a review by The Primal Root
It’s easy to forget Wes Craven’s original 1984 masterpiece, A Nightmare on Elm Street. The horror audiences experienced when the lights first dimmed in theaters all those years ago and were introduced to a new boogieman. The ghost of child murderer. A man burned alive by one generation whose children’s lives, their futures, are now in danger due to their actions. Wes Craven created a classic horror film. One that holds up just as well today as it did in the 80’s. But more importantly, like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead or Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a product of it’s time encompasses the Reagan Era, post Vietnam/Cold War generation. The notion that those horrible deeds done by a generation before us will be payed for by the blood of those being born. We are inheriting new life as well as paying for the misdeeds of those fading away.
Yes, it’s easy to forget what A Nightmare on Elm street represents. In the wake of the film’s success came the assembly line of sequels incapable of holding a flickering candle to the original Nightmare. Freddy became a cartoon character rather than the boogieman and in the process diminished any form of fear the audience may have carried for the child killer. The series became less about character and more about spectacle. Less about scare and more about effects. And the genesis of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the whole purpose of the original, became more diluted and washed away…
Now, on the eve of the A Nightmare on Elm Street relaunch I feel is the perfect time to take a look back at one of cinema’s most influential and groundbreaking films. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Our film begins with Tina, an attractive teenage girl, running through a dark and steamy labyrinth of pipes and metal. Running from something stalking her in the shadows. A horribly scarred and disfigured man in a red and green striped sweater and equipped with a glove with blades fastened to the tip of each finger. This is Freddy’s boiler room. A place representative of all the things our society tries to cover up and forget about.The subterranean. Freddy closes in for the kill as Tina screams in terror and jolts up in her bed…it was all a nightmare. But the four slices down the front of her nightgown are far from a fantasy. There’s something terribly wrong on Elm Street.
The very next morning as Tina and her friends Nancy, Glen and Rod head to school it is implied that they are all suffering from the same unsettling dreams. All the teens try to shrug it off until the night Tina is brutally, mercilessly butchered during a sleep over. The murder takes place before her boyfriend Rod’s eyes only he cannot see her attacker and is incapable of helping. And Tina’s bloody, mid-air death might be the best in the series. Her death scene is ferocious and disturbing and taken in from the perspective of the fully awake and helpless Rod the audience can clearly imagine how deeply mortifying this moment is.
This scene is a masterpiece in the annals of horror and sticks with the viewer long after it occurs. Unlike later Nightmare film which rely heavily on set pieces and elaborate creature effects, this sequences focuses instead on the slicing of young flesh and the spilling of warm blood. This focus on the organic, the human makes the phantasmal seem real as well as the consequences. And Craven stays true to this concept throughout A Nightmare on Elm Street and it proves to be one of the pictures greatest strengths.
Craven uses the mix of the organic and the phantasmal with an arsenal of trick shots to find unique and twisted ways to unsettle the audience, keeping them on edge. Like the diabolical murder of Glenn where a spinning room is employed and gallons of fake blood are pumped up through his mattress creating an enormous geyser of blood. As presented to the audience the bed is on the floor and the blood comes up out of the mattress with incredible force. The affect of this clever, simple idea is instant and unforgettable. It’s a shot that clearly expresses the rage and pure violence backing Krueger’s attack. He annihilates Glenn with such power that the guy comes squirting from his bed as if he was put in a giant blender set to puree.
But this nightmare violence would mean nothing without Craven’s intelligent and strong characterizations. One would do A Nightmare on Elm Street a great disservice if they didn’t bring up Heather Langenkamp’s portrayal of our young final girl, Nancy. A child of divorce who must cope with her alcoholic mother and an absent father. Nancy already has been acquainted with the dark underbelly of Elm Street. Of our American dream. And through her experiences in waking life she is equipped to connect the pieces between both her dreams and reality. Heather brings Nancy to life as an independent, strong, resourceful and incredibly intelligent young woman and is one of the finest , most enduring examples of slasher cinema’s final girl.
It’s also interesting to note Craven’s depiction of the family unit here. Early on the first adult we are introduced to is Tina’s mother who awakens Tina from a night terror only to scold her. She is then interrupted by an obviously drunk boyfriend who asks, “Are you coming back to the sack or what?” Later, through dialog between the teens characters, we learn Tina’s father abandoned the family a decade prior. Nancy’s father, Don, a police detective in Springwood, is comparatively absent from her life. He is patronizing and debasing towards her when she asks for his help but is quick to exploit her as bait when it helps his investigation. Nancy’s mother, Marge, is a sickeningly dependent alcoholic who hides bottles of booze all over the house, including the linen closet in the off chance she might need to swig her feel good juice while she’s walking from her bedroom to Nancy’s.
Not to mention both of Nancy’s parents, like all the Elm Street parents, are murderers. They are among the parents who took justice into their own hands and killed Fred Krueger when the judicial system failed. Their guilt, their sin, are all passed on to their children in the form of the demonic and purely evil Krueger. Thus, A Nightmare on Elm Street literalizes the notion that the sins of the father are passed on to the children. We will pay in blood and treasure for the misdeeds of those who came before us.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the most important films of the last fifty years. A wellspring of creativity and ideas which maintain great currency within the genre. It gave American culture it’s most identifiable boogieman in the form of Freddy Krueger. Although, in this original Nightmare Freddy had yet to become the fun, silly M.C. he would transform into over the course of the franchise. Instead, he is a real monster, a mean spirited creep who enjoys torturing, molesting, and killing children. He’s a sadist who delights in inflecting pain on others with a wrath that is inescapable. Maybe that’s one of the things that’s so damn scary about Freddy in A Nightmare on Elm Street. That through supernatural means Freddy, a murdered child killer, has gained almost infinite powers to haunt us forever and murdering us in our most intimate and private of places…our minds. And there’s no escape. Because sooner or later we all must fall asleep. So Freddy isn’t only eternal…he’s unavoidable.
The mantra throughout A Nightmare on Elm Street is “Don’t fall asleep.” This is Nancy’s urgent warning and her battle cry. In the context of A Nightmare on Elm Street this line means much more than simply avoiding a confrontation with our razor gloved antagonist. It’s warning us not to be lulled into a false sense of security. To dig out the truth, to question authority, to fight corruption, lies and complacency. Do not give in, do not give up and…
Don’t Fall Asleep.