It is amazing the effect that a succession of increasingly rubbish sequels can have on the perception of a film in the public consciousness. Before I had seen Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) this is how I perceived the film. I was thinking of increasingly jokey, cheap Freddy Krueger vehicles. And I was way off.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is an absolutely classic horror film, with a lot of really interesting and original ideas. Chief amongst these is the blurring of the lines between dream and reality. This is a theme explored in many films, often taking themselves far more seriously than this piece of genre fare. But it is something that it is very hard to do without becoming utterly infuriating. I think A Nightmare on Elm Street does it better than any other film I have watched. For me, this is a real point of difference for the film, when compared to something like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). This is not to say that Craven’s film is better (if I was forced to choose one, I think I would go with Halloween … just), rather that it is just wholly original in its approach. Rarely in my experience is the slasher genre melded with something a little more supernatural like it is here. Krueger’s villainous and otherworldly ability to attack in dreams from beyond the grave differentiates him from many other horror villains.
The film kicks off with a cracking opening scene, that really sets the tone for the film. It is dark and grimy with ominous music. The setting has a somewhat industrial feel to it, something that is revisited on a number of occasions throughout the film. And the final part of it is the creation of Freddy Krueger’s glove. I can’t think of a more perfect way to kick off the film. I’ll do my best, but be warned there may be spoilers in this next little bit. The film pulls a really wonderful Psycho (1960) like swerve early on that I did not see coming, as the young woman that appears to be at the centre of the story is brutally murdered. This death scene is really inventively shot, again thanks to the dual worlds of dream and reality. The attack begins in the dream-world, so the viewer can see Krueger slashing and attacking. Masterfully though, Craven shoots the latter half of the scene from the real world. So we see Tina launched off her bed and pinned to the roof, as she is attacked and bloodied. But we cannot see Krueger as we are back in the real world, so it appears that she is being tossed about and attacked by an invisible force.
I think this first death scene is an early illustration of Craven’s flair for the visual. He is not concerned with body count or gore (though both those feature), but rather he crafts a number of iconic visual moments during the film. One other fantastic one occurs when Krueger very literally stretches the boundaries between dream and reality over the top of the bed where one of the teenagers sleeps. Following Tina’s death at the hands of Freddy, the film settles on it’s true main character, Tina’s friend Nancy played by Heather Langenkamp who gives a really excellent performance. The narrative sees Nancy attempting to alert the police (including her father) of what or whom is really behind a spate of murders. The character of Nancy is a fantastic heroine. Many credit Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode in the original Halloween as being a hallmark, feminist heroine in a horror film. Whilst this is partially accurate, for me at least, it is a little overblown. Whilst she fights off the villain a number of times, she has the frustrating quality of leaving the knife lying around unattended when she thinks she has Michael Myers dead, but clearly does not. And she is eventually saved by the male Dr Loomis. Conversely, in A Nightmare on Elm Street, I think we have a truly industrious and independent female hero. What’s more, once she arrives at the ‘endgame’, Nancy is no shrinking violet, rather calling Freddy out so they can end this thing. Essentially of her own volition, she slays (sorta) Freddy Krueger. She formulates the plan to kill him, and after painstakingly booby trapping the house, more or less achieves that. I think that she is a really interesting and layered character, and the performance is also exceptionally believable for this kind of film.
The film in general does a really good job of building on the intriguing and visceral start. It does a much better job of fleshing out the back-story and motivation of the villain than many horror films. There is just so much to sink your teeth into with the film. The theme of dreams and their meaning, and influence on life; the occasional invocation of Christian iconography as the victims look to a cross for protection; the continuation of the exploration of the theme of teenage promiscuity kicked off by Halloween and heaps more. In addition to the visual brilliance I have already mentioned (although I will mention another couple of examples – the ultra-high & narrow shot of Nancy in the bath, and Krueger walking through bars of a jail cell), another technical area where the film excels is the soundtrack. There is a lot of music, it is intrusive but somehow not at all annoying, rather it enhances the atmosphere tenfold. The music somehow manages to build tension without giving anything away, which is a fine balance to get right.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is an extremely clever horror film which innovates both narratively and visually. The great thing about really good horror films of this era is that they don’t spend all their time mindlessly killing people, so there is time to build characters and tension. This film does both those things, and many more, extremely well.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
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