted reality is represented chillingly by Freddy’s ever extending arms and Tina’s inability to put any distance between her and her attacker no matter how hard she runs.
Surprisingly Tina survives, but awake and safely in her bedroom she discovers a souvenir from her dream; four long razor slits in her nightgown. In this short sequence Craven laid out his methodology; in our dreams the rules of reality mean nothing but what happens there will now carry over to reality. It was a terrifying prospect in 1984 and remains so today.
Viewing Elm Street retrospectively, what viewers can no longer appreciate as much is the story’s element of mystery. Just who is this man with the tatty sweater and razors for fingers? It’s a full two thirds of the way into the film before we’re made aware of Krueger’s back story, motives, or even his name. And Craven could not have cooked up a more repulsive villain if he tried, the visual clash of red and green on a pullover that’s instantly recognisable, a hideously burnt face, a battered fedora casting a shadow upon his melted looks. There is none of the cheeky bravado that prevailed in Freddy’s further outings, just a grubby nastiness, ‘I’m gonna kill you slow’. Krueger and the nightmares of the children go hand in hand as we quickly learn that this is his playground with rules only he is privy to, the aforementioned opening scene making this painfully obvious.
After this dramatic opening we meet our heroine Nancy. A common thread amongst all good slasher movies is a female lead played effectively by an actress with talent, and eighteen year old Heather Langenkamp makes the most of her role as Nancy, despite being a bit rough around the edges from a traditional acting standpoint. Young enough to remain vulnerable but strong enough to present believable resilience, Nancy Thompson remains in the top echelons of horror movie ‘final girls’. Unfortunately, the same credit cannot be given to Nancy’s friends Tina, Rod, and Glen. Though they’re played well enough by Wyss, Nick Corri and a fresh-faced Johnny Depp, they all look a few years older than high-schooler Nancy.
What becomes clear though is that Nancy’s buddies are there as Freddy cannon fodder, and when the first of them is slaughtered Craven reveals just how ferocious his killer can be. Such is the brutality of Krueger’s first on screen kill it’s yet to be topped for impact despite numerous Freddy sequels and an untold amount of finger-razored killings. By 1984 the expected level of gore had been upped considerably by slasher hits such as The Burning (1981) and Italian gore fests such as The Beyond (1981). Craven had to up his game if horror fans were to be satisfied. Even with this cinematic predilection for gruesome deaths Tina’s demise was and still is a shocking watch. Much like the viewer all Rod can do is watch as Tina’s body is dragged around her bedroom at gravity defying angles by an unseen force, all the while being sliced to shreds. There is something incredibly undignified about the way Tina’s shredded remains slosh back down to the bed below, spraying blood across the room and gore across the face of a dazed Rod.
Ingeniously filmed by Craven with use of a rotating bedroom set, Tina’s death is stark and real, in contrast to the over-worldly dreamscape we saw the Tina running in just seconds earlier. It’s clear from this point that sleep means death and the viewer now has to watch as Nancy slowly unravels, questioning her own good sense thanks to a total lack of sleep. Equally there’s no respite for the viewer as Craven’s constantly switches between the dream world and the real world with little warning and zero clues. Are we sleeping or are we awake?
To jolt us further Craven splices in solid jump-scares, with Nancy foolishly lingering on her bedroom mirror and unwisely opting for a relaxing soak in the bath. All of this is underscored by a feeling of the nightmare playing out before us, the film ripe with vivid imagery, none more startling than the dead body of Tina beckoning Nancy from inside her bloodied body-bag, silently slithering along high school hallways. Krueger adds his own images to the mix, including a peak at his rotting insides, his horrid use of a telephone, the hideous screeching of finger razors on the steel, and an unforgettable school yard chant, ‘One, Two, Freddy’s coming for you’. It’s a wide and varied palate of scares.
Showing the hand of a veteran director Craven also presents the story in a superbly structured manner, drawing out vital clues of information over the course of the movie. The slow realisation that all four of the teens in Nancy’s posse have been having the same dream raises the level of dread but also moves the story smoothly onto the next reveal; Nancy discovering the link between Krueger in the dream world and the real world by nabbing his hat during a sleep therapy session. We then learn the reason behind the shifty stares shared by the Elm Street parents when the truth about Freddy is revealed by Nancy’s Mum Marge, played by Ronee Blakely in an intriguingly nonchalant style.
