Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Film Review: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984, Wes Craven)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 91 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: John Saxon (TENEBRE, ENTER THE DRAGON), Ronee Blakley (NASHVILLE, THE DRIVER), Heather Langenkamp (GROWING PAINS, SHOCKER, NEW NIGHTMARE), Johnny Depp (CRY-BABY, DEAD MAN), Charles Fleischer (DEADLY FRIEND, ZODIAC), Robert Englund (ST. IVES, EATEN ALIVE, DEAD & BURIED), Amanda Wyss (BETTER OFF DEAD, POWWOW HIGHWAY), Jsu Garcia (GOTCHA!, WE WERE SOLDIERS). Cinematography by Jacques Haitkin (THE HIDDEN, CHERRY 2000). Head makeup effects by David B. Miller (THE BEASTMASTER, COCOON, WILD AT HEART). Music by Charles Bernstein (MR. MAJESTYK, DEADLY FRIEND).
Tag-line: "If Nancy Doesn't Wake Up Screaming She Won't Wake Up At All..."
Best one-liner: "Okay Krueger, we play in your court!"

There was a time when Freddy wasn't plastered on squirt guns, board games, nite lights, novelty albums, squish-'ems, pinball machines, and yo-yos.
There was a time when Freddy was scary as shit.

He wasn't a one-liner dropping contrivance- he was a terrifying burn victim and possible-pedophile who had the confounding power to haunt kids' dreams from beyond the grave. He wasn't all powerful, not by a long shot: in a toe-to-toe wrestling match between him and a high school girl (which actually happens several times in this film), the girl has a pretty good chance of kicking Freddy's raggedy ass. The existentially frustrating thing here is that Freddy cheats.

Even as the hall monitor.

He gets you when you're at your most vulnerable, your least aware- in the sweet ark of slumber. And more often than not, Craven shows Freddy's attacks from the outside- the sleeping victim thrashing about, slashed and beaten- we can only imagine what's happening in their world, and that's truly frightening. The cast is solid- Heather Langenkamp is our heroine (and a far cry from the CW douches on summer hiatus who star in today's horror), John Saxon (a Bava/Argento alum) is the no-nonsense cop dad, Ronee Blakley is the habitually loaded alky mom (watch for her hidden booze stashes), Johnny Depp is the boyfriend (even at this young age making some impressively bizarre acting choices), and, of course, Robert Englund is Krueger- a sheer force of malicious exuberance.

The visuals are startlingly potent- Freddy's arms extending to an impossible length:

a bed swallowing a victim and spewing a sanguinary geyser, a spectral form emerging from a rubbery wall:

a Cronenbergian face-lickin' phone:

or a girl chased up the steps as the carpet transforms into bemiring white goop. All of this is pre-CGI, and, in fact, is frequently visualized by extremely primitive means- its effectiveness remains a credit to the conceptual hotbed of primal fears and visceral anxieties that (ex-Humanities professor) Craven dips into. This is focused, forceful storytelling at its best. Five stars.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

"The cast is solid- Heather Langenkamp is our heroine (and a far cry from the CW douches on summer hiatus who star in today's horror)"

Hah! Ain't that the truth? I have ZERO desire to see the crappy remake that came out awhile back. Looked gahd-awful. But the original still packs a punch and really typifies the whole suburban setting that was so en vogue during the 1980's. As someone who grew up in said suburbs this film packed an added visceral punch thanks to the setting.

Too bad most of the sequels sucked with the notable expection of Part 3, which was pretty cool and Craven returning to the fold with NEW NIGHTMARE, which anticipated the meta vibe of the SCREAM films by a year or two and did it MUCH better, IMO.

Mike B. said...

Awesome, awesome film that still totally holds up. I agree 100% with the review and with the previous commenter J.D. above. Growing up as an apartment rat in the south, the whole midwestern suburban thing often made films somewhat unrelatable, but "Nightmare's" world was so well developed and absorbing that it transcended this. With the surreal visuals and the way the story quietly diffuses into your consciousness, it becomes almost impossible to tell what's "real" or a dream by the end. Also a good point above about Craven doing the meta thing way before "Scream." Tangential side note: "Friday the 13th: Part 6" (actually a decently slick 80's horror sequel, a rare thing in that craptastic series) was doing the meta-horror-film-commenting-on being-a-horror-film thing way back in '86 as well, and did so as a conscious decision by the director. No one ever seems to notice this, but it's one reason why it's my favorite "Friday" film (not that that's a big accomplishment, considering the others). Anyway, I digress. "Nightmare" rules, thanks for the review!

Sean Gill said...


Same here. Even as an enormous Freddy fan, I still haven't made the slightest attempt to see the reboot. It's one of those things I miiight watch if it suddenly came on and I had nothing to do, but I certainly won't seek it out. Parts 3 and 7 are indeed the best sequels objectively, but I always find a lot to like from the spit-take inducing homoeroticism of part 2, the nonstop one-liners in 4 and 5, and the batshit craziness of part 6, which pulls the Power Glove, Roseanne, and Yaphet Kotto with a ball bat into a perfect storm of cheesery.

Mike B.,

Glad NIGHTMARE could draw you into the true horrors of suburbia. In re: to FRIDAY 6, that is one of my favorite Jason films, too, though it may have more to do with the Alice Cooper tie-ins. As a whole, I find the FRIDAY series to be so inferior to the ELM STREET series in terms of charm, creativity, etc., but there are some tangible joys to be had in parts 3, 4, and 6 as far as I'm concerned.

Mike B. said...

Absolutely! I'd also like to note that even though the "Friday" series is ostensibly about a boogeyman terrorizing a summer camp, part 6 is literally the only one where there is actually a summer camp taking place (parts 1 & 2 have counselors but no kids, parts 3-5 have nothing to do with camps, nor do 7-10). There are as many "Friday" films set in space as there are set in functioning summer camps. So weird!

Sean Gill said...

Mike B,

That's an amazing observaton- I never really gave the functioning camp stuff much thought! I guess there's always SLEEPAWAY CAMP.