(1984) dir. Wes Craven
I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street back in high school on what was probably its initial release, and I had seen, most likely through cable or video releases some of the 7 or so sequels the film begat. I recall being somewhat impressed by the film on first viewing, but it had been years since I’d seen it. But since the new “re-make” of the film is due in theaters tomorrow and I plan to see it, I figured it was a good time to revisit Wes Craven’s most interesting creation.
And I think that the best way to see A Nightmare on Elm Street is to see it the way that it was when it came out. The story is a mystery, explained only partially toward the end of the film. It begins with the construction of the infamous knifed glove of its star killer. And it opens with a nightmare, with the shadowy figure, gruesomely disfigured, bearing that iconic glove, chasing a girl through a boiler room. It’s a dream. It has dream logic. It doesn’t have to make sense.
And the whole fact that these kids, as they start to realize that they are all dreaming nightmares of this increasingly creative and strange killer, are most at risk while asleep. And as their surreal and brutal deaths gain momentum, and the backstory and naming of Freddy Krueger are unveiled, the repression of the past, a dark and murderous past, in which not only the villain but the middle class parents are also implicated, the whole thing takes on a sense of Freudian logic. It’s not just “scary” and visually creative, but resonates a sense of darkness in the teenage world from which the core victims are selected. It’s truly a “teen” film and the parents, while not as scary, are criminals, betrayers, and alcoholics too.
And actually, the figure of Freddy Krueger in this film, with its shockingly gruesome self-disfigurements, ability to morph shape and being (stretching arms across an alley, putting his tongue through a telephone, becoming the convertible automobile at the end), bears a comic and yet uncampy mien. And it’s not just that teenagers are creatively sliced and diced. There are moments of true dream logic (running up the stairs as they turn to mush) that have greater effect than a multitude of cheap scares.
It’s really quite a fine film. And Heather Langenkamp, the heroine, is strong in her role as the survivalist girl. And of course you’ve got a very young Johnny Depp in his first film, too. The worst thing is the soundtrack, which is high-1980’s synth-rock and sounds as dated as anything in the film.
Craven does a fine job situating the story in the middle America suburbia, while capturing the elements of the teen film that hearken back through to the 1950’s, painting the simple characters with deft strokes and a classic 20th century sensibility.
It has been a long time since I’ve seen what I used to consider my favorites of Craven’s catalog, which would include Swamp Thing (1982), Deadly Friend (1986), and The People Under the Stairs (1991), though of those, none were quite up to the creative vision of Elm Street, nor did any of them beget so many sequels or a franchise star like Freddy Krueger. It’s actually muct to this film’s detriment that the sequels and the figure of Krueger stand so much further out in mind than the film itself.
And as for the sequel, which I will see tomorrow, though it has a bit of “star power” in the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as the “new” Freddy Krueger, my doubts are redoubled in seeing this 1984 original, simply because it was original, surprising, creative, and ultimately a mystery. In a film in which the mystery doesn’t exist, the character and story precede itself, well, we’ll just have to see how cynical a production it is and give Craven his due for his one great film.