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A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Rating: ***1/2 out of 4

After a series of duds, Wes Craven desperately needed to revitalize his badly staggering career. He had an idea for a unique horror film, but no one would option his script. In stepped producer Robert Shaye who saw potential in the concept and green lit the film with the up-start studio New Line Cinema. On November 16th, 1984 audiences were introduced to Fred Krueger and with that came praise from movie goers and critics alike. Wes Craven would once more reinvent the modern horror film with his killer creation, and New Line Cinema would become known as “The House that Freddy Built.”

On the surface, the premise seems basic; a handful of teenagers are being systematically killed by a bogeyman that haunts their dreams. It is easy to be dismissive of the film because of its flat plotline, but if one were to delve deeper they would discover a heavily layered and thought provoking film in the guise of a teen slasher film. So, why was this film considered such a game changer? To answer that, all one has to do is turn to the film’s big bad.

Why does Fred Krueger work? The simple answer: Everybody sleeps. How brilliant of Craven to orchestrate the plot around a dream demon who only strikes once the victim has fallen asleep. It makes Fred Krueger an instant, and sharply relatable threat. It is what separates Krueger from his slasher film brethren such as Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees or Norman Bates. Sure a fair few people can posit themselves into a summer camp, or babysitting alone in a big house, or a stay in a secluded hotel, but absolutely everyone on this planet has to sleep and has experienced a nightmare. You might be asking yourself; Ok, so what that you have a villain that targets the drowsy? How does that really make him any more interesting a villain than any of the aforementioned horror icons? It is not so much of who Krueger is as a character that makes him compelling, but rather what he represents to his victims and to discover that one has to examine his backstory.

Fred Krueger was a child molester that would kill his victims with a homemade glove that had knives for fingers. He was caught, arrested and tried for the murder of the children, but because an officer didn’t sign the search warrant in the right place, Krueger got off. The families of the slain children partnered up and burned Krueger alive. Ten years pass, and now Freddy haunts the dreams of his now teenage victims. Fred Krueger is a manifestation of the ghosts from the victims past and an allegorical representation of molestation. Think about it. This is a man who is in your bed with you, and leaves you with no control which is every bit as intrusive as rape. He even uses sexually suggestive dialogue to taunt his victims such as “Come to Freddy,” as he flickers his tongue pantomiming oral sex. He represents those dark secrets of victimization that people are afraid to confront and are unwilling to turn their back on, and that is what makes Fred Krueger a remarkably potent villain, whether it be on a conscious or subconscious level. On the commentary Craven said; “Actually the idea of ‘screw sleep’ or ‘sleeping with the enemy’ was the philosophical underpinning of this film. Where sleep is equated with lack of knowledge of the truth. So, in order to survive you must be awake, you must know what the truth is, and face it and deal with it. And, um, the fact that all the parents are hiding the truth of what they did is causing the next generation most of its grief.”

In that line of thought, the film’s backstory is far more deeply intriguing than your average horror film and does not just serve to set up a remarkable villain but also how the parents have coped with the horrific crime. It is really a unique morality play that unfolds when one examines the parents and the use of vigilante justice to kill Freddy the first time. Nancy’s mom became a horrible alcoholic, while her father is a complete non-presence in her life, dedicating his life as a police officer in the pursuit of justice. It can be read that Tina’s mom has turned to a life of promiscuity, and Glen’s parents become hyper overbearing and protective. All of this is a direct result of their own brand of vigilante justice asking the audience to examine the nature of that brand of justice. Is what they did right? Are they any less horrible than Fred? They burned a man alive. It is remarkable to think that this is a plot point that is only on the very periphery of the film, when it has so much potential.

Fred Krueger wasn’t the only enduring character of the film though, Craven created an enduring heroine icon for the horror genre that stood shoulder to shoulder with Halloween’s Laurie Strode and Scream’s Sidney Prescott. Craven stated he created the character of Nancy Thompson in response to his daughter’s criticisms that the heroine of Swamp Thing fell down during key moments and required a man (thing?) to save her. On the commentary he stated; “…you know, she’s right. The history of women in horror films—you know the worst example is (King Kong’s) Fay Wray, where she basically faints. So often you see the picture of the guy, full of consciousness and upright and the woman is totally out of it. Now, being raised by a widow, I knew that wasn’t the way life worked. You know, a lot of women have to go out there and make things happen and work very hard and be very brave.” Nancy’s power in the film is never in question. She is a thinker, a fighter and a survivor through and through. But, it isn’t her response to Freddy that makes her interesting (that comes standard in any horror film where survivor meets slasher), it is the interplay with her parents that make her a striking figure. In the film’s early scenes, Nancy is very much being coddled by her mother but as the horrors progress and her mother turns to the bottle for comfort, it is Nancy who becomes the mother. One of the film’s best scenes comes towards the climax where Nancy tucks her mother into bed, takes the vodka bottle away from her and gives her a goodnight kiss. The symbolism in that scene is extraordinary for a slasher flick.

Craven knocked it out of the park with this film to say the least, but a work of this caliber was a long time coming. This film really is an amalgam of what worked best in every previous film he helmed. He borrows bits from the climaxes of The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes when Nancy booby-traps her house in preparation for Fred’s corporeal arrival, the haunting bathtub scene from Deadly Blessing, and the subtle use of lighting to highlight the focus points of the frame also taken from that film. Opening the film in medias res really lends to the fear factor because the audience is trying so hard to play catch up, and the structuring of having the most technically difficult and jaw dropping horror set piece for the first kill really establishes the threat level for the remaining characters. You simply don’t know what is going to happen next, but even though they open big, it never feels like it loses its edge like Swamp Thing did. The music heightens the film by leaps and bounds. Also, the casting of Heather Langenkamp, Nick Corri, and Johnny Depp (in his first role!) really benefit the picture, not to mention Robert Englund’s stellar presence as Fred Krueger.

The only real negative that hinders the film stems from the producer enforced end scene tag that closes the film out in order to lead in for a sequel. It diminishes everything about the film in the same way that the (again) producer enforced final scene to Deadly Blessing did. It is almost best to just stop the film when Nancy skips to Glen’s car. The other big negative is the mere existence of the sequels. Krueger’s potency has been lost as he has been diluted from sequel to sequel. Gone is his allegorical significance in favor of making him into a wise cracking jester from hell that the filmmakers would have you root for. But, when one looks at him in his original incarnation as represented in this film, he is a fascinating representation of evil and the ghosts of our past.

-February, 2016

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