Friday, October 16, 2015
Shocktober Revisited: A Nightmare on Elm Street
editor's note: this review originally appeared in 2011.
Last week the Cap'n stated that "I've seen A Nightmare on Elm Street many times." This is true, but it has fairly been pointed out that I've never reviewed the film. Ever. I reviewed the excellent Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy; I handed off the write up for Freddy's Dead to some guest bloggers (while it makes sense in its own way, the review really only resonates if you'd been in the room during the screening); and I scared you off of the remake, a film I've dubbed "Shit Coffin 2" with good reason. While there's no review for it, one of the proto-Horror Fests featured A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: The Dream Warriors. The series has been a long-standing part of my (semi)adulthood.
So why no review for the film that started it all? The movie that pushed New Line over from the home of John Waters and Reefer Madness to the eventual home of The Lord of the Rings*? The movie that took character actor Robert Englund (Dead & Buried, Galaxy of Terror) and thrust him into horror movie icon-dom? I don't have a good reason.
The Blogorium is a place where I generally try to cover movies I haven't seen; since its inception, I've attempted to give reactions to movies flying under the radar or to put my two cents in on major releases. I tend to save movies I've seen multiple times for "fest" coverage, but A Nightmare on Elm Street has never played Horror Fest for the simple fact that nearly everyone I know has seen it. The goal of Horror Fest has been to mix in lesser known films with some favorites that didn't get much attention, particularly sequels.
A Retro Review does give me an opportunity to talk a little bit about my history with A Nightmare on Elm Street, and not only the times I did see it, but at least three times I could have seen it, but didn't. Our paths have crossed several times since 1984, when I was five and A Nightmare on Elm Street was released, so let's take a look back after a brief recap of the plot.
Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss), Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp) and Rod Lane (Jsu Garcia, although listed as "Nick Corri") are four teenagers in Springwood, IL; separately, they've been having similar nightmares about a gloved killer with burnt skin and a red and green sweater. Their nightmares seem to be bleeding over into reality (literally), and Tina fears for her life. As the teenagers start dying off, Nancy appeals to her parents Marge (Ronee Blakley) and Lt. Donald Thompson (John Saxon) to come clean about the history of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a child molester killed by mob violence who swore vengeance from beyond the grave. Can Nancy stop Freddy from killing all of the children of Springwood in their sleep, or is there no way to protect yourself in your dreams?
By the time I was in late elementary school and in middle school, A Nightmare on Elm Street was on VHS and readily available to kids with parents less judicious in their rental habits. There were a few times where I was at a friend's house and A Nightmare on Elm Street was on, but I opted not to watch it (like most "scary" movies). I don't think I actually watched all of A Nightmare on Elm Street until I was in high school (during the budding horror phase of my geekdom) and I remember two things distinctly: the "joke-y" Freddy is almost wholly absent in the first film, and the "arm" scene (you all know the one) looked really stupid.
The latter isn't really worth pointing out, as it seems to be the consensus opinion of most Nightmare fans, and even some of the crew on the film. The former, on the other hand, was a bit of a surprise considering what I knew of Freddy from popular culture. Whether you watched the films or not, it was impossible not to know who Freddy Krueger was, either from Halloween costumes, appearances on MTV, or in songs like The Fresh Prince's "A Nightmare on My Street." The prevailing image of Freddy I had was a wise-cracking villain, one who delighted in torturing his victims and dropping cringe-worthy puns.
That Freddy isn't really in the first film. In fact, he's "Fred" Krueger for most of the movie, a creepy, malevolent entity capable of striking at our most vulnerable point. He had a mastery of dreams but didn't use it to play into a character's main attribute (or "gimmick," as it increasingly became with the sequels). Most of the dreams, in fact, take place in familiar places (boiler room aside) and rely on one or two lingering images (cutting fingers, a body bag being dragged down a hallway, the goat at the beginning of the film). Glen's death isn't tied specifically to a character trait, but instead are iconic in their own right (the two most memorable, Glen and Tina, take place in or around their bed).
Revisiting the film over the years I was more impressed with the nuance that Wes Craven (The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) weaves into the film - there's a brief conversation between Rod and Glen that makes it clear they've had nightmares as well, but both are too embarrassed to tell the girls. I also appreciate the Psycho-esque fakeout about who the protagonist is - the film opens with Tina, and certainly seems like the film is focused on her, and not Nancy, up until Tina is brutally slashed from floor to ceiling by Freddy.
I was also impressed by the logical reason why the "adults" refuse to listen to their children; their complicity in Krueger's death gives them incentive to "hush" any investigation of what happened, and why a phantom killer (they don't believe in, by the way) is picking off their children, one by one. Similarly, I appreciate that Nancy is more resourceful than the average "Final Girl"; many of horror's most famous survivors become that way by accident, by default because everyone dies around them. Nancy, unlike Laurie Strode or Alice Hardy, is proactive in curtailing Freddy's killing spree, and her plan to drag him into the real world - a real world laced with home made traps, by the way - beats the usual "run and hide until finally killing the monster" motif.
The film makes the most of a low budget, save for two moments: the aforementioned "arms" scene in the alleyway, and the final "stinger" involving Nancy's mother being pulled into 1428 Elm Street through the door window. The image would be more potent if it weren't so clear that Blakley has been replaced by an immobile dummy and awkwardly sucked into the door.
From there on out, I sometimes have trouble disentangling elements from the first Nightmare and its sequels, many of which are linked by characters or continuing stories (1, 3, 4, 5, and New Nightmare could be considered to be one extended narrative, and if you really push it, Freddy's Revenge). Every now and then I think about showing A Nightmare on Elm Street during Horror Fest, because I don't think its status has lessened with time, and almost everything the remake does is a half-assed retread of the original film, and I'm not showing THAT any time soon. Maybe it's time to finally consider the first Nightmare, the limited but still potent slice of horror, one that appeals to basic fears without the cheap jokes that came later.
* There's an extra on the Nightmare on Elm Street disc called "The House that Freddy Built," focused on this exact narrative, just to make it clear this isn't conjecture on my part.