A Nightmare on Elm Street
I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed after all that hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero, somewhat maligned/shunned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.
Making a hero of a villain is the lifeblood of a horror series. Were Amon Goeth not the uber-nasty in a serious, acclaimed Oscar-bait movie, he’d surely have little figurines fashioned of him by now (inevitably, someone has made one of him, but you can be sure, if they could get away with it, studios would have licensed them). My recollection was that Freddy – or Fred, as he’s called here – Krueger was a child molester in the movie (unless that’s the Mandela Effect at work). But no, he’s a moderately less despicable – as in, more acceptable to the movies – “filthy child murderer who killed at least twenty kids in the neighbourhood”.
Craven attempted to come up with the “most loathsome character imaginable”, not really such a stretch for the guy who unleashed The Last House on the Left, but he ultimately felt a molester was too extreme. Anyone wondering what the deal with this mild-mannered fellow manifesting the darkest of visions probably isn’t going to get any straightforward answers. Craven’s career trajectory was curious to say the least, segueing from humanities professor to porno director before Last House sealed his infamy. He was also given to citing very specific influences on his sporadically slapdash pictures, such as, in this case, nightmares among Southeast Asian refugees and an article in Scientific American inspiring Freddy’s famous red and green jumper (selecting colours that would clash most when viewed through the human retina). It doesn’t altogether surprise me, then, that following the famous bathtub scene, there should be a Monarch butterfly in the bathroom cabinet.
New Line was dubbed “The House that Freddy Built” thanks to the franchise transforming them from a predominately cheap-and-cheerful distributor into a bona fide production house. Craven reputedly wanted the film to be a one and done, but as a seasoned vet of the genre, he ought to have known this simply wasn’t how horror movies worked, even less so once (alarmingly) kids began dressing up as Krueger at Halloween (he was more sanguine when Robert Shaye later offered him a slice of pie as recompense for all the money the studio had made, albeit the accompanying New Nightmare was a resounding failure). The idea, however, that Craven’s purity of vision was subsequently sullied somehow, transforming Freddy into Roger Moore-esque quip master was, well, wishful thinking on his part. There’s nothing very worthy or responsible about Fred Krueger here, from conception on down.
Marge Thompson (Ronee Blakley) eventually tells daughter Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) how it came to be that Fred was burned alive; he got off his crimes on a technicality and “A bunch of us parents tracked him down after they let him out”. Far from an urban legend, then, these events must have occurred, surely, within Nancy’s lifetime (Marge isn’t even forty, and unless she has other kids, who aren’t mentioned if so, she intimates she was a parent at the time). In which case, every child in the neighbourhood would surely know all about Fred growing up.
As for Fred, there’s further dilution, enabling him to become a “loveable” brand: we only see him he as a teenager killer, rather than a child killer. All he’s doing is preying on teens (well, actors in their twenties, except for Langenkamp). And we know they have it coming, because they’re ‘orrible ‘ormonal oiks. The “sins of the parents” are invoked in his going after them, albeit Nancy’s the only one overtly identified in that regard. On a mission or not, though, shouldn’t Fred’s spectre be itching to return to the arena that really inspired him?
You might suggest none of that matters, but it’s symptomatic of the very loose, unfussed approach that makes A Nightmare on Elm Street a bit limp overall. Fred’s supposed to be terrifying, but Englund – modelling his performance on both Klaus Kinski* and Jimmy Cagney – does his best to make him laughable. If he isn’t heavy breathing, he’s gambolling unconvincingly, or producing ridiculously extended, wavy arms. Or pulling off his face and cutting off his fingers, among equally “Look, FX!” moments.
I’m sure, for a certain section of the audience, they count as showstoppers (“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy”, Freddy intones, as her telephone produces a licking tongue). The series, as Kim Newman observed in Nightmare Movies, typifies horror of the ’80s “obsessed with make-up effects, loaded down with crowd-pleasing humour, fundamentally safe and silly”. But I was still left wondering why this cackling, shambolic buffoon had captured imaginations quite so strongly, as even Englund’s performance doesn’t stand out that much (when he isn’t played by a stuntman, that is, in a patently over-indulged flambé sequence). Craven may have complained, but at least the subsequent quip master has something. Freddy in the first one is neither fish nor fowl.
But if the Freddy elements tend to disappoint, it should be recognised that there are some genuinely inspired moments among the cheesy imagery. The (spandex-achieved) visual of Freddy pushing corporeally into Nancy’s bedroom is superb, while the slow-motion skipping to the Freddy rhyme is almost Lynchian in dreamy discord. The bathtub scene is understandably iconic. The death of Tina (Amanda Wyss), meanwhile, is perhaps the sole moment where the picture becomes genuinely disturbing, not least because, beyond the simple surrealism of the ceiling slaughter, it is so protracted.
