Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Frank Review of "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984)

The Short Version? Dream Bogeyman Kills Teens.
What Is It? Horror.
Who Is In It? Fred Krueger Mom-- Fred Krueger! Also, Officer Tom Hanson and Roper from Enter The Dragon.
Should I See It? Yes.

A teenage girl has a dream about a terribly burned man wearing a tattered fedora and green and red sweater. Most importantly, he wields a gauntlet on his right hand with a knife attached to each finger. The girl tells her friends, who have been seeing the same figure in their dreams. Then, what happens in sleep begins to manifest into a sticky wet reality.

Right from jump1, A Nightmare on Elm Street screams "iconic." I mean even from the classic New Line Cinema logo animation, through the letterboxed title sequence of child murderer Fred Krueger constructing his finger-blade glove, to the extended credit nightmare, the original Nightmare logo and of course the unforgettable theme music by Charles Bernstein. You just know, at go, that this is going to be one of the greats of horror. Within five minutes, you've even got the little girls in clean white dresses slo-mo skipping rope while reciting the infamous Freddy rhyme. It's all there at the very beginning.

Also, like most great horror films, it achieves that status in spite of glaring flaws. Again, right from the start, you have an obvious twentysomething actress playing a teenager. You've got the "kids walking to school" exposition dump. The main characters consist of the aggressive oversexed jerk type, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, the preppie WASP couple, the stumbling alkie mother and the tough as nails cop. You've got a half dozen different accents running through the cast, with children sharing no physical nor vernacular traits with their "parents." The ridiculous "kids bonding through terribly staged comedy" bit. The lead actress that wouldn't be a convincing extra. It steals liberally from Psycho, Halloween, Phantasm, Jaws...

On the other hand, all the set-up has been dealt with before you're fifteen minutes in, and there's even another oft-copied effect just before that point. First kill's inside twenty, and it remains mighty goddamned impressive decades after the fact, done practical and on the cheap. From there, the hits never stop coming-- inspired, fucked-up imagery; unnerving music cues and sound effects; generally strong acting (Heather Langenkamp obviously excluded;) striking effects (loose wires and body doubles be damned;) and the seminal supernatural slasher, Freddy Krueger. Where it steals, it gives back something more effective and vital. Where it originates, it delivers a wind hundreds of impostors have sailed under.

There's something refreshing about revisiting the long-lived franchise in its pristine state. Robert England taunting the teens as you might a child; moving in a more stilted, awkward fashion than he would with experience, and offering little of the sarcastic, pun-laden one-liners that would eventually destroy the series' credibility. The nightmares are grounded enough in reality to have weight and consequence, but fantastic enough to inspire anxiety in an audience likely reliving night terrors in their own past. The editing and cinematography are pitch perfect, setting the right mood and segueing naturally in and out of the dream world to disturbing effect. The dialogue is quotable and pushes the narrative along like an engine. John Saxon is just an all around bad ass, yet his inability to confront the killer he pursues at the most basic level renders him just the right shade of impotent for a film driven by the antagonist. Johnny Depp was a pretty boy who could still deliver the goods, and it's refreshing that his girlfriend would struggle to fit in his jeans. Speaking of which, despite her deficit of talent, Heather Langenkamp has a wholesome girl-next-door quality that works for her role. She's the everywoman, a "final girl" with enough verisimilitude that you can actually respect and root for her (not to mention buy her as a virgin.)

A Nightmare on Elm Street isn't just a movie, but the birthplace of a mythology, and a milestone turning point in horror. Despite its flaws, it's essential viewing for its genre, and great fun besides. Wes Craven went the whole nine yards with an underfunded production that rarely seems slighted by the lack of resources. They are, after all, made up for by an abundance of imagination and craft.

I picked up the 4 Film Favorites edition, which offered early, stripped down DVDs in a single affordable case. Slim extras came with the savings.
  • Commentary Track In lieu of a documentary or more extensive extras, this should satisfy most of your questions about the first installment of the franchise. Writer/Director Craven and actor Langenkamp are open and informative. Director of Photography Jacques Haitkin steps in occasional with technical and behind-the-scenes bits, while John Saxon is just there. If I recall correctly, this track was from some damned old laserdisc port from a few years out, but even if it's new for this edition, it's still no more recent than the late '90s.
  • Theatrical Trailer Woo-woo.
  • Audio and Scene Selection bullshit

1I said jump, down on Jump Street... You'd better be ready to, be ready to jump... 21 Jump Street.

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