Franchise Friday - A Nightmare on Elm Street
Sometimes, it only takes one movie to build an empire.
While this following confession might get my Mutant Family membership revoked, I have to admit, I think the last time I sat and watched the original Nightmare on Elm Street was…geez…late 80s? Probably early 90s? It’s been a while.
Still, with the Friday films out of the way and a crossover looming (well, for me anyway as I’ve yet to review Freddy Vs. Jason), the next logical franchise to tackle would of course be the one Wes Craven and New Line Cinema unleashed all the way back in 1984. Before we dive any further into this initial outing, let’s take a look at the synopsis:
Teens in Springwood are dying in their sleep. What’s even weirder is that they’re all having the same dreams and the same shadowy figure stalking them. As the body count rises, Nancy and her boyfriend Glen hit the caffeine and the coffee to figure out how a figure from the town’s past is exacting his revenge and, most importantly, how to stop him.
The inspiration of the story comes from refugees from Southeast Asia who’d been so victimized that their nightmares were becoming fatal. Thus, many of them refused to sleep. Craven would use this as the basis for the story, all the while sprinkling in some biographical touches, including the name of the dream nemesis: Freddy Kruger.
But let’s face it, everything that needs to be said about the Nightmare films has already been said, certainly by those far more knowledgeable than me. Instead, our focus here will be on one hand to see how well these films stand up to the test of time and on the other, well, it’s very much like the Friday films for me, either I haven’t seen them in a while or there are some entries that I haven’t seen at all.
The opening film of the franchise certainly doesn’t disappoint and is very worthy of the ‘classic’ moniker it now bears. Of course, that word itself, ‘classic’, means different things to different people: for some it’s a hallmark film, for others a relic and others still, an Oldsmobile Delta 88. [Wrong franchise pal. – Ed.] I certainly stand by the first definition provided (and the third in certain circumstances), so let’s see if I can try to succinctly prove why A Nightmare on Elm Street warrants just as much attention now as it did in years past.
First off, we have the film itself. Weighing in at a brisk 91 minutes, it does what the best of horror movies do: it doesn’t waste what little time it has. Whether it’s heightening the suspense, furthering the story or, of course, giving the killer and his victims their own time to shine, Nightmare moves at a clip. This lends itself well to allowing Craven to load the film with plenty of Easter Eggs (such as the Evil Dead clips) or with items/scenes that have deeper subtext for film buffs to study. Some of these touches are subtle…some, such as Freddy’s glove between Nancy’s legs in the bathtub…not so much. The cast here does a fantastic job of keeping the more fantastical elements grounded. Of course Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy is the standout but having an old pro like John Saxon around to lend an air of credibility to the production, even if it’s exploitation film cred, really goes the extra mile. Well, and let’s face it, Saxon’s just that damn good in just about anything. Of course, it’s also worth noting that we have a very young Johnny Depp here, before he was a fixture of courtrooms, rehabs and Tim Burton films. Thankfully here he’s…not terribly annoying. Let me rephrase that, there are a couple of scenes where he is indeed annoying…but he’s supposed to be. Then there’s Freddy himself, Robert Englund. Throughout the duration of the movie, you can see where this Freddy still had room to grow, but the basic fundamentals were all there. By the end of the film, it certainly wasn’t a surprise to anyone the Freddy-mania that popped up as a result throughout the remainder of the 80s. Yes, some of his creeping around looks cartoonish and some scenes can even come off as a little campy, but Englund’s energy, the way he’s able to go from that to dead serious and downright terrifying is a rare thing indeed. We’re presented in some ways with the 80s horror equivalent of the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker: hilarious and cartoony one moment, but when he gets serious, you’re dead…and it won’t be pretty. This is quite the change from his other slasher compatriots and in some ways is likely why he proved to be so successful. Michael Myers was simply pure evil, a storm that simply couldn’t be reasoned with: if he crossed your path, you died. The end. Jason, as we’ve already thoroughly looked at, was a twisted sense of 80s morality and morality plays. So long as you obeyed the rules, you were fine…but do drugs, engage in premarital sex, etc? You’re doomed. Those two treated the audience to sheer unbridled savagery while Freddy treated you to a quip first and, more often than not, a kill that was often times ironic. [Not so much here in the first film, but he gets there. – Ed.] One last thing to talk about when it comes to Englund is, of course, his synergy with the character. Connery and Bond, Reeve and Superman, so on and so forth, but yes, Englund and Freddy do belong in this grouping. As we’ll see as we progress, this allowed for the series to continue to be successful, but it also raises questions about whether or not it can survive beyond him.
Right, back to the first film though. Upon rewatching it this time, I was amazed that even though I hadn’t see it in quite some time, I still remembered everything that happened in it. Yet, this knowledge at no point proved detrimental. I wasn’t bored during the running time. Each scare still held up. The film remained fresh even though I knew what to expect thus, lending itself well to repeat viewings So yeah, I can certainly see where the film earns its classic status.
I always like to throw in a word about the music and Charles Bernstein’s score gives the iconic Elm Street theme right off the bat. Yes, it’s mostly a synth-based score…but come on, it was the 80s! And, of course, it was fairly low budget…so it makes sense. And while Bernstein’s score doesn’t go full Carpenter here, it plays as a pretty good atmospheric piece to the proceedings. There’s almost a whimsiness to Freddy’s theme that lends itself well to a dream-like quality.
Something I wasn’t fully aware of here is Craven’s heavy use of shadow and darkness. Now, of course, being a horror movie, the natural reaction is ‘Duh! Of course!’ but given the more fantastical aspects of the story, the effects needed to pull those off and the money (or lack thereof) to get them done, I was glad to see that Wes didn’t make the error that many low-budget filmmakers seem to be committing these days, allowing bad effects to be shown in full lighting. Instead, he wisely opts to hide as much as he can in the darkness, which of course serves two purposes: hiding the effects you’re not confident in and, as is welcomed in a horror movie, nurturing the atmosphere of fright, terror, unease by playing on one of mankind’s oldest fears – the unknown darkness.
If I were to point at a flaw, well, I alluded to it when talking about Freddy himself and Englund’s performance, but in this first film, it feels like we’re getting a ‘proto-Freddy’ and not the finished product. This totally makes sense really, since, depending on who you ask, it’d take a few films for Englund to finally nail it. Personally, I think it was the third film, but others may think differently. There are moments in this first film where he’s indeed terrifying and there are moments where he’s jokey…as he should be. But unfortunately, there are also moments where he comes off as just a little too cartoonish…such as when he’s chasing Tina down a darkened alley. While yes, you could certainly read it as him mocking her fleeing him in his own domain, for me it looked almost slapstick which just felt out of place here.
Still, there’s no denying the cultural impact this film had: it kicked off Freddy-mania in the mid-80s and carried it through the decade. It took New Line Cinema from being a small independent film studio to one of the heavyweights in Hollywood. It inspired a TV series, a dial-in telephone number, several songs and a ton of merchandise. All on the back of this initial film, because, as well see next time, the second film didn’t quite hit the heights of this one.
To circle back to the beginning of this review, part of what makes this film iconic is that whether you mean it to or not, it will stick in your memory. It is very simply part of the cultural zeitgeist of anyone that grew up in the 80s, and going back and reviewing it after all these years of having not seen it, the film really earns that label that so often gets thrown around with little meaning or weight attached to it: Classic. While it took Jason a few films to evolve into the horror icon we know him as today, Freddy came to us nearly fully formed from a man we all know now was one of the true masters of the genre. Yes, there are a couple of goofball scenes that keep the film from perfection, the original Nightmare on Elm Street earns a very high-end Happy Cat.