Written and directed by Wes Craven. Produced by Robert Shaye. Music by Charles Bernstein. Photographed by Jacques Haitkin. Edited by Patrick McMahon, Rick Shaine. Production designed by Gregg Fonseca. Starring John Saxon, Ronee Blakely, Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Jsu Garcia, Johnny Depp, Charles Fleischer, Joseph Whipp, Robert Englund.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of those movies that is difficult to survey after twenty-five-years-plus of pop culture osmosis. Some film series reinforce their legacies when viewed with fresh eyes, and others seem imprisoned by them. Thanks to parodies, rip-offs, satires, remakes, Halloween party discussions and the like, the lessons of A Nightmare on Elm Street have become ingrained into our horror-movie psyche, even to Nightmare virgins. Rather like a peach sucked dry, it offers little to discuss because the movie only exists to exploit its own gimmick: a serial killer can enter dreams, and kills people. Even the movie’s ripped-from-the-pages pedigree, that it was inspired by a Los Angeles Times article about refugees who died in their sleep while suffering brutal nightmares, belies Nightmare’s slightly exploitative edge. Is it about themes? Cursory ones, perhaps, which are underdeveloped. Is it about characters? No. Is it scary? No.
Yup, I said it. Sorry.
Nightmare is a slasher film, which means it focuses primarily on creative ways that kids can get skewered, diced, disemboweled, etc. It’s not a subgenre that I’m a particular fan of, because they put me off with their cynicism and bloody-mindedness: they have no purpose in existing other than depicting murders. Unlike a good horror film, slashers are shallower and more formulaic, because they treat their characters like props rather than individuals. One by one, they are established in broad, limited strokes and then set up to be vanquished gruesomely. In classier horror, there is often death, but there is just as often humanity, and subtle dread, and a sense of people living actual lives that are hijacked by evil.
The lines are, I admit, very blurry between “slasher” and “horror.” To take a semi-recent example, the 2005 film The Descent is a horror film, because even though it focuses on a group of characters who are picked off one by one, it takes its time, and colonizes its plot with sharply-drawn, particular people. Slasher movies have no such ambitions and precious little of that curiosity, and if that sounds like an elitist label to differentiate between films that I like and ones that I don’t, then I apologize, and perhaps agree, but I don’t take it back. In the end, if you’ve seen one slasher film, you’ve seen them all, and aside from gimmickry, slashers have trouble distinguishing themselves even from each other. Strip away the window dressing, and it all ends with just some plain ol’ corpses of teenagers. Sometimes they’ll throw in a nasty, arbitrary twist at the last minute, just for merry fun. Whee.
Why do these movies always focus on teens? Probably because teendom is the most promising and juicy place to position a coming-of-age story, which nicely complements the horror trope of ordinary people falling into a frightening world they don’t understand. The adolescence metaphor practically writes itself. These stories are often about characters growing up, finding wells of bravery within themselves, steeling their resolve as the world turns against them. Often this is done without the help of parents, who are either lying to their children or, at the very least, unable to protect them. Many of them are parables about values, not only because they depict sweet young people becoming acquainted with evil, but also because the ones that shuck their purity (whether it’s by killing someone or—gasp!—going all the way with a boy!) are punished. And even if you’re lucky enough not to be killed, it’s because you’ve sown the seeds in your life for paranoia, mistrust, and the foremost knowledge that the world you inhabit dances on the razor’s edge of a frightful abyss below. These are standard horror themes, and they are deployed in A Nightmare on Elm Street perfunctorily. The film is in far too much of a hurry to make this cohere into a tight, thrilling story.
I think the big problem is that we never establish a good baseline for the horror elements. In the opening, sequence, we’re immediately in a nightmare, and we’re introduced to Freddy (Robert Englund) the spectral boogeyman who—as we all know—has knives for fingers, scars on his face, and a striped sweater. It’s all well-shot and competently edited. We meet Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss), who is being menaced by the evil Freddy. It’s a very bad dream. He strikes! Ahh! Cut to her waking up, and finding three perfect knife wounds on her nightgown. Already we have a scary monster and a life-or-death situation, before getting a sense of what he is playing against. The scenes that follow—Tina sharing this experience with her friends, and learning they had their own—feel apathetic and rushed (including one scene that is a barrage of badly-dubbed, flat line readings). We meet some quickly-sketched secondary characters, put one of them in bed with Tina, and then she’s killed horribly. End of act one. Nightmare is far too eager to jump into the horror pool, and isn’t nimble enough to create a sense of reality before it shatters it, so we already feel adrift. The tension between the mundane and the terrifyingly fantastic is what gives the horror genre its resonance. Here, it’s glossed over in favor of shock surprises. It’s all pitch, no wind-up. I value wind-up.
