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Dustin Putman

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A Nightmare on Elm Street  (1984)
3 Stars
Directed by Wes Craven.
Cast: Heather Langenkamp, Ronee Blakley, John Saxon, Johnny Depp, Amanda Wyss, Jsu Garcia, Robert Englund, Charles Fleischer, Joseph Whipp, Lin Shaye, Joe Unger, Ed Call, Sandy Lipton.
1984 – 92 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong bloody violence and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

Nancy Thompson:
Whatever you do, don't...fall...asleep.

Before he got his own syndicated television anthology in 1988 and before he turned into a virtual stand-up comedian in later installments, Freddy Krueger was a truly unnerving screen villain. This is no more true than in the motion picture that started it all, 1984's classic "A Nightmare on Elm Street." Of the "Big Three" slasher series'—"Halloween," "Friday the 13th," and this one—the very premise of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," in which a child molester and murderer's spirit lurks within the dreams of the teenage offspring whose parents burned and killed him in vengeance twenty years earlier, warrants a greater artistic license. Part-fantasy, part-horror, the films are free to move beyond the plane of conscious reality, partially taking place in surrealistic dream worlds where anything is possible and the chance for escape is slim. Sleeping, after all, is a necessary part of one's life, and it's only a matter of time before we all must succumb to it.

Getting a studio to agree to finance writer-director Wes Craven's dream project was no small feat. In an era when the horror genre widely consisted of flesh-and-blood psychopaths picking off kids in everyday surroundings, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" proposed to take this convention to a fresh, imaginative level, introducing a supernatural killer who was only able to claim his victims after the lights were out and their eyes were closed. Enter New Line Cinema, an upstart company that had nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking a gamble on Craven's idea. A surprise financial success, the original film not only began a lucrative franchise for the studio, but it more or less cemented their presence among the Paramounts and Universals of Hollywood.

Even taking into account Freddy Krueger's increased wisecracking ways as the 1980s pressed on, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" has not lost any of its unquenchable power and ingenuity in the intervening years. Dark and forbidding, chilling and refreshingly non-jokey, the picture takes seriously its fantastical plot and treats its characters, particularly resourceful lead heroine Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), with an empathy and fairness that was often missing from teen movies of that time period. His scarred face hidden mostly in shadows, his red-and-green sweater and the screeching of his handmade fingerknives along metal taking visual and aural prominence, Freddy Krueger remains a ghastly spectral figure throughout. He is, indeed, precisely what nightmares are made of.

15-year-old Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) has begun having vivid, restless dreams of a mysterious man stalking her. Afraid to be alone when her single mother skips town with her newest schlub of a boyfriend, she invites best friend Nancy and Nancy's nice-guy boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) to spend the night with her. When Tina's own leather-clad boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia) shows up, they retire to the bedroom. Before the night is over, Freddy will come to Tina's sleep once more, this time brutally clawing her to death. Rod is arrested for the crime, but Nancy is sure that he didn't do it. She, too, has been having bad dreams of the same man Tina described, and is adamant about getting to the bottom of who he is and how to stop him before she and the rest of her friends wind up dead.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" masterfully blends authentic teen life and experiences—relationships with the opposite sex, the demands of school, and, for Nancy, dealing with a mother (Ronee Blakley) who is slipping deeper and deeper into alcoholism—with intermittent flights of horrifying fancy. The dream sequences, which require memorable but not overpunishing special effects, are the horror centerpieces. Tina's final sleep, where she is called out of her house and into the dank alleyways by a long-armed, finger-slicing Krueger, is freakishly riveting, as is another scene where Nancy dozes off in her English class and follows a body-bagged Tina into the school's basement boiler room.

One of the scariest moments is also one of its subtlest; when Nancy bumps into a scowling female classmate with a nosebleed (really Krueger in disguise), she receives a mischievous warning. "Hey, Nancy," the girl says in Freddy's deep-throated voice, her fingerknives scraping together, "no running in the hallways." Other details, as when Nancy runs up her stairs and her feet sink into holes of sticky white goo, or when she falls asleep in the bathtub and is yanked under the water by Freddy's hand, display a creativity and truth about the randomness that we all tend to dream about.

The climactic one-on-one battle between Nancy and Freddy—having set up boobytraps all over her house, she plans to grab hold and pull him out of her dream—strains a bit of credibility with its coincidences and flawed timeframe. The ending is also left open to interpretation and is a little confusing—was it all just a dream, and if not, then why are characters who have died suddenly alive again?—but this is a minor quibble to a film that takes chances and creates an appropriately thick pall of dread. The cinematography by Jacques Haitkin (who would work with Wes Craven again in 1989's "Shocker") is innovative and atmospheric, and the superb music score by Charles Bernstein (also responsible for 1986's "April Fool's Day") uses synthesizers and creepy sound effects to nerve-jangling effect.

Heather Langenkamp makes Nancy her own. A cute girl-next-door type—in one of the few funny lines of dialogue, she gazes at herself in the mirror and remarks that she looks (gasp!) twenty years old—Nancy sticks to her values, isn't afraid to stand up for herself, and becomes exceedingly inventive in her path to stopping the monster haunting her dreams. As Nancy's worried, not-all-together mother Marge, Ronee Blakley (1975's "Nashville") does a fine job essaying a boozy woman paying the price years later for the violent murder she had a hand in committing. John Saxon (1974's "Black Christmas") has less to do as Nancy's sheriff father, Lt. Thompson, but has several good moments with his daughter that help to build their fractured relationship (he has moved out of the house). And, in a film debut that would lead to one of the most coveted careers in Hollywood, Johnny Depp (2007's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street") is characteristically charismatic as Nancy's boyfriend Glen. Depp's demise, involving a bed and a river of blood being catapulted to the ceiling, is still one of the most unforgettable screen deaths in cinema history.

As often occurs in low-budget features, some of the acting around the fringes is slightly amateurish, and the ending suggests post-production tinkering, but "A Nightmare on Elm Street" works gangbusters in all the ways it really counts. Terrifically spooky and original—at the point in which the movie was made, there had never been anything like it—the film continues to feel completely modern despite being almost a quarter-century old (for this reason, an impending remake is unnecessary in extreme). In veteran actor Robert Englund, whose name would become synonymous with his character, he would be responsible for bringing to life a horror villain as iconic to the 1980s zeitgeist as any other in memory. Freddy Krueger was never more palpably sinister than in the first (and best) "A Nightmare on Elm Street."
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman