Written and Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and Ronee Blakley
Reviewed by: Brett G.
”One, two, Freddy's coming for you...”
Two boogeymen were responsible for my introduction to the horror genre. The first was Frankenstein's monster, as portrayed by Boris Karloff in the Universal classics. The second was Freddy Krueger, the dream stalker of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. The latter was also responsible for my continued interest in the genre; as a child of the 80s, Freddy was the dominant icon of the time, as he not only populated theaters on a regular basis, but also television airwaves every Saturday night for a couple of years. Even Freddy's death really couldn't stop him because he would continue to haunt the shelves of the video stores I'd frequent throughout the 90s. When it was time to upgrade to DVD, Freddy's burned visage graced the first big purchase I made on the format in the form of the Nightmare on Elm Street box set, which went for close to a $100 at the time. I bought it without hesitation.
This life-long journey with one of horror's biggest stars must have started like so many horror films themselves: it was no doubt a dark, spooky night when my dad inexplicably let me watch the original Nightmare on Elm Street. I'll never know what possessed him to do that; perhaps it was because our relationship at that point had been somewhat defined by the scary stories he'd tell me about headless men and other horrific creatures. Even though I'd endured these tales, none of them could quite prepare me for what A Nightmare on Elm Street had to offer. At that age, I couldn't help but be both horrified and thrilled by what I saw unfolding on the screen. Even at that a young age, I had the notion that I was watching something special, which is a sentiment most would share about the film. Before Freddy was a global icon, he was the stuff of nightmares, and he was the centerpiece in one of the great films the genre has to offer.
We get our first glimpses of Freddy in the opening moments of the film; here, he constructs his iconic glove and haunts the dreams of a terrified Tina Grey. Tina manages to escape Freddy's clutches, but just barely. When she relates her story to her friends (Nancy, Glen, and Rod), a disturbing trend emerges: she's not the only one to see the maniac in her dreams. As the film unfolds, Freddy continues to haunt the children, who quickly learn that their dreams have deadly consequences when Tina is murdered while she sleeps. This leaves the rest of the group fighting sleep and desperately struggling to uncover the truth behind the man in their nightmares.
Wes Craven tapped into some primal fears with his conception of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The idea of a madman carving you up in the vulnerable state of sleep is obviously terrifying. However, the film works exceptionally well because menace hangs in the air everywhere, not just in the characters' dreams. Facing an enemy she can't escape, Nancy Thompson's entire life becomes a living hell; even when she's awake she has to face her parents' divorce and her mother's rampant alcoholism. Indeed, the nightmare never really ends, and the film feels like a culmination of the themes Craven explored in previous films like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Just like those films, Nightmare features the destruction of Americana and the family, with the titular Elm Street representing something of idyllic suburbia that has been lost in modern times. Furthermore, the character of Freddy Krueger, a murderous specter that punishes the child for the sins of the father has obvious metaphorical implications about the destruction of innocence.
Even when stripped of its metaphorical layers, the film works well as a pure horror film. While my favorite in the series will always be Dream Warriors, it's hard to argue that the original isn't the best horror film of the bunch. Brilliantly conceived in both plot and execution, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a film that works despite its age and limited budget. The film lacks the unbridled, imaginative, and complex sequences of its sequels, but it makes up for this with pure atmosphere. Craven's creepy visuals and Charles Bernstein's haunting, moody score combine to create dream sequences that feel ethereal and trance-like at times. Most of the sequences appropriately transform safe havens into nightmares: yards, schools, bedrooms, and Elm Street itself are turned into menacing dreamscapes. It's amazing how a little bit of fog and moody music so accurately capture that feeling of a waking, vivid dream, and it's a low-fi technique that's arguably just as effective as the more elaborate sequences in the later films.