When Craven revisits his inventive set for the demise of Glen (Johnny Depp), it has already transitioned into the arena of the gimmicky, complete with ludicrous Shining-esque geyser of blood. Indeed, it’s notable that The Evil Dead should show up on a TV at one point, as there’s a fair slice of slapstick in A Nightmare on Elm Street (but nothing that would compete with Raimi’s 1987 sequel).
Newman identifies part of the problem with A Nightmare on Elm Street, by comparison with Halloween, in that it never quite succeeds in generating a consistent sense of unease, such that “its interplay between dream and reality entails a lot of off-and-on mood reversals that don’t work up the cumulative suspense of Carpenter’s film”. There’s little distinction in palette between dreams and reality, but there needs to be something if the transitions are to work – the flip side is that the whole think looks like a Hollywood movie. You need to generate a degree of surprise when a character finds themselves in a dream all along, but the irony is that the weirdest stuff (the deaths, Freddy in Nancy’s house) happens in the real world.
Which is why Craven’s “happy ending” might not have offered the crude yuks of Marge being dragged through the front door window, but no one watching would have been in any doubt Nancy was in a too-good-to-be-true dream. Whether that meant a good or bad one would have been open to interpretation (but with all her friends miraculously alive, possibly not): “It was all a dream… and it still is”.
It has been pointed out that the “Don’t fall asleep” mantra is inherited from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And the title lends itself to the paranoia of The Twilight Zone classic episode title The Monsters Came Out on Maple Street. The idea is of the family made foreign, which requires short memories of upheavals and an ability to locate benchmarks of normal reality (less easy when there is an active attempt, such as right now, in the world at large, to rock the pillars of “normality”; benchmarks become increasingly in flux).
Lin Shaye – now of her own horror franchise – warns “What is seen is not always what is real” and points to Shakespeare’s jaundiced take on what is rotten in human nature in Hamlet. Craven earns points for weaving in real-world responses to the dream happenings, via the manner in which developments baffle both the police/law and science (“The truth is, we still don’t know what they are or where they come from” Charles “Roger Rabbit” Fleischer’s doctor announces of dreams, less than sagely).
Unfortunately, in the same way that Craven never quite achieves a genuine surprise dream sequence, the police investigation doesn’t have a sufficient chance to interweave with developments, other than Lieutenant Don (John Saxon), Nancy’s dad, failing to be there for her when she needs him (so like her boyfriend, and her mum assuring her “He’s dead honey, because mommy killed him”: an ultimately rather less proactive mum than Ripley would be in Aliens. But that’s okay, because Nancy is enormously proactive, and with no Mary Sue-ness about her at all). Craven’s great idea is “I brought something out from my dream”, but again, he fails to capitalise on it a coherent or exciting way. The same with the Balinese way of dreaming, the “Turn your back on it and don’t give it your energy” being undercut by the final gag.
Not helping any lean towards nuance is the frequently godawful score from Charles Bernstein, devolving into an over-excitable drumbeat whenever Freddy’s after someone. It ensures the picture feels like the very thing it is, a cynically-minded horror flick, rather than reaching for something higher, let alone being a “bona fide classic”.
Performances are fine. As noted, Englund really isn’t that impressive on this occasion. Freddy doesn’t have a whole lot to say, and what he does isn’t exactly Oscar Wilde. Langenkamp is decent, as is Wyss. Corri is little too much like an extra from Grease, while Depp is the most unlikely jock ever (and he’s clearly still supposed to be one, despite the Balinese dreaming reference: “You’re the jock. You have a baseball bat or something?”) You’re left wishing Saxon had more to do, so at least they got him back for the second sequel. Blakley is good, but rather submerged by the rigours of the boozy mum bit.
Obviously, the tropes are in full force: the promiscuous girl gets it first, then her crude BF, then the useless Glen. Parents don’t understand their kids but are also right that they horny little devils. The hero(ine) has to be repeatedly ignored or disbelieved.
The occasional non-Fred moment amuses: Mr Lantz (Ed Call) staring across the street at Nancy’s house and muttering “I think that kid is some kind of lunatic or something”. Later, he can only register bafflement as the medics arrive to clear up after Glen (“You won’t need a stretcher up there. You’ll need a mop”).
Freddy definitely became the homicidal lunatic for the ’80s, someone you could imagine cutting a swathe through SNL. However, the funnier, as in peculiar, part is that, while I’m in no way immune to classic horror shock tactics, I didn’t find A Nightmare on Elm Street, one of the genre’s most revered titles, remotely frightening. Even thematically, I’d argue the same year’s (flop) Dreamscape is a much more effective, satisfying movie. Okay, Part II, I’m coming for you…
*Addendum 19/08/22: An all-too appropriate influence, it seems.