Nightmare does have one nifty narrative trick up its sleeve, one lifted directly from the Psycho switcheroo playbook. Since we meet her first, we’d be forgiven for thinking that Tina is the protagonist, but she’s not, which is made clear when she’s found in a pool of her own blood. The actual heroine is Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who, in a cleverly meta bit of plotting, finds herself graduating from “best friend” to “lead.” She’s sympathetic and likeable, and once in a while there’s an attempt to color her with a bit of character development, but these moments are fleeting, and they don’t stick. Nancy, I think, is by large meant to be less of a character and more of an audience surrogate, and thus is intentionally left ill-defined, providing a hole for us to fill in our own feelings of dread and vulnerability. Personally, I tend to respond more strongly to specificity, whereas Nancy is a cypher.
Here’s another thimble full of plot. Tina’s boyfriend, Rod (Nick Corri) is suspected of the girl’s murder and is arrested, but before he is he pleads innocence to Nancy, who starts to get a bead on this Freddy Kruger figure. After being tormented by him in numerous dreams, she goes to dream therapy and learns that she is not necessarily powerless when asleep, and has the ability to pull objects out of dreams and into the real world. (There’s something humorously clunky about the end of her first dream session, where she awakens to find a crumpled hat in her hand). And before long she gets the truth from her parents (John Saxon, Ronee Blakely). Under drink and duress, they identify Freddy as a child murderer from the past, who was killed by vengeful parents when the law failed them. All of this is punctuated by more threats and more slashings, including one involving Nancy’s boyfriend Glenn (a young Johnny Depp), in which…well let’s just say that his room gets drastically redecorated. And then, there’s the big showdown between Freddy and Nancy, who is at least aided by the fact that she has a small power over dreams.
Wes Craven, to his credit, can be a smart director, and I think from this framework he tries to be smarter than his own material. Freddy’s nightmares, for example, are littered with Freudian symbolism, including the one highly suggestive moment where his deadly hand emerges from her bathwater, in between her legs. And, of course, Tina is murdered right after having sex with Rod, almost as if their desire to be bad is what unleashes evil on their friends (common horror trope about stolen innocence taken to an extreme). And then there is the story of the parents, who collaborated one night to commit murder in order to ensure their suburban town was a nice place to live, a nice irony that isn’t given enough development. In fact, all of these elements don’t have their proper weight, probably because they underline a plot that is thin, uninvolving, and kind of mean. At least in John Carpenter’s Halloween (also not a favorite, but I see more craft within it), something was felt when characters died. Here, they’re all dull cannon fodder, and the deaths mean nothing.
That’s part of the reason why the film doesn’t strike me as frightening, but the other part is…that Freddy is just not a very good villain. His appearance, his way of toying with his victims, his choice quips…everything about him tries way too hard. In addition, too much effort is given to literalizing him, especially when his backstory is revealed. Freddy is, in essence, an evil spirit, but he’s governed by human motivations that are trite and ordinary. Once you explain a monster in human terms, he stops being a monster, and we start relating to him more as a weird human who can do magic, which isn’t nearly as powerful. I suppose it’s inevitable that the story must declaw the seemingly-omnipotent predator as early as possible, since he must be capable of being defeated…and then come back, and get defeated again, and come back, and, and, and…However, I strongly feel that horror works best when human sensibilities are confounded, not agreed with. Freddy is too human, campy, and relatable. Even at his most vindictive, he’s kind of silly.
Craven is talented, and he has a lot of fun in Nightmare with the way he shoots dreamscapes, even when they’re buried in mundane boiler rooms. But he’s clearly in the process of growing here, still cultivating his skills, still struggling with eliciting maximum performance from his actors. Since then, Craven has made a lot of duds, but also some clever and effective horror pictures, including Scream (which deconstructs every possible slasher cliché) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Those films, both of which make reference to this one, are better, wittier, hungrier. And they have fun as they tap dance on the line between fiction and reality (the relationship between which all horror stories are, in essence, about). New Nightmare, which stands outside the whole of the Nightmare series and comments upon it, also features Langencamp, playing herself, and the contrast couldn’t be more striking, because in that film she feels like a real person with actual problems, who finds herself in a horror scenario. Nancy, on the other hand, seems like a stick figure positioned for pithy female empowerment gestures before being cruelly dismissed in a seriously cheap denouement. The effect is rather nihilistic and grim, which is interesting when that effect is earned, but just depressing when it is not.
I am well aware that Nightmare has legions of fans, and I don’t wish to condescend. Some of them might have an answer ready for some of my criticisms, so I’ll do their job for them and admit the inevitable: I don’t get it. I don’t get why this is so much fun, I don’t get why this mythology is so fascinating, I don’t get how some can see this a fine soup and I see a bowl of broth. And I’m fine with not getting it, and I’m fine with the possibility that you might. There’s lots of things in life that I don’t get, including professional wrestling, lox, and Jersey Shore. We’ll just chalk it up to everyone having their own thing, and that’s great, and I wouldn’t dream of ever getting in the way of that fun. Pay me no mind. Nightmare on Elm Street certainly does what it wants to do: kill a lot of teenagers. Once you dispense with the special effects, there’s just not that much to discuss about it. It’s ok, I guess. Not awful. But the moment it’s over, it evaporates from the mind, as if it were never there. Kinda like a dream.
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