Since we’re covering the classics it is about time I reviewed one of my all-time favourites, the movie I reference more than any other; the film that did for sleep as Jaws did for the sea and The Haunting did for lesbians.
Wes Craven ruined slasher movies in 1984 by simultaneously expanding the genre’s vocabulary and raising the bar so high that only Wes Craven could reach it, returning in 1996 to ruin slasher movies all over again with the epochal Scream. A Nightmare on Elm Street has everything you could possibly want from a horror movie: a villain with character, a protagonist capable of fighting him and a premise so instantly terrifying it works independently of the film, tearing away the sanctuary of the one place you are meant to feel safe: your bed.
The Elm Street teens are stalked in their dreams by Fred Krueger (Robert Englund), named after the same childhood bully who inspired Krug in The Last House on the Left. His appearance is based on a man whom the young Craven saw lurking outside his bedroom window, and his uncanny ability to kill people in their sleep stems from real news stories about Asian war refugees apparently dying from their nightmares. Everywhere you look you see something that scares Craven, such a rarity in a genre whose defining characteristic is cynicism. He may have abandoned his religious upbringing, but the director never stopped exorcising demons.
Like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the film never feels the need to explain itself. It provides just enough backstory to raise the spectre of child abuse and lynch mobs, ultimately spoiled by raking over Freddy’s past in the sequels. We are only told that the Elm Street parents burned the child-killer Krueger alive, the sins of the fathers writ large and bloody. Every generation craves liberation from their parents and the central idea can be read afresh each new era, for example as a metaphor for the boomers burning down our economic dreams.
Craven’s suspicion of authority takes the form of a policeman patriarch (John Saxon), not only ineffectual but culpable. He also reverses the usual gender roles; Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is resourceful, relatable and prematurely world-weary (without the obnoxious irony you get now), while Glen (Johnny Depp’s debut) is basically a bimbo. There is no gratuitous nudity or preponderance of characters, just the desperate need to stay awake in dire straits; something we can all relate to. I’ve personally never made it through Love Over Gold.
A Nightmare on Elm Street marks Craven’s maturity as a director, marrying Halloween-style suspense with the surrealistic pillow of altered consciousness. Its genius lies in the balance between intellectual provocations and drive-in thrills, Hamlet quotes in varsity jackets. The story moves at breakneck pace, Charles Bernstein’s score so perfect in its simplicity, and special effects that see the dream demon pushing through bedroom walls as though breaking into our reality; the blood-soaked rotating rooms containing some of the best kills ever put to screen.
Iconic, demonic and euphoric, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a masterpiece about the liminal purgatory of suburbia, the middle-class loss of innocence and the waking nightmare of adolescence. It didn’t just change the face of horror cinema, it scarred it forever.