He’s every chalkboard’s worst nightmare. John Saxon, Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund and Academy Award nominee Johnny Depp star in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Cast of Characters:
Lt. Don Thompson – John Saxon
Marge Thompson – Ronee Blakley
Nancy Thompson – Heather Langenkamp
Tina Gray – Amanda Wyss
Rod Lane – Nick Corri
Glen Lantz – Johnny Depp
Freddy Krueger – Robert Englund
Director – Wes Craven
Screenplay – Wes Craven
Producer – Robert Shaye
High school student Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) has begun having disturbing nightmares of a mysterious man stalking her. Terrified of being alone while her mother’s out of town, Tina invites best friend Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and her boyfriend Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp) to keep her company. After a good romp in bed with her boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri), a big no-no for horror film victims, she faces that mysterious man in her dreams once again, this time being her last as he brutally claws her to death.
Rod is arrested for the crime, but Nancy is convinced he didn’t do it. She too has been experiencing nightmares of the same man Tina described to her, a razor-clawed maniac by the name of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). Exhausted by the toll these dreams, and the desperate measures taken to avoid them, have had on her, Nancy is determined in finding out who this man is and why he’s stalking her and her friends before it’s too late.
In there was a Mount Rushmore of horror flicks, the best of the best would be as follows: William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, John Carpenter’s The Thing, James Whale’s Frankenstein and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Even though, like any filmmaker, he stumbled a couple times with a few stinkers (Deadly Blessing and the made-for-TV flicks Stranger in Our House and Invitation to Hell), by the mid-’80s, Wes Craven had established himself as a cult-horror favorite with The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and the underrated Swamp Thing. His next feature film would elevate him from fan-favorite to the mainstream master of modern horror that he became known to be: A Nightmare on Elm Street.
At the time of its release, the slasher genre had been done to death thanks to the number of a cheap, lazy Friday the 13th-inspired dung piles littering the screens. As he’d later do a decade later for his own Freddy Krueger band with New Nightmare in 1994 and the slasher film with Scream in 1996, Craven would first come to the rescue with his 1984 surrealist horror film which would take the tired genre to a highly imaginative level. Despite the allure of such a fresh idea for a genre that needed it, Craven faced difficulties in finding a studio willing to finance a high-concept like his until an upstart company run by Robert Shaye (the brother of Farrelly brothers and Insidious mainstay Lin Shaye, who has an appearance in this film) by the name of New Line Cinema entered the picture and took a gamble on Craven’s film.
And the rest is history.
New Line would go on to back box office hits like Dumb and Dumber, the Rush Hour films and its greatest financial achievement, the Lord of the Rings franchise. A Nightmare on Elm Street gave it the box office jolt it needed, grossing $25 million on a $2 million budget, which is why thanks to all the dollars it made from milking Freddy Krueger bone dry, the studio’s been nicknamed “The House that Freddy Built”.
The basis for A Nightmare on Elm Street came to Craven by several LA Times articles in the ’70s on a group of Khmer refugees who fled to America from the Khmer Rouge Genocide in Cambodia, and suffered from disturbing nightmares that led to them refusing to sleep. Some of the men died in the sleep soon after, leading medical authorities to name the unexplained condition “Asian Death Syndrome”. Further inspiration came to Craven from Gary Wright’s ’70s pop hit “Dream Weaver”, most evident in the film’s perfectly haunting synthesized score.
Like Spielberg did for oceans and Hitchcock for showers, Craven tapped into audiences’ fears, this time taking it to a further level – sleep. This goes beyond not going into the ocean or not going outside or even just not leaving your room. You don’t get much more of a primal and elemental warning than “Don’t go to sleep.” Not everyone goes to the ocean; everyone, however, needs sleep. The requisite visceral thrills that accompany horror films are there (which includes two of the most inventive and impeccably crafted character deaths you’ll ever see), but the film’s suspense hinges on its blurring of what’s real and fantasy. At times, the characters’ dreamscapes are obvious, but when Craven messes with our expectations of whether they’re dreaming or not, it leaves us on edge.
From a production standpoint, you could argue this is Craven’s most accomplished film. Charles Bernstein’s score, the low-tech practical effects and Jacques Haitkin’s light and shadow capitalizing cinematography greatly aid in the film’s eerie atmosphere. Sure, over the years since this film, movies like Scream and Red Eye would have sleeker, more polished looks, but considering the time and budget (not as low as his prior films, but still somewhat small for the high concept Craven was going for), it’s a superbly crafted film.
I encourage any aspiring amateur filmmakers that wanna a good how-to lesson to watch the Special Edition’s behind-the-scenes featurette. Craven and his crew took the cheap but efficient route for many of the setpieces (latex for Freddy’s body pushing through Nancy’s wall, one rotated room doubled for both Glen and Tina’s deaths, etc.), and they still hold up beautifully to this day.
One of the most enduring aspects born out of this film is its villain Freddy Krueger. Krueger’s not just any slasher villain; out of the big four – the other three being Michael Myers, Leatherface and Jason Voorhees (adored by many, I know, but a horribly overrated lunkhead who’s not even the villain in the only good Friday the 13th) – Freddy’s the slasher villain. The key difference between Freddy and the many other horror villains is his personality, and even while caked under all that makeup, Robert Englund’s expressions are still distinctly clear. Englund’s memorable performance combined menace with, as he described it, a bit of James Cagney swagger. There’s also just a touch of dark humor added as well, but not too much. He’s still meant to be an imposing boogeyman. The sequels and 2010 remake showed how key the balance between Krueger’s menace and moments of twisted humor really is. The remake stripped him clean of any personality, and the sequels camped up the humor to overblown, detrimental extremes. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it’s treated just right.
Freddy’s look is certainly part of the package of what makes him great, and what’s even more interesting is that the look isn’t just something slapped together to look cool. Each article of his outfit bears a particular meaning to Craven. The name was a combination of a bully from his childhood (Freddy) and a variation of the villain’s name from The Last House on the Left (Krug) The red and green sweater was chosen ’cause the two colors make the hardest combo for the eyes to process. The disfigured appearance was a nod to a homeless man that frightened him as a child. The claw came to him, oddly enough, from his cat clawing the side of his couch one night.
Admittedly, upon first seeing this back in high school, I took it for granted and saw it as just another cool monster flick. Freddy’s got claws and kills kids with them and how awesome it that (awesome enough for me to ripoff the dying in dreams concept for a short story I wrote in high school). As I got older, though, I started to love the film more and more for Craven’s underlying themes. Yes, Freddy’s one hell of a monster, but it’s what he represents that makes him truly disturbing – neglect, the fractured family and the sins of the father coming back to haunt their children.
Part of the problem with the sequels is that Freddy’s increasing popularity demanded he become more of the franchise’s focal point, but as New Line kept increasing Freddy’s role with each sequel that got churned out one after the other, he progressively became more and more of a joke. Rule #1 of imposing antagonists: Never over-exploit a good villain. The over exposure not only weakened the rooting interest in the film’s protagonists, it rendered Freddy less and less terrifying as he became a walking, talking box of dopey one-liners. Essentially, he turned into the slasher’s films Horatio Caine.
On the next CSI: Elm Street… “This is it, Jennifer… (puts on shades) your big break in TV – YEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!!!!”
Freddy’s obviously a pivotal part of this film’s lasting legacy; he wouldn’t be one of the greatest film villains if he wasn’t. But although his backstory is touched on, this is more Nancy Thompson’s story than it is his. It’s a shame that Heather Langenkamp’s film career didn’t extend past this series (outside of this film and its sequels, most of her success was on ABC’s Growing Pains spin-off Just the Ten of Us). Horror films, no matter how successful, sometimes carry the curse of typecasting. Langenkamp isn’t mind-blowing here, but for this being her first big break and having to carry most of the film, she does really well, bringing a great deal of empathy and resourcefulness to Nancy. Where many slasher films of the ’80s gave us a number of “heroines” with the IQ of a rock, Craven’s film proved you could have one that’s vulnerable and terrified by what haunts them, but also smart enough to fight back when push comes to shove.
Laurie Strode would approve.
Aside John Saxon (Enter the Dragon) and Oscar-nominee Ronee Blakley (Nashville), most of the cast, mainly the high schoolers, was relatively unknown at the time (Englund was, however, briefly considered for Han Solo and also auditioned for Luke Skywalker). Like Langenkamp, they serve the film well. Amanda Wyss’s death scene still leaves me with chills, and while Nick Corri doesn’t get much to do, he does provide a little bit more sympathy to the sort of role that is usually the douchy, bad boy boyfriend.
The big name that stands out in the credits is Johnny Depp, whose unforgettable death scene is the flick’s big money shot. In his feature-film debut, Depp does fine (according to Craven, he was extremely nervous while shooting his scenes). Bigger and better roles obviously came to him over the years since this film, but his trademark charisma is noticeable here.
Craven’s finest film to date gave horror flicks in the ’80s a much-needed jolt of creativity and inventiveness. To this day, it’s proof that the slasher film is fully capable of having high-concepts of their own and executing them well. Though Craven would return to resurrect the franchise with New Nightmare, it’s unfortunate that this excellent horror film’s legacy is tarnished when lumped together with the junk that comes in between the two good films that bookend the series. Still, crappy sequels or not, on its own, A Nightmare on Elm Street has earned its rightful place as a masterpiece of horror.