It’s a little strange for me watching and reviewing A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wes Craven’s franchise-launching film came out in November 1984, just a couple months after I started kindergarten. Sequels came fast and frequent, about once a year for the rest of the decade. Other kids who saw the films in grade school would describe them just like we would discuss any other exciting movies or TV shows we had seen. But my parents never rented anything like A Nightmare on Elm Street for me or my siblings (not that I blame them; to be honest, I’m more inclined to arch an eyebrow at the parents of those other kids.) As a teen, when I might have had a little more leeway in what I watched, I lived about twenty miles from the nearest rental place. So from childhood on I would be hearing these descriptions, and seeing merchandise for a film that I didn’t see. I’ve known what Freddy Krueger looked like for nearly as long as I can remember, but with one thing and another, I hadn’t actually seen any film with him in it until now. So, like I said, it’s just a little strange. Fortunately, A Nightmare on Elm Street doesn’t rely on any particular twists or turns that would be spoiled by a nearly 30-year viewing gap.
For instance, I was pretty sure this guy was the villain.
The cast of prospective victims, as is traditional for slasher films, are young adults playing teenagers. Tina and Nancy (Amanda Wyss and Heather Langenkamp) are distressed over a shared nightmare they’ve been having, of being chased by a man in an ugly green-and-red sweater with a clawed glove. Tina doesn’t seem to be the sharpest knife in the drawer (also traditional), but Nancy is down to Earth and practical. Both Wyss and Langenkamp play their roles well, and seem like authentic teenagers, from their nervousness to their frustration when people dismiss their concerns. Jsu Garcia (credited as Nick Corri at that stage of his career) plays Tina’s boyfriend Rob, a juvenile delinquent who nevertheless is more juvenile than delinquent. Garcia does a good job of acting as a “tough guy” who is deeply frightened by what he’s witnessed. And Johnny Depp makes his acting debut as Nancy’s boyfriend Glen, a standard nice-boy-next-door type. While the acting in slasher movies can be very hit-and-miss, I was pleased by the performances all around, finding them to be convincing in their roles. I was pleasantly surprised to see that, unlike so many actors and actresses in horror movies, these young actors all went on to successful, if minor, acting careers afterward.
Except for Depp of course. Whatever happened to that guy?
Also as per tradition, adults are pretty much useless in the film. The two that figure most prominently are Nancy’s parents, who are divorced. Donald (John Saxon) is a lieutenant with the local police force, and he is quickly and permanently convinced of a mundane cause for the attacks; “nightmare bogeyman” seldom makes it onto police blotters. He’s certain Nancy will feel better just as soon as she gets a good night’s sleep, which is of small comfort to someone being hunted and attacked every time she dreams. Her mother Marge (Ronee Blakley) is even more useless, being an alcoholic who drinks to the point of being nearly catatonic.
Robert Englund, as virtually everybody knows, plays Freddy Krueger. Krueger’s design — which as I’ve noted before seems to be at least a little bit inspired by The Bat — is very effective. Besides the burned face and the clawed glove, there’s also something about his disheveled attire that just seems somewhat off.
Child murderer and fashion victim
Since Freddy doesn’t talk much, we don’t much of a sense of his personality here; he’s just a menace, but Englund is very successful at pulling that off. I gather he’s more chatty in the sequels.
The film is quite adept at building suspense. There are a few cheap jump scares, but mostly it works through the tried and true method of keeping the threat just on the periphery, where the characters (and audience) are aware it’s there but can’t quite pin it down. The transitions from waking life to dreaming — where the characters are vulnerable to Freddy — is often subtle, so that it takes a small cue of something being off-kilter to cue the viewer in to when the dream has started. This winds up giving the whole film a subtle dream-like quality, which considering the nature of its villain goes a long way to ramping up the feeling of danger. The attacks themselves are violent but only occasionally are they over-the-top enough to counter-act the menace. If I had watched this as a teenager, I suspect it might have succeeded in scaring me some. As a child, nightmares for sure. As an adult in my thirties, though, it had suspense but little fright. I watched it late at night, by myself, and went to bed soon after. I don’t recall dreaming. Sorry Freddy, better luck next time.
But there will be a next time. A Nightmare on Elm Street may not be frightening for an adult, but it is suspenseful, and it’s fairly well done. I’ll admit to finding the ending a bit on the weak side, but this is a minor issue when taken with the movie as a whole. I’ll definitely be checking out part 2 some day.