9 July 2004 | MovieAddict2016
Its reputation is a bit flattering but still a very good low budget horror film
Every small-town neighborhood has an old legend that never dies. For the residents of Elm Street, Fred Krueger is the demonic soul that plagues their nightmares. Krueger was an evil child molester, burned alive by the parents of the children he had slain in the past. Now, years later, he has reappeared in the nightmares of Elm Street's teenagers. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) continually experiences these haunting visions in which the permanently scarred man chases her through the shadows of a boiler room -- the same room in which he used to slay his helpless victims. Nancy considers her dreams to be typical nightmares one of her best friends is apparently "sliced" to death during a deep sleep in her home.
Soon Nancy's dreams become worse, and her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) admits that he has also been experiencing unpleasant nightmares. Together they uncover the truth behind Krueger's death years ago, and vow to stay awake as long as they can and strategize a plan to bring Krueger back into the "real world" and kill him once and for all.
Loosely based on true events, Wes Craven's inspiration for the tale originated after he reportedly read that a number of people across the world had died in their slumber. Blending fantasy with reality, Craven wrote and directed one of the most iconic horror films of all time, which -- similar to "Halloween" before it -- spawned an inferior legion of sequels and imitators, all of which continue to pale in comparison to the original.
The brilliance of "A Nightmare on Elm Street" is that it relies on psychological fear vs. cheap exploitation tricks. "Halloween," directed by John Carpenter and released in 1978, had re-sparked interest in the Hitchcock-style horror/thrillers, and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" builds upon this, cleverly channeling the mystery surrounding dreams and using it as a gateway for chills and thrills. Midway through the movie, a doctor played by Richard Fleischer tells Nancy's mother that the process of dreams -- where do they come from? -- has yet to be explained, and the fact that all humans tend to have dreams on a regular basis is essentially why this film remains so scary, even by today's standards. Some of the special effects are quite outdated but, unlike the "Nightmare" imitators, gore plays second to the plot and characters -- something rare in a horror film.
The sequels became sillier and gorier. Fred's name changed to the less menacing "Freddy" (which we all now know him by), he was given more screen time, the makeup on his face was not quite as horrific, he began to crack jokes more often and his voice evolved into a less demonic cackle. In the original "Nightmare" it is interesting to note that Freddy is rarely given screen time at all -- we see his infamous hands (wearing gloves with butter knives attached on the fingers to slice his victims), we see his hat, we see his sweater, we see his outline in the darkness of the shadows, but even when we finally see Freddy up-close, Craven manages to keep the camera moving so that we never gain a distinct image of the killer. Now, twenty years later, there's no mystery anymore -- Freddy's face is featured on the front cover for most of the films and his very presence has become the cornerstone of all the movies in the franchise. But in 1984, long before Craven predicted his character would become a huge part of modern pop culture, Freddy was mysterious and not very funny at all.
The acting is one of the film's weaknesses -- Heather Langenkamp is never totally awe-inspiring as Nancy, truth be told (although she does a decent job); Depp -- in his big-screen debut -- shows a sign of talent to come but basically mutters clichéd dialogue most of the time. The co-stars are acceptable at best. However the greatest performance is -- not surprisingly -- by Robert Englund, as Freddy, who is in the film barely at all. Ironically, as mentioned above, this only makes the film succeed at scaring us.
The direction is not as superb as "Halloween," and for that matter either is the film. Over the years, "Nightmare" has arguably been given an overrated reputation, although it is inferior to "Halloween." However, compared to some of the other so-called "horror films" released during the '80s -- including "Friday the 13th" and other dumb slasher flicks -- "A Nightmare on Elm Street" does seem to stand as one of the best horror films of the decade. Despite its flaws it is quite smart with a surprise "final" ending and one of cinema's greatest villains lurking at the core.
"A Nightmare on Elm Street" is really Nancy's story. The film focuses on Nancy's troubles, Nancy's dreams and Nancy's actions. The ending of the film becomes a bit muddled -- the booby traps are unfortunately a bit goofy and Freddy helplessly (almost humorously) chasing Nancy around her home supposedly trying to murder her is something the film could have done without -- but overall it is a satisfying mixture of horror, thriller and fantasy, a movie that taps into two seldom-recognized everyday events in human life, which are sleeping, and dreaming. Craven's ability to realize this unknown fear in a movie is, needless to say, quite fascinating. "A Nightmare on Elm Street" is not a great movie but for horror buffs it is a must-see and for non-horror-buffs there is a fair amount of other elements to sustain one's interest.