A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street is classic horror of the 1980s, and a welcome departure from the schlock that the other slasher movie franchises, Friday the 13th and Halloween, had become.  Writer-director Wes Craven (ScreamScream 2) adds humor and imagination to the formulaic mix, and while the film still suffers from inherent weaknesses, there’s more than enough clever twists to keep the interest of genre fanatics.  Most of the problems stem from the very low budget, which did cut into the realism of the special effects, and some very poor acting all around.  Yes, it’s amateur hour here, but no one expected it would become the breakout hit that it was in 1984, so if you can take into account the limited production values, you can appreciate this for the quaint and surprisingly amusing spin on the gory and campy horror that had been flooding the theaters and video in the mid-1980s.

Heather Langenkamp (Fugitive Mind, Tonya & Nancy: The Inside Story) stars as Nancy Thompson, who finds out that she is not alone in having a recurring dream about a badly burnt and scarred man named Fred Krueger (Englund, V) who terrorizes her with horrific acts of terror (Craven says that the character’s name was based on a school mate who bullied him as a child).  What’s even more scary is that her friends are starting to die mysteriously, and Nancy is sure that if she were to fall asleep and dream, she will be next in line to be a victim.  Her parents think here is something wrong with her, and the local police can’t believe a word of it, so she must fend for herself.  But surely she can’t stay awake forever!

Wes Craven claims that the inspiration for A Nightmare on Elm Street came from a childhood incident as a ten-year-old in Cleveland in which he woke to a noise only to find a strange man in a fedora, possibly a transient, staring back at him outside of his bedroom window he felt was going to come get him.  As he was developing a screenplay based on the experience, he had read about a Cambodian boy who was deathly afraid of falling asleep because he was terrified of the recurring dream of a man out to get him, only to finally die when he ended up falling asleep.  There is also a report that Craven read a Los Angeles Times story in the early 1980s of several southeast Asian immigrants living in Southern California who all mysteriously died after reporting they had the similar nightmares, with the condition dubbed SUNDS (Sudden Nocturnal Death Syndrome).  From there, Craven built upon that notion of shared nightmares that there might be a “grim reaper” type who could control dreams and come to harvest people while they slept by killing them in their dreams.  Craven spent four years to produce the script, researching dreams and their effects at the Sleep Clinic at UCLA.

Craven had shopped the script around to major studios for several years without much interest.   The slumping New Line Cinema, an indie and foreign film distribution company that was on the fast track to bankruptcy, took the chance and saved their company in the process.  It would prove to be a huge success, saving the company with their first major release in cinemas, taking in over $25 million at the U.S. box office in 1984, and would garner plenty of sales and rentals for many years after the film’s release on the home video market.  As the slasher film had begun to seemingly peter out, Craven managed to inject new life my taking the traditional serial killer of the masked thug into the realm of a charismatic but menacing man who could terrorize individual children in their sleep, and no one would know, or believe them if they told.  It taps into the fear we all have of a place where we are the most vulnerable, a place where we can perceive emotions and fear but in which we have seemingly very little ability to control. The film was such a phenomenon that horror films henceforth seemed to dabble far more into the trippy realms of the supernatural.

It’s the first of what would be a long and lucrative series, so much of the credit goes to this film for kicking off a lot of good scares down the road.  It’s also the first film to feature future mega-star Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands), who plays a prominent role here as Glen (in place of up-and-coming stars who wanted too much money like Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, Kiefer Sutherland, C. Thomas Howell and Nicolas Cage. Depp, who was a friend of Cage, who suggested him for the role to Craven (who was sold on him because his daughter found him fetching), exhibits little of the charisma he would come to be known for later — he wasn’t a professional actor when he was cast, having come to town to try to make it as a rock musician.

Heather Langenkamp, another newcomer to feature film work, has a nice screen presence as Nancy Thompson, the heroine of the film, beating out the likes of future stars who auditioned for the role like Demi Moore, Courteney Cox, Jennifer Grey, and Tracey Gold (Carol from “Growing Pains”).  For the role of Freddy Krueger, Craven initially had in mind that he didn’t need a professional actor for the role, preferring to work with a stunt person in a non-speaking part, but as his story progressed, he gave the character more shape and personality to the point where the stunt men he was auditioning weren’t clicking; he felt he needed a professional actor, and Robert Englund had been cast in what would prove to be his defining role, though his character only has about seven minutes of screen time in this debut, intentionally so, as Craven thought he would be more menacing when left to the imagination.  John Saxon is perhaps the most out-of-place actor in the group, playing Nancy’s father who doubles as the cop on the case, and chosen for the film because he was a known actor whose involvement helped with securing financing due to increasing the film’s appeal to foreign markets.

Nightmare blends some quality scares with comic relief, which would become the formula for all future movies, as Freddy Krueger doesn’t really dispatch his victims until he has had some dark and dastardly fun at their expense.  While Craven’s film is probably the least visually impressive of all the Elm Street films, it should be remembered that he had less than $2 million to work with, and gets a surprising amount of mileage nonetheless.

There is a reason that Fred Krueger is killing the teenagers that inhabit Elm Street, although the hows and whys aren’t exactly made clear here.  Craven originally envisioned Krueger as a child molester, but changed his mind after reading several cases of actual molestation cases in the news and not wanting to seem too callous and exploitative to real-life victims.  A child killer seemed to be menacing enough without the need of the sexual angle.  Freddy’s stripes were meant as an homage to Plastic Man, the shape-shifting, elasticized superhero from DC comics, known for his red and yellow striped attire.  The color scheme changed to alternating reds and green for his striped wardrobe after Craven read an article in “Scientific American” about how these shades side by side are among the hardest for the human brain to process.  Krueger’s scarred face and body had been inspired from the look and consistency of pepperoni pizza, which make-up artist David B. Miller had been eating and observing, prompting him to change Craven’s original idea of Krueger having pus-filled sores all over his face to dark and fresh-looking scars akin to burn victims.

Thematically, the film explores the divide that teenagers feel toward their parents, especially in how the sins of their elders end up getting passed on to their offspring in ways they never intended.  As with many teen films of the era, parents are mostly checked out from the lives their children are experiencing, absent on a daily basis or drowning out their miseries with alcohol.  It also taps into that fear among adolescents of having to deal with the less sheltered and scarier world of adulthood, on the verge of leaving their current environments to fend for themselves in a world that could easily chew them up and spit them out if they don’t remain alert to their well-being.

As much as some critics tend to praise A Nightmare on Elm Street as a truly great horror movie, I still must respectfully curb my enthusiasm.  While it does achieve some cheesy thrills and refreshingly realized dream sequences, the weak acting and some unintentional laughs do end up hurting the overall experience.  This is far from a masterpiece — it’s just fun schlock.  If you want a film to get together with your friends and have a blast with, it’s the movie for you.  If you’re looking for the movie that will scare the daylights out of you and keep you up for days on end, you likely won’t find it here.  Craven takes this half-baked premise and runs with it for all its worth, crafting one of the more engaging low-budget films of its era, even if it never remotely approaches being the masterwork of horror some overly nostalgic horror aficionados proclaim it to be.

Qwipster’s rating: B+

MPAA Rated: R for gore, disturbing images, violence, and sexuality
Running Time: 91 min.

Cast: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Robert Englund, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri, Joseph Whipp, Lin Shaye, Charles Fleischer
Director: Wes Craven
Screenplay: Wes Craven