Written and Directed by Wes Craven
Original Release Date: November 9th, 1984 (U.S), August 1st 1985 (U.K).
Fred Krueger is not your friend, nor is he a nice guy in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Flashforward to the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s and Fred Krueger had taken on the more friendly moniker of ‘Freddy’ and was at the forefront of so many pieces of merchandise brandishing his burned face, not to mention playable knives for fingers.
Not bad going for a child killer released on a technicality and then burned to death by a vengeful mob.
There has always been something interesting about how audiences and pop culture gravitate towards our monsters. If one looks at the poster for A Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s not Robert Englund’s face we see brandishing back at us, but that of Heather Langenkamp as Nancy, the film’s central character and ‘final girl’.
Yet, like Halloween, Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as the endless sequels were cranked out at nearly at a pace of one film per year, A Nightmare on Elm Street became more centred around its monstrous villain who audiences couldn’t get enough of. Many of these films focused initially on their ‘final girls’, before an endless parade of sequels saw the focus on ever changing casts who nobody really cared for as long as the monsters in question got their pound of flesh.
Horror cinema has always loved its icons and come 1984, Fred Krueger would be the latest of the bunch, a new icon to join the ranks of recent creations from Carpenter, Cunningham, and Hooper, and in the grand scheme of things another character to add to a roster that also included such classic characters as Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and The Mummy.
It’s easy to be more cynical over Friday the 13th because everything about Cunningham’s film felt like an attempt to cash in on the success of Carpenter’s film, even down to the slasher formula and specific use of a date. While Craven’s film is itself a slasher film, one of many that littered the decade, the difference being was that like Carpenter when he unleashed Michael Myers on Haddonfield, Craven actually brought a level of ingenuity and originality to proceedings.
Of course, Halloween itself wasn’t technically the first slasher film. Like so many sub-genres, the basis of it can be traced back to so many other things that came before. The obvious one would be Bob Clark’s Black Christmas from 1974, but one could even got back to 1960 and pinpoint Psycho as a year-zero for prolonged suspense films that feature a disguised killer armed with a knife and a tolerance for a high body count.
Carpenter’s film laid down a more vibrant template for everything going forward, but while so many other films were happier just to replicate the Halloween formula to make some quick cash (including Halloween itself), Craven reached high for a somewhat more imaginative story.
Influenced by stories of refugees from war torn areas such as Vietnam and Cambodia refusing to sleep because of disturbing nightmares and then dying while in their slumber, as well as a moment from his own childhood when he was frightened by a behatted figure walking past his house in the dead of night, A Nightmare on Elm Street utilised many of the tropes and clichés that we expect but did so in a way that felt genuinely new and different to everything around it.
The film never relies on straightforward stalk and slash scenes, with the cast of characters being killed in increasingly surreal fashion, culminating most famously with a newly arrived to the screen Johnny Depp being swallowed by his bed and then spewed across his ceiling in a geyser of never ending blood. It could be horrible, and it kind of is, but it’s then followed by one of the darkest and funniest jokes in 80s horror cinema when someone exclaims that they ‘don’t need a stretcher up there, you need a mop’.
What’s most fascinating and somewhat endearing about the film is that it never lays down rules to explain what is happening. There is no explanation as to how Krueger can gain access to dreams and kill his victims, or how it is that Nancy is able to take Krueger’s hat into the real world. There is at times a genuine dream logic to proceedings. Think about Inception or The Matrix and how those films laid down a groundwork to explain how the mind works in a dreamscape. There is none of that here, and yet it’s hard to be annoyed by a film that daringly asks the audience to just go with it.
Unlike the basic stalk and slash of the Friday the 13th movies (which were up to their fourth film by this point and showing no signs of slowing down), the surreal atmosphere and more imaginative touches give the first Nightmare a differing feel and filmmaking sense compared to the many other slasher films that were dominating the horror genre in the decade, and drawing the ire of high profile critics such as Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
The key component here that Craven brings and would help do again when he brought Kevin Williamson’s screenplay for Scream to life, is to give his cast of characters lives and three dimensions. It was something that Halloween also did so well, making us hurt for Laurie Strode as her friends were killed and then finding her own life in danger. Filtering everything through Nancy Thompson and Langenkamp’s performance, not only does the film brilliantly bring imagination to the slasher formula, but there is also a trace of paranoia and distrust filtered through the film.
