Focus On : A Nightmare On Elm Street
This was first published in HORROR 101: The A-List of Horror Films & Monster Movies, and is reproduced here (with a few updates to include comments on the remake) by kind permission of the good people at Midnight Marquee (thanks Gary & Sue!) and the book’s creator, editor and my good friend Aaron Christensen, for whom it was a labour of love for the genre. Like Gorepress, it’s created by fans, for fans and has some seriously fun, well-written pieces on classic horror films, ranging from the silent period right up to today and is a great reference book. So if you love horror, do yourself a favour and consider nabbing a copy, you can get it directly from AC’s website here or from Amazon.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): A Retrospective
In 1981, writer/director Wes Craven could have had no idea that the script he had just completed, entitled A Nightmare on Elm Street (henceforth ANOES) would be such a phenomenal commercial success; a milestone horror movie that would define the decade, launch his career into the stratosphere (Craven had previously been associated only with low-budget horror such as 1972′s Last House on the Left and 1977′s The Hills Have Eyes), as well as kick-off the acting careers of Heather Langenkamp and a then-unknown Johnny Depp. It would also lead to the creation of a globally recognised horror icon in the story’s loathsome villain – Freddy Krueger – whose enduring appeal as a character has sustained six direct sequels to Craven’s initial picture (seven if you want to include 2003′s Freddy vs. Jason, although it’s probably non-canonical in the ANOES mythos), spawned a short-lived television spin-off in the form of Freddy’s Nightmares and whose image, to this day, can be found on a plethora of merchandise – everything from t-shirts and tattoos to comic books, costumes and computer games. Freddy’s scarred profile may yet be in the media again as this year has seen his resurrection in a new form, courtesy of a lacklustre and lamentable remake, the less said of which the better. Anybody and everybody knows Freddy…
…Or do they? Therein lies one of the problems that newcomers to the original ANOES face, something to do with the series’ meteoric popularity and that old adage that “familiarity breeds contempt”. Today, Freddy is an instantly recognisable name and image, whether we’ve previously seen any of the ANOES films or not. Even children know him from the media, from MTV videos they’ve seen and the Halloween costumes they’ve probably worn, even when they’re too young to have watched one of the movies. Time passes, the children grow up and that’s what Freddy is to them – a costume, a toy, a brand – he’s not the bogeyman, he’s fun old “Uncle Freddy”.
When these children at some point watch one (or all) of the ANOES films, in some ways this image is solidified. As the series continued and Freddy’s popularity skyrocketed, he inevitably became the star, the single component that was consistent throughout while the majority of the casts served only as disposable prey. Freddy became more visible, both physically (no longer a hideously burned creature swathed in shadows) and figuratively (in that the sequels had expanded on the original story to explain every detail about him, not to mention warping the central concept, taking it down different and not always logically consistent avenues to keep the bandwagon rolling despite ever-thinning plots), meaning that as the sequels lurched on he lost his mystique and his power to scare. By the sixth instalment in the series, Freddy’s Dead (1991), he’s all but indistinguishable from the creature born in the first ANOES, instead he’s become a quipping funnyman with an extravagant, comic way of dispatching his successive victims – for instance, one scene has a death sequence that could be right out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, like something that might be inflicted on Wile E. Coyote when one of his ACME devices backfires. A victim is plummeting from the sky (making a whistling sound as he falls), and Freddy appears beneath him, wheeling from right-of-camera a giant bed of nails ready for him to fall on. Freddy then breaks the fourth wall, looking directly into camera and miming over-exaggerated, comical wheezing at the weight he’s just pushed. It’s effectively winking at the audience, all that’s missing is him pulling out a carrot and in a Bugs Bunny voice adding “Ain’t I a stinker?”
In essence, the monster that Freddy was when he first appeared has been diluted, reduced to a friendly, comic presence. There’s an element of practicality in this – as Robert Englund once noted: “If we had tried to top the primal horrors and gore in part one, we would have hit a ceiling very early on… There is not much more we could have done unless we had Freddy…go around decapitating babies; instead he turns you into a giant cockroach. There is a sense of humour which is almost Kafkaesque in the Nightmare films.” It can’t be ignored that there was also a very canny financial reason too – as Freddy became the pop-culture icon that kids loved, the studio became as complicit as the adults who let them watch and realised that there was a huge market to be tapped, and so Freddy, who was the draw and the entire reason for commissioning a sequel regardless of whether the script was any good, was made child-friendly, his claws were clipped.
