Friday, September 4, 2015

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

On Sunday, August 30th, Wes Craven passed away, having lost his battle with brain cancer. As the acclaimed director of so many horror films, and the creator of one of horror’s foremost icons in Freddy Krueger, Craven’s work was certainly loved by many. He was the kind of guy who brought horror to the forefront and made it palatable for the masses - while still putting out quality stuff. In remembrance of Craven's legacy, I’m doing a special review of his original 1984 classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Director: Wes Craven
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Johnny Depp, John Saxon

I remember seeing this when I was about 14 for the first time, and I thought it was like nothing else I’d seen. The flashy colors, the fast pace and the surreal horror of the nightmares – it was a spectacle and it grabbed me by the throat in a vicegrip. Looking back now, it really was so influential to what came later. It opened up the doors for horror to take on realms outside our own, to explore nightmares and multiple realities, and it gave us all that in such a vibrant and colorful package – taking ideas explored in other psychological films to new levels by visualizing them. We felt the terror.

We start off with our fake main character, Tina, who has been having bad dreams of a man with long fingers for knives and wakes up with her nightgown slashed to ribbons in the front. Her initial suspicion was that Wolverine from the X-Men had snuck into bed with her, but she will soon find out it’s something much worse. Her mom tells her she either has to “stop having those dreams or cut her fingernails,” and ah yes, the days when parents could be that callous about their children waking up with cut-up clothes…

The third option is stop sleeping with scissors in your bed.

She tells her friends, Nancy and Glen, about the dream the next morning, but they of course shrug it off as insanity, as something so insane as a man with knives for hands could never pose a threat to them.

Johnny Depp is looking that way because Wes Craven held up a picture of a two-headed baby off screen to see if the actors could keep their concentration. Depp failed, so he was selected to be killed off later in the movie in the most brutal way.

That’s Johnny Depp as Glen, there, in his first movie role ever, who you might have trouble recognizing in this because he isn’t wearing a shitload of makeup and his hair looks like a normal person’s.

They all have a sleepover that night because Tina is afraid of her nightmares. When they hear a noise outside, they go to check and find it’s Rod, their delinquent wannabe friend who fulfills the ‘80s leather jacket’ quota for the movie. Because every 80s movie needed one of those, ya know – just a product of the time. They get into some verbal banter outside, and Rod immediately responds by pulling out a switchblade. Uh...guys, I’m really not sure that’s the dude you want to bring to your sleepover party.


Rod then has sex with Tina, which is fine until afterwards when she is brutally murdered by knives cutting her up and throwing her around in the air. Gee - that’s how you know you’ve really got to work on your fucking game. When your partner dies.

Fuck. Just, holy fuck. What a brutal scene.

But this is actually the introduction of one of horror’s most iconic characters, Freddy Krueger, who I’m pretty sure was modeling your grandma’s Christmas sweaters for a living before he got big in this film. The scene where he’s introduced is excellently done, especially because he stretches his arms out like Slinkies and scrapes the walls with those long, metal claws he has. Yes, that's the reason it's excellent. Shut up.

Goddamn, this was all so fucking whacked out and insane. In the best way possible.

But this is a great scene. The nightmareish atmosphere is furiously fast and fun, and the acting is spot on from Englund and Amanda Wyss, who played Tina. Afterward, the surviving characters even start to figure out that Freddy stalks them in their dreams. Good for them. It's good that they're smart.

As Tina has left the building, the movie convenes in an emergency session after that and elects Nancy the new main character. She’s understandably upset the next day as she is in school and falls asleep only to wake up and see this:

Ugh, SO violating the dress code.

Then she runs into the worst hall monitor in the world:

Sorry to go on a bit of tangent here, but really, what is the point of hall monitors anyway? Are you just promoting some fascistic system where kids can’t be trusted to do things by themselves? I mean, if Freddy Krueger can transform into an annoying hall monitor with a striped sweater and a bleeding nose, and nobody notices that that isn't a good hall monitor, maybe it’s worth it to get rid of the profession as a whole.

We also get scenes of her visiting Rod in jail after he is arrested. Rod tells her he didn’t kill Tina, it was an invisible man cutting her up while he was in the room. You might recognize THAT as the lame-ass defense everyone gives now when they're accused of murder, but it actually started with this movie.

