Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

So, for the scariest month of the year, I kick off my second review series. Just as I celebrated The Evil Dead last year when the remake came out, this week (and next Sunday) I'm watching every single Nightmare on Elm Street movie. Yes, all of them. Even the one with the Power Glove. (Especially the one with the Power Glove.) One a day, every day, until I'm through. I've already seen Freddy vs. Jason, so that's one down, though I'll probably squeeze it in somewhere for my own personal viewing. Let's begin with the film that started it all...

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Rated R

I won't deny: A Nightmare on Elm Street is a damn great horror movie, even thirty years on. It's not a perfect film by any measure, but even with its flaws, even when watching it in the daytime, it is terrifying. It's got a very unique, original idea that it up and runs with for ninety minutes, culminating in an ending that, even knowing that the heroine lived to see the third film, leaves the viewer wondering just how much of the film was real and what was all in Nancy's head. Sure, it's got a dull supporting cast, but it has the wisdom to bump off the worst actors first, and even they could barely scratch my enjoyment and suspense.

The story of this film is horror legend, so I won't waste too much time recapping it. Years ago, child murderer Fred Krueger was killed by the vengeful parents of his victims after he got off on a technicality, and now, his spirit haunts the town and seeks to take his revenge on those who brought him to justice by doing what he does best: going after their children. His targets include Nancy Thompson and her friends, a group of teenagers who find themselves having strange dreams about a man in a fedora and a red-and-green striped sweater, a man who has a glove with long blades attached to the fingers...

Knowing the Nightmare on Elm Street series as one of the "big three" slasher franchises (together with Friday the 13th and Halloween), it's astonishing to see how unlike a traditional slasher this first film actually is. Writer/director Wes Craven wanted to create something different from the slasher flicks that ruled horror in the early '80s, drawing on legends he heard from southeast Asia as well as stories from his childhood, and he succeeded admirably. Depending on how you interpret the ending, the body count is as low as three, and while one of the deaths is downright legendary in how unbelievably bloody it is (and that's without it showing what was undoubtedly the sickest part), another death is a simple hanging with zero gore. It's not so much a pure slasher flick as it is a fusion of a slasher with a supernatural horror movie, and it's a mash-up that combines the best of both genres. Even when Freddy isn't killing, he's always lurking in the shadows in the many well-done sequences where he stalks Nancy and her friends, his control over reality in the dreamworld leaving his victims with no recourse beyond someone in the real world to wake them up. Meanwhile, this dream-based conceit means that you're never quite sure whether what you're seeing is reality or a nightmare. While later films used this idea to allow Freddy to go hog-wild in the dreamworld with all manner of awesome kills that violated the laws of physics (something he does here too, though not to the same extreme extent), here Wes Craven used the idea to create ambiguity and suspense. You can generally figure out when you are in a nightmare, but it's kind of hard to tell when you aren't, especially once the ending throws everything topsy-turvy.

My only real problem with the ending actually doesn't have anything to do with this film itself so much as its sequels. While here we get a backstory for Freddy, the sequels go on to explain nearly everything about him, including stuