A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Like most great films, A Nightmare on Elm Street is not easily defined. Yes, it’s a horror film, but it straddles the line between subgenres and eras. There’s a clear slasher structure to the film, but there’s a large supernatural bent to the piece. Furthermore, A Nightmare on Elm Street could be considered one of the first postmodern horror films, shuffling in the era of postmodern horror films. In any case, it’s this blend of ideologies and sensibilities makes for one of the most memorable and ingenious horror films ever made.

And a lot of this comes from the simple setup: A man named Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund) haunts a group of high school children in their dreams, frightening them with his metallic claw hand, burned face and macabre sense of humor. The catch is that what he does to them in their dreams affects them in the real world. In other words, if you get killed by Freddy in the dream, you die in real life.

Writer/director Wes Craven’s high concept untethers him from the rules of reality. He uses the dreamscape of these teens to craft a surreal horror landscape that’s more unsettling because of how uncanny and illogical it is. The first time Freddy appears, he’s disproportionate, his arms spanning out a great length. But even more unsettling is when moments later when he literally pops out of nowhere. No longer confined by the logic of space and existing only in the minds of his victims, Freddy becomes the ultimate boogie man.

It’s nice to have a villain in a horror film that talks. The Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees strong, silent type might appeal to some, but Freddy actually has a personality beyond the Freudian psychology profile. As he toys with his victims, he’s always got a gross joke or a morbid gag to play on his victim. This injection of playful personality not only gives the film a nice sense of postmodern humor playing against the dark, slasher elements but it also makes for a memorable villain.

The four teens Freddy is haunting are equally memorable. They aren’t the most well defined characters ever, but they have more personality and engage in more believable relationships than any of the Friday the 13th films we’ve seen so far (with perhaps the exception of The Final Chapter). Audiences are likely to still remember Glen (Johnny Depp), Tina (Amanda Wyss), Rod (Jsu Garcia), Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) after they’ve long forgotten the casts of just about every other slasher flick.

Plus, A Nightmare on Elm Street features the best final girl of any slasher flick. A lot of it has to do with the way Wes Craven presents the character. She’s nothing new to final girls. She’s a virgin and keenly aware of the intruder while those around her are not as keen. However, instead of making these two distinct traits, Craven rolls them into one. The reason why she survives and why she is keenly aware and can survive Freddy is because she’s not thinking about sex like the rest of her friends.

Plus, her faceoffs with Freddy are great fun. It’s hinted at that Freddy is a pedophile who has a particular attachment to the final girl, as represented by the iconic bathtub scene. But, unlike most final girls, she does not subdue him through masculine violence. Instead, she becomes obsessed with various traps and tricks. “I’m into survival,” she tells Glen when he finds her with a book about homemade explosive devices. This makes for a far more plausible and compelling conflict as there’s a conceivable reason why she could survive Freddy’s assaults beyond blind luck or an incompetent villain.

Plus, the final girl discovers that Freddy is powerless when she is awake. And this fact is something the film plays with throughout. Since Freddy attacks only in dreams, the final girl decides to stay awake. However, at a point it becomes unclear whether she is awake or asleep. In fact, arguments could be made over which scenes take place in dreams and which are legitimately real. Craven keeps it intentionally ambiguous and finds ways to play with audience expectations.

The problem in distinguishing dream from reality is that when we experience a dream it always seems real. In the same way, Craven often visually makes the scene align with reality. But if dream and reality look the same, how do we distinguish the two? What if Freddy is not confined to the dream? What if it only seems that way? This keeps the audience on its toes, never quite sure what world they are in and whether or not what we are seeing is real or if even really matters. After all, if what happens to you physically in the dream affects you the same reality does it matter which is which?

This also means that Wes Craven gets to have a lot of fun with the visuals. The deaths, in particular, are fantastic spectacles that are far more creative and astounding than the typical slasher fair. Also, the overall design has a nice surreal edge to it while still fitting into that dark, realistic horror look to it. Since Wes Craven isn’t defined by reality, he gets to have a lot of fun making what are some truly creepy and unsettling images.

All this makes A Nightmare on Elm Street one of the most creative films ever made. Yes, you read that right. There’s more imagination and visual craftsmanship in this film than most films. A lot of people brush off horror films as dumb, stupid movies about gratuitous violence and nudity and they clearly haven’t seen this film. A Nightmare on Elm Street presents a unique world filled with memorable characters and compelling concepts, a testament to the power of film as both a storytelling medium and a visual craft.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

  • Dan

    Excellent review James. You certainly have a keen eye for the slasher film details (rules!). When it comes to the ‘great’ slashers of the late 1970s/1980s, I’m not sure I would put this ahead of Halloween but Freddy definitely has a significant edge over Jason.

    You make some interesting points about the final girl but the feminist critics will still tell you she adopts a gendered approach to destroying Freddy and that that gender is masculine in nature.

    The postmodern thing is interesting too – Craven certainly played with the concept in A New Nightmare. I’d say Nighmare 1 is still on the conventional side but it’s unique in the way it incorporates its supernatural story into the slasher set-up. But you could argue the other killers are just as supernatural in their abilities to be seemingly impervious to pain or death, and their super-human strength and ability to regenerate.

    • I took a horror films class this last semester so I spruced up on all the academic theories behind horror films. The funny part is, I missed one class and it was the class where we discussed A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. But we had extensive readings on both films we had to do, a lot of which I pooled from when thinking about and writing this review.

  • Melissa/oneaprilday

    What an excellent write-up. You’ve (almost) convinced me to dip my toe into the waters of the horror genre . . . !

    • This might be the best place to enter. I think the Nightmare films are silly enough that they aren’t the kind of thing that would keep you awake at night.

      But I say this as a person who has the most banal, colorless and passive dreams ever. Even my nightmares are pretty tame so the films have never frightened me.

  • Mike

    Great review!!!! This is easily one of my favorate movies. It works on many levels and became among the films that revolutionized horror at that time. Wes Craven, David Cronenburg, and Clive Barker need to given credit for bringing surrealist cinema and fleshing out metaphors into horror movies at a time when slasher movies were all the rage.

    • This is a great one. I do think horror directors in general are overrated even though I often find them to be some of the most visually compelling directors.

      • Mike

        I agree some are overrated but Wes Craven made 3 ground breaking horror films-The Last House On The Left, A Nightmare On Elm Street and Scream. David Cronenburg is among my favourite directors-Videodrome, Scanners, The Fly, Dead Ringers and his non horror-Spider, History Of Violence, Eastern Promises are amazing.

        • I like both of those directors a lot, so I hear you. I do hope Cronenberg goes back to horror again eventually.