A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) ****
There are a number of films which can be taken to stand as more or less sharp lines of demarcation in the history of the slasher movie. The current era, for example, clearly began with the release of Scream, but that picture is only the latest in a protracted series of milestones. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho marks the earliest of those divisions, ending the long period of random blips of proto-slasher experimentation that arguably began with the first film version of The Bat in 1926. Psycho was the first film obviously within the slasher lineage to generate a full-scale rip-off industry, and for most of the 1960’s, American and British movies about knife-wielding killers generally took more cues from it than from anywhere else. The next major landmark, or so it seems to me, was Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, generally credited as the original giallo. Blood and Black Lace combined Psycho-style scare scenes with a murder-mystery plot, and spawned its own efflorescence of copycat films in Europe, lasting for more than a decade; many of these would come to exert a powerful influence on subsequent work in the English-speaking world. The following phase was of a transitional nature, the progress of which can be tracked by an examination of three movies: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced American audiences to the Final Girl and the all-youth cast; Halloween marked the debut of the killer who was more (or perhaps less) than an ordinary, albeit crazy, man; and Friday the 13th gave every no-talent bum in North America the idea that any no-talent bum could make a profitable slasher flick, setting in motion what may have been the biggest wave of rip-offs yet. But in a sense, the cleavage represented by Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is the sharpest of all. For no matter what else changed between the earliest mad killer movies and the true slasher films of the 70’s and 80’s, all save 1980’s The Boogeyman were completely devoid of anything overtly supernatural. (Although it must be admitted that the final shock of Friday the 13th flirts a bit with the paranormal.) After A Nightmare on Elm Street introduced the world to Freddy Krueger, however, it became rare indeed to find a slasher flick that didn’t resort to some kind of supernatural explanation for the killer’s extraordinary strength and resistance to injury. It wasn't just the new kids on the block who embraced the otherworldly, either. While the likes of Child’s Play, Shocker, Uncle Sam, and Sleepstalker: The Sandman’s Last Rites sprang up all around them, Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees was reborn as an indestructible zombie and Halloween’s Michael Myers was rewritten a piece at a time until eventually he became part of some bullshit half-scientific, half-magical conspiracy to create Absolute Evil, masterminded by a coven of bullshit modern-day Druids. From about 1987 until the mid-to-late 1990’s, we would see nary a slasher who, at the end of the day, was just a pissed-off loony with a big-ass knife the way it was in the olden days.
It’s easy enough to see why A Nightmare on Elm Street had such a sweeping effect, too. The pace of slasher movie production was so hectic during the first three years of the 80’s that the original recipe lost its flavor pretty quickly; indeed, the first out-and-out parody that I know of came out as early as 1981! The teens-and-killers genre needed some new ideas badly, and Craven’s eccentric notion of a spectral murderer who sets upon his victims in their dreams certainly fit the bill. What’s more, the writer/director’s personal investment in the project (which he’d been trying to get filmed for almost three years before he succeed in talking the folks at New Line Cinema into backing him to the tune of a rather miserly $1.8 million) ensured that he’d put in his best work since The Hills Have Eyes, and he was also blessed with what turned out to be an exceptional cast. If I had been a movie-industry bottom-feeder in 1984, I’d have gotten to work ripping this flick off before the ink had dried on the one-sheets myself.
Fifteen-year-old Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss, who later showed up in To Die For and Digital Man) is having a bad dream. She’s trapped in a hellish industrial boiler room, being pursued by someone of whom she can only catch the briefest glimpses. The man chasing her (Robert Englund, from Galaxy of Terror and Eaten Alive, in the role that would make him the biggest horror film star of the 80’s) wears a battered fedora and a green-and-red striped sweater that has seen better days. What little Tina can see of his face in all the shadows seems to be horribly disfigured, and worse yet, he’s got some kind of metallic glove on his right hand, with six-inch metal blades tipping each of the non-opposable digits. Tina lurches awake just as her antagonist is about to get her. Ominously enough, though, her nightgown is suggestively torn right about where the dream killer’s finger knives would have penetrated it had he completed the killing stab.
One gets the feeling this isn’t the first time Tina has had that particular dream, either. The next morning, on the way to school, Tina describes her nightmare to her friend, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp, an actress of considerable talent who has been tragically underutilized in the years since this film), and Nancy’s boyfriend, Glenn (Johnny Depp, recently of The Ninth Gate and The Astronaut’s Wife, in his first paid acting job). Nancy mentions that she had some harrowing dreams last night, too (and of a suspiciously similar nature, now that you mention it), but initially leaves it at that. She does, however, agree to spend the coming night over at Tina’s place— the girl’s mother is going to be out of town, and she doesn’t want to be alone in the house in the event that her subconscious has another horror show scheduled.
