Growing up as a budding horror movie fan in the early 80s could be frustrating. Despite later loving genre films from this period I was too young to see any of them at the cinema – all bar one. Wes Craven's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was the first slasher flick I was old enough to see (well, actually I was only 16 – not the required 18, but we snuck in with the help of sympathetic usher with a whole group of school friends). What can I say? I loved it – and then some. I can still remember clearly the pulse-pounding atmosphere, and fondly recall the sounds of many heads hitting the back wall every time Freddy Krueger leaped into shot. As they say, you always remember your first time.
By 1984 the only slasher flicks darkening the doors of cinemas were the still big hitters, such as FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER. By this time, the few slasher movies that were being made were mostly going straight-to-video. Wes Craven had been punting around for a number of years the idea for his HALLOWEEN (1978) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) – with the mask of Michael and Jason replaced with a 'mask' of charred flesh. To put it bluntly, he wanted his slice of the slasher movie pie – but time was running out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that teen horror was pretty much regarded now as box office poison, he found it extremely difficult to get funding. Given the cold shoulder by Hollywood it was Bob Shaye and the fledgling New Line Cinema in New York that breathed life into Elm Street (and, in return, got a big reward when it hit big – New Line are unsurprisingly called “The house that Freddy built”).
In A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET Craven takes the basic set up for the teen slasher flick and takes it in directions that simply hadn't been done before. Centering on four typical high school students: the sweet but resourceful Nancy (Heather Langenkamp); her brassy friend, Tina (Amanda Wyss); Tina's on-off boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia); and Nancy's boyfriend and neighbour, Glen (Johnny Depp making his film debut). It turns out that all four are having recurring – and frighteningly realistic – dreams about a boogeyman figure in a dirty red and green striped jumper and black fedora stalking them; on his right hand a glove with knives as fingers.
Scared by her dreams, Tina asks Nancy and Glen over to her house for a sleep over. Rod gatecrashes and eventually beds Tina, but during the night she is seemingly awoken by sounds from outside her bedroom window. Foolishly investigating, she is chased through the alley at the back of her house by the boogeyman, scraping his metal claws along the walls. Taunting her, it's clear that this is no ordinary killer – with his unnaturally long arms and sideline in self-mutilation. During a climactic struggle it appears that Tina is in the throes of violent dream. Her struggles wake Rod, and he watches in horror as she is dragged across the ceiling by an unseen force. Deep gashes appear on her stomach, and Tina crashes to the bed in an explosion of blood.
Rod flees the house, but is soon arrested by Nancy's police chief dad (John Saxon). However, Nancy soon begins to suspect that something supernatural is behind Tina's death and the deadly problems afflicting the other teenagers on Elm Street. Eventually the identity of the sleep assassin becomes clear: Freddy Kreuger, a predatory pedophile who killed a dozen kids in the neighbourhood years earlier. Nancy's alcoholic mother, Marge (Ronee Blakely), tries to reassure her that she was safe - “Mommy killed him.” Despite the fact that a gaggle of parents hunted down Krueger after he escaped jail on a technicality and burnt him to death in his boiler house hiding place, it seems that he back from beyond the grave and looking for revenge ...
Many of the later sequels turned both Freddy and his dreamscape into the realms of cartoonish buffoonery. It's easy to forget that Freddy Krueger was genuinely frightening presence in the original. Sure, there are a few quips, but the mood when he's onscreen are relentlessly dark. Lurking in the shadows, his horribly scarred face partially hidden, he's a truly malevolent force. It's also easy to forget (especially after all those kiddie tie-in lunch boxes and duvet covers) that Craven took several steps towards being beyond the pail by making his killer a child killer and sex offender. Of course, he didn't go beyond the pail by making the victims in this film pre-teen kids – could you imagine it?!
The other thing that Craven gets spot on is the way that dreams and nightmares work – the fuzzy logic of not questioning how a step through a doorway can find you somewhere you shouldn't be. There are also those creepily effective, off-kilter flourishes (the sheep running along the school corridor; the bloody living corpse in the body bag) that didn't need a huge effects budget – and are arguably much more unnerving than the flamboyant fx bonanzas of the sequels.
Of course, it would be wrong to think that NIGHTMARE is free of the odd whiff of cheese. The vintage of the film means that the clothes alone raise the odd chuckle now, but there are other things that stop it being a completely top notch 'serious' horror film. Heather Langenkamp is mostly fine as Nancy, but the role does stretch her limited acting skills to the very limit – and Ronee Blakely's wooden turn as her mother raises more than the odd chuckle. Also, whilst Craven more often than not hits home with his surreal imagery (all the more impressive given the paltry budget), there are some serious misfires: the charred corpse raising its handful for a cheery little farewell wave as she vanishes beneath the sheets; and the plank stiff mannequin being yanked through the door at the end. Plus, Craven can't be blamed for his 'son of a thousand maniacs' giving birth to a thousand bad quipping copycat killers, as – in time honoured tradition – the subgenre attempted to procreate and ended up eating itself.
Ultimately, for its faults, NIGHTMARE remains a powerhouse example of the slasher movie, and most certainly the last great one of the golden age.
BODYCOUNT 4 female:2 / male:21) Female slashed to death