“I don’t know who he is, but he’s burned and he wears a weird hat and a red and green sweater, really dirty. And he uses these knives, like giant fingernails…”
So, says Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) as she describes the man who’s been haunting, not just her dreams, but those of her friends as well.
By 1984, Michael Myers had seemingly vanished from the Halloween franchise and Jason Vorhees was heading towards his “Final Chapter”. Horror fans were going to be on the lookout for a new icon and, though it may not have been his intention, Wes Craven gave us one in Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).
Craven was no stranger to horror having already given us, most notably, the (rightly) notorious Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), but it was his creation here, despite anything he did before or after (yes, I’m including Ghostface in Scream) that he will be most associated with.
Nightmares are something the majority of us will be familiar with, so the idea that the “boogeyman” can get you while you’re asleep and, if he does, you’re done for in real life…..well, that’s the stuff of nightmares. Sleep is a place of safety for most of us, a chance for our bodies and minds to rest, to unravel the havoc of our daily lives and we’re introduced to a character here that violates that safety. The only way to stay safe, it would seem is to stay awake and not sleep and that’s something that is hard to do for a long time, especially if you’re a teenager.
We first meet Freddy as he constructs his famous glove in what we quickly come to know as his “home”, a boiler room, before we cut to Tina (Amanda Wyss) who he stalks and taunts in what we quickly discover is a dream when she wakes up screaming after being lunged at by this mysterious man. When we see that her nightgown is slashed we can emit a collective “Uh-oh”. This can’t be good.
At school the next day, we find out that it’s not just Tina who’s been having these nightmares. Rod (Nick Corri), Tinas boyfriend as well as Nancy and her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) have been experiencing these nightmares as well, though the guys are more reluctant to admit it.
Maybe we’re being led to believe that Tina will be the final girl. None of the teenage characters were household names at this point so it wouldn’t be that obvious who was more likely to be the focal protagonist here. (Wes Craven would subvert our expectations in this regard 12 years later in Scream……poor Drew).
Of course, we’re wrong if we believe this, as Freddy claims his first on-screen victim. Waking from a nightmare in which she’s being attacked, the flailing Tina is cut open by an invisible assailant to the horror of her boyfriend who can only watch as her body is dragged from floor to wall and up to the ceiling before being dropped lifeless onto a blood soaked bed.
This is a memorable death scene; something the series would have an abundance of over the many sequels, though it would be topped later on in this movie.
Less memorable is the death of Rod. Arrested for the murder of Tina despite Nancy’s protestations that Rod is innocent (hard to ignore the evidence here Nancy) her father Donald (John Saxon), who happens to be a police lieutenant, refuses to believe his daughters claims that this is the work of a man who is haunting them in their dreams.
By this point in the story we’ve seen a couple of the most iconic images the franchise has provided. When Nancy falls asleep in class and is drawn to the boiler room we see Tinas corpse in a body bag and the delightful moment when a centipede crawls from her dead mouth. That’s not something you see every day. We also get the moment that many of us remember, possibly, more than any scene bar one, as Nancy falls asleep in the bath and a gloved hand rises up from the water in between her legs (symbolism much?). Its only due to Nancy’s mother, Marge (Ronee Blakley) an alcoholic rarely seen without a bottle in her hand, waking her that saves Nancy from drowning.
Back to Rod. While dreaming, under the watchful eye of her boyfriend, Nancy goes to the jail where we see Freddy (we know his first name by this point from a previous dream of Nancy’s where he chased her in the boiler room) morph through the cell doors where Rod is held.
Waking, Nancy and Glen dash to the police station but are too late. While sleeping, Rods bedsheets wrap themselves around his neck and string him up, killing him. Not saying this is a pleasant way to go at all but, after the murder of Tina and the one that will follow this, Rods bloodless death didn’t stick in my memory as much as the other kills here and in the series overall.
Though her parents are estranged from each other, their knowing looks following Nancy’s descriptions of who she has been encountering in her sleep, suggest that they know more than they’re letting on.
Marge takes Nancy to a sleep clinic for testing (the presiding doctor is played by Charles Fleischer who is most famous for being the voice of Roger Rabbit and, thankfully, doesn’t use that voice here) where her nightmare is so intense that it sends the instruments needles off the charts and turns some of her hair white. The real kicker though is when, from under the sheets, Nancy produces a battered brown fedora which she took off of the man in her dreams. Why he’d put his name inside his hat I don’t know as that’s something I stopped doing well before my teens but, now at least, we have the dream killers full name “Fred Krueger”.
Taking the precautionary measure of putting metal bars over all of the windows and doors (because that’ll keep the boogeyman that doesn’t need windows or doors away) Marge finally reveals the truth to her daughter.
Though the lore and origin of Freddy Krueger would get expanded on in future films, the “cliff notes” version here is that Krueger was a child murderer released on a technicality (those annoying, improperly filled out search warrants). The neighbourhood parents (Nancys included) burned him alive in the boiler room of the power plant where he took his victims.
Marge then reveals that she has the glove as Nancy yells at her, understanding now why her and her friends are being targeted.
Calling Glen to warn him of the danger he’s in, Nancy is dismissed by his parents, unwilling to listen to the ramblings of a girl who has the drunk, clearly deranged mother and is obviously a negative influence on their son.
As Nancy receives a call from Freddy (we’ll gloss over how that’s happening as she is awake so how can he call her etc..) complete with mouthpiece transforming into a tongue stating “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy” we cut to the doomed Glen. Having, somehow, fallen asleep while watching “Miss Nude America” he is sucked into his bed, TV and all, before a fountainous geyser of blood erupts from the bed and pools across the ceiling. For all of the many things we know Johnny Depp for, his demise at the hands of Freddy Krueger will always be high up on my list.
Being the ubiquitous “final girl” Nancy has no choice but to fight or die. She calls her father who is at the scene of Glens murder which looks like someone had set up an abattoir in a teenagers bedroom. She tells him to ready himself to come to their house and arrest Freddy as she plans to bring him out of the dream.
Having read on book on the subject, it’s montage time, as Nancy sets up a series of booby traps around the house as her mother slips into drunken unconsciousness. The plan succeeds and Freddy is dragged into the waking world where her traps keep him at bay until she lures him to her basement and sets fire to him.
Finally, Lt. Thompson breaks into the house but he and his daughter are forced to follow flaming footprints up the stairs and see Marge in bed struggling with the burning Krueger. Before Nancy or her father can do anything, Krueger vanishes and, all that’s left are the flambeed remains of Marge Thompson.
The Lieutenant leaves for a moment, obviously shaken to the core by what he’s just witnessed and the film delivers another great little image as Freddy appears from within the bed. Nancy, defiant and resolute doesn’t shirk away in fear or run screaming from the room. Remembering words spoken to her by Glen, she turns her back on her nightmare, dismissing him as nothing, taking away any power he though he had and it is that resolve that causes Freddy to vanish into nothing.
The nightmare is over. Nancy walks out of her bedroom door…..into bright light. She’s suddenly outside, dressed for school and being bid farewell by her mother before climbing into a convertible along with Tina, Glen and Rod. Suddenly the roof of the car comes down. It’s red and green!! There are screams as the car drives off and we cut back to a waving, seemingly oblivious Marge when, suddenly, Freddys arm comes bursting through the small window at the top of the door and pulls her entire body through it.
And that was “A Nightmare on Elm Street”
I’m not going to attempt to hide my bias regarding this film. It’s up there on my list of favourite horror films and it’s impact on the genre is hard to ignore.
In Freddy Krueger, Wes Craven created a horror icon whose popularity extended beyond just fans of the genre. This would continue to grow to almost cartoonish levels over the next few years (and sequels) as the character (a child murderer I should remind you) became one of the most recognisable figures in the history of, not only horror, but cinema itself.
Gonna be cliché here when I say this but, if Wes Craven created Freddy Krueger it’s Robert Englund who breathed life into him. The wise cracking Freddy was yet to materialise as the Krueger presented here is less about having fun and more about the hunt and, ultimately, the kill and Englund is brilliant here.
As I continue with my look back at the films in this series I’ll talk more about how Freddy changed, not only in appearance but in demeanour as it were over the course of the next few pieces.
Most of the acting in this film is solid, especially for this time when ones ability to act wasn’t high on the list of priorities for an appearance in a horror film. The actors portraying the teenagers are good enough though I still laugh when Heather Langenkamp looks at herself in the mirror and says sadly “Oh God. I look 20 years old!” (Try looking into the mirror when you’re 46!!) Johnny Depp obviously went on to bigger and better things and, though he’s not bad in this film, there’s no indication either that he would go on to achieve the success he did.
The “adult cast are good enough. John Saxon is a reliable presence though I’d have to say that the weakest performance overall is from Ronee Blakley who acts less like a drunk and more like she’s heavily medicated.
The special effects are pretty good throughout for the time the film was made and the budget given. The only two notable moments for me that don’t work so well are the scene early in the film where Freddy’s arms extend to four times the length but looks silly opposed to scary and the last scene where an obvious dummy is dragged through the small window of the door looks even sillier.
The score by Charles Bernstein has given us an opening theme with a small piano riff that has become instantly recognisable though the dark nursery rhyme that begins “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…” is equally memorable even if not technically part of the soundtrack.
The eighties churned out a lot of great horror films and A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of its finest. A great villain, a good “final girl”, memorable moments aplenty and quotable dialogue for any aficionado.
The final scene may not have been a setup for a sequel as most horror films, still to this day, like to show us that the story is not over, the monster may have not been vanquished etc but a sequel would follow.
I will look at that sequel in depth in my next “look back” and see if that’s as good as its predecessor…. (It isn’t).