Day 27: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Director: Wes Craven

Starring: Ronee Blakley, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund, Jsu Garcia, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Amanda Wyss

Runtime: 91 minutes

So despite my statement in the Scream post that I wouldn’t be doing another Wes Craven movie, I decided to do A Nightmare on Elm Street. After re-evaluating its classic status, I decided there’d be so many profound….OK, really, we’re doing this movie for a film class, and I decided it would be just easier to re-watch this and write about it.

This re-watch didn’t improve my opinion of the film much. I still think it’s more silly than scary, and much of the acting is just downright bad. It’s obviously borrowing elements from Halloween: the small mid-western town, a human-turned-bogeyman killer stalking teenagers, ineffectual adults (although there’s more of a parental presence here), and even a scene in English class where the discussion relates to the killer. Halloween is an already a copy of Psycho, so now you have a copy of a copy, which was one of the problems with these slasher films.

Of course, Nightmare diverges in significant ways from Halloween and other slasher films. For one thing, Freddy kills in your dreams, which allows for some creepy dream sequences. And the blurring between dream and reality adds a somewhat disturbing element. The adults have larger roles than usual—the focus in slashers usually on teenagers—and they, in fact, are responsible for a crime that has brought Freddy down on their children, whereas it is usually teens who responsible for the past crime that sets the killer in motion (like the neglectful teenagers in Friday the 13th who unleash both Mrs. Vorhees and Jason on generations of teens to come).

Freddy & Nancy

Freddy (Robert Englund) menaces Nancy (Heather Lagenkamp).

POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOLLOW

After starting with Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) nightmare, we get a another couple of brief scenes that set character, and some humor, thanks to Glen (Johnny Depp in his film debut), but then we get a gruesome scene of Freddy mutilating Tina. This is perhaps the most effective and unsettling scene of the movie—the way Tina thrashes makes the murder look like a rape, the way her body rises in the air and is pulled to the ceiling (we can’t see Freddy since he is attacking in her dreams) adds a surreal quality, and her macho boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) can only watch helplessly.

From there, Tina’s friend, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) tries to figure out who the killer is, and why her and her friends are having nightmares of the same guy with a burned face, red and green sweater, and knives for fingers. Although Nancy, like Laurie in Halloween, is the innocent, virginal girl, Krueger’s pursuit of her has a pointedly sexual dimension, with his clawed hand coming up between her legs in the bathtub. The deaths of the male characters, meanwhile, has no such element, and they don’t involve the same intensity of violence. (This would change in the sequel, in which the killings have a homoerotic, sadomasochistic dimension.) We don’t even see Glen’s death, just see him sucked into his bed, followed by a ridiculous amount of gushing blood that sprays all over the room. I found myself laughing heartily at that geyser of blood, and really wonder why anyone would think it was scary. It’s not like the river of blood sequence in The Shining which, although I think is a bit dated now, is more unsettling and well-crafted than this.

I’m sorry but I don’t the teen actors to be that convincing. I don’t like Johnny Depp now, and his performance here is tolerable at best. Heather Langenkamp is also tolerable, but a bit melodramatic, and doesn’t have the same nuance of character that I feel Jamie Lee Curtis captured in Halloween. Robert Englund does a great job as Freddy, mixing the right amount of camp and creep, even when he has to deliver some really awful lines. (“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy!”) His taunts and witticisms set him apart from the silent, detached killers of other slashers, and he just does bizarre things that are supposed to freak you out (like cut off his own fingers).

Ultimately, I still get more laughs than chills from this movie, and the sequels only up this factor. If it weren’t for Englund’s performance, I think Freddy could have become more of a low-budget joke than a horror icon, and he certainly deserves his place among Michael, Jason, and Leatherface as a modern horror icon. I have to admit against fan and critical opinion that I actually like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which takes the blurring of dream and reality to a whole new level, as Freddy actually comes to life to menace the cast and crew of the original Nightmare, with Langenkamp, Craven, Englund, and Saxon playing themselves. I also thought that Freddy vs. Jason was more fun than I had expected.

Nightmare

No running in the halls, Nancy!

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