When most people think of writer/director Wes Craven, they think of the "big" movies: Swamp Thing (1982), Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), Music of the Heart (1999), you know ...the hits. But, gentle reader, today I'd like to talk about one of his lesser known works: A Nightmare on Elm Street.
“If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming, she won’t wake up at all!”
Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) is the daughter of one of the many couples from Elm Street that burned a suspected child-murderer named Fred Krueger (Robert Englund) alive. Little did those civic-minded suburbanites realize that they’d unwittingly unleashed something much worse. Now able to enter a victim’s dream and make any injury a reality, Fred has decided to exact terrible, bloody revenge on the children of his murderers.
The film’s greatest strength is Craven’s ability to blur the line between what the audience perceives as a dream, and reality. Characters get up, walk around, perform normal activities only to realize too late that they’ve fallen asleep. Craven cleverly gives the clues to audience members that are paying close attention such as the Shakespeare recitation in Nancy’s English class. Before Nancy falls asleep, the student is reciting from Julius Caesar. Once asleep, the passage changes to Hamlet. Craven’s biggest trick is the entire ending sequence. Note how, after Nancy goes to sleep to find Fred and pull him out of the nightmare, she never wakes up! Pay strict attention to position of Nancy’s blanket and the dream-like atmosphere of the end and you’ll see what I mean.
The film’s second greatest strength is Robert Englund. Bucking the trend of silent, masked stalkers, Craven decided to create an actual character and cast a great character actor. Even though the lighting is poor and he’s covered in the pizza-face make-up, one can still see Englund embuing Fred with a real personality and malevolence. Though in this first installment, Krueger is not the “star,” it comes as no surprise that his screen time increased with each succeeding film, to the character’s detriment, unfortunately.
Admittedly, most of the effects are a little dated at this point. However, Craven still delivers some of the most iconic death scenes of the slasher genre. Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) anti-gravity agony is particularly disturbing. And then there’s whatever Fred did to Johnny Depp . Nobody knows. All we know is he got sucked down into his mattress and a geyser of 300 gallons of blood erupted 30 seconds later.
I’d be remiss if I did not give composer Charles Bernstein credit for managing to make an 80s synthesizer sound creepy. At four years old, this was the first horror movie I ever saw, and I didn't watch another one until I was fourteen! Watching the film as I’m writing, it still gives me the creeps. Thank you, Wes Craven, for creating a new mythology that lasted seven more films and a remake.