Nightmare on Elm Street, A (United States, 1984)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"Whatever you do, don't fall asleep."
- Nancy

The dream - or nightmare - is a staple of the modern horror movie. After all, even as manipulative as the device is, it's still a proven way to jolt an audience. Filmmaker Wes Craven understood this bit of cinematic psychology when he concocted the central idea behind A Nightmare on Elm Street, a title intended to be an exploration of surreal horror as opposed to just another slice-and-dice slasher movie. (Craven got the idea for the movie from an L.A. Times article about Taiwanese children who died in their sleep after experiencing violent nightmares.) Indeed, in both concept and execution, the first A Nightmare on Elm Street has a great deal more to offer than the Friday the 13th films or the Halloween sequels. Unfortunately, although the host of inferior Nightmare sequels turned the series into a box office sure-thing for New Line Cinema, they tarnished the image of the original, which deserves recognition as a near-masterpiece of post-'70s terror. It isn't as good as the first Halloween, but there are times when it comes close.

Today, Craven is one of the best known names in this genre, and his resume illustrates why. Unlike John Carpenter, whose only legitimate creative success as a horror director was Halloween, Craven has worked tirelessly for more than two decades to build his reputation. However, back in 1984, when A Nightmare on Elm Street reached theaters, Craven was a virtual unknown. Two of his previous outings, 1978's The Hills Have Eyes and 1982's campy comic book adaptation, Swamp Thing, had developed cult followings, but Craven was far from a mainstream director. That all changed with the arrival of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

In the wake of his success with Nightmare, Craven was able to get movies made - even if nearly all of them were horror films (he was typecast as a director). During the late '80s and early '90s, he made a string of forgettable motion pictures. Following the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, he largely turned his back on the series (although he did executive produce the second sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors). However, in 1994, he used a new and radical concept to take control of the Nightmares for one final outing, Wes Craven's A New Nightmare, which brought things full circle, once again blurring the line between reality and fantasy. In the wake of A New Nightmare (which was largely praised by critics, but was given a lukewarm greeting by horror fans), Craven turned his attention to Scream, the success of which advanced his reputation further.

The primary element that elevates A Nightmare on Elm Street above many of its contemporaries is that the storyline invites intellectual participation. In addition to offering the visceral thrills that are necessary in a genre entry, Craven's screenplay works on another level. He wants viewers to think about the division between dreams and waking, between fantasy and reality, between other worlds and this one. He also warps expectations - at times, we're aware that the characters are trapped in a dreamscape, but there are times when we're not. And there are occasions when we think they're dreaming and they're actually awake.

One of the most recognizable modern horror villains emerged from A Nightmare on Elm Street - the grotesquely scarred Freddy Krueger. Like Jason and Michael Myers, Freddy became a common costume worn on Halloween night and an icon to bring shivers of delight to horror fans everywhere. Unlike this two contemporary psychos, Freddy exhibits a personality, albeit not a nice one. He's a vicious sadist, but with a sense of humor as sharp and jagged as his steel claws. He throws out one-liners left and right, and he doesn't wear a mask. Underneath all the latex is actor Robert Englund, and the makeup is flexible enough that Englund's facial expressions come through. Jason and Michael are implacable and robotic; Freddy is anything but that.

In the first A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy is the demon in the background. His popularity, however, mandated that subsequent sequels center increasingly upon his character. He has a backstory, only part of which is revealed in the first film, and many of the later Elm Street chapters focus on the events that led to Freddy's becoming the monster of dreams that he is. Unfortunately, the more we learn about Freddy, the less imposing he is, which is the reason the he's the most frightening in this installment, where he's a new, and entirely unknown, danger.

A Nightmare on Elm Street isn't principally about Freddy. It's about Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), a typical teenager with the usual teenage problems - divorced parents, gossipy friends, and a boyfriend who wants a little more than she's willing to offer. Nancy lives in an average house in an average middle America town. Her father, Donald (John Saxon), is a police lieutenant, patrolling the streets and keeping the community safe from all sorts of unsavory things. However, the biggest danger to his friends and family is about to emerge from somewhere he never could have expected: his daughter's subconscious.