Nancy isn’t the only one in on the vigil. Glenn comes by, too, and so, after a few hours, does Tina’s obnoxious boyfriend, Rod Lane (Nick Corri, from Predator 2 and Vampire in Brooklyn). Tina and Rod retire to her mother’s vacant bedroom to demonstrate the aptness of the boy’s name, while Nancy takes Tina’s bed and poor old Glenn gets stuck with the living room sofa. As it happens, Tina was wise to want someone in the house with her this night, but unfortunately for her, her nightmare problems are a bit out of Nancy, Glenn, and Rod’s league. This time, she dreams that the killer has come to visit her at her own house. When she goes outside to investigate a strange noise (the distinctive sound of the killer scraping his steel claws across the nearest metallic surface), Tina soon finds herself face to face with the dream murderer. He chases her around and into her house, and unlike the night before, Tina doesn’t wake up when he catches her. Back in the real world, Rod is awakened by a combination of Tina’s screams and a strange sensation that there’s somebody else in the room with them. But the boy can do nothing but stare in dumbfounded awe as a quartet of lethally deep gashes spontaneously appear in his girlfriend’s belly, and she is dragged, impossibly, up one of the walls and across the ceiling by some invisible force. Rod may not be the brightest guy in the world, but he’s at least sharp enough to realize how the scene in the bedroom is going to look to someone who wasn’t there to see what he just saw; he escapes out the window before Nancy and Glenn have a chance to beat down the door and see the carnage on the other side.
He doesn’t stay free for long, of course. Rod is the prime suspect in Tina’s murder, and while Nancy is on the way to school the next morning, her police lieutenant father (John Saxon, from The Glove and Cannibal Apocalypse) has his men trail her on the theory that Rod will try to make contact with her. He does, and the boy is locked up in the municipal jail within minutes. This ends up being only the beginning of a very bad day for Nancy. When she falls asleep in English class (she didn’t exactly get much rest the night before, you know), Tina appears to her, clad in her blood-smeared body bag, and leads her down into the school’s boiler room. The same disfigured killer that Tina had dreamed about now comes for Nancy, and she escapes only by burning herself on one of the steam pipes, shocking herself awake; there really is a burn on her arm, too, when she returns to consciousness. Nancy’s subsequent hysterics in the classroom get her sent home from school.
The first place Nancy goes after getting out of class is her father’s police station. There, Rod Lane tells her what really happened to Tina, and says that the reason he didn’t make a more active effort to save her was that he though it was “another one of those dreams.” When pressed, Rod explains that he had been having nightmares, too— about a murderer with knives on his fingers. As you might imagine, Rod dies that very night. Then, at the funeral, Nancy tells her parents about her deadly dreams for the first time. A look of startled concern passes between them when she describes her nocturnal assailant.
Nancy’s mother (A Return to Salem’s Lot’s Ronee Blakely) checks the girl into a clinic for sleep disorders at the earliest opportunity, but the results of the doctor’s investigation are not at all what any of the adults had expected. The EEG begins registering dangerously intense brainwaves, and Nancy starts screaming and having convulsions. When mother and doctor finally succeed in rousing her, Nancy has a nasty and inexplicable cut on her forearm. She also has a rumpled, filthy fedora in her hand, which she claims to have snatched from the dream killer’s head just as she awoke.
At last an explanation of sorts begins to emerge. Inside the mysterious hat is a tag identifying it as the property of Fred Krueger, which happens to be a name Nancy’s mother knows very well indeed. Krueger had murdered a slew of children in the neighborhood about ten or fifteen years ago. He was caught (one assumes Nancy’s father was in on that at some level) and sentenced to a lengthy prison term, but his conviction was overturned on a technicality. After his release, Nancy’s mom organized a posse of parents which cornered Krueger in the boiler room of the abandoned building which had served as his lair. Then the vigilante parents hosed the whole place down with gasoline and set it alight. When Nancy’s mother tells her the story, she offers as striking a piece of proof of its veracity as you could ask for: the killer’s knife-glove, which she has kept as a macabre trophy, stashed in the basement furnace ever since. Granted, none of that quite answers the question of how Krueger came to exist in the world of the subconscious mind, but it would seem to suggest a reason why he’s targeting Nancy and her friends specifically. Another question it doesn’t quite answer is how one goes about fighting an enemy that attacks you in your dreams, but maybe the hat itself has something to say on that score. After all, if Nancy can drag Krueger’s hat into the real world, maybe she can pull the man himself through, too.