Then, of course, there is Freddy himself. There seems to be a common misconception out there that Krueger was content to simply slink around silently in the shadows in his first appearance. While he's not exactly riding skateboards or using the Power Glove, Freddy isn't without some semblance of personality, and it's very clear that he's having a good time terrorizing his nubile victims. He's more of a demented boogeyman character here, firing off terse, cruel one-liners and mutilating himself to terrify Nancy and her friends. Englund's portrayal is spot on, particularly his ability to convey that sense of sick, twisted pleasure under all that make up. Freddy's trademark cackle isn't quite perfected here yet, but the more rough and raw bits of laughter here are reminiscent of a demented goblin, which is really the most accurate way to describe him here.
Unlike many of its slasher contemporaries, A Nightmare on Elm Street is more story-driven and character based, and not simply an exercise in gory death sequences. However, this is not to say that the film is without its share of memorable moments. There are only four on-screen deaths, yet two of them are among the most iconic in the genre: one sees a girl cut to death and dragged all across her room by an invisible Freddy, and the other is the infamous geyser of blood that erupts from the bed of a victim. Both sequences are terrifyingly realized, especially the aftermath of each, which actually forces other characters to reckon with the carnage that's perpetrated on the screen. The reaction of the parents who see their child reduced to nothing but blood and viscera is a moment that perfectly captures the inexplicable terror the film has to offer. There are other great horror images as well, such as Tina walking around in a body bag, and Freddy's hellish boiler room, which houses the possessions of his victims.
As the film is story-driven and character-based, it's helpful that the cast is solid. The younger cast members' inexperience shows at times in some somewhat raw performances, but they work well enough. Heather Langenkamp especially gives a good performance as Nancy, who is of course virginal, but also quite fiesty at times. Her purity is the perfect foil for Englund's depraved Freddy. Johnny Depp is of course the most notable of the teen stars here, and his performance as Nancy's boyfriend, Glen, is solid. Ronee Blakley and John Saxon provide veteran backup as Nancy's parents. Blakley's performance as a guilt-ridden alocholic is especially important, as Marge Thompson deteriorates quickly during the course of the film, revealing just how destructive Freddy really is.
While A Nightmare on Elm Street does represent the genesis of Freddy Krueger, who would indeed go on to achieve global fame in the years to come, it also represents an effective piece of horror on its own. While it's difficult to remain as creeped out as I was at 4 years old, the film still manages to thrill and delight after all these years. Nostalgia is always rose-tinted, but even without such a filter, better horror experiences are few and far between. As is to be expected, the film has been released various times on home video; however, the best DVD option for this one remains the aforementioned box set, released way back in 1999. While the transfer isn't as sharp as later releases, this disc features the most accurately color timed version of this film, plus the original mono soundtrack. The more recent Infinifilm release, while boasting more bonus material, features a more blue-tinted color timing and a surround sound remix that omits several musical cues and sound effects. It should also be noted that the film has recently been released on Blu-ray with the original mono restored, albeit with the same somewhat altered color timing. These quibbles likely won't register for the first time viewer, but hardcore fans of the film should beware.
That's usually where we leave things off here at OTH, but I would be remiss if I didn't send Freddy off with a little more fan fare. It's almost appropriate that this look at the first film represents the last of the series to be reviewed here, especially in light of the upcoming remake that will likely mark the end of Englund's tenure in the fedora and glove. If this is the case, no one can say that it hasn't been one hell of a ride. Between six films, a spin-off, and the long-awaited crossover with Jason, Freddy provided me with nearly twenty years of cinematic memories that aren't likely to be rivaled. While it's a bit disappointing that it had to end now, it's something that was always inevitable. It took a while to come to terms with this fact, but I've made peace with it because nothing can replace the original films or the memories they'll always bring. Plus, I doubt I was the first kid to be both scared of and fascinated by Freddy, and I doubt I'll be the last. Given the original film's timeless quality and the character's universal appeal, Freddy will endure. After all, every town (and video store) has an Elm Street. Really, this isn't so much about saying goodbye; instead, I hope I've managed to articulate the appreciation I'll always have for this series and this character in particular. And there's truly no better way to pay tribute to the character than to enshrine his debut in our Hall of Fame deem it Essential!
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