In keeping with the theme that sex equates to death in horror movies, the first one to fall victim to Freddy is Nancy's best friend, Tina (Amanda Wyss), who is ripped to shreds shortly after enjoying an athletic evening under the covers with her boyfriend, Rod (Nick Corri). In the wake of the massacre, Rod ends up in jail for murder, but Nancy isn't sure of his guilt. Freddy begins appearing in her nightmares and she becomes convinced that he, not Rod, is responsible for Tina's death. Shortly after that, Freddy strikes again, eliminating Rod. Nancy realizes that either she or her boyfriend, Glen (Johnny Depp), will be next, so she decides to take the offensive and attempt to bring Freddy out of the dream world. Then her mother (Ronee Blakley) tells her the story of what happened to Freddy and why he has chosen to target certain boys and girls.

Craven's probing of the waking/dreaming barrier results in some memorably chilling sequences, such as a bath scene where Nancy is pulled under the water into a pitch-black pool and a back alley chase where Freddy stalks her. Craven cleverly disguises dreams as reality and vice versa, and the fact that injuries sustained in dreams also exist outside of them further blurs the already murky distinction. The ending leaves everything open to interpretation, asking us to question how much of what has transpired during the past 90 minutes is "real."

There's a clear generational divide in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The children are trying to wake up (both figuratively and literally) and the adults want to stay asleep. Unwilling to take responsibility for their action against Freddy, they have closed their eyes to their own crime, and, as a result, have allowed him to amass incredible power in his nightmare realm - power he uses to visit the sins of the parents upon their children. Meanwhile, Nancy and her friends are attempting to awaken, recognizing that Freddy has no real power in our world.

As is the case in all effective horror movies, atmosphere represents a key reason why A Nightmare on Elm Street works. Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin uses light and shadow to good effect, most notably in the surrealistic basement scenes set around the furnace. The special effects, most of which are low-tech, are surprisingly effective. For a movie with a budget just over $1 million, A Nightmare on Elm Street has a refined look. Charles Bernstein's spare score is perfect for the material - eerie and ethereal, but never overbearing. The signature tune is not nearly as well known as that of Halloween, but Nightmare fans will immediately recognize it.

As Nancy, Heather Langenkamp is more than just another scream queen (although she has a great set of lungs). In fact, she's probably closer to Alien's Sigourney Weaver than to Halloween's Jamie Lee Curtis. Nancy is resourceful and courageous, willingly venturing into Freddy's lair even when she knows he has the upper hand. But she's not stupid - she doesn't only have one escape plan prepared, but two (which is a good thing, because she needs the backup). And, when she naps unexpectedly and meets Freddy, she finds a way to shock herself awake (by burning her arm on a hot pipe). Finally, during the climax, she uses a few survivalist techniques to turn the tables on Freddy. In a sense, this is like a darker version of Home Alone.

Outside of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Langenkamp hasn't had much of a career. The reason for this probably has something to do with typecasting. Although Langenkamp isn't tremendously gifted, she is a competent actress (we certainly believe in and root for Nancy), but, as is often the case, being associated with a horror series can brand a performer for life. Langenkamp returned to face Freddy on two other occasions - in Nightmare 3: Dream Warriors and in the final Elm Street installment, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, playing a fictionalized version of herself. In between, she did some TV work, including a stint on the Growing Pains spin-off, Just the 10 of Us.

For Johnny Depp, A Nightmare on Elm Street was both his feature debut and his breakthrough, a stepping-stone to bigger things (like a recurring role in 21 Jump Street). To be frank, Depp isn't very good here - he exhibits charisma, but lacks polish. However, those deficiencies didn't prevent him from moving up the rungs in Hollywood. Meanwhile, the direction of Robert Englund's career was forever altered by A Nightmare on Elm Street. Previously best known as the meek alien Willie in V, Englund started playing increasingly more twisted villains, many of which displayed similarities to Freddy. The only real "name" actor in A Nightmare on Elm Street is John Saxon, and he doesn't have much to do beyond appearing alternatively supportive and authoritative. (Like Langenkamp, he returned for Dream Warriors and New Nightmare).

A Nightmare on Elm Street is tailor made for those who like their gore leavened with thought-provoking ideas - something that is a rarity in this genre. Sequels dumbed down the series to a regrettable degree, but the first movie still stands on its own as an intriguing and chilling example of how horror works best when the characters and the audience don't have to be lobotomized. Those who appreciate scary movies can do no better than a double feature of Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Taken in tandem, those two films epitomize all that was good about '70s and '80s horror films.

Nightmare on Elm Street, A (United States, 1984)

Director: Wes Craven
Cast: John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund
Screenplay: Wes Craven
Cinematography: Jacques Haitkin
Music: Charles Bernstein
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 1984-11-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1