Prepare to feel old because it’s been over thirty years since Wes Craven’s seminal horror masterpiece, A Nightmare on Elm Street, first came to cinema screens in 1984. Considering that today is Halloween and star and horror icon Robert Englund recently declared that he is now too old to don the fedora and razor-fingered glove of the demonic Freddy Krueger, I figured it was good a time as any to revisit and review what is still, for me, one of the most terrifying horror movies of all time.
A Nightmare on Elm Street takes place on the titular street in a town called Springwood and revolves around four friends, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss), Rod Lane (Nick Corri), and Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp in his first feature-film role), who find their dreams haunted by a malevolent ghoul. After Tina is gruesomely murdered in her sleep, Rod becomes the prime suspect and Nancy’s father, police lieutenant Don Thompson (veteran actor John Saxon), stops at noting to place Rod behind bars. However, Nancy comes to believe that the true killer is the ghastly figure that continues to haunt her dreams, Freddy Krueger, and begins to dig deeper into his existence.
After Rod is hung in his jail cell and Nancy describes who she believes is the real killer, her alcoholic mother, Marge Thompson (Ronee Blakley) takes her to a sleep clinic, believing that her daughter is suffering from shock and sleep deprivation. At the clinic, Nancy convulses wildly from an unseen nightmare and, upon awakening, sports four claw marks on her wrist and is suddenly in possession of the dirty, battered fedora worn by Freddy. Armed with this object, the name of her attacker, and driven to the brink of exhaustion from her nightmares, Nancy confronts her mother and learns that Freddy was a malicious and sadistic child murder (and, it is heavily implied, child molester) who was hunted down and burned alive by the parents of those he killed (including Nancy’s mother and father) after the justice system failed to lock him away.
Lack of sleep means Freddy haunts her waking life as much as her dreams and, despite her protests, Glen fails to heed her warnings and is summarily killed in horrific fashion. After realising that, if she can grab Freddy in her nightmare and be woken up, she can bring her attacker into the real world and bring him to justice, Nancy prepares herself for a final showdown by setting up booby-traps around her house and, after encountering Freddy and despite initially believing that she had actually gone crazy from sleep deprivation, the plan works.
After running Nancy’s gauntlet, Freddy is set on fire and apparently kills Nancy’s mother. When her father rushes in too late to be of any use, Nancy comes to a startling realisation: that everything she is experiencing is just a dream. Freddy rises and prepares to strike her, only for Nancy to deny his existence and renounce her fear of him; her conviction rings true and Freddy is reduced to nothingness. Nancy steps out into an overly bright morning, her vitality restored along with her now-sober mother and her friends. However, as she leaves with her friends, the car suddenly drives off of its own accord and her mother is violently dragged through the window of their front door by Freddy’s clawed hand, leaving the ending ambiguous.
A Nightmare on Elm Street’s premise may sound simple but it actually significantly impacted the slasher genre of horror films in many ways. Prior to Nightmare, slasher movies typically revolved around a mute masked killer wielding a knife or similar blade, stalking teenagers and with a mysterious backstory. Director Wes Craven changes this with the introduction of perhaps the greatest horror character ever conceived. Krueger returned as a demonic revenant, an unstoppable spirit who haunted the dreams of his victims to enact his revenge, garbed in a disturbing red-and-green jumper, his face burned beyond recognition, and primarily attacking with a custom-made glove that sports four razor-sharp knives.
What set Freddy apart from other slasher villains was his immense power and his sinister wit; within the dank, hellish nightmares, Freddy is all-powerful, capable of appearing and disappearing at will, shaping the dream world to his whims, and affecting the real world when enacting his kills all while sniggering or taunting his victims. While later sequels placed more emphasis on Freddy as a dark comedic figure, in the first Nightmare, his humour is menacing and disturbing, used solely to inspire fear and dread into his victims.
Over the years, many have speculated on the themes and meanings behind the film, with Freddy being seen as an allegory for Nancy’s inability to cope with both her mother’s alcoholism and the break up between her parents. The ending, in particular, has sparked numerous debates as many have speculated as to whether the entire film was a dream all along or just the last twenty minutes or so.
Considering that this ending is alluded to in the next two sequels, and that Nancy specifically says that Freddy killed her friends in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987), I always saw it as being a somewhat clumsily executed attempt to show that Freddy has not been vanquished to give the audience one last scare, that the events of the movie did indeed take place, and that Nancy’s actions only weakened Freddy. Indeed, Freddy is so weakened from this encounter that he has to resort to human possession in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (Sholder, 1985) though, perhaps, that is a review for another day.
As a child, I was never one for horror movies; I was particularly vulnerable, with an overactive imagination, and horror films were a bit too much for me. Nevertheless, A Nightmare on Elm Street and its first two sequels made its way into my life and truly terrified me. Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Pinhead were scary, sure, but there are easy ways to avoid encountering these slasher icons; simply don’t go to Crystal Lake and be a dick, don’t live in Haddonfield, and don’t open the Lament Configuration and you’re good. But with Freddy, it’s enough to know his name or fear his reputation to give him the strength he needs to invade your nightmares, where you’re most vulnerable. Although the protagonists of Nightmare were ignorant to Freddy’s existence, the “one, two, Freddy’s coming for you” nursery rhyme maintains the Krueger legend enough for Freddy to get a foothold in his victims’ subconscious and enact his grisly revenge.
Even now, I have a hard time watching A Nightmare on Elm Street. Everything from the premise, the sound of Freddy’s perverted sniggering or his claws scraping on metal, to the appearance of the character (constantly hidden in shadows makes Freddy’s gruesome visage all the more terrifying) and the haunting, literally nightmarish soundtrack sends shivers down my spine. Even now, decades later, fully aware of the production behind the film and having view the watered down sequels, Nightmare exhibits a raw, unmatched horror and it was my great pleasure to meet Robert Englund in Milton Keynes just before my twentieth birthday, shake his hand, and tell him that he had been scaring the crap out of me for the last ten years.
Recommended: Absolutely, especially for horror fans, those looking to get into horror, or those who are jaded by today’s lacklustre horror efforts.
Best moment: Freddy’s first kill is a dramatic and truly terrifying affair, with Tina being dragged up the walls and across the ceiling of her bedroom while Freddy slashes and cuts her to ribbons.
Worst moment: The vague ending, from the moment the burning Freddy smothers Nancy’s mother to the credit roll, is perhaps too abstract a conclusion for this already abstract horror film.