Rod is then killed in his cell, which prompts Nancy's father, the sheriff, to start intervening. He's played by John Saxon, the only man in Hollywood at the time who could use such a stern voice all the time.

Suicide, or killed by nightmareish dream-demon for revenge for his parents' sins. Either way, this isn't cool.
His sternness is eternal. It will never die. It will live on even longer than he himself.

While taking a bath at home, Nancy drifts off to sleep, which allows Freddy's hand to try and attack her in the tub. An interesting note: In this scene, actor Heather Langenkamp was not acting. She was just taking a regular bath in the privacy of her own home. Craven just wanted the fear to be real, which, really, is the only way to do a horror film.

Nancy is admitted to this psychiatric clinic where they test her brain waves while she's asleep to get to the root of the problem. The reason you know they're professionals is because they have computers and are wearing white coats. Nancy begins screaming insanely and bloody scratches start appearing on her, so, job well done, scientists! She's good to go home now, and you guys can continue doing your scientist-y jobs.

The greatest scientists in the world.

At home, Nancy has a shouting match with her mother, who refuses to tell her anything meaningful about Krueger. Why? Nancy already knows about him and is saying he's the one killing everyone. Who else could be killing everyone? How would Nancy know about Krueger if he's dead and in the past like her mother tells her? Does her mother really think she's that crazy or susceptible after just hearing his name once or something? I have so many questions.

None of which her mother will answer.

We also find out the sordid backstory of how the parents in the neighborhood burned Krueger alive in his boiler room because he was a child murderer. Which is bad, don't get me wrong. But what neighborhood doesn't have a good story to tell over hamburgers and beers at a cookout? Come on.

Glen is hanging out in his room later on when his bed eats him and spews out a bloodshower enough to cover the entire room for several seconds straight. I think that's awesome.

Clearly he was healthy, considering how strong his blood is.

We then also get the greatest phone sex scene in the history of movies.

So it's really just up to Nancy, who engages in a battle with Freddy. She manages to get Freddy into the real world, which results in one of the better jump scares I've seen – she wakes up, thinking it might actually all be over, and then he pops up from behind the bed. That's kick ass. Nancy isn't impressed, though, so she just sets him on fire and calls it a day.

Her father, the master of all good timing, shows up just in time to see his wife get eaten by a bed with a Halloween smoke machine in the room. Boy, the beds in this movie sure are hungry tonight.

The awesome kind of horror special effects I wish we would see more these days.

So everything seems to be good finally. It's a sunny day and perfect weather for a sunroof and parent murder:

So that's the end – the nightmare is reality and you can't really ever tell when it's over. Craven originally wanted the film to end in a happy manner, with everything that happened in the film just being a nightmare. I have to admit that would have been interesting. But I guess I'm a dark soul, because I like the ending we got. It works because it further blurs the line between the real world and Freddy's nightmare realm, like the whole rest of the movie was doing.

However – I can still see where Craven was coming from. His ending could've been good too. That's because this is a great horror movie, and it doesn't live or die by circumstance like that. This is a story about being young, right on the edge of adulthood. It's about the feeling of your parents dismissing what you say because you're a kid – but in your mind, you're almost an adult; they should listen to you. The kids in this movie find out that a devil in their nightmares is killing them, and it's their parents' fault. The kids themselves are blameless, yet they are the ones who face the penalty for their parents' sins.

Then, not only that, but their parents foil them at every turn in this film – Glen certainly would still be alive if his dad hadn't hung up on Nancy during that scene when she tried to reach him. Nancy's mom could have told the truth halfway through this movie and saved a bunch of lives. In ANOES, the parents are the “villains” - though they have no ill intent, they don't listen to their kids, dismissing them just for being kids, which is an all-too-common thing amongst adults. There's a sense of helplessness about everything in this film, which you, the viewer, feel by proxy of the characters.

Oh, and I guess Freddy Krueger is pretty evil too. I mean c'mon. The guy is a child killer, for fuck's sake.

Through the insane visuals, the groundbreaking story blending reality with dreams, the horrific visual nightmares and the iconic Freddy Krueger, who makes the most of his seven minutes of screentime here, Wes Craven and company created a classic. This is one of horror’s greats. If you haven't seen it, I really recommend it. And if you have, well, then you know what I'm talking about.

RIP Wes Craven. You are gone, but your work on this great film will live forever.

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