Feelin’ Spooky: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

By Christian DiMartino

I am 24 years old, approaching 25. I have been watching Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street since I was about 8 years old. If that sounds a tad alarming, perhaps it should be, but also, I think I’ve turned out somewhat okay. In any regard, I have been watching this movie for roughly 16 years. And if you watch it with me, you’ll see that I know it pretty freakishly well. Some movies just strike a chord with you at a young age, and for whatever reason, A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of them.

Truth is, Wes Craven had two films (or, series) that I swooned over as a kid, and still have an affection for: this, and his Scream trilogy (at the time, there was only three). In terms of horror, these days I dig about half of the horror films I come across. As a kid though, I was pretty into it, and perhaps A Nightmare on Elm Street in particular. I’ve seen it countless times, both from the comfort of my home and on a drive in screen. The flaws are there, sure, but the movie still remains effective from where I’m sitting. I remember a few years back, I watched this with a friend of mine who doesn’t really watch movies, and he turned to me and said, “Do you think this looks, like, good?”

To that I say, yes, I do, and for the reasons I believe Jaws still works. It’s because you know that they didn’t have much to work with, and frankly for what they had to work with, it looks good. Sure movies have come a long way since, and I mean, take a movie like No Time to Die and how fabulous and expensive it looks. For the time, A Nightmare on Elm Street had to have been a knockout. Even today, dated visuals and all, my admiration for it is strong. Because there was no way that Wes Craven had the same clout as a director as, say, Steven Spielberg, and on a budget of perhaps a million dollars he delivered a horror movie that is effectively creepy, conceptually creative, fun, and something of a cultural landmark. Oh, and it gave us Johnny Depp, need I say more?

The film opens with a girl named Tina (Amanda Wyss) as she wanders around an eerie, creepy factory/boiler room. She senses danger, and with good reason, and as soon as the first scare arrives, she wakes up, and we realize she was in the middle of a dream. Cut to the next day and she tells her friends about it, and how she’s scared by it. She’s even more creeped out by the fact that one of her friends also experienced the dream, so her friends Nancy (Heather Lagenkamp) and Glen (Depp), as well as a surprise cameo from her boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri), spend the night at her house to make sure she’s okay.

All is well. Tina and Rod bone, Nancy and Glen listen from another room, all is normal. But then… Tina exits the house and walks into the alley way to find the man (Robert Englund) from her dream. His face is horribly scarred and burned, and he wears a glove that has razors on the fingers. We know she’s dreaming again, particularly as she’s being murdered right in front of Rod, and he’s completely disturbed and shocked by what is happening before him, particularly because he can’t see who is attacking Tina. Alas, she is murdered, and Nancy’s father (John Saxon), a police officer, obviously suspects Rod.

As I write about this, maybe it’s because I have seen it so many times, but I never picked up on what a Psycho move this is- by starting the film with who you think will be the hero, just to kill her off early. Either way, it’s fairly ingenious. Anyways, the rest of the film mostly centers on Nancy and Glen, as Nancy tries to uncover the mystery of the killer who is now invading her dreams as well. Is she able to control the dream? Is she able to fight back? And why exactly is this guy hunting down teenagers?

The question should really probably be: how is he able to murder people in their sleep? Yet this is one of those mysteries that really needn’t solving. Craven probably could’ve written some elaborate excuse or explanation as to how this man is able to achieve such a thing, but in any regard, the whole thing is lurid, so why bother? As for the identity of the man, unless you live under a rock you’re probably aware that his name is Freddy Kruger, and believe it or not, since this film they have made 8 other movies featuring this character. Will they make another? Probably.

Here’s the thing: Freddy can be taken at least quasi-seriously in this film installment, because he was in the hands of a filmmaker who was more interested in the frights than the camp (and he doesn’t quip one liners the same). Craven made this film and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the 7th and by far (second) best installment. As for the films that follow… well, I want to revisit them. But they reach a point in the series where you can tell that they stopped trying to make it scary, and instead focused on gross-outs and camp. That said, Englund is always have a blast.

The movie is fun. Not if you’re not into horror, but if you are, it’s sacred. It’s also, for its time, pretty well made. Craven was no dummy; he knew what he was doing, and how to creep people out. Yet I’m not talking about that. Picture the scene in which Glen meets his demise. It’s not only a creative visual, but how the hell did they do that? Or when Rod meets his demise, or Tina for that matter? Knock the effects all you may want (the one of Freddy cutting open his stomach is certainly a sight), but I don’t think some of these could be done much better.

By the time A Nightmare on Elm Street was released, we’d already gotten four Friday the 13th movies, three Halloween movies, and Sleepaway Camp– probably to name a few, but my mind is blank. So with this, Craven added to the slasher movie craze, with a twist, and dammit, he made one of the best ones. Much of the film rests on Lagenkamp’s shoulders and sometimes her line delivery feels a little off. And sure, there are some visual effects that might look dated, in the eyes of some. But it doesn’t get in the way of an effectively creepy, original film with scenes and moments that forever remain etched in your brain. It’s an excellent horror film, made with 80’s gusto, from one of our late, great horror maestros in the peak of his powers.

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