John’s Horror Corner: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Wes Craven’s creation of Freddy Krueger remains creepy even today
MY CALL: Not as scary as it used to be but every bit as fun, Wes Craven’s original Nightmare is a creation that no horror fan should be without. A little hokey by today’s standards, but also still creepy. MOVIES LIKE A Nightmare on Elm Street: Other classics everyone should see include Poltergeist (1982; discussed at length in our podcast #16) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes series (1977). For more recent horror with a similar sense of humor try Wishmaster (1997) and Hatchet (2006).
Now over 30 years old, I think it’s safe to say this is a horror classic…and it’s a classic I still enjoy and revere. However, like many “classics,” there are aspects of this film that will disappoint horror fans reared by films of the last 10-20 years. The effects are dated (although I love these practical effects still much as I do those in The Thing and The Fly), the plot and characters are a bit hokey at times (but that’s forgivable in the horror genre), and it feels more campy by today’s standards when it felt drop dead serious at the time of its release. So I contend that it is my duty to defend the importance of the classics to our younger readers and assign some homework to those who have not yet seen the pre-remake/reboot Freddy Krueger.
This film opens with a nightmare, and an inherently creepy one at that. We are taken to a shadowy, steam-spewing boiler room where a mysterious stalker rakes his “claws” across old pipes as he slowly advances upon his prey, his dreaming victim Tina. The evil assailant swipes his claws at her and she awakens with her nightgown shredded four-fold. Rattled by the experience, Tina shares her horrible dream with her friends Rod, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp; Star Trek Into Darkness) and Glen (Johnny Depp; Tusk, Dark Shadows), who have all eerily had similar dreams about the same “clawed” killer.
Written and directed by Wes Craven (Cursed, Deadly Friend, Deadly Blessing), we are introduced to the terrifying notion that someone (or something) can hunt and kill us in our dreams…and you really die! Our killer is Fred Krueger (Robert Englund; Wishmaster, Hatchet), a demonic power with an ugly red and green sweater, a single clawed glove, and a face still-moistly burned beyond recognition. As a villain, Freddy is iconic and has graced the screen for 9 films!
This film may not have the emotional power of Poltergeist (1982; discussed at length in our podcast #16) or the blunt-force trauma holy shit factor of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but is instead its own entirely different animal. Freddy gives us hints of a twisted sense of humor as he cuts off his fingers and slices open his own maggot and pus-filled chest or licks Nancy and laughs through a possessed phone, but (unlike many of the sequels) there is nothing slapstick or comedic about it really. He is a twisted and pure evil. It’s intended to be sick and disturbing, not funny (to anyone but Freddy, that is)—although fans laugh at it today. We find these kinds of scenes delivered with a deliberate humor in Hatchet (2006), Wishmaster (1997) and so many more releases of the past 20 years…and also blatantly more deliberate in later installments of the Nightmare on Elm Street or Leprechaun franchises.
Simply meant to be terrifying back in 1984, Freddy looks a little hokey today—in a fun way. He runs down alleys like a crab with a limp waving his glove hand in the air, he jumps atop Nancy and rolls around instead of wisely slicing at her, laughs after mutilating himself. My movie companion actually said the movie, at times, felt a little dorky. And I couldn’t agree more.
Starkly contrasting these “dorky” scenes are dream sequences with a bodybagged Tina calling for help and being dragged away through the school hallway, the boiler room scenes, the harrowingly weird death scene of Nancy’s mother towards the end, Tina’s gravity defying death scene, and Freddy’s twisted laughter in the boiler room. These scenes remain “effective” to me, but they lack the right kind of production to remain sufficiently creepy or scary today (even with all the lights off as I watch). Of course, I’m a bit numbed by the hundreds of horror films I’ve seen. Perhaps these scenes will make you all quiver a bit. If not those, then at least the little girls jumping rope while reciting Freddy’s dark nursery rhyme.
Whoa! A cool death scene in any decade.
Look for John Saxon (Blood Beach, Enter the Dragon) and Lin Shaye (Insidious Chapter 3, The Signal) as we watch Nancy and her friends discover what drives Fred Krueger, learn his origin, and figure out how to defeat him through a combination of booby traps and bringing Freddy from the dream world into reality. Just try to ignore the lamely written controlling nature, denial and alcoholism of Nancy’s mother. It should also be noted that as Nancy, Langenkamp (not Robert Englund) carries the film. Freddy is done well with creepy execution, but he has almost no lines and little screen presence until the end. It’s Nancy who validates our fears, rallies awareness despite her parents’ disbelief, and battles Freddy.
Without going into detail, I should add that I still enjoy ALL of the practical effects in this film. Sometimes the simplicity makes it more gross, weird, off-putting, or even a bit funny.
The ending is deliberately sort of silly and illogical. But that was and remains a fun staple of horror—twists, even if stupid, that make us smile. If there was a deliberately funny moment, it had to be the last scene with the car and Nancy’s mother being cartoon-yanked through a tiny window on the front door.
Is that prop a blow-up doll?
This is a truly fun movie experience and worth the ride, even if you laugh today in 2015 whereas others screamed back in 1984.
If you need another trusted opinion, check out this review from Rivers of Grue.