In preparation for the upcoming A Nightmare on Elm Street remake, I spent the better part of the past two weeks ignoring other movies thought I'd actually enjoy in lieu of watching the later installments in the series – parts IV through VII, or New Nightmare – that I hadn't seen. Admittedly, the franchise was never a favorite of mine, albeit mostly because an overactive imagination placed Freddy in my frontal lobe at an early age and I didn't need the movies themselves to exacerbate the strings of sleepless nights I would ensure each time a new one was released. But as a longtime devotee of other '80s series, most notably Friday the 13th, it seemed necessary that I catch up on the other dominant franchise from that decade, and the upcoming reboot seemed like as good a reason as any to see them.
Warner Home Video recently released A Nightmare on Elm Street on Blu-ray, offering unprecedented, pristine picture quality, amazing sound and a bounty of bonus materials. But notwithstanding the obvious cache of value for fans who already adore the original movie, the released of this set seemed like a good opportunity to see whether the movie was as deserving of adulation as its sequels suggest. As such, the original 1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released on November 16, 1984, Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street earned back its $1.8 million budget in its first week, and went on to rake in more than $25 million during its theatrical run. Although initially receiving mixed reviews, the film eventually earned a place among the most highly-regarded horror films of the 1980s, and remains a genre entry that is respected genre fans and general filmgoers.
In addition to its success as an individual film and a franchise, Nightmare rescued New Line Cinema from financial ruin as their first major release, and eventually came to be known as "the house that Freddy built." In 1985 it was also nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Picture, and netted a nomination for actor Jsu Garcia for Best Performance By A Younger Actor.
What Still Works: I have always argued that less money and more creativity always makes for a more interesting, more effective horror film, and A Nightmare on Elm Street is Exhibit A: although the film was obviously inexpensive to produce, Craven's combination of a fairly brilliant concept and simple, clean, practical execution makes for a genuinely scary and suspenseful film.
By exploiting basic horror movie conventions (like weapon-wielding maniacs) but adding innovative, deeply psychological twists (giving said weapon-wielding maniac access to his victims nightmares), Craven's visual and narrative dexterity, never better on display than here, elevates slasher-movie iconography to art. And while the film doesn't flinch from the viscera of each bloody clinch, it doesn't exploit it either; as much gore appears in the film, flooding sets with tidal waves of blood and burning characters to cinders, none of it feels superfluous in the context of the story.
Best of all, and as the likely reason this film still resonates while its sequels don't, Nightmare effectively taps into familiar dream or nightmare scenarios that everyone has, and then twists them in a way that suggests or reminds us that we have little control over things when we're asleep. In one nightmare, Nancy finds herself immobile as the steps of her home dissolve into quicksand; in another, she's pulled beneath the water in a tub after drifting off during a bath. That these sequences aren't over-modulated or exaggerated is probably a testament to the budgetary limitations Craven faced, but the fact that he managed to really access primal or at least universal sorts of feelings of anxiety only enhanced the effectiveness of Freddy as a villain, and the film as a terrifying portrait of teenage helplessness.
What Doesn't Work: Although I have no problems with the visible cheapness of the production, which was duly enhanced by Craven's then-evolving cinematographic instincts, not to mention film stocks that covered up all kinds of sins, there's no denying this was a really, really low-budget movie, exemplified by the final coda in which it's pretty obvious that a blow-up doll and not an actual person is being pulled through a window. Otherwise, I challenge anyone to find other aspects of the film that don't work as well with their (by today's standards) "primitive" effects work, at least in terms of getting the emotional impact of the sequence; even Freddy's robotic, outstretched arms in the opening dream sequences are just weird and hypnotic enough to convey the sentiment of feeling trapped or hunted. Besides, dreams are themselves only vaguely constructed logically, which makes those odd flourishes, whether created by accident or design, seemingly even more authentic.
Otherwise, I would say that I feel like the final sequence doesn't make a whole lot of sense, unless you subscribe to the (defensible) idea that it's all a dream, and not a shifting plane between reality and Freddy's dream world. First he jumps on Nancy's mother's bed while aflame, and then when he's extinguished his body (or is it hers?) descends into hell. Then he mysteriously returns, only to be defeated by Nancy's realization that she can not believe in him, but then she is herself defeated when Freddy possesses a car and kills her mother for real. What? (And again I buy the "it's all a dream" defense, but the movie's blurring lines between what will physically hurt Freddy and where he is and how he interacts with Nancy and others seems to jump around a little too much even for that argument.)
Interestingly, the thing that actually bothers me more than that, however, is the doofus deputy who casually regards Nancy's cries for help while her father is across the street dealing with the extremely bloody death of her boyfriend; I acknowledge this is a horror-movie convention that people have to react slowly to build suspense, but it's exasperating that Craven falls back on tropes like these after mostly circumventing them throughout the rest of the movie.
What's The Verdict: A Nightmare on Elm Street holds up really well today, perhaps most importantly as a reminder that there was a time when Freddy was actually a formidable, scary figure rather than (as one of my colleagues called him) the Henny Youngman of horror. Really, Craven's franchise-launcher is by any definition a movie masterpiece, a work of art that transcends convention, genre, and even time. Craven may or may not return to such artistic heights ever again - indeed, some of his most recent work is more than enough to get him thrown out of Hollywood permanently - but personally speaking, I prefer the days when he had less cash and more creativity. That is, when I am actually able to get through the end result and still sleep at night.