Rewind: back from 2002 and the spacey adventures of Jason Voorhees, out of Hell, back from Manhattan, before the zombiefication of the world's prémiere psycho killer, back into 1984. The year of Amadeus, The Killing Fields, Ronald Reagan's re-election, which somehow did not trigger the neo-fascist technocracy that Orwell expected right about now, the first mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery, and Indira Gandhi's assassination. Moving in a little bit, it was in April's Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter that the seemingly indestructible Jason was interred by the overzealous machetecraft of little Tommy Jarvis, presumably for all time (before we knew precisely how fluid the word "final" could really be). Add the three years that had passed since the last appearance of Michael Myers, and it was a time of great loss for the Fangoria partisans, who were suddenly without an A-list slasher celebrity. Not to mention the general fraying of the subgenre, which hit its first major doldrums at this time.
Would that the damned things had just been put out of their misery, but instead, they were saved by a not-so-unlikely hero (who would turn up to do it again in 1996): Wes Craven, one of the Grand Masters of 1970s horror, creator of the infamous The Hills Have Eyes and the notorious Bergman remake The Last House on the Left, which in a neat illustration of the horror genre's incestuous family tree was produced by none less than the talentless Sean S. Cunningham, auteur of Friday the 13th itself. Twelve years after that project made him the object of scorn, derision, and a tiny amount of deep respect, Craven was still struggling to establish himself with any sort of permanence.
In 1981, Craven had begun shopping around a script about a phantom killer who stalked and killed teenagers in their dreams and thereby in reality, drawn from his own childhood fears. Can any man say why, in those heady days of cheapie slasher movies coming out nearly every week, the studios feared the idea of tossing a few million dollars at a director of known talent for an idea of no small innovation? Simply the perversion of fate, we must suppose. But anyway, it took years until some chance brought Craven to meet with a minor distribution company that focused on renting films to college campuses, called New Line, and they (wanting to maximize profits by releasing a couple of their own films, rather than licensing films from the proper studios), tossed a not-ungenerous $1.8 million at the project, and so in November of 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street was released upon the world.
Considering how goddamn many slasher films were released in the four years since Friday the 13th, you might have expected that there would have been at least some attempt to shake things up here or there, and you would be disappointed. To the studio executive, remember, the key to a sure thing is making identical movies over and over again. Which leads inevitably to repetition and boredom, and that's why cinematic trends only ever last three or four years. So even though Nightmare must have scared the suits with its somewhat eccentric take on the slasher tropes, it's undeniable that it was just the shot in the arm that the style needed. Just about every slasher I can personally name from 1980 through 1984 follows a barbarically rigid plot: Act 1, meet the expendable meat and the obvious Final Girl, then sex is had; Act 2, the sex wraps up and the deaths start; Act 3, the Final Girl finds the bodies and escapes the killer's wrath. Nightmare doesn't really do most of those things. Yes, there's sex and death (and even a bit of the old sex=death, naturally), but the meat is hardly expendable, the Final Girl really isn't, and the bulk of the plot is dedicated to the hunt for the dream killer whose handiwork is well-known to the main characters from pretty much the first scene. There are parents and policemen in abundance, and there is an almost total absence of Stupid People syndrome except where it makes perfect sense in the context of the story.
That's not necessarily the Really Big Deal about this film, the part that rejuvenated the very idea of the slasher, but I wanted to mention it first because it goes to the heart of something much more important than why it is an interesting slasher movie - why it is a good slasher movie, certainly the best example of the genre since at least Halloween in 1978. It is an actual story, made by somebody who cared enough about his ideas to make them different and original, and who understood that the best way to have the uncanny, fantastic elements of the story stand out as legitimately scary (And it is! A scary slasher! Can you believe that shit?) is to base them in a realistic and carefully drawn real-world environment.
