A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Wes Craven
Cinematography: Jacques Haitkin
Producer: Robert Shaye
by Jon Cvack
Every Scary Movie Month there’s at least one classic horror film I’m excited to go back to. This year was A Nightmare on Elm Street where I bought the BluRay boxset in the hopes of revisiting all of the films. I hadn’t checked out the series since college and can remember little beyond the first one being my second favorite first film of the four classic slasher series and that A New Nightmare (1994) was not just a great sequel but a great piece of cinema overall; serving as the harbinger to Scream (1996) and its horror film within a horror film self-awareness. As for the other sequels, I couldn’t remember much of anything, which could be a sign enough of what’s to come.
I was surprised to find how little I remembered about A Nightmare Elm Street beyond the initial plot of four friends who began dying in their nightmares. It’s one of the films that scared the living shit out of me when growing up, where prior to seeing it’d I repeatedly watch the clip of Nancy running up the stairs where he feet fall into the steps, covered in sticky hot goo as she tries to escape Freddie. When I finally watched the film around 10 or 11 at my older sister’s sleepover, I remember how horrifying his long arms in the alley were - an image that played in head on repeat before I finally had to wake up my parents in the middle of the night. To think that this film is almost thirty five years old is a jarring demonstration in time and how cinematic violence evolved. The film somehow still feels modern; more so than Halloween (1978), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), or Friday the 13th (1980). More similar to Saw (2004), what makes A Nightmare on Elm Street work is its nightmare sequences - allowing the imagination to run wild. As I’ve said before, I’m far from the biggest fan of surrealistic cinema or dream sequences, but similar to Sopranos, it’s the very style of Freddie’s world that makes it work. I’m not watching this round to be scared so much as see how imaginative they get.
The story opens on images of his famous claw being made in the basement, then shifting to Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) stuck in a nightmare, chased by a man with claws. She wakes up to find her dress cut as though by a claw; her haggard mom and deadbeat dad entering the room, making sure she’s not dead, and telling her to cut it out. The next day at school, she tells her best friend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and her boyfriend Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp) about the episode who both admit that they too had dreams about the figure, remembering only abstract images.
Nancy and Glen decide to stay at Tina’s house that night to keep her company, later joined by Tina’s bad boy boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) who immediately takes her upstairs and the pair have sex. Glen attempts to make a move on Nancy who turns him down and the two sleep in separate beds. Before Tina and Rod head to sleep, Rod admits to having the a similar Freddie dream. Tina then falls asleep and the nightmare continues and Freddie makes his official appearance, chasing her around the house and soon extending his arms in a terrifying sequence before tackling her to the ground.
The scene then cuts as Rod watches Tiny being spun around the bed, dragging her up the wall and across the ceiling where blood is pouring out of wounds before she finally falls like a rag doll. Nancy and Glen break into the room, finding Rod gone. The police arrive and we discover that one of the officers Lieutenant Donald Thompson (John Saxon) is Nancy’s father and suspects Rod as the murderer.
The next day on her way to school, Rod grabs her from the bushes and tries to explain what happened before the police close in; her dad suspecting that Rod would try and get in contact with the daughter. Running on little sleep, Nancy falls asleep in school, with Craven providing yet another horrifying sequence as she looks out into the hallway and finds Tina bloodied up in a body bag, then dragged across the floor as though by an invisible ghost. Nancy is led to a boiler room where she burns her arm on a pipe, waking her up to discover she still has the wound.
At the midpoint, the film is a close to perfect horror film, containing only fragments of that cheesy 80s style where jokes, actions, and blocking don’t entirely make sense. But for the most part the film works, pulling us along as we anticipate where and how Freddie will strike next. The world is logical - there is a monster killing teenagers in their dreams, but they remain free in the real world; creating a challenge for them to remain awake or face death.
However, it’s also where the film takes its first initial misstep, attempting some sort of Exorcist moment by having Marge take Nancy to a sleep clinic where they hook her up and watch her dreams. Things look normal at first until she enters REM and we watch from Marge and the doctor’s perspective as she’s attacked once again. They wake her up, discovering she’s been cut by Freddie’s claws and that she also grabbed his hat.
