A Nightmare on Elm Street | Review

This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!

Day twenty-one, two…Freddy’s coming for you!

#31DaysOfHorror

★★★★★

Designed to strike instant fear, whilst being specifically distinct from the likes of Michael Myers, Leatherface and Jason Voorhees, Fred – later Freddy – Krueger became an overnight horror icon in 1984. It took just one weekend for the character’s debut film to recoup its production costs and with visuals this inventive, it’s not hard to see why.

Physically inspired by Klaus Kinski’s vampiric performance in Nosferatu the Vampyre, Robert Englund plays Krueger with devilish animosity in Wes Craven’s Nightmare. Behind a mask of peeling burns and within a Dennis the Menace sweater, the child murdering antagonist stalks the dreams of Elm Street’s sexually active adolescents, before striking out with his horribly effective bladed gloves. So effective, indeed, that the film allegedly deployed over five hundred gallons of fake blood in production. It’s not just the gore on fright duties though, the masterstroke here is the question: what if your nightmares really could hurt you? You die in the dream, you die in reality.

Whilst Nightmare boasts the feature debut of Johnny Depp, its star is fellow contemporary newcomer Heather Langenkamp, whose charm beat over two hundred auditionees to play Nancy Thompson. First to the slaughterhouse, however, is Amanda Wyss’ Tina. In the inaugural of the film’s numerable outstanding set pieces, poor Tina is virtually raped in her bed, hoisted into the air and slashed to shreds. If there’s a sense that Craven’s unknown cast are little more than Freddy fodder, each goes out with a breathtaking bang. Other ingenious effects in the film include a bottomless bathtub, shot over a swimming pool, and fiercely whirling room, captured on a rotating set. It’s pure spectacle.

Rising to the rollercoaster tone, Charles Bernstein’s music blends tinkling piano melodrama with an almost New Wave beat, terrorising eighties teen culture in the process. Adults feel out of place in this world – both dream and reality, assuming that they’re not one and the same – and prove only to be poor role models. These parents’ inability to relate to their children or recognise their genuine fears, does to further suggestion that the threat of Freddy is meant encapsulate the trauma of teenage pubescence. Craven is, likewise, candid in continuing the trope of slasher cinema that libertine youths must fear brutal deaths when active within a horror setting.

On the subject of setting, the film has an excellent selection to its name. Dream worlds and reality blend with dangerous ambiguity as the threat intensifies, whilst Craven mines the very human experience of nightmares for all they’re worth. The nocturnally troubled will resonate with visual repetition, manipulated spaces, the feeling that the dream is reality and that there is no escape. ‘Everybody has dreams, no biggie’ says Nancy early in the film but she’s not so cocky by the climax. The real genius of Craven’s concept – inspired by a series mysterious nighttime deaths of real people in Los Angeles sometime prior to the film – is of course that most audiences will go from viewing the film to their own bed, which is no longer safe territory.

If the body count and violence of A Nightmare on Elm Street suggest something intrinsically blunt – which, to be fair, this is – there’s a surprising density of ideas underlying the pulp. That, and one particularly memorable baddie.

T.S.

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