A figure lurking in a darkened corner, or some alleyway with the possibility of violence are not the things to be afraid of here. It plays with those visuals, and wonderfully so, but in the end the thing to fear the most is sleep. Copious amounts of coffee are consumed by Nancy in order to stay alive, her quest for the truth over what is happening becoming increasingly desperate, even as those around either die or don’t believe her, and there is also a distrust of authority dotted throughout.
The conspiracy begins at home here, as the townsfolk of Springwood, Ohio took it upon themselves to dole out justice to the child killer who was released on a technicality. The image of an armed mob taking out a monster is most famously one that was depicted in James Whale’s Frankenstein, and yet where a mob unleashing vengeance upon a monster is frequently the end of the story, here it’s the origin tale which leads to the creation of something worse.
Nancy’s story increasingly taps into the fear that maybe our parents aren’t telling us everything, that our age and lack of life experience means that key parts of life are held back from us for our own good, and yet here those actions and the suppression of the facts by the grown-ups are the very thing that is endangering the lives of their children. That Nancy’s estranged father Don (John Saxon) is the local Sheriff makes the cover-up even more pronounced. He isn’t just a parent protecting his child, he’s allowed the law to be taken out of his hands, even if it is to remove a genuine threat from the community.
Throughout the film Kruger is referred to as a child killer. No other term is used but it’s easy to read more into what has happened. Kruger taunting Nancy about how he is her boyfriend how after killing Glen is filled with all sorts of vile threats behind it, although the film never tips is fedora too much into the realm of sex and sexual violence in the way every other slasher of the period did. However, the film isn’t above aiming for some crass imagery in pursuit of a good scare; Nancy in the bath and Krueger’s bladed fingers coming out of the water between her legs feels particularly leery.
Nancy’s friend Tina and her boyfriend Rod are sexually active and are the first of the core quartet to be killed admittedly, and the film retains the trope of the virginal heroine whose survives right until the very end (we assume, the shock ending leaves the audience with more questions than it does answers), but the film is less interested in playing around with those tropes than it does in fuelling paranoiac dread about falling asleep and wondering if our parents are as noble as they claim to be.
The ability to combine smart genre scares with some genuine thematic heft would be diluted as the years went on and the number of sequel increased, at least until Craven took the reins again with New Nightmare in 1994, a fourth wall breaking masterpiece that ended up being the end of the series, at least until 2010’s attempt at a remake.
The film made New Line Cinema into what it would become. While the studio is now very much a part of the Warner Bros./Warner Media empire, it’s still to this day a studio famous for its horror output. ‘The House that Freddy Built’ is the term used to describe it, and it would eventually become the home of Jason Vorhees and Leatherface too, while currently it’s the home of the ever expanding Conjuring universe as well as the massively successful IT films.
Like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger became an ever increasing presence throughout the 80s, with multiple sequels where he was very much the star, and yet here he is a genuine bogeyman and a vile one too that the last thing anyone must have expected in 1984 watching it is that the convicted child killer would become a horror superstar in his own right. Robert Englund is a terrifying presence and Craven’s camera keeps him to the shadows and uses in-camera objects to somewhat obscure his appearance, while his dialogue and actions makes him terrifying. His antics are darkly entertaining for sure, but never too funny and he is a genuine threat throughout, a taunting nightmarish force of nature that leaves the audience wondering how he’ll be defeated.
Yet, he became an icon of the genre, the scripts for so many of the sequels turning him into a quippy character with one liners prior to killing of his victims, the character becoming increasingly diluted even if Englund’s performance was forever an entertaining one.
Like so many films of these types of franchises, there are some gold amongst the other films, particularly Dream Warriors and New Nightmare, but the original still remains a potent production, darkly entertaining, layered with meaning and above all else, wickedly and entertainingly scary.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is available to stream on Sky Cinema and Now TV in the U.K, and is available to buy on Google Play in the U.S.
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