A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – Review

If you don’t sleep…. you go.

I have a confession – A Nightmare on Elm Street is my favorite slasher movie. I know that I should like Halloween more, and I’m sure to lose respect from horror aficionados for this preference, but what can I say? I find it more entertaining, more creative, and better for repeat viewings. It’s held up remarkably well over the years – with the possible exception of the haircuts.

Speaking of which – look at Johnny Depp! In his feature film debut!

This film has many of the hallmarks of 80’s horror – questionable dialogue and actions from the characters, workmanlike special effects, synth soundtrack….. But the concept has a ton of meat on it (enough for eight sequels and counting). The idea of a dream killer means limitless possibilities. Halloween and Friday the 13th has supernaturally invincible killers, but they were firmly rooted in real-world physics, at least. Freddy can be anywhere, and do anything! He can be in the walls, in your bed, in the bathtub, or invisible. His limbs can stretch, you can pull his face off, but you can’t stop him. At least, not without the POWER OF LOVE.

OK, that’s not how you defeat him.

All this, and more happens in just the first film. To date, it’s still the best of the bunch, which is a shame because the concept, as I said, is such a rich bounty. Because of sequel fatigue and New Line Cinema’s decision to gradually turn Freddy into a smart-mouthed parody of himself, people tend to forget how awesome the first Nightmare is.

The film starts with shots of Freddy’s lair as he constructs his signature razor glove. It’s cut with shots of a lamb in a cavernous tunnel bleating horrifically. The opening scenes make you uneasy right from the start, and I can only imagine how audiences of the 80’s must have felt.

(It’s not that my parents didn’t let me watch movies like this, I just never sat down and watched this one. Plus….. I was too scared.)

We then see what we think will be the main character, Tina, being stalked by Freddy through his boiler room, before waking up screaming with some fairly unfriendly slash marks on her arm.

Next, we get to meet Tina’s crew of 80’s horror movie stereotypes. We’ve got Nancy the chaste, determined teen, and her boyfriend Glenn, played by the aforementioned Mr. Depp, and Rod…. Oh, Rod. He’s the Italian stereotype who’s fond of wearing leather jackets with no shirt underneath and a switchblade in the pocket, and of phrases like “up yours with a twirling lawnmower”. After Tina makes fun of the size of Rod’s penis, he responds with his favorite comeback, and I suppose this is what teens in the 80’s considered a “fight”, because it sets up the sleepover scene, where the shit hits the dream fan.

Here we discover, much to Glenn’s chagrin that Nancy is the virginal one and Tina’s the one who has sex. UH OH! Moments later Tina’s dead, slashed to pieces against the ceiling while Rod awkwardly sits in the corner screaming “TINAAAA! TINAAAA!” over and over. I like that Wes Craven borrowed a trick from Psycho – killing off the character you thought was the lead. It reduces the feeling of predictability, which is exactly what this movie isn’t – predictable.

By the time Freddy gets around to tormenting Nancy, you really start to feel that the situation is hopeless. Besides staying awake forever (“the record is 11 days”, says Nancy), there’s no way to avoid Freddy, and he can’t be killed. In one scene, he gleefully cuts open his belly and shows Nancy the steaming ooze that spills out. Nasty.

While Nancy tries to figure out a way to not die, her parents try to determine why their daughter is going crazy.

*By the way, I LOVE the mother character in this movie. She seems every bit the soft spoken, worrisome housewife, until we witness her drinking straight vodka in the middle of the day and hiding bottles throughout the house.*

They take Nancy to a dream clinic, where a doctor gives the most hilariously unscientific explanation of dreams ever:

“What are dreams anyways?”

“Mysteries. Mental hocus pocus.”

They put Nancy under, Freddy attacks, and she awakens in the real world clutching Freddy’s hat, which conveniently has his name written inside in case he needs to claim it from the netherworld lost and found. In light of this rather compelling evidence, Nancy’s mom decides to reveal Freddy’s backstory. Fred Krueger was the town’s resident “child murderer” (we know what she really means), until the parents formed a mob and burned Freddy alive in his lair after escaping prosecution. “He can’t hurt you, because mommy killed him”, says Mommy.

Despite Nancy’s inexplicable knowledge of Freddy and possession of his hat, the parents still think she’s crazy and imprison her in her own house. This sets up one of the greatest death scenes in the history of horror. While Glenn (Depp) watches TV in bed, a hole opens up and he gets sucked down, then….

The best part of this scene is actually the aftermath. The police arrive and are seen placing buckets throughout the first floor to catch the blood seeping through the floor above. Nancy’s dad, a cop, asks where the coroner is.

“In the bathroom puking his guts out” is the reply.

With only Nancy left alive, she devises a plan to drag Freddy out into the real world, the same way she did with his hat, and kill him via traditional means, i.e. bullets and Home Alone-style booby traps. The plan succeeds, and Nancy manages to set Freddy ablaze in her basement. But it’s not over. What follows is the most convoluted and nonsensical series of events in a film that already pushes the boundaries of believability. Freddy, still on fire, runs upstairs and attacks Nancy’s mother in bed. Nancy and Dad run in and pull the sheets away over the struggle. But all they see is the skeleton of Mom slowly being lowered into a heavenly light emanating from the bed, before everything goes back to normal.

I find the father’s reaction to this event peculiar. He holds Nancy and calmly tells her everything will be alright. I believe the acceptable response would be more along the lines of “FUCK! THE FUCK! WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED?! JESUS ON ICE SKATES!”

Anyway, dad walks out of the room, Freddy reappears once more, and Nancy remembers some expositorily significant advice Glenn gave her before his grisly death. She turns her back on Freddy and declares that he is not real, and therefore not scary. This plan works even better than the setting-on-fire one, and he vanishes.

Here’s where it gets even weirder. Immediately after un-making Freddy, Nancy walks out her front door and it’s suddenly daytime, and everything is shrouded in that soft misty look that more or less signifies a dream. Mom is alive, and happily declares that she is going to quit drinking. All of Nancy’s friends are alive too, and she hops into a car with them to go to school.

BUT!

The car’s convertible top closes by itself and matches Freddy’s red and green sweater pattern. The teens all scream as the car drives away on its own. Cut back to Nancy’s mom, still smiling and waving until Freddy’s arm smashes through the tiny window and pulls her through. Roll credits.

As the story goes, Wes Craven wanted a more definitive ending, but the studio, sensing sequel potential (rightfully so I suppose), insisted that the ending be a cliffhanger. So this is what we got. It’s like a nonsensical version of Inception’s “was it all a dream?” ending. Really, it’s the only flaw this film has, keeping it agonizingly close to making my top five favorite films list but just out of reach. Nightmare on Elm Street is creepy, original, darkly humorous, and just plain high in entertainment value. It is ritualistic viewing for me every Halloween.

Regarding the remake, I have not seen it but I will be watching it this Halloween out of curiosity. From what I hear, it’s sort of the same deal as the Friday the 13th remake – all the pieces are in place but it somehow fails to add up to anything memorable. It’s a real shame because there was a ton of potential behind it. They had a great premise and a great actor playing Freddy, and a chance to rescue the series from the bad reputation it had developed because of all the corny sequels. Alas, Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes decided to play it safe and push out a lazy remake. Of course, this is word of mouth I’m going on.

Finally, check out this amazing trailer. It WILL make you want to watch the movie.

Don’t. Fall. Asleep.

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