A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)

  • Director: Wes Craven
  • Writer: Wes Craven
  • Starring: Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Robert Englund, Johnny Depp, Ronee Blakley, Amanda Wyss, and Nick Corri
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max or Peacock, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I am always a sucker for dream sequences in my movies and TV shows, so it is not surprising that A Nightmare on Elm Street is pretty much exactly my jam. Don’t get me wrong, from an artistic point of view, it doesn’t really transcend its status as an entry in the “slasher” genre, but it also is so well made, acted, and conceived that it is one of the very best examples thereof. The movie came in at a time that the slasher genre, pretty close to invented by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and brought to its zenith of popularity by Halloween, was starting to be seen as moribund, so no studio as willing to finance the movie. A new studio called “New Line Cinema” then took a chance on the movie, which turned out to be wildly profitable and spawned six direct sequels, a TV series, a crossover movie with the Friday the 13th franchise, and a 2010 remake. New Line went on to be one of the most successful studios of the next couple decades, sometimes being jokingly referred to as “The House that Freddy Built.”

The basic premise of A Nightmare on Elm Street seems to be genius, at least in retrospect. It is about a former child killer named Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), who we eventually learn was burned to death by vigilante parents. Somehow he now haunts the dreams of teenagers, in which he murders them in ways that also cause them to die horribly in real life. In addition to, you know, being murdered, once our teenagers figure out what’s going on they have the added stress of trying not to sleep (at one point the heroine of this movie tells her boyfriend she hasn’t slept for six days). One of the masterstrokes of director Wes Craven is in never letting us know when the movie has transitioned from reality to dreams, meaning basically anything can happen at any time, and even seeming innocuous scenes have a tension to them because something could happen at any moment to let us know that it is actually a dream.

Heather Langenkamp, like most of the cast a total unknown at the time, is cast in the “Final Girl” role of Nancy Thompson, eventually the sole survivor of the group of teenagers Freddy stalks in this initial installment. I actually find her much more interesting than most similar slasher movie heroines. She figures things out pretty quick and formulates multiple elaborate plans to stop and kill Freddy, down to building elaborate booby traps and trip wires. Compare this to Jamie Lee Curtis in the original Halloween, who mostly just screams and occasionally throws stuff at Michael Myers (yes, I’m aware she becomes more of an action heroine in subsequent films, though one wonders if perhaps this movie had an influence on that). Langenkamp would later return for the third and seventh installments of the franchise. She also later married a prosthetic makeup artist she met on set and moved into that field herself, working as a makeup coordinator on movies like the Zack Snyder Dawn of the Dead and The Cabin in the Woods.

At first, however, the main character appears to be Nancy’s friend Tina, played by Amanda Wyss, before she ends up as the first victim of the movie. Perhaps the most famous modern example of pulling this sort of bait and switch with the supposed main character in a slasher movie is in Scream with Drew Barrymore, which was of course also directed by Wes Craven. But he does it here, too, and in fact Tina’s death scene (immediately after she has sex with her boyfriend, the sort of detail that makes slasher movies catnip to pop academics) is, in my opinion, one of the more shocking and spectacular in all of horror. From the point of view of her boyfriend (Nick Corri), she is not only slashed in the abdomen, she is dragged, screaming, bloody, and flailing, out of bed, up the wall, and across the ceiling, then dangled spinning in the air. The effect was achieved by constructing a bedroom set that could spin around, with all of the furniture, etc., nailed down or to the walls. This was the single biggest expenditure of the movie’s shoestring budget.

The movie’s next most spectacular death scene is given to none other than Johnny Depp, playing Nancy’s boyfriend, in his first movie role. Shot using the same basic set, he is suddenly sucked down into his bed, at which point an incredible fountain of blood spurts up in a geyser from the bed, coating the ceiling and walls of his room. There is so much blood, in fact, that the special effects people lost control of it and the movie set was flooded. One interviewee in a recent documentary I watched recalled someone yelling “Run!” and the crew scattering as they fled from the onrushing fake blood. Anyway, for me Depp gives probably the least interesting of the movie’s major performances, but he was the one of the cast who would become a major star. The two main adults, meanwhile (Nancy’s estranged parents), are played by John Saxon, last seen on this blog being co-top-billed with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, and Ronee Blakley, who played the doomed country princess in Nashville.

Craven, a Cleveland native, was already well known as a horror director by the time of A Nightmare on Elm Street, having already helmed The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, but this was the movie that took him to the next level. Craven was initially not involved with the sequels, with the exception of co-writing the third installment, until finally directing the seventh movie in the franchise in 1994, the highly metafictional Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, thought by many fans to be the second best installment. That movie features Freddy Krueger, a movie villain, coming into the real world and murdering people making a movie about him, including several of the original cast members playing versions of themselves.

So if you’re at all interested in this genre, I’d definitely recommend A Nightmare on Elm Street. I think the dream world idea makes it inherently more creative and interesting than other slasher franchises like the Halloween or Friday the 13th films, which is why out of that group it’s definitely my favorite. At the very least, watch it for Johnny Depp getting pulled down into a bed and having his blood sprayed all over his bedroom.

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