I owe my love of horror to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Often credited for introducing the fantastic to slasher cinema, Wes Craven’s 1984 classic established the formula for decades of genre flicks to come, allowing filmmakers to tap into our id all the while sharing their view of the world. Unencumbered by moral relativism or good taste, scary movies have become the closest thing we have to modern-day fables: cautionary tales that give a name and a face to our societal woes along with a clear set of rules to overcome them.
In A Nightmare on Elm Street, the moral pertains to the way we approach the hurdles in our lives. The characters who confront reality head on, like our heroine Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), get to ride off in the sunset (sort of), whereas those who spend their existence in denial, or “asleep”, are knocked off by Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund): a serial child killer who, after the parents of Elm Street burn him to ashes, returns to slaughter their offspring in the dreamscape. Designed to haunt our nights for weeks after we’ve seen the movie, this simple but powerful metaphor allows Craven to denounce all manner of avoidance, including alcoholism, hedonistic detachment, and good old-fashioned self-delusion.
You see, unlike Michael Myers from Halloween (1978) or Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th (1981), Freddy pertains to the inescapable rather than the unstoppable, embodying the dark, irrational thoughts with which we imbue the things we bury out of fear. As such, every aspect of the character seems designed to upset us, from his scorched face and fedora to the colour pattern on his ratty old sweater (studies show that the red and green combo causes psychological distress). I’m also fascinated by the detail of the monster’s bladed glove, which he almost never uses in A Nightmare on Elm Street except to annoy his prey with metallic scratching noises.
Yes, he’s quite the scamp. Named after a schoolyard bully from Craven’s youth, Freddy brims with personality, bucking the eighties trend of portraying slasher villains as quiet behemoths removed from humanity. Consider the scene in which he taunts Tina (Amanda Wyss) by slicing off his own fingers as if performing a magic trick: “Watch this!” It was a stroke of genius for Robert Englund to emphasise the character’s childish nature instead of his otherness. Long-time fans of the franchise will notice that his voice has got a slightly higher pitch in A Nightmare on Elm Street. In just a few short scenes, one really gets the sense of a pathetic little man with too much power at his disposal.
Less is more, as they say, and A Nightmare on Elm Street excels at economy of language. Take, for instance, the way our heroine’s parents are introduced at the police station. Though Donald (John Saxon) and Marge (Ronee Blakley) never mention their marital status, we understand from their one exchange that the two have been separated for some time, that their relationship remains strained, and that Nancy has somehow managed to keep a good rapport with each. I do so love it when characters appear to have lives beyond the plot.
After all, the effectiveness of A Nightmare on Elm Street is predicated on our believing in its reality so that we can share Nancy’s dread when the nightmare starts to take over. Most films dealing with this sort of material use Dutch angles and saturated colours to differentiate the mindscape from the real world, forgetting that dreams always feel authentic at the time. Craven takes a more cerebral approach, allowing us to commit to the sleeper’s narrative but then skipping over certain continuity details so as to rattle our subconscious.
For example, our heroine exits her bedroom upstairs and immediately finds herself outside. She doesn’t question it, and neither do we (it’s called editing, you know) until Craven sneaks in a subtle absurdity that she, as the dreamer, seems all too willing to ignore. My favourite involves Glen (Johnny Depp) stepping out of a bush in the middle of nowhere to confirm to Nancy that he’s awake and watching over her. By placing the audience in the characters’ shoes and then nudging us just one step ahead, Craven gives these sequences in A Nightmare on Elm Street a downright Hitchcockian feel.
Even the set pieces have got a more conceptual slant, playing on surrealism rather than gore (of which we still get plenty). Much has been said of the blood geyser sequence, for instance, but I prefer the throwaway scares in A Nightmare on Elm Street, such as our villain’s face stretching the wall above Nancy’s bed. Mind you, the opening kill remains impressive even by today’s standards, with Tina’s full weight getting dragged across every surface of the room as if gravity itself was having a mental breakdown. I don’t care how awkward Freddy’s elongated arms look a minute earlier, I miss practical effects!
Ironically, I also miss scary movies celebrating life instead of condemning it. Don’t let the sequels fool you: Freddy may have seized our morbid imagination, but the true star of A Nightmare on Elm Street remains Nancy, who captures our hearts as the ultimate slasher heroine. Exuding warmth and intelligence in every frame, Heather Langenkamp makes us root not just for her character but human fortitude as a concept. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, a great horror film doesn’t just tell us that monsters exist; it reminds us how they can be defeated.