Sunday, October 25, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' (1984)

Over past Halloweens (and one St. Patrick's Day), I've run through the Hellraiser, Halloween, Child's Play and Leprechaun franchises, and I've covered most of the Friday the 13th movies in my Triskaidekaphilia feature. That leaves A Nightmare on Elm Street as the one major horror series that I'm interested in and still haven't covered, so for this Halloween I'm taking a look at all seven original Freddy Krueger movies (not including Freddy vs. Jason or the 2010 Nightmare remake). Wes Craven's original A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of my favorite movies of all time, and although I've seen it numerous times, I still find it entertaining and evocative every time I watch it.

There's a simplicity to the storytelling that inevitably gets lost over the course of any big horror series (when mythologies get more convoluted and crowded with extraneous characters), but Nightmare isn't just a bare-bones kill-fest like the original Friday the 13th. Craven brings artistry and vision to the film, and he's not just interested in parading out a bunch of gruesome deaths. Nightmare is considered one of the cornerstones of the slasher genre, but unlike Friday the 13th or the original Halloween (which I also love), it has an element of surrealism and fantasy that goes beyond a mere killing spree.

There is the killing spree, of course, although it's confined to just a few teenagers in the seemingly placid suburb of Springwood, Ohio. Craven establishes the iconic elements of Freddy Krueger (finger blades, hat, red-and-green sweater, burned face) within the first few minutes, and it's impressive just how much of Freddy's essence is present from his very first appearance. He's not as jokey as he would become in the later movies, but he's still nastily sarcastic, clearly taking glee in stalking and killing his victims (as opposed to the mute, emotionless Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers). Robert Englund is firmly in a supporting role in this movie, but he makes Freddy into a fully realized (and entirely scary) villain.

The real star is Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson, a slasher heroine at least as compelling and layered as Laurie Strode. Langenkamp may not have gone on to have a career like Jamie Lee Curtis', but she's fantastic as Nancy, with a mix of vulnerability, determination and entirely believable teen petulance (her delivery of the line "Oh God, I look 20 years old" is one of the movie's best moments). Nancy is a typical Final Girl in many ways (virginal, daughter of the town's top cop, often wearing white, has a personal connection to the killer), but she's not a boring goody-two-shoes. She fights dirty against Freddy, she blatantly ignores her clueless (and neglectful) parents, and she's just as into her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp in his first role) as he is into her.

Nightmare features some of the most iconic images in horror, including Freddy's glove rising up between Nancy's legs as she takes a bath (talk about symbolism), Freddy's face and hands distorting the wall above Nancy's head, the geyser of blood after poor Glen is killed, and even Freddy's tongue sticking out of Nancy's phone. I love how the last half hour almost completely loses the distinction between dreams and reality, and how Craven ends the movie without asserting that line again (his original planned ending, with the whole story being a dream, seems to me like a gross miscalculation). Whether or not Nancy has really defeated Freddy almost seems beside the point by the end. She's committed fully to the insane logic of the dream world, and she's triumphed, alive or dead. In dreams, there's barely even a difference.

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