On April 30, the rebooted Nightmare on Elm Street hits multiplexes, ready to bedevil the minds of a whole new generation. As someone who’s only seen bits and pieces of Freddy Krueger in action over the years, I’ll be watching every Nightmare installment in the days leading up to the new film’s release. And I invite you to take a stroll down Elm Street with me.
Any fan of movies is certainly aware of Robert Englund’s most famous role: the glove with knives, the red-and-green sweater, the tattered hat, and of course the badly mangled face of Freddy Krueger have become iconic in the world of horror cinema. For non-converts like myself, I’ve always wondered: why do people watch movies like this? What about a pizza-faced ghoul with knives on his fingers (or, for that matter, a guy in a hockey mask) makes gorehounds come back for seconds, thirds, and, in many cases, sixths?
Time will tell, but there’s little doubt that director Wes Craven knew he had something good in Freddy from the opening sequence of A Nightmare on Elm Street. In a darkened, glowing workshop, we see a man hard at work, crafting a lethal set of knives and attaching them to a glove, his face out of the frame. It’s a stellar introduction to Freddy Krueger, one that shows us the tools of a ghastly trade while maintaining a sense of menace and mystery about their maker.
It doesn’t take long for us to get a sense of how Freddy is planning on employing his handiwork. In a darkened boiler room, he pursues Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) cornering her in front of a raging inferno before she wakes up with a start. It was all a dream — or was it? Tina soon discovers her friend Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) also has a madman stalking her subconscious mind. Frightened by her nocturnal visions, Tina asks Nancy and Glen (Johnny Depp, making his debut) to stay at her house — with Tina’s sometime-boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) eventually showing up unannounced. He’s not the only unexpected guest: after canoodling with Rod, Tina is again visited by the sinister figure of her dreams — this time, however, she won’t be able to wake up. Tina is levitated to the ceiling and slashed in every conceivable way before slumping to the floor (more on this sequence in a minute), and since Rod was alone in the room with her, he’s charged with murder.
However, although Nancy knows the truth, her father (John Saxon), a local cop, and her mother (Ronee Blakley), who seems to harbor a dark secret of her own, refuse to believe her story. Meanwhile, every time she slips into repose — be it in class, in the bathtub, or at a dream therapy clinic — she’s haunted by visions of lethal, shapeshifting Kruger. Nancy soon learns the reason: years earlier, her parents, and those of her classmates, banded together as vigilantes to kill the real-life Kruger — a child-killer who was released on a legal technicality. Now, with Kruger terrorizing her dreams, Nancy loads up on coffee and caffeine pills in an effort to draw him back into the real world — and hopefully defeat him.
While Nightmare contains many of the trappings of 1980s horror cinema — absurd clothes, an ominous synthesized soundtrack, wildly variable acting from its cast — it must be said that its remarkable special effects and sustained tension make it a superior example of the form. Nightmare owes an obvious debt to The Exorcist and Halloween, but it’s got an energy and imagination all its own. Craven worked wonders on a limited budget, crafting several set-pieces of perverse ingenuity: Tina’s gravity-defying death is a holy terror, as is a later scene in which a victim is pulled into a void in his bed, and a geyser of blood emerges. These sequences are gory, to be sure, but the blood and guts never upstage the suspense; by doling out the gruesomeness sparingly, Craven is able to keep us on our toes, not simply holding our stomachs.
A Nightmare on Elm Street was hardly the first horror film to utilize the premise that bad things will happen to the protagonists if they fall asleep — Invasion of the Body Snatchers has it beat by a couple decades. And while Body Snatchers utilized the concept in an allegory about the Red Scare, Nightmare is less overtly political. Still, it can be read as a commentary on the state of families in the late 1970s and early 1980s; the teenagers depicted herein fall in a generation that saw the highest divorce rates in our country’s history. It’s also not surprising that our protagonists’ parents are either divorced, alcoholic, or utterly oblivious to their children — which only compounds the problem when there’s a mad slasher haunting their dreams.
Watching this film, it’s strange that Freddy Krueger has become something of a cuddly figure among horror fans. He’s certainly plenty menacing here, and his physical appearance inspires revulsion. Though he has a few wisecracks (“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy!” he says over a telephone, with his serpentine tongue licking her through the mouthpiece), Freddy is a thoroughly malevolent creature, mostly bereft of yucks and snappy punchlines. That’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned — tapping into primal fears of the dark, of things that go bump in the night, and of nightmares is what Elm Street does best, and its flashes of humor never descend into out-and-out jokiness.
Of course, one of the main knocks on franchise horror flicks is that the sequels quickly lose sight of what worked the first time out, descending into cynical money-grabs. Will A Nightmare on Elm Street Part Two avoid this trap? Check back tomorrow for my recap.
Schedule of Nightmares: