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Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Directed by: Wes Craven 

Premise: A teenager (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends are haunted by nightmares of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a burned figure in a fedora hat who wears a glove with knives fastened onto the fingertips. As Krueger murders the teens in their dreams, they die in real life. 

What Works: During the 1980s, slasher films were all the rage in the horror genre. Following 1978’s Halloween, which was one of the most successful independent films of all time, major Hollywood studios started looking for their own slasher films. Paramount picked up Friday the 13th and released it nationally in 1980. The film was such a success that many other filmmakers and distributors got into the horror business and in the twelve months after the premiere of the original Friday the 13th over eighty slasher films were released. These movies generated tremendous box office but were derided by critics and media watchdog groups. By 1984 the market was saturated with movies about masked killers maiming teenagers and the genre was in decline. It was in this context that the original A Nightmare on Elm Street was released. The movie adapted the format of the slasher film but approached the subgenre with intelligence, filmmaking skill, and introduced one of the most memorable villains in the history of the movies. A lot of slasher films are predicated on an And Then There Were None-like storyline in which a group of victims are gradually picked off by a killer. At its most basic level, A Nightmare on Elm Street follows that formula but it has much more going on in it. Wes Craven, who is credited as both the writer and director of this film, is an unexpectedly political filmmaker. His movies are consistently about characters dealing with violent manifestations of social injustice as seen in The People Under the Stairs, and his movies often take place on the seam between the idealized notion of American life and the blemished reality of it as seen in The Last House on the Left. Craven’s films also frequently tread on the boundaries of reality, whether that is the relationship between life and media as seen in the Scream series or the malleability of cultural realties as in The Serpent and the Rainbow. Part of what is special about A Nightmare on Elm Street is that it captures all of these dimensions of Craven’s work in a single film. The villain is the product of the town’s repressed secret, the heroine and her friends are the victims of their parents’ recklessness, and the story presents a situation in which reality becomes plastic. This elaborate subtext sets up A Nightmare on Elm Street to be a fascinating piece of work and the movie delivers because everyone in front and behind the camera was on point. Among the most important contributions to this film is Robert Englund’s performance as Freddy Krueger. Englund’s screen time is limited in this film but he makes such a strong impression that his presence permeates the entire picture. As critical as Englund’s performance is to this film, A Nightmare on Elm Street is also notable for its teenage characters. Unlike a lot of the slasher films released before and since, the teenagers of Nightmare are more multidimensional and demonstrate more emotion and intelligence than their counterparts in similar movies. The cinematic craft of A Nightmare on Elm Street is another of its outstanding qualities. The film is full of striking visuals and it uses sound very effectively. The score by Charles Bernstein is especially impressive, and the film’s signature musical motif is as integral to Nightmare as Freddy’s glove and fedora. The combination of Craven’s dense and evocative premise mixed with excellence at all levels of the cast and crew have made A Nightmare on Elm Street not just a good scary movie but also one of the most enduring American horror stories.

What Doesn’t: For those who aspire to make movies and for those who know something about the effort and finances it takes to get a picture made, one of the more impressive aspects of A Nightmare on Elm Street is how much was accomplished on a low budget. At the time in which it was made, good special effects and good moviemaking generally went hand in hand; the quality of the effects were indicative of the care and craft put into the movie. In the thirty years since the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street there have been massive advances in moviemaking technology and now otherwise bad movies frequently have polished-looking special effects (see: the 2010 remake). The visuals of A Nightmare on Elm Street are of its time. To the film’s advantage, these old school physical and makeup effects retain the texture and character that digital effects frequently scrub out of contemporary films. However, a handful of these visuals were rough looking even in 1984 and are even less convincing now. The good effects far outweigh the bad ones and even the effects that have noticeably aged still benefit the film by contributing to its surreal qualities.

DVD extras: The blu-ray edition includes commentary tracks, a fact track, a documentary, featurettes, and alternate endings. 

Bottom Line: A Nightmare on Elm Street stands alongside James Whale’s Frankenstein, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre among the great horror films. The film is scary for immediate, primal reasons but it is also packed with symbolic meaning that claws at unconscious fears and political realities.

Episode: #261 (October 25, 2009); Revised #514 (October 26, 2014)