The film that gave every Elm Street in America a bad reputation...
Director: Wes Craven
Studios: Media Home Entertainment, Smart Egg Pictures, New Line Cinema
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Ronee Blakley, Robert Englund
Tagline: If Nancy Doesn't Wake Up Screaming, She Won't Wake Up At All...
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, terror, thriller, slasher, teen
Scare score: C+
Plot overview: A group of friends begins to be haunted by a terrible figure in their nightmares, but soon their nightmares become reality.
I guess it was only a matter of time until we got to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, one of horror's most visibly recognizable and well known titles, series, and villains - and for a good reason. Much like Michael and Jason, Freddy and his numerous films have left a marked impact upon popular culture as well as the entire horror genre, heavily influencing what people think of, remember, and fear when they go to watch a scary movie.
This movie is the epitome of '80s horror, often drifting into the now passé tropes created by earlier films (and contemporary franchises) like Halloween and Friday the 13th. If the viewer goes into the film expecting and accepting corny lines, acting that is only so so, and a handful of predictable moments, then he or she is in for a treat. There's a reason that this film has remained relevant for *gulp* 30 years: an intriguing plot mixed with an original villain plus plenty of that '80s teen raciness. That is to say, cardinal rule number 2 is exploited and broken. Naughty teens and an even naughtier killer? What's not to enjoy?
In the role of our heroine Nancy Thompson we have Langenkamp, who plays the courageous and virtuous, normal teenager with heart although I don't think she always stayed completely within her role. After all, there's only so many times an actress can play an awkwardly elongated scene merely expressing frustration (it happens a lot here). Some interactions between Heather and friends Glen (Depp), Rod (Nick Corri), and Tina (Amanda Wyss) also feel a little stiff, and throughout the movie each of these four teens has his or her fair share of poor reactions as far as acting goes. Then again, when limited by the script itself, I guess there's not much they could do.
In one of the more bizarre roles of horror we have Nancy's mom, Marge (Blakley). First of all, isn't Blakley oddly striking? Or is it just a combination of her hair, makeup, and tan? Aside from her excessive outward appearance, we quickly learn that as a mother Marge is pretty thick (although concerned), but as a lush she's right on par. Regardless, she is one of the more interesting and entertaining characters in the film, complete with her own dark secrets, and she goes on to deliver one of my favorite lines in the movie when telling Nancy that she's going to be safe.
The plot and bad guy were the real gold mines for this film. Freddy Krueger (Englund) is a conglomerate of all these terrible ideas, created from various things we both generally hate and fear in society: a pedophile/ child killer; a kidnapper; he is disfigured and disgusting; at times he shows himself to be filled with pus, maggots, and other bugs; he is the manifestation of a nightmare. He furthermore represents the return of a bad guy, thus making him a criminal who begins claiming new victories long after the original heroes thought they had assured his defeat. Fred Krueger is a complex figure, the combination of a killer, the undead, and monsters, who bends the line between fiction and reality. Not only does Freddy haunt and then hunt his victims, he possesses his victims by entering their minds and taking them from their safe reality into his reality: a special sort of hell. When it comes to Michael Myers, you can either not cross his path, or you can run from him (for a time). When it comes to Jason, just stay out of Crystal Lake. But Freddy? He crosses your path, he comes into your space - your most personal space (the mind) - and then he makes it (and you) his own. It's one thing not wanting to sleep in case some killer is coming after you - but to not want to sleep because that's where the killer is waiting for you? It's no wonder that the first few kids merely try ignoring their nightmares, because otherwise there is no escape - which is what Nancy realizes quickly, causing her to take drastic measures such as hiding coffee makers in her bedroom and popping Stay Awake pills.
In this first installment, Freddy is truly a scary and innovative character. From one of the first chase scenes in the film when we see him appearing and disappearing (decent special effects, 1984), his clawed arms expanding and retracting at will, to his skin being cut, pulled, and burned off, and not to mention the general scraping of his knifed-hand against metal (who doesn't hate that sound?), we learn quickly that this is a force to be reckoned with (for veteran viewers, remember, this is before Freddy adapted a more comical [read: corny] persona). With complete power in his dream/ nightmare world and a pretty considerable amount of influence on the real world as well (or at least on the fringe between the two) - what can't Fred do?
Finally, the entire concept of dreams vs. reality is still hard for audiences to wrap their heads around today. How much of this film takes place in reality and how much of it does not is really in the eye of the beholder. I've read a bunch of theories and I don't exactly know where I fall. For the most part, I think the movie takes place in a balanced mix of reality and the dreams of the various teens, although sometimes Freddy only kills in pure 'dreamland' where as in some cases his workings from his own realm have direct physical manifestations in the real world (think Rod's death). At the end of the day I think we can't just limit Fred to dreams alone, and we can't say that fantastic things won't happen in reality (assuming Marge's death scene takes place in reality, then both Nancy and her laid-back-at-all-the-wrong-times father, police Lieutenant Donald Thompson (John Saxon), both see an inexplicable and even impossible (and over the top, Craven) death. What irks me more than the shotty 'special effects' involved here is the other character's simple willingness to accept what they have just seen). Lastly, I think that the final seen should not be overly interpreted as a confusing and mysterious mix of reality and dream, but rather as a last-minute, half-assed attempt at a scare in the final seconds of the film. There, I said it.
I have to quickly complain about the movie poster because Nancy looks like an angry pig. What is with that face? That is all.
As a bit of social commentary, isn't it interesting that we never see into either of the boy's (Glen and Rod) dreams? Following a firm history of final girls and scream queens, A Nightmare on Elm Street in many ways upholds the male bad guy kills female victims plot. While male victims are killed (and often), we are never shown how scared they are in the moments before their deaths, where as in comparison these movies are filmed with, well, girls screaming, crying, running, and hiding (and a few girls fighting back). In this first installment, we are given the fairly shallow Rod and the almost deep Glen, with their equally as shallow and equally not-as-deep-as-we-would-like female counterparts in Tina and Nancy, respectively. While we get to experience loads of funs and frights in the girls' nightmares, we are never invited into the heads of the boys; we are only allowed to watch them suddenly, unknowingly, and emotionlessly die in the real world. Sure, the boys are victims, but are they victimized like the girls (and one woman) are? Perhaps this is what will make the sequel so much more culturally shocking.
Favorite line: [overly dramatic] "Screw sleep!"- Nancy Thompson
Final critique: Is this movie actually scary? Not like the scary we're used to today. But with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Horror Buff will go so far as to say that it's not all about the scares so much as it's about the plots and the characters - especially Freddy - themselves. That being said, there are definitely a few good scares hidden among the sometimes compelling, sometimes ridiculous storyline here. Again, if the audience is willing to accept a script that often drifts into the realm of dull as well as acting that sometimes touches on not-believable, then they can sit back and enjoy a film that is truly important to the horror genre.