I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was quite young— eleven or twelve years old— and it was part of my earliest introduction to R-rated horror. I had already seen Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Halloween, and a couple of lesser slasher flicks, but it was A Nightmare on Elm Street that really engaged my imagination, in a way that even the best of its genre cousins never approached. That remains true even today. Fred Krueger, at least in his original, completely serious guise, is still one of the best horror movie villains of the 80’s. For one thing, he has a genuine personality, in stark contrast to virtually all of his fellow slashers. The sadistic glee with which he stalks his victims is unmistakable, and must have seemed like a breath of fresh air in 1984, after so many years’ worth of robot-like killing machines on the Michael Myers model. If you doubt the importance of the Krueger character to the Elm Street series’s success, consider that, alone among the major slasher franchises, it has never replaced the actor playing the killer’s part. Not until Friday the 13th, Part VIII would the same actor make a second sally in the role Jason Voorhees, while the Halloween series wouldn’t see a repeat performance from the actor behind the Michael mask until 1995. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, meanwhile, has never been played by the same actor twice! Freddy’s look is another major selling point, and another dramatic point of departure from this movie’s most famous predecessors. Of average height and build, a quirky and distinctive dresser, and— most significantly— not a wearer of masks, Krueger stands out from the Halloween-inspired super-psychos as clearly as he does from the black glovers of the gialli. And giving him so highly unusual a weapon as a razor-tipped glove was a minor stroke of genius on Wes Craven’s part, a vast improvement over the sickle that was apparently Krueger’s preferred armament in the early drafts of the script. All of this is only appropriate, really— no killer who stalks his victims’ dreams should ever be nondescript!
For all the villainous charisma of Fred Krueger, however, it’s really the central conceit of his unique modus operandi that accounts for A Nightmare on Elm Street’s staying power. Dreams are said to be one of Wes Craven’s lifelong obsessions, and it’s obvious that the director devoted a great deal of thought to how best to utilize dream imagery and dream logic to magnify this movie’s impact. Transitions between real-world scenes and dream sequences are often seamless, keeping all but the most savvy and attentive audiences off balance. The fact that most of the stalk-and-slash sequences are framed as nightmares also goes some way toward excusing some of the dumber victim behavior on display here— Tina’s venturing out alone to find out what’s making that ghastly noise in the alley, for instance. After all, who hasn’t found himself doing something really idiotic in a bad dream at least once? What’s more, the dream sequences are convincingly dreamlike— an inexplicable rarity in the movies— filled with all sorts of nonsensical elements: a gusting wind suddenly blows masses of dead leaves down a high school hallway, the stairs turn to clinging glop beneath Nancy’s feet as she attempts to flee from Krueger, the killer’s arms impossibly stretch to allow him to run his fingers along both walls of an alley. Later entries in the series would make too much of this angle, but here, the balance between realistic and nightmarish horrors is close to perfect— probably because there was no money in the budget for the outlandish special effects that would become a hallmark of the series beginning with the second sequel.
Finally, A Nightmare on Elm Street benefits from having as good a cast as any 80’s slasher movie could ask for. Robert Englund gets the lion’s share of the attention, naturally, but most of the real work in carrying the movie falls to John Saxon, Ronee Blakely, and Heather Langenkamp as the deeply dysfunctional family at the center of the whole ugly scenario. Saxon is an old pro, for my money one of the best character actors in the business. Blakely’s resume isn’t nearly as long, but she’s got the talent to make up for it, and the two of them together are extremely convincing as Nancy’s mutually distrustful, divorced parents. Langenkamp, for her part, is quite a prize. At the very least, she exemplifies the tremendous importance of hiring real kids to portray teenage characters whenever possible. At nineteen, she was a good deal older than Nancy when shooting began in 1983, but nineteen isn’t so far from fifteen as to be ridiculous, and in a genre where teens are routinely portrayed by actors old enough to be their parents, that counts for a lot. But more importantly, Langenkamp is an actress of surprising skill, believably delivering even her most awkward dialogue and conveying a strong sense of the emotional strain on her character. It’s no coincidence that the only really good entries in the long string of generally dismal sequels to come would be the ones that featured her in a major role.