But since the "good slasher films are made by good directors who care about their projects" genie was never going to go back in the bottle by 1984, that's not the important takeaway from A Nightmare on Elm Street. No indeed, the particular element that rebirthed a genre, that by the end of 1985 was pretty much de rigeur for any self-respecting movie about a puritan maniac with a set of knives, was the paranormal angle. Except for the odd now-forgotten one-off, slasher movies about ghosts and zombies and witchcraft were pretty much unknown; by the end of 1986, they far outnumbered the more prosaic "bitter old kid-hater" stories.
I doubt very much that has anything to do with the fact that the quality of the genre kept sliding from the already-low level that it started at; simply put, most filmmakers as good as Wes Craven and John Carpenter would rather do things that are not violent horror movies (as indeed, both Craven and Carpenter proved themselves), and the cash didn't start drying up until 1988 or '89, and where there is money in Hollywood, there are hacks. But at least for that one shining moment in 1984, the slasher genre produced its one rare diamond in the rough, a film that is at once a great slasher, a great horror film and a pretty damn fine movie qua movies.
So with all that said, what is this Nightmare on Elm Street all about? Well, in the beginning, there is a blackness, and in this blackness is a small rectangle, and in this small rectangle the film begins to play. That might not sound like much more than a good way to get the image out of the way of the credits, but it's actually really brilliant, for in this film of terror invading the interior and domestic world (the cheerfully suburban "Elm Street" and the bedrooms in it; and what is more intimate than the bedroom, when we come right down to it?) starting with a tiny frame inside the actual film frame is a quick way to force claustrophobia upon us, and confront us with the reminder that this is a film about the insides of things: the insides of houses, the insides of bedrooms, the insides of characters' heads. Also, the insides of characters becoming their outsides.
We are in a confusing and threatening place. A man in a filthy green and red sweater (chosen because Craven read that those two colors were the hardest combination on the eye) puts on a glove made of the tips of knives. A girl named Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) runs through an industrial space full of fiery reds, as the man chases her. He comes ever closer with his horrible glove and just as he grabs her she sits bolt upright in bed. Ordinarily, this kind of thing pisses me off more than I can possibly begin to say, but in this film whose primary raison d'être is to elide the line between dreaming and wakefulness, that horribly over-used "sits bolt upright in bed" trick reaches its apogee.
Tina is one of four high-schoolers, all of whom actually kind of look like they're 17 or 18 (which is unfortunate, given that at least two of them are specifically 15), because the actors are all 19 and 21, and don't think that doesn't count for a lot in this genre of aesthetic hell. Her kind-of boyfriend is the abusive but charming Rod Lane (Nick Corri), her bestest friend in life is Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp, the film's secret weapon), and the guy who has a thing for Nancy from way back is Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp. Yep. Johnny Depp. The Oscar nominee. In his professional debut. Johnny "Edward Scissorhands / Jack Sparrow / Gilbert Grape / Sweeney Todd / Raoul Duke / William Blake" Depp started his career as the guy who gets killed by his bed. And honestly, he's hardly the best member of the cast, although he would have been in any of the F13 films). And they've all been having rather nasty dreams lately, featuring the same gloved madmen with burned flesh, an ugly sweater and a crappy old fedora.
Being teens in a slasher film, they all end up having an illicit sleepover in which one pair fucks and the other sleeps in separate rooms. When Tina falls asleep again, she begins convulsing in a manner most upsetting to Rod, made all the worse by the deep gashes that suddenly appear in her stomach mere seconds before she is thrown against the fucking wall and then the fucking ceiling, leaving blood every fucking where, in a scene that manages to do every single thing that I've always wanted The Exorcist to do, but that's really neither here nor there. It's really something: she just keeps slamming against the walls and bleeding and screaming, and the sheer violence of the moment - and frankly, the pretty much unsubtle rape imagery - is smashingly, sickeningly effective.