So here’s what you need to do. In the words of Yoda, “You must unlearn everything you have learned”. Whether you’re a Nightmare virgin or a confirmed fan, to fully appreciate ANOES you have to mentally go back in time (flux capacitor not included). Forget the sequels, the remake, the merchandise – they’re gone. It’s 1984 and this is all brand new, you’re back on Craven’s territory. Eyes drooping, sun setting, it’s time to sleep. Let the nightmare begin afresh…
When the film was released in 1984, ANOES was something new and original. The concept was very astute – as Robert Shaye, producer of the movie and founder of the then fledgling New Line Cinema (a business that this franchise effectively saved from liquidation and afterwards it affectionately became known as “the house that Freddy built”) said: “It was an original idea, dying in your dreams meant really dying. And four kids all had the same monster come to them while they slept… Here was the perfect common denominator. We all have to sleep.” This takes the mechanics of an otherwise normal slasher picture and elevates it to something more psychologically disturbing. The killer is no longer a mere physical being; he has the ability to attack his prey mentally and at the point when they are at their most vulnerable. Nightmares, like dreams, have an elastic reality and Craven exploits this to great effect, such as when the wall behind a sleeping Nancy suddenly becomes rubbery and indents with the impression of Krueger hovering over her prone form, ready to pounce. One sequence has Freddy appear almost as a living shadow, stretching his arms impossibly across the whole expanse of an alleyway, preventing one victim from escape, and though the low-budget FX used to create this are a little creaky by 2010 standards, there’s something still primal about it that recalls tales of the bogeyman, or those twisted Victorian childhood tales of the great, long, red-legged Scissorman who’d appear out of nowhere to cut off the digits of naughty boys and girls who suck their thumbs, or any number of nightmarish archetypes from childhood stories. This is where Craven’s picture is leagues ahead of the remake and most of the sequels, because he understands the power of those sequences is in the symbolic imagery of nightmares as extensions of the subconscious, metaphors and ideas that goes back to fairytales and to the things that haunt us from childhood, and it’s what he draws on to make Freddy in this incarnation a figure of fear rather than fun. What makes it worse, and is the genius of the whole concept, is that just as there’s no escape in the dreams, there’s no escape from the dreams – we all have to sleep eventually, it’s something we can only fight for so long before giving in. It’s the ultimate setting, because it’s not a haunted house or a patch of woods, places we can avoid or entertain the hope of running from in reality; it’s our cosy beds in our quiet suburban homestead, the place we feel most secure, or it’s the sly nap at work or school, or even just the quick droop of an eyelid and nod of a head – the killer is inescapable.
For a film to blur the boundaries of reality and fantasy was not, at the time, an overused concept and Craven’s execution of this is extremely subtle (unlike in the new remake, which hits you like a ton of bricks with its big-budget CGI and loses the point entirely in doing so). It takes but a single flutter of a character’s eyelids and that’s it, they’re in Freddy’s domain. It’s not always noticeable at first to the audience, which is intentional, putting us in the shoes of the dreamer who doesn’t yet know that he/she has finally succumbed to sleep. Slowly, the revelation comes through small injections of surreality, followed by more identifiably nightmarish elements, a process which allows the tension to build as we, along with the character, then realise that the beast is lurking somewhere, waiting to psychologically torture us before striking with his wicked blades. And Craven doesn’t skimp on the gore, though it never reaches laughable excess and none are played for comic value. In the bloodbath of Tina’s infamous “ceiling crawl” demise, the lurid neon blue lighting of the scene and the almost black splashes of of blood are reminiscent of some of the Italian giallos – gripping, haunting, instantly memorable. Compare it to the remake’s cack-handed re-staging of this setpiece, which in trying to outdo the original fails miserably by having the victim bouncing off the walls like she’s in a psychotic pinball machine and looks ridiculous, it has none of the power of the image from Craven’s picture nor the dramatic impact.
Then there’s Freddy himself. He’s not loquacious here, though sometimes he displays a black, cruel wit and sadistic pleasure radiates from him as he plays with his prey, wearing them down before striking. Aside from an explanation that he was a child-murderer and that he met justice at the hands of the children’s parents, there’s no real history to Krueger. At best, the film intimates that a more raw, cosmic evil may reside in this entity (a theme that became more thoroughly developed in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), through the speech delivered by the high school English teacher as Nancy tries to stay awake in her class: “What is seen is not always real… According to Shakespeare there was something operating in nature, perhaps inside human nature itself, that was rotten – a ‘canker’ as he put it…” So again, Freddy is more mythological, more terrifying for this, he’s the local urban legend that lives on to haunt generations of children.
Even Freddy’s choice of weapon – the now iconic razor-tipped glove – was something original and far more disturbing than the average slasher killer’s mundane machete, axe or kitchen knife, before it again entered pop culture and lost its power. Think about it, especially that opening sequence where we see Freddy lovingly construct his glove, caressing it tenderly – the blades become an extension of his own body, giving him sensual pleasure as he penetrates his victim’s flesh and tears them open, a true sadist feeling ecstatic as he bathes in the pain and death he inflicts on others. And who are these “others”? Society’s most innocent and fragile – children. Although the film only explicitly defines him as a child murderer, everything points to more, hinting that Krueger was a paedophile (something which the 2010 remake goes at with all the subtlety of a brick to the face). Englund recalls the original script: “Wes wrote the most evil, corrupt thing he could think of. Originally, that meant Freddy was a child molester.” But this was changed, he goes on to state, because at the time of shooting a child molestation scandal broke out and Craven did not want to be accused of exploiting a terrible situation, happy to go for a more subtle approach, which ultimately works out better.
Speaking of Englund, his contribution into the creation of Freddy cannot be underestimated, as much of what makes Freddy so menacing is given through Englund’s jaunty, swaggering performance. Since the character in the original ANOES is virtually an unknown predator, Englund’s decision to put so much into sheer body language was a masterstroke, and it also helped to separate Freddy from other stalkers populating the slasher films of the day. “The stance was just trying to be as far away from any kind of monster or Frankenstein walk; I decided to put in a bit of cockiness, sexuality and threat.” He also decided to take the initiative and “play” the glove, taking inspiration from Klaus Kinski’s performance in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, which put alongside the series of teeth-setting metallic scratching, squealing sounds used to announce Freddy’s presence long before he’s seen really amp up its cruel purpose.
In all, these elements – the hideous killer, the concept so ripe for a fertile imagination to pick up and run with, and the psychological nature of the horror – are what make this movie formidable. Even today it still retains that initial power to get under the skin and into the mind. The sequels may have diluted the idea, but when given the due respect and consideration it warrants, A Nightmare on Elm Street remains a unique and frightening experience, well-deserving of its accolades, its popularity and its status as a true horror classic. Remember, kids: Evil never sleeps…and accept no substitutes.
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