A group of teenagers find themselves being haunted in their dreams by a strange scarred man with knives for fingers, known as Freddy Kreuger. As they hunt for the truth about him, the only way avoid his grasp is to stay awake…
The terrified audiences of 1984 could hardly have known that Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street would end up being one of the most iconic horror films of all time. At the time of release it reduced the masses to shivering wrecks in fold-up seats because there had never been anything quite like it. Sure, slasher movies had come before, but the genius of Elm Street was that it took the genre into territory never before ventured. No longer was the killer trying to break in the front door; he was waiting for you in your dreams, a place where you can’t run, you can’t hide, you can’t scream and you can’t escape. Craven knew we’ve all experienced the inescapable terror of a nightmare, and he played on that fear by creating what has become one of the most iconic characters in not just horror, but film, history: Freddy Kreuger.
Every slasher movie needs a good killer – nay, a great killer. More often than you’d think, the reason for a slasher not working is because there’s nothing interesting or unique about the bad guy (and oh, how many bad slasher movies there are). It’s just all slash, hack and gore. The tremendous success of Elm Street is largely down to how well planned and executed Freddy was, yet these days, Kreuger is often seen as something of a gimmick, having spawned an array of Freddy merchandise, starred in countless, increasingly-silly sequels, and even sung in his own music video. The character basically became an entertainer and celebrity, which is odd, given his roots. In Craven’s film, Kreuger is a murderer and pedophile seeking revenge on the parents who burned him alive by slicing and dicing their children while they sleep. There’s distinctly nothing gimmicky about him as he cackles in that way he does while racing up Elm Street behind a terrified Amanda Wyss with those elongating arms. While some of the sequels are entertaining, and the jokey Freddy vs Jason is surprisingly good fun, Freddy Kreuger, in my mind, has never been more sinister, terrifying and brilliant than in his first iteration.
By setting large portions of the film in a dream it opened up a whole armada of possibilities to Craven’s fantastical, inventive mind. If he wasn’t creative enough already with his startling work on films like The Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes, this time there were absolutely no restrictions, no reality checks. Anything can happen in a dream, and does, which makes Krueger’s torments that much more unbearable. Whether it’s Freddy chopping off his own finger to mess with his victim or the victims themselves being unable to run away, there’s a definite sense of fun behind the camera in that they know they’ll get away with whatever they’re doing. The dream sequences themselves also look and feel great thanks to Jacques Haitkin’s vividly eerie, musky cinematography. When in Freddy’s lair we feel as trapped as the victims, suffocated by the billowing steam and vision-less, all making for even more excruciatingly frightful death sequences. So much care and attention has gone into making us really believe that we’re in a dream, where it’s absolutely no holds barred.
Often forgotten is that A Nightmare On Elm Street also boasts the accolade of hosting the debut role of one of today’s biggest stars. We know him best as a mumbling, drunk pirate who likes to sing songs about rum, but Johnny Depp first came onto the scene as a quiet, straight-faced, fashion-impaired pretty boy trying to escape the slashes of Freddy’s knived glove. Playing the boyfriend of Krueger’s favourite victim, Nancy, he’s the typical 80s clean-faced, naive heart-throb who was always going to go on to do bigger things. The DiCaprio of Titanic, say, or the Brad Pitt of Thelma & Louise (who, incidentally, also starred in the Freddy TV series, Freddy’s Nightmares). Heather Langenkamp surprisingly never went on to do much else, with her biggest roles coming in Elm Street sequels and a small part in this year’s Star Trek Into Darkness. But she’s great in this, playing against the typical slasher teen scream heroine and providing Nancy with a strong sympathetic edge as well as reminding us that she’s able to hold her own against a dream-dwelling psychopath. There’s nothing like a strong, kick-ass female lead.
For me, A Nightmare On Elm Street stands the tallest amongst its contemporaries. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and John Carpenter’s Halloween are generally cited as the best slasher movies ever made, only rivaled by their inspiration Psycho, and occasionally Peeping Tom. While Carpenter’s and Hooper’s classics are brilliant and strong influences on Elm Street, they hail from a different decade so it doesn’t feel quite right to rope them into the same group. Elm Street’s biggest contender, really, is Friday The 13th, which doesn’t hold up through the fact that, in the opposite way from Elm Street, many of its sequels are much better. It just doesn’t hold the same enjoyment factor while watching it; that unique sense of real dread and fear mixed with genuine fun that Craven does so well.
A whole after 29 years after release, horror-master Wes Craven’s iconic, decade-defining classic hasn’t lost the slightest touch of quality. Despite the multitude of spinoffs, sequels and wannabes, it remains totally unique in the genre, and as shocking, entertaining, scary and insomnia-inducing as ever. Just fewer of the low-cut tops, Johnny.