My suspicion is that given that Nancy needed to bring Freddie into the real world to destroy him, Craven provided this moment to set the logic. The issue isn’t even necessarily that he merged the two disparate worlds, but that even with cameras recording and Nancy bringing a hat into a room with Freddie Krueger’s name on it - which she didn’t have before - neither the doctors nor Marge find any reason to keep her there for safety, rendering the whole scenes purpose seemed superfluous beyond providing the logic of pulling the imaginary into the real.
The film then continues to dip as Nancy heads home and further avoids sleep by taking caffeine pills and drinking endless pots of coffee. The set up is amazing - how long could a teenager possibly go without sleep and becoming completely mad. Craven touches on the subject, showing Nancy transform into a disheveled mess; strands of her hair soon turning gray. Her mom soon explains that years ago, there was a child murderer in town, who after being caught, was released on a technicality. The parents then formed a mob, hunted him down and killed Freddie by burning him alive in the boiler room. It’s another set up that I don’t think is fully explored - in which it seems like there could have been a better motive for Freddie going after Nancy if she was one of the children whose life was threatened, perhaps she was too young to remember.
Nancy decides to meet Glen at midnight in order to fall asleep and grab Freddie and bring him into the real world. However, after Marge puts bars all over the home’s windows, Glen’s parents find Nancy a nutcase and prevent Glen from seeing her. Glen then falls asleep and in the film’s most famous sequence, swallows into his bed where a geyser of blood shoots up into the ceiling; serving as one of the longest standing cinematic images that’s been burned into my mind.
Nancy sees the police arrive and tries to escape but her drunk mother has locked her inside the house. Here was another plot-serving device in that it seemed like the filmmakers required a way to trap Nancy inside, resorting to the mother locking her inside and getting wasted rather than protecting her daughter as she slept. Instead, Nancy proceeds to set up a series of boobie traps; including a sledgehammer that’ll fall from the door and light bulbs somehow packed with gun powder, then setting her watch for ten minutes and falling asleep in order to bring Freddie back and destroy him. This somehow all gets done within minutes, at least compared to the timeline of having Glen dead across the street where Nancy’s father resides.
After a creepy boiler room sequence, Nancy succeeds in bringing Freddie back, but realizing the house is locked, she calls out to the police in the movie’s most absurd sequence. Even though three of her friends have died and she’s screaming for her life, the street cop figures that Nancy is overreacting and refuses to tell anyone. It’s the type of scene that pulls you out of a movie; made all the more infuriating for how well the story avoided cheap logic breaks for the majority.
Nancy then explodes the gunpowder light bulb, igniting him on fire who then chases her into the basement; the smoke finally being enough to grab the police’s attention. Donald and the officers break in, heading down where they see flamed footprints leading upstairs where they find Freddie atop of Marge’s body; the two then disappear into the mattress. Nancy’s dad leaves her once again, but this time Nancy turns her back on him; a throwback to earlier scenes when Glen offers the advice of turning your back on nightmare monsters. Freddie dives at her and the screen washes to a beautiful morning where Nancy heads outside into a sunny, though smoggy day. Glen, Tina, and Rod pick her up in a red convertible. Nancy gets in, but the roof then collapses, revealing the red and green colors of Freddie’s sweater. Nancy screams to get out, but her mom just waves her on.
For some reason I always forget about how much the second half tanks, but after watching the sequel, I now know why. Bad logic in horror films pulls you out of the moment. Beyond A New Nightmare and Dream Warriors (1987), I remember none of the sequels; and I’m anticipating it’s because they’re all terrible (SPOILER: I was wrong; big time). A Nightmare on Elm Street saving grace is that the characters and craft are operating at full gear, and while the logic bends, it only breaks a few times. Prior to revisiting it, I was convinced that it was the second best horror film from the four horsemen. I’m now wanting to go back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
BELOW: The scariest image of my childhood
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