Sunday, October 7, 2012

Horror Classic Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street

A seminal horror film that I probably didn't see in its entirety until sometime after I'd seen the next two or three in the series. It was a little before more time, but I must have seen bits and pieces on TV growing up. Yes, Freddy scared me as a kid and I wasn't so much afraid to go to sleep as I was afraid that I might already be sleeping and he could appear at any time.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

Wes Craven’s knack as a director has always been his ability to get under your skin. His Last House on the Left has faced accusations of being nihilistic and depraved, but there’s no denying that it awakens a primal visceral reaction in people. When A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984, he once again put himself out there as a filmmaker who could grab an audience in a stranglehold and not let go for 90 minutes. In the process he helped usher in a new era of horror filmmaking with the killer as surrogate protagonist. People could connect to Fred Krueger in ways not possible with Jason or Michael Myers or Leatherface. Freddy’s wisecracking and ironic wit was the precursor to films like Child’s Play and even Scream, Wes Craven’s own post-modern homage to slasher films.


Krueger is the logical development in horror filmmaking after the silent boogeymen that populated the genre through the 70s and 80s. He delights in toying with his victims, taking pleasure in their fear. Their screams and tremors are his strength. In a way he is the inevitable reflection of a film audience that was craving more blood and more death, more shocks and more terror. His presence in his victims’ nightmare is one of the more horrifying conceits in the history of the genre.

Craven wasn’t the first filmmaker to establish a premise of characters’ dreams being haunted. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is like a waking ream with a somnambulist as killer. Dracula also has seeped his way into dreams in various incarnations. But Freddy is the first I’m aware o who exists exclusively in dreams and can make sleeping death a reality. What an exhaustively terrifying notion that is: you can’t go to sleep for fear you’ll be tormented and killed. Hitchcock killed Janet Leigh in the shower twenty years earlier, the shower being a place where people are most vulnerable and exposed. But what about sleep? This is a time when you’re absolutely defenseless and your dreams are in thrall to the deep recesses of your psyche.

The four teenagers being haunted by Freddy face the uphill battle of convincing people not only that they dream about the same horribly burned maniac with a glove fitted with razor fingers, but also that this dream character can cause bodily harm. The body count is low by genre standards, but Craven more than makes up for it with gallons upon gallons of fake blood. The first death that occurs is a lovely young blonde who is sent crawling up walls and along the ceiling while being slashed and gutted by her invisible (to the boyfriend in the room) tormentor. Later a boyish Johnny Depp, making his film debut, gets pulled into his bed before a deluge of blood spews forth. These deaths today are tame by modern standards and even feel more like they’ve been cynically orchestrated for maximum shock value. To be sure, Craven wanted to shock his audience while scaring them at the same time. And I think if you sought testimonials from audience members in 1984, they’d tell you that these scenes were horrifyingly violent.

The real terror of the film is what lies behind the killings – Freddy’s motive for harming these kids. He is visiting the sins of the parents down upon the children. Having been a child molester (a fact only really made explicit in the remake) and child killer, the neighborhood parents hunted him down and killed him. Their sin of executing a man through vigilante justice without due process must now be paid by the next generation. That’s a tale at least as old as the Bible. Not that there’s any forgiveness to be found for the remorseless and evil Freddy, but his own killers are not without guilt.

Unlike previous boogeymen of the genre, Freddy (played with panache by Robert Englund) doesn’t wear a mask. Instead, his mask is a face covered in the scar tissue that is the result of being burned alive by angry parents. Heather Langenkamp as Nancy is a smart and tough horror protagonist and a refreshing change from the helpless victims that were, until then, the hallmark of horror films. John Saxon and Ronee Blakley helped lend some acting gravitas to the cast as Nancy’s parents.

Most interesting of all in A Nightmare on Elm Street is the inventive manipulation of objects and sets for effects that look more expensive than they are. What can be achieved today with computers had to be dreamed up and executed by people and props in 1984. So we have a scene with a character crawling on walls and ceiling; a man pressing his way through a wall that seems to be made of rubber; a hand coming up through the bottom of a bathtub. All these effects were simply created and serve the story in building suspense and generating what Christopher Nolan called “the strangeness of the dream” in Inception. That is what Craven accomplishes best: the sense that we’re often unsure whether we’re seeing a dreamscape or reality. The reams are odd, but usually just within the confines of real physics to keep your mind off balance.

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