Talking Movies: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Talking Movies
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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.

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Fans of Johnny Depp may be disturbed at his fate in this film!

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.

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Maybe you’ll think twice before taking a nap!

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.

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Freddy is not exactly renowned for his subtlety.

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.

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Fuelled by fear, Freddy’s power is negated when Nancy denies his existence.

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.

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Seriously, the sound of those claws still ends a shiver up my spine!

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.

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No two ways about it, Freddy is fucked up!

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.

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These three are to blame for everything!

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.

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Take note, Samuel Bayer, sometimes the old ways are the best ways.

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.

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Honestly, this film ruined my childhood and my dreams for decades!

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.

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A cathartic moment that failed to make Freddy any less scary.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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.

10 FTW: Horror Movies Where Evil Triumphs in the End

These days, it’s probably one of the most clichéd elements of the horror movie genre to have the antagonistic force terrorising the protagonists rise again by the end of the last act. Yet, this staple of the genre can have a dramatic impact on the viewer, sometimes altering entire events that preceded it, salvaging a mediocre film at the last second, or (more often than not) setting up a sequel or even an entire franchise.

With that in mind, here are ten of the most memorable moments in horror movies where evil ultimately proved triumphant:

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10 Final Destination (Wong, 2000)

The definition of a mediocre horror picture, Final Destination follows a group of teens who evacuate a plane moments before it explodes in mid-flight, only to find themselves falling victim as death stalks them to rebalance the scales. Hardly a classic in terms of horror, the sequels eventually descended into near-slapstick parody in their efforts to set up increasing complex and contrived ways of killing the unfortunate protagonists. After deciphering “death’s plan” and escaping to Paris, Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) is saved from a gruesome fate by former bully-turned-friend Carter Horton (Kerr Smith). Just as the audience breathes a sigh of relief at seeing the protagonist pushed to safety, a massive neon sign comes hurtling towards Carter before the film changes to black and the credits run. While this ending became a hallmark of the franchise, in the first movie, the predictability that would befall the series had yet to be established and the ending was new, fresh, and somewhat unpredictable.

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9 The Last Exorcism: Part II (Gass-Donnelly, 2013)

Unlike its predecessor, which adopted the “found footage” approach, this sequel utilised more straight-forward techniques. Though these failed to make it any better than the film that preceded it, The Last Exorcism: Part II turned the events of the first film on its head by having its antagonistic demon be in love with the main character, Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell). In a surprising turn of events, at the brink of death, Nell opts to take the hand of the malevolent force that has been stalking her and allow it to possess her. She then kills a bunch of people, burns a house down, and drives off into the night as trees and vehicles combust around her, signalling the beginning of the apocalypse on Earth.

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8 Saw: The Final Chapter (Greutert, 2010)

Saw is a horror/thriller franchise where evil triumphant at the end of every movie since the first instalment; John “Jigsaw” Kramer’s (Tobin Bell) meticulous planning and attention to detail dictated that, even when his victims escaped alive from his death traps, they often did so only as part of his grander plan or fell victim to his successors. By the end of the seventh movie, Jigsaw’s goal to teach people to value their lives has been perverted and his successor, Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) as devolved into a serial killer looking to tie up the last of his loose ends and flee before he can be exposed. However, just as it looks as though he is about to get away with his murder spree, he is attacked and locked up in the disused bathroom from the first movie by none other than Doctor Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes). Flashbacks reveal that, after severing his foot and crawling to safety, Gordon also became one of Jigsaw’s helpers and that Jigsaw tasked him with protecting his estranged wife. With her dead at Hoffman’s hands, Gordon enacts Jigsaw’s final revenge and ensures that his legacy lives on.

7 Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)

Although the first film, and many of its sequels, has not exactly aged too well, the original Friday the 13th inspired countless slasher knock-offs looking to capitalise on its success. In the first movie, Camp Crystal Lake is terrorised by an unknown killer who systematically kills off the counsellors looking to re-open the camp; it’s the uncanny practical effects and atmosphere that steal the show here more so than anything else, and its effective use of the unknown killer became a common motif in horror for years to come. After the killer, revealed to be Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) seeking revenge after her son drowned due to the negligence of the former counsellors, is finally dispatched by lone survivor Alice (Adrienne King), all seems calm and well. Alice collapses into a raft and drifts out onto Crystal Lake, only to suddenly be attacked by a rotting, disfigured boy (Ari Lehman) who emerges from the water and drags her under. Although the subsequent sequels made better use of Jason as an unstoppable, unkillable supernatural killer, without the original shot of Jason’s mangled form leaping from the lake we may never have had the opportunity to classify this as a cliché much less have had the multitude of sequels that followed.

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6 Drag Me to Hell (Raimi, 2009)

Sam Raimi returned to horror with a bang in 2009 with this surprisingly fun and gruesome tale of Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a young, aspiring bank worker who finds herself placed under a gypsy curse whereby the demon Lamia will torment her for three days before taking her to Hell. What follows is a montage of terrifying imagery and events as Christine races against time and Raimi’s trademark semi-slapstick horror to salvage what’s left of her soul. After surviving these trials, Christine learns that she can pass her curse on to another and successfully passes it back onto the gypsy who placed it upon her. However, just as she is ready to celebrate her newfound life with her boyfriend, Professor Clayton Dalton (Justin Long), she realises that she made a mistake and that she is still carrying the curse upon her. Dalton can do nothing but watch in horror as Christine is set upon by demonic hands, which grasp at her from beneath the ground and pull her down into the hellish fiery pits.

