A Nightmare on Elm Street
Dir. Wes Craven
When a group of high school friends begin to die while they sleep, level-headed Nancy soon discovers that she and her friends are being stalked in their dreams by the vengeful, now demonic, child killer their vigilante parents murdered years ago. Can she stay awake long enough to put a stop to his bloody killing spree and save her own skin?
One, Two, Freddy’s coming for you…
A Nightmare on Elm Street really needs no introduction. Wes Craven’s groundbreaking slasher was released at a time when cinemas were saturated in body-count movies featuring randy teenagers getting cut up in isolated locations by vengeful and morally conservative bogeymen. Despite sticking to the by-then conventional narrative structure of the slasher movie, Craven injected new life into it by deploying a supernatural twist and delving into the most primal fears known to man. The director effortlessly preys on childhood fears of the ‘bogeyman’ and scores a major coup by exploiting the inevitability that eventually everyone must succumb to sleep. And of course, it was with this film that Craven gave the world one of the most enduring icons of horror cinema: Freddy Krueger.
Craven had already made a name for himself as a purveyor of extreme cinema with titles such as Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Despite the brutality of his cinematic visions, his work is often marked by sharp intelligence and a strangely philosophical air. Craven often talks about how horror cinema addresses primordial fears, and by delving into such dark subject matter, he is cathartically addressing concerns and anxieties and helping to ‘put the genie back in the bottle.’ While at college he studied literature and psychology before moving on to earn a Masters in philosophy. Prior to his work as a filmmaker, he was an English teacher. After directing the likes of The Hills Have Eyes II and Swamp Thing in the early eighties, he was financially stable enough to take time out to embark on writing a project that had been brewing in his mind for some time. Inspired by a number of newspaper articles about people who were afraid to go to sleep, and after losing the battle to stay awake, died the next time they fell asleep, Craven fashioned a script about a killer who slaughters people in their dreams. No stranger to exploring the nature of dreams - most of his films up until this point featured disarmingly realised dream sequences - Craven had actually mastered the art of remembering his dreams while at college and kept a record of them to enhance a paper he wrote about dreams and the subconscious. This esoteric approach fuelled his script for A Nightmare on Elm Street which circulated Hollywood for several years before being picked up by fledgling indie studio New Line.
Far from just being another run of the mill slasher flick, A Nightmare on Elm Street is rich with various concepts and themes typical of Craven’s work. Central to the film is the notion of generational conflicts and the idea that the ‘sins of the father’ shall be visited upon the children. This adds to the plight of the teens, whose parents’ attempts to protect them simply endanger their lives all the more. As in most slasher movies, the adult figures are weak and powerless, and here they are rendered even more so because of their complicity in a child killer’s death. The younger characters are typical suburban teens, hanging out, goofing around and making out. Of the group, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is clearly marked as being resourceful, strong-minded and independent. It is she who first realises that the adults know who Fred Krueger (Robert Englund) is, and she who successfully figures out how to confront him; only allowing herself to sleep in order to lure Krueger into her dreams and pull him into the real world to strip him of his power. It’s a simple but effective resolve; by facing her fear and being self-reliant, she can overcome it. While reading about dreams, she and her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp in his first major role) discover that in Balinese culture dreamers use ‘dream skills’ to protect themselves from nightmares; and if they inadvertently create a monster in their dreams, they turn their back on it and take away whatever power their fear gave it. Only Nancy realises she can use this information to her advantage.
Utilising a highly skewed dream logic which ensures one can never be sure what is real or just one of the teens dreaming, or indeed even begin to predict what might happen, the audience is kept on the edge of its seat while warped visuals add to the feverish tension throughout. The dream sequences are masterfully handled and work to blur the lines between dream and reality. Dream logic and striking imagery combine to create many memorable moments throughout, beginning with the startling scene in which Tina (Amanda Wyss) is cut open by an unseen attacker as she sleeps, dragged out of bed, up the bedroom wall and across the ceiling. Later on Glen is pulled into his bed and spat out as a geyser of gore, while Nancy is pulled into her bath by a clawed hand reaching up from the seemingly bottomless depths, and then licked by an obscene, disembodied tongue that suddenly protrudes from her unplugged telephone. The sight of that blade-clawed hand reaching up between Nancy's legs in the bath hangs heavy with all manner of worrying connotations. As dark as the film is, it isn’t without its wry humour, evident in moments such as when Glen lies on a couch listening to his friends having (loud) sex upstairs and quips “Morality sucks.”
A Nightmare on Elm Street also introduced us to Freddy Krueger, who was to become one of the most enduring icons of horror cinema, famed for his dark humour and bad puns. Actually named after a child who used to bully Craven in school, Fred Krueger (as he’s called in this film) is portrayed as an unsettlingly dark and menacing figure - a far cry from the pun-spouting clown he would become in the sequels. There is something genuinely nasty and sleazy about him, particularly as it’s revealed he was a child killer. Relegated to the shadows most of time, we only catch glimpses of his hideously burned and glistening face, while his highly distinctive garb of beaten fedora hat, red and green stripped sweater and razor-fingered glove feed his unnerving visage. When he does speak, it’s to utter threats such as ‘I’m gonna kill you slow.’ Like Halloween’s Michael Myers, he is portrayed as something of a local bogeyman; highlighted by the jump-rope song we hear the spooky little girls dressed in white singing. The folklore constructed around him works to add to his formidable and evil nature, aligning him with other threatening childhood figures such as those in Heinrich Hoffman's Struwwelpeter. Interesting similarities abound between Craven’s film and Hoffman's 1845 children’s bedtime story collection in which children are immolated, tortured and mutilated by a man with giant scissors. Struwwelpeter, in the grand tradition of fairytales, was conceived to teach children that if they didn’t do as their parents told them, horrible fates would befall them. As a teacher of literature, it isn’t too far fetched to believe that Craven could have drawn inspiration from these sadistic little tales to enhance his own fiendish creation.
Indeed, A Nightmare on Elm Street can be viewed as an updated fairytale, with its cruel morality and plot that hinges on a ‘sins of the father are to be laid upon the children’ agenda, Craven’s film taps into that deep rooted childhood fear of parental abandonment. The teens of Elm Street realise that their parents cannot help them - in fact, their parents are actually responsible for creating the monster that stalks them. This is highlighted in the scene where Marge explains to Nancy that she can go to sleep because ‘mommy has killed the monster’, revealing that she and the other parents of the neighbourhood burned Krueger alive. To Nancy’s horror, Marge even fishes his finger blades out of the boiler in her basement. The juxtaposition of Nancy's mother, in her dressing gown with her painted nails and reassuring smile, holding these morbid instruments of death, and admitting her part in a vigilante murder, is a powerful one.
The various themes of generational strife are also fore-grounded during Nancy’s English class when the students look at various Shakespeare plays in which overprotective parental figures are revealed to do more harm than good.
With its central premise of a man-made monster capable of stalking and killing his victims in their sleep, A Nightmare on Elm Street remains a chilling, atmospheric and genuinely unsettling film to this day. It has retained much of its power to shock, perturb and perhaps even induce a few sleepless nights. Its ‘happy ever after’ ending is marred by the inclusion of a tacked on scene (at the insistence of New Line producers) to set up a sequel. As he had sold the rights because he was so broke, all Craven could do was watch helplessly as the producers set about making child killer Krueger more palatable for the multiplex crowd through increasingly ridiculous sequels which tainted and actually threatened to eradicate the dark power of the first film.