A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) / Horror
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
Review published August 27, 2005
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 (Scream, Scream 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) that terrorizes her with horrific acts of terror. 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. She can't stay awake forever!
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, who plays a prominent role here, although he exhibits little of the charisma he would come to be known for later -- he wasn't a professional actor.
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. It's a go-with-the-flow kind of movie, where you have to toss all logic out of the window for a scary good time, and Craven dishes out the chills and chuckles with equal measure.
As much as some critics tend to praise A Nightmare on Elm Street as a great horror movie, I still must respectfully disagree. While it does achieve some cheesy thrills and refreshingly realized dream sequences, the very poor 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 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 geeks proclaim it to be.
-- Followed by seven sequels: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, and Freddy Vs. Jason.
©2005 Vince Leo