All of which leads seamlessly into Nancy’s final confrontation with the man himself. Each stage of the proceedings is coupled by an increased level of weariness in our female lead, which in itself is paralleled by Nancy’s growing inner strength and determination to survive, ‘I’m into survival’. Langenkamp performs admirably considering her age and lack of on screen experience at the time and has some great veteran support from the likes of John Saxon and the aforementioned Blakley on quirky form.
The biggest doff of the fedora must go to Robert Englund for turning the part of Freddy Krueger into the role of a lifetime. The part was originally given to David Warner, but when scheduling conflicts ruled the English actor out Craven had to hold fresh auditions. Englund, known for playing lovable alien Willie in the television series V, didn’t immediately impress Craven, with a stature shorter than what the director wanted. But Craven was impressed by Englund’s willingness to move mentally to a ‘dark place’ and offered him the part. While the sequels and their quip filled scripts did Englund few favours critically, his performance in 1984 was strong enough on its own to place the actor alongside the horror greats.
It isn’t all plain sailing for Elm Street. The score by Charles Bernstein is uneven, ghostly melodic one moment, unnecessarily funky the next. Some of the lines of dialogue are just as uneven, needlessly sign-posting plot details ‘Whatever you do don’t fall asleep’. There are also some sizeable plot holes, the biggest of which is everyone's lack of belief in Nancy's story even after she manages to pull Freddy's hat out of the dream world in front of a group of 'sleep doctors'; did they think the hat instantly materialised some other way?
But perhaps the biggest gripe with some fans remains the tacked on ending. Realising Craven had given them a movie that could potentially spawn a Halloween and Friday The 13th killing franchise, New Line Cinema insisted that an additional scene be added to the end of the movie that confirmed Freddy had not been defeated and would hence return to cause more mayhem. The result was a confusing coda that appeared to negate all that had gone before it.
With Freddy defeated Nancy cheerily exits her house, walking to school on a sunny day with the trauma of the ordeal behind her. But rather than walking she hops into a car with Rod, Tina and Glen, all now seemingly back from the dead. The roof of the convertible closes to reveal the familiar red and green stripes, while the Krueger glove smashes through the front door and yanks an inadvertently hilarious looking dummy of Nancy’s Mum through a tiny front door window. It appears that whilst Nancy defeated Freddy physically he has won an everlasting psychological victory over her; her nightmares are continuing. Either that or Freddy hasn’t been defeated at all. Craven, having delivered an electrifying conclusion to the movie complete with some astonishing fire-walk stunt work, was miffed at the studio’s intervention. Bowing down to their request to reshoot the finale, this concluding scene was as close to ambiguous as Craven could get away with.
Ambiguity or not, New Line got its wish and a sequel followed just a year later. A Nightmare On Elm Street Part II: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) was a disappointment and a mess. At the time fans were baffled by the plot which showed Freddy killing teens outside of his dream world without any explanation as to how he got there. It also replaced heroine Nancy with a ‘final boy’ Jesse (Mark Patton) and his girlfriend Lisa (Kim Myers) whom he had zero chemistry with; there was no mention of Nancy or her fate. What quickly became apparent on repeat viewings was a clear homo-erotic / homophonic subtext running through the film; director Jack Sholder and screenwriter David Chaskin denied any deliberate intent to create gay undertones. Actor Patton, closeted at the time, received undue pressure and typecasting as a result of the subtext written in to the film, to the point where he left the industry altogether in the late eighties. After years of denial Chaskin eventually revealed that the homosexual slant had been deliberately included, alleging that he was trying to tap in to the angst of an adolescent struggling with his sexuality.
Two years later a third instalment arrived to try and get the franchise back on track, A Nightmare On Elm Street Part III: Dream Warriors (1987). But despite bringing back Nancy, now working as a therapist in a mental asylum, and giving Langenkamp an excellent supporting cast including Laurence Fishburne, Craig Wasson and Patricia Arquette, the film was a disappointment to fans or proper scares. Despite Craven having input on the script Dream Warriors opted for a comic slant, the set-pieces relying on ironic humour for impact. Krueger was turned in to part killer part one-liner comedian, ‘Welcome to prime time bitch’, eschewing the mean streak he employed in the original film.