Rod splits, Glen freaks out and Nancy resolves not to fall asleep ever again, and thus begins the really just surprisingly awesome thing about A Nightmare on Elm Street: it makes a whole lot of sense. Nancy's behavior is pretty much what a freaked-out teenage girl's behavior in such a situation mighty be, and the response that her divorced parents (John Saxon and Ronee Blakely, who between them have more and better character acting experience than the entire cast of the entire F13 franchise) take to her behavior is perfectly understandable. More importantly, by the time that Nancy starts doing the really weird and stupid crap that she ends up doing, we can chalk it up to profound sleep deprivation, not bad movie stupidity.
From Tina's death (before the 20 minute mark), the next 45 minutes or thereabout are devoted to Nancy's slow process of learning that the gloved figure is Fred Krueger (man alive, does the lack of that "-dy" look weird in the opening credits), a onetime child killer who was murdered in a most barbaric way by the parents of the very teens that he's haunting now. Along the way, she begins to formulate a scheme to stop Krueger, as Rod and Glen die unexplainable deaths, one of them involving a mythic amount of blood in one of the most European scenes in the history of American horror cinema.
I said that Langenkamp was the film's secret weapon, and I'm going to stand by that 'til death. Robert Englund gets all the glory for his undeniably grand turn of gravelly-voiced menace as Freddy, a nasty figure of human stature where Jason and Michael Myers and Leatherface are caricatured giants, with bright white eyes staring evilly from under the brim of his hat, but a great killer, as Kane Hodder's turns in increasingly foul screenplays taught us, cannot carry a film. The best slasher films - Halloween, chiefly - have a realistic and well-expressed heroine to oppose their very great killer, and Langenkamp ranks as close to the top as you could please. There's a very good reason for her almost total absence from the cinemas and TV screens of the world that I'm going to hold on to for a few weeks, but it's a crying shame, because she is really damn good. It's not just because she is herself 19 years old that she plays one of the most perfectly realised teenagers of the 1980s. Nancy and Freddy are as well-matched as any psycho killer and Final Girl ever have been, the equal even of Jamie Lee Curtis and Nick Castle, and their on-and-off struggle through the second half of the film raises it almost to the top tier of horror films of all time.
I love that word, "almost." It's pretty easy to explain what's wrong in A Nightmare on Elm Street with just a few strokes: first, the ending is completely nonsensical, which is not altogether a sin for a movie about dreams, but it would be really nice to know for certain who's alive at the end of the movie. You know, for sequels. Even so, the false ending of the film points to one of Wes Craven's greatest achievements here: blending strange and inexplicable dreams almost seamlessly with "real life." The fact that parts of the ending turn out to be a dream is both confusing and elucidating, about different questions.
There's no upside to the awful score, though. I don't usually like to talk about movie scores, but sometimes they just leap up and slap you, and Charles Bernstein (Who? Exactly) has graced Nightmare with a terrible synth-heavy bit of post-post-New Wave that marks every frame of the movie with a giant neon: "THIS IS THE '80s." Compared to Harry Manfredini's F13 work which is...I don't like calling any part of those movies "timeless," but here's something I kept forgetting to mention: you know how fucking awesome the music is in The X-Files? Then perhaps you would be shocked and appalled to learn, as I was, that very nearly all of Mark Snow's wonderful tricks were completely developed in the Friday the 13th series by the end of Part 2. Nightmare just sounds like a particularly scary version of Magnum, P.I.
I could probably go on, but I'd rather not, because after ten increasingly wretched Friday the 13th, Part Z: Jason Makes a Giant Sucking Noise entries, I am feeling unusually forgiving. My alarming love for Wes Craven is reasonably well-expressed, and this is easily the second-best film I've seen of his, and one of the five best horror film I've seen from the whole damn decade. So let it be flawed. At least it doesn't make me want to hurl a machete at my television.
Body Count: A bit hard to say, actually, because of the twist ending and whatnot; I'm comfortable saying four. Remember when I said that high body counts are usually a sign of desperation, trying to hide the fact that the movie sucks? Well, this is the corollary.
Reviews in this series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)