In 1984, the late, great Wes Craven – coming off a string of forgettable duds (Swamp Thing, anyone?) – managed to finally make good on the ferocious promise of his grungy 70’s shockers Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes and created A Nightmare On Elm Street (the man loves his long winded titles). Not only was the film, conceptually speaking, wildly imaginative and legitimately relentless but it gave birth to a fully formed cinematic icon that dominated horror for the remainder of the 80’s with an iron fist wrapped in a four bladed glove. That icon, of course, was Freddy Krueger – a child killer chargrilled well done by a vengeful mob in a misguided attempt to keep their babies safe. I say misguided because Freddy returns from the dead to haunt, torment and murder kids in their dreams, an arena we are all vunerable and simply cannot avoid forever (don’t you just hate it when that happens?). Quite possibly Craven’s finest hour A Nightmare On Elm Street is a masterclass in balancing scares with ideas to create something fiercely new that wantonly rampages across your psyche while simultaneously being hugely entertaining.
A quartet of friends are having recurring nightmares. Good girl Nancy, sporty Glen, worldly Tina and her bad boy boyfriend Rod make an odd foursome but after a succession of brutal nightmare shakes Tina to her core, she invites Nancy and Glen for a sleepover while her parents are out of town. Rod, being the sort of dick who would invite himself over – invites himself over in order to make up with Tina and get himself some horizontal action but not before the group discover that they’ve all been having the same nightmare in which they’re chased through a boiler room by an burned apparition kitted in a dirty red and green sweater, a brown fedora and the rather alarming accessory of a razor fingered glove. After everybody has gone to bed, Tina has another nightmare in which this dream stalking creep attacks and kills her which results in her getting sliced to ribbons and flung around the room like a rag doll by an invisible assailant while Rod helplessly watches.
As he’s from the wrong side of the tracks, a known troublemaker AND he was the only other person in the room, the cops feel this is a fairly open and shut case but Nancy feels otherwise and attempts to figure out what actually happened. However her alcoholic mother and her stern police chief father prove to be more of a hindrance than a help and worse yet, it seems this dream infesting lunatic has now targeted her, causing her to have reality warping nightmares whenever she dozes off.
So the race is on, can Nancy – now guzzling more coffee than a character in a Jim Jarmusch movie and popping stay awake pills like an over taxed student – get to the bottom of this terrifying mystery while managing to stay awake before this razor-fingered ragamuffin shreds her and all of her friends in to bloody cutlets?
The most culturally significant horror creation of the 1980’s which birthed a true cinematic phenomenon (could you imagine board games and plush doll centred around a child murderer today?!)
A Nightmare On Elm Street is literally dripping with symbolism and yet it enforces the narrative instead of overwhelming it and could be seen as a direct link to the more socially aware horror titles that have littered the genre over the decade such as The Babadook, Get Out and Don’t Breathe.
After all, push past the jump scares and VERY bloody deaths (one character is reduced to a literal blood geyser at one point), Krueger is the literal incarnation of the sins of the parent being visited upon the children with the daddies and mommies of Elm Street being an endless succession of drunks and divorcees more obsessed about dishing out impotent advice than actually listening to their children and who are utterly incapable believing – let alone protecting – their endangered spawn. And this is the magic behind the movie, Craven’s gift has always been to make teens the focal point of his movies while defiantly refusing to talk down to them (lest we forget, Nancy and company are only about 15 years old when shit goes down) and the moment in every child’s life when you stop seeing your parents as infallible God-like beings and realise that they are as human and flawed as everybody else.
At the pinnacle of this is Heather Langenkamp’s supernaturally determined Nancy – quite possibly one of the greatest female characters in horror who is less like the reactive screamers who survive a typical slasher and more in line of characters like Ripley in Aliens. Immensely remorseful, tough as nails and able to spurn the advances of a VERY fresh faced Johnny Depp, you can’t help but cheer as she casts off the restrictions of depending on her well-meaning but ultimately useless and potentially harmful parents, takes her own safety in her hands and tools up for battle like a female, teenage MacGyver in her pyjamas, rigging dead drop sledgehammers and gunpowder filled light sockets all over here house in preparation for the final battle.
Of course every hero needs a villain and so Robert Englund takes his first steps into horror movie immortality as possibly one of the greatest designed bad guys since Darth Vader. The glove, the deliberately offensively coloured jumper (red and green must never be seen), the hat, the burns… Englund, gifted with such a launching off point, ran with it like Usain Bolt to concoct a truly sadistic maniac, not above indulging in a spot of unnerving self-mutilation as he stretches and warps reality like taffy in order to torture his victims.
True, often the technical limitations of the time threaten to undermine the scares (Krueger’s stretchy arms were notoriously dodgy even back in the 80’s and the less said about the cloth-limbed dummy being yanked through the window during the scrappy shock ending the better) but Craven’s raw creative energy simply can’t be stopped with nightmarish (sic) imagery virtually spilling out if the frame (the phone that turns into a french kissing mouth complete with probing tongue must have been legitimately jarring when first viewed).
Deliriously original, defiantly smart and equipped with one of cinema’s greatest antagonists (before his eventual transformation into a pop culture party clown), Wes Craven’s most enduring legacy is the sort of brain nourishing horror flick that dreams are made of.