Wes Craven | 1hr 31min
Before there was Freddy Krueger, the wise-cracking slasher monster that flooded every corner of mainstream pop culture, there was Fred Krueger, the stealthy, dream-haunting bogeyman, cloaked in shadows and supernatural mystery. It is a little surprising just how much Wes Craven hides his killer’s face from view in A Nightmare on Elm Street, especially considering how much he indulges in the sort of gory practical effects that 1980s horror became so notorious for, but it is a very fitting creative choice – not just in playing on the horror of the unknown, but also to emphasise the bewildering, intangible nature of Krueger’s greatest power. To invade one’s dreams as they sleep is to target them at their most vulnerable, and to evoke an intimate sense of terror. All it takes is the image of Krueger’s knifed fingers reaching up between the legs of our heroine, Nancy, as she closes her eyes in the bathtub to induce those sorts of uneasy chills.
Of course, the perverse nature of it all is hard to ignore. Given how sexually active many of Krueger’s targets are, the innocence which he ruptures is not so much tied to their chastity as it is to the naïve belief that these young adults are at the invincible age where they have nothing to lose. As much as they would like to think otherwise, they are not yet fully grown up and have not experienced the same horrors as their parents. There are still parts of their minds and bodies that have been untouched by others, and Krueger probes deeper into those areas than anyone has been before, violently pulling his surviving victims into adulthood in a disturbing coming-of-age metaphor. It is just too fitting that the older generation who knew about Krueger all along have kept him as a shameful secret as well, thereby leaving their own children entirely unprepared for his attacks.
While Craven’s allegorical screenplay does the heavy lifting between each new scare, his direction only really manages to lift off to new horrific levels when indulging in the visual power of his characters’ nightmares. His influences are all too evident, with the levitation of bodies being drawn directly from The Exorcist, and some particularly effective POV tracking shots inspired by Halloween, but he is also unmistakably a fresh voice in the horror genre. Freddy’s eerie nursery rhyme as sung by three young girls playing jump rope echoes in instrumental minor intervals all throughout the film, the image itself bookending the film beneath a dreamy white filter. As for Craven’s practical effects, there are few creepier than the shot of Krueger’s face pressing through the wall above Nancy’s bed, or her feet sinking into the stairs as she tries to run away.
A Nightmare on Elm Street tends to suffer more when it comes to the performances outside of Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger. There is a young Johnny Depp here who makes an impact in his relatively minor supporting role, but Heather Langenkamp is no great scream queen on the level of Jamie Lee Curtis, and neither is her character Nancy Thompson as compelling as Halloween’s Laurie Strode or even Psycho’s Marion Crane. Nevertheless, the strength of Craven’s fresh approach to horror filmmaking stands, playing into the genre’s conventional corruption of innocence by directly attacking deeper, more vulnerable areas of the human subconscious than any film had attempted before.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is available to stream on Stan and Paramount Plus, and available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.