Synopsis: In the dreams of his victims, a spectral child murderer stalks the children of the members of the lynch mob that killed him.
Stars: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund, Ronee Blakley, John Saxon, Amanda Wyss
Director: Wes Craven
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Arriving relatively late on the scene in the scope of teen horror films, A Nightmare on Elm Street nevertheless established itself as a force to be reckoned with. In 1984 the movie-going public had already had three Halloween films and four Friday the 13th installments so it was a tall order that director Craven was looking at when given the greenlight to film his script concerning an evil madman that stalked dreaming teens.
Craven was a moderately established director at the time, most notable for Last House on the Left which many have enjoyed and I found pretty unpleasant. Inspired by a story he read about South East Asian men who had died in the middle of having nightmares, the first of the Elm Street films is still its best and is buoyed by striking production values, a solid script, and performances that work well even if they operate on different levels from one another.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is credited with launching its distributor, New Line Cinema, into a mid-level Hollwood player…even the executives subtitled their company, ‘The House that Freddy Built’. Strange then that Freddy Krueger (a gleefully sinister Englund) is really a supporting player in the suburban reality and threatening dream world that Craven crafts.
The star of the film is Langenkamp and while she has the right amount of Noxzema-esque freshness…her acting skills here are pretty uneven. She improves as the picture goes along but it’s hard not to wince at a few of her more dramatic line readings. Langenkamp looks positively comatose when compared against Blakley as her tuned-out mother. By all accounts, Blakely was a handful to work with and it shows in a performance that feels like it found its way into the picture via a daytime soap opera.
Famously introducing Depp to audiences was another claim to fame the movie can stand behind and it’s Depp along with the ill-fated Wyss who strike the most memorable chords. Wyss is put through the ringer in one particularly harrowing sequence that shows some simple but brilliantly inventive camera work thanks to cinematographer Jacques Haitkin. The whole film is quite well constructed, actually, and it’s stood the test of time better than most films of the era.
Soon the Elm Street series would take off and become less scary with each passing entry…Freddy Krueger would become more menacing for his one-liners than he would be for his burnt skin and knives for fingers glove. I’ve found a lot to like in the sequels but they can’t come close to the style and shocks this first film offered up.
This inaugural trip to Elm Street is an effective horror film that explores deeper themes of the fractured suburban existence and the tragic loss of innocence at the hands of violence. Preying on our fears of what can happen to us when we sleep it brought a new spin on the horror genre by making the terror about something we can’t avoid. If JAWS freaked you out, you could stay out of the water. If Jason gives you the willies you can avoid going into the woods. Sleep, however, is what we need to survive so how do we fight a villain from our dreams? It’s a wonderfully dark question to throw out there and Craven has done it the right way.
Even though Craven would have a nice renaissance with the Scream franchise, I still consider A Nightmare on Elm Street to be his best work to date. It’s a well-regarded classic for a reason and one that still has the power to keep you up at night.