Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is one of the classics of the modern horror film—and one of those that holds up best. It’s a film of surprising complexity—especially given its subtext about the fallout from vigilante justice and the corruption beneath the surface of picture-book normalcy (two years before Lynch’s Blue Velvet)—that blew away audiences and the usually horror-resistant critics alike. It’s easy to see why, because Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) was such a radical departure from the slasher “characters” of that era. Along with Don Mancini’s Chucky, Craven’s Freddy was the only horror figure of the time who wasn’t almost wholly interchangeable with the others (Is there really any significant difference between Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees?). Freddy had a personality and—at least in this initial outing—was scary as hell. Even today, the Freddy of the first film is unsettling to say the least.
As with a great many genre offerings post-Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), the film grounds itself in a local legend. I’m not sure just where this began in films, but there are traces of it throughout the history of horror. I suppose it could be said to date back to any movie with superstitious peasants (who usually have good reasons for their fears), but Chainsaw Massacre was perhaps the first film where the local legend was the cornerstone of the story. Craven’s local legend is a very clever one—and one that you might expect from Craven and his strict religious upbringing, since it’s so grounded in the idea of the “sins of the father.” Freddy, after all, is the vengeful dream embodiment of a child molester/murderer who was burned to death by vigilante-minded parents—and his vengeance isn’t on his killers, but on their children.
Whatever the reasons for Craven’s monster, he is—at least here—a truly terrifying figure. The fact that he can kill you in your dreams is bad enough. The fact that this quality allows him to operate in a realm that is completely devoid of the laws of reality ups the ante considerably. Here we have a creature who thinks nothing of lopping off his own fingers just to show his intended victim what a horror he is. He can also be wherever he wants to be and he has the disconcerting ability to elongate his arms on a whim. This is one bad-ass monster. Viewers who think of the character from the sequels are often surprised by the fact that the Freddy of this film isn’t the chatterbox he developed into. Oh, the basics of the character’s warped sense of black humor are there, but they’re limited and they never lose their menace. Consider the moment where Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) cries out, “Help! Save me from …” and can’t finish the sentence because she doesn’t know who or what this is. It’s to her attacker to add, “Freddy!” and finish the sentence. That moment—like his later enraged threat, “I’m gonna kill you—slow!”—has its humor, but it’s disturbing all the same.
Craven’s screenplay is unusually good in crafting its teen characters, too. These are far removed from your standard meat-on-the-hoof teenagers. They have genuine personalities—and it helps, of course, that Langenkamp is very good, as is a young fellow named Johnny Depp in his film debut. Craven is very adept at capturing the casual callousness of youth—“God, I look 20,” Nancy complains regarding her sleep-deprived visage at one point. The adults, on the other hand, are somewhat typically ineffectual and often downright dumb, but that works within the context.
The film’s death scenes are often spectacular—especially Johnny Depp’s demise in a geyser of blood—and surprisingly effective given the film’s low budget. But in the end it may be the smaller effects that linger in the mind—the bloody body-bag being pulled down the school hall by an invisible force, the looming Freddy through the wall (made of latex for the shot), Nancy being impeded in her flight by stairs that have acquired the consistency of cottage cheese, the feather that makes it out of Nancy’s dream into the real world, etc. Yes, one can complain about the ending and its cheesiness—though even this is clever (check out the convertible top on the car)—but overall, this is simply a great horror movie. And though it needed no help, it looks even better after last years tres lousy remake.