While scare fans lamented the series’ comedic turn, regular cinema goers seem to revel in Freddy’s new master-of-ceremonies shtick. Seeking to capitalise on popularist opinion New Line green lit two quick turnaround sequels A Nightmare On Elm Street Part IV: The Dream Master (1988) and A Nightmare On Elm Street Part V: The Dream Child (1989). Both films suffered under the Krueger the killer comedian angle. Market saturation followed as Freddy became a pop icon via a flood of merchandising and spin-offs, and the Elm Street franchise became a dirty word for fans of the scary movie.
The nail in the coffin arrived in 1991 with the release of Freddy’s Dead – The Final Nightmare (1991), an uneven mess of a film so disinterested in frightening its audience it gave away its ending in its title. Fright fans were at least thankful that the series was being killed off.
Seeking to keep the Krueger name alive in the public consciousness while the legal wrangling on a Freddy versus Jason film was sorted, New Line allowed Craven the chance to revitalise the Elm Street franchise in 1994 with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). A real post-modern treat, and two years prior to Scream’s irony laden success, the film remains an overlooked gem. New Nightmare featured a number of the actors from A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) playing themselves ten years on from making the original feature. Langenkamp is called upon by studio New Line to star in a new Elm Street film, but all is not well as the essence of Krueger manifests itself in reality.
This intriguing concept, original proposed by Craven as a possible third film in the series, allowed Craven to have all sorts of fun playing with the audience’s notion of film as a separate on-screen reality. Craven even appeared in front of camera playing himself in the ultimate meta tribute to his break out hit. Best of all Krueger was back as the vicious serial killer viewers met knew in the first Elm Street movie, including a brutal tribute to Tina’s shocking death when a nurse treating Langenkamp is sliced up in a hospital treatment room. Only a lacklustre climax, featuring wonky early nineties effects and a Freddy (or a demon inhabiting the idea of Freddy, depending on how one interprets the story) apparently now vulnerable to mere kicks and punches, let the film down. Unfortunately normal service resumed when the woeful Freddy vs Jason (2004) finally arrived ten years later.
Another chance at a reprieve came in 2009 when it was announced that A Nightmare On Elm Street would be the latest horror classic to be remade. Director Samuel Bayer got off to a great start by casting Jackie Earle Haley as Robert Englund’s replacement. England gave Haley his seal of approval and fans took his Oscar nominated turn as convicted paedophile Ronald McGorvey in Little Children (2006) as a good sign he could bring something special to the role. Bayer also ditched the wisecracking humour and bright colour palette of previous entries for a more back to basics take on the story.
Despite these encouraging choices A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010) was a disappointment, largely thanks to an uninspired script. The teens stalked by Freddy, headed up by a bored looking Rooney Mara, are an unlikeable and forgettable bunch. The horrifying kills of Craven's film had also been dispensed with along with any clever use of the dream world.
The script confined Haley to little more than a cut down version of England's original performance, and the film's finale was an anti-climatic and muted tussle in a small grotty cellar. Though New Line hoped Bayer's movie would start of a new franchise a poor reception from critics and fans put pay to any follow-up. Given the brilliance of Craven's Elm Street concept its staggering that all Bayer could come up with was a by-the-numbers slasher; one wonders what someone like Guillermo del Toro would have done with the Krueger concept.
The passing of Wes Craven in 2015 sadly put pay to any chance of Krueger’s creator returning to the director’s chair for once last nightmare. A wealth of tributes from film fans, critics and industry professionals followed though, all heaping praise on the writer and directors ability to scare an audience out of their wits. Even with a long list of solid fright films to call upon, there was one film that rose to the top as fans looked back over Craven’s career, A Nightmare On Elm Street. For a filmmaker who revelled in the scary movie, there can surely be no finer epitaph.
See also A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989), Freddy’s Dead – The Final Nightmare (1991), Jason Goes To Hell – The Final Friday (1993), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), Freddy Vs Jason (2004), A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010)