A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)


Both director Wes Craven and New Line Cinema were at a turning point in the early 1980s.  While The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes solidified Craven's reputation as a horror director it did not exactly result in receiving further work the way he hoped.  The movies made a decent profit off their low budgets, but, particularly with Last House, they did nothing for Craven's reputation.  Famously that movie put both he and producer Sean S. Cunningham on the outside of mainstream Hollywood for most of the 1970s. 

Craven started doing television work and earned a bit of a cult hit with his adaptation of Swamp Thing, but the big score kept eluding him.  That is, until he finally got funding for a story he had been shopping around for years about a child molester, murdered by the angry citizens of the town, haunting the dreams of their children.  The villain was changed to a child murderer, the makeup Craven had in mind brought in line with the movie's budget, and suddenly both Craven, and New Line, found themselves with one of the most successful horror franchises in history. 

Tina (Amanda Wyss) is having nightmares about a burned man (Robert Englund) wearing a red and green sweater, a dirty hat and a glove with steak knives for fingers.  Although they think it's just a nightmare, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) agree to stay with her.  Nancy is more concerned due to the fact that she has been having dreams about the same man.  When Tina's boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia) shows up for some "make up" time, Nancy and Glen still agree to sleep over.  Unfortunately, the peace is disturbed when Tina is killed in front of Rod by an unseen force.

Rod is blamed for the murder, and Nancy's father (John Saxon), who happens to be a lieutenant with the local police department, is not happy that his daughter was there.  Neither is her mother (Ronee Blakely), who becomes concerned when her daughter starts refusing to sleep.  Eventually, Nancy learns the truth about the man in her dreams, named Fred Krueger, and why he is after her and her friends.  After finding out that she can bring objects from her dreams into the real world she hatches a plan to get rid of Krueger once and for all.

A Nightmare on Elm Street has spawned five direct sequels, one standalone film (also directed by Craven) in which Freddy invades the real world, a crossover with Friday the 13th and a remake.  Freddy Krueger (just Fred in this first one) has taken on a life of his own, being known for his wise cracks and creative ways to kill teenagers in their dreams.  There is a little bit of that here, but with less dark humor and much more menace.  Krueger was meant to be a monster, not an anti-hero or a joke, although the character made sure that Robert Englund didn't have to rely on being known as "nice alien" from V. 

The special effects, despite the fact that there was pretty much no special effects budget, still stand out.  Due to the dreamlike nature of much of the film even errors that had to be left in because of many of the large set-pieces, having to be done in one take, work.  The makeup for Krueger is rather well done, with any flaws being hidden by lighting, fog and distance.  Like any good movie monster he is only in the film when he needs to be, with his presence and the effects he has on the children, and the parents, being the focus.  Although the character was created by Craven the actual characterization is all Englund.

This was Johnny Depp's first major role.  The role of Glen is better known not for the way Johnny portrays him, but for his unique death scene.  That said, there is not really anything that would have hinted at Depp being a multi-talented actor at this point, and he was pretty much in the movie due to Wes Craven's daughter thinking he was good looking.  Amanda Wyss isn't in it much, but she does have some of the scariest scenes.  John Saxon and Ronee Blakely, both seasoned character actors, give the film a bit more of a Hollywood sheen than some of Craven's previous films.

Unfortunately, Heather Langenkamp is the weak link in this film.  Certainly the word "masterpiece" is tossed around a bit when A Nightmare on Elm Street is mentioned, but her general lack of acting ability and terrible line delivery hold it back.  I can't blame Craven for it, even if he's not great at writing for teenagers - at least not at this point in his career - but he's not expecting any of them to deliver lines that are too complicated.  I had some of the same problems with her when it came to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, where much of the rest of the cast outshone her despite her return to the series.  She improved greatly by Wes Craven's New Nightmare, although at that point playing a fictionalized version of herself rather than Nancy. 

Despite Langenkamp's acting I still find much of the movie as enjoyable as I did when I first saw it a few years after it was released.  The effects hold up and, though it goes at a slower pace than many of its sequels, it still gets right into the story before the opening credits are even finished, with Fred Krueger pursuing Tina through the dream version of his boiler room.  To be honest I've never considered this movie to be frightening at all, but rather a great monster movie, and all the sequels have hinged on the effects and how each director had Englund portray Krueger.  The one decision I wish had been made was to keep Craven's original ending rather than the one we got, which was meant to set up potential sequels.  The first sequel had no one except Englund return, while the third makes more sense if the ending to the first is ignored.  Still, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a creative film, and was just what was needed to break away from all the Friday the 13th copycats at the time. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Time: 91 minutes
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Amanda Wyss, Johnny Depp, Jsu Garcia, Ronee Blakely, John Saxon
Director: Wes Craven 

 

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