Still, an eternity in Hell has got to be preferable than spending the rest of your life with Justin Long!

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5 The Grudge (Shimizu, 2004)

Now I’m sure this won’t win me any fans but I haven’t actually seen the original Japanese version of this film. Considering that the Americanised version is set in Japan, directed by the man behind the original Ju-on series, and includes numerous elements that are shot exactly as in their Japanese counterparts, though, I don’t really regret that. Plus, it’s a damn creepy, horrifying film in its own right. Although featuring a non-linear narrative, The Grudge primarily follows exchange student Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who finds herself haunted and tormented by a vengeful spirit that seeks to kill anyone who enters a cursed house. After her boyfriend goes to the house to look for her, Karen goes to rescue him, only to find him dead. Witnessing the violent events that led to the houses carrying its curse, Karen sets the houses ablaze but is prevented from escaping by Kayako Saeki (Takako Fuji), who contorts herself towards her, looking to claim her life too. However, Karen is rescued from the house and taken to a hospital where it appears as though she has miraculously survived the never-ending curse. There she learns not only that the fire was subdued and that the house is still intact but also that Kayako is right behind her, bringing the film to a dramatic close and proving that Japanese spirits just don’t know when to quit.

4 The Cabin in the Woods (Goddard, 2012)

I’m not going to lie: I consider this movie to be an absolute masterpiece. Not only does it subvert all expectations for a horror film, it’s also an extremely clever, incredibly enjoyable movie that pokes fun at the tropes of the genre and tells an incredibly original story. After a zombie family terrorises their friends and leaves them the sole survivors, Dana Polk (Kristen Connolly) and Marty Mikalski (Fran Kranz) stumble into a large underground facility where they discover that a covert organisation ritualistically sacrifices victims such as themselves to appease the malevolent Lovecraftian Ancient Ones. After defying the Director’s (Sigourney Weaver) urging that they complete the ritual through self-sacrifice and save humanity, they share one last joint as the facility is ripped apart by the awakening Ancient Ones as they emerge from beneath the Earth to doom humanity forever.

3 A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)

Wes Craven’s seminal horror film ensured that no ne was ever going to go to bed easily ever again as a group of teenagers are stalking in their dreams by a hideously burned killer sporting a glove adorned with razor blades. The idea that a vengeful spirit could cause you harm or even kill you simply through your dreams was a poignant, original, and terrifying idea and Craven created one of horrors most enduring, popular, and horrifying horror icons in Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). As her friends are killed one by one, sole survivor Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) learns that she can pull things out of her dreams. Fortifying her house with booby traps, she manages to bring Freddy into the real world in an attempt to kill him. However, after Freddy kills her mother, Nancy realises that she is still asleep and, understanding that her fear has been making Freddy more powerful, she denounces him and her fear of him, apparently dissipating his spirit. Nancy awakens to a new day that is overly bright and cheerful where all of her friends are alive and her mother is no longer a chronic alcoholic. However, just as she begins to drive away into a literal happy ending, Nancy realises that the car sports Freddy’s trademark red-and-green colours and that she is trapped inside. She then watches on as Freddy bursts through the little window in her front door, grabs her mother, and violently pulls her through the opening. Although a somewhat confusing and odd ending, this shocker set up the idea that Freddy’s threat can never truly end no matter what tactics his victims use, something that the later sequels would drive into the ground.

2 John Carpenter’s Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)

Before Friday the 13th there was Halloween, without a doubt the grandfather of the slasher genre. John Carpenter’s atmospheric, tension-filled masterpiece brings horror to the suburban homestead as the cold-hearted Michael Myers (Nick Castle and Tony Moran) returns fifteen years after killing his sister to stalk and kill a group of babysitters. Having worked his way through the neighbourhood, Myers closes in on the last girl standing, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) with his psychiatrist, Doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) in hot pursuit. After shrugging off a coat-hanger to the eye and a knife attack, Myers looks ready to claim his final victim only to be shot by Loomis. Stumbling backwards, he falls from the balcony to the ground below, lifeless and prone. However, when Loomis looks again, Michael has vanished into the night and he stares into the darkness with a look of horror on his face as he knows not only that Michael is still out there but also that a number of mediocre sequels and remakes are still to come.

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1 The Omen (Donner, 1976)

Could it really have been any other film? Richard Donner’s horror classic takes the top spot simple because it depicted the birth and rise of the ultimate evil and then concluded with the threat that a little boy would grow up to bring humanity to its end. After his son dies during childbirth, US diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) agrees to adopt another without telling his wife, only for the child – Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) – to actually be the son of the devil. Having uncovered the truth behind Damien’s blasphemous conception and his true destiny as the destructor of humanity, Thorn witnesses enough death and evidence to spirit Damien away to a church. Just as Thorn is about to drive seven sacred daggers into Damien before the alter of Christ, he is gunned down by policemen. At his father’s funeral, Damien smiles to the camera as he holds the hand of his newly adopted father – the President of the United States – leaving the audience with the knowledge that the Anti-Christ is perfectly positioned to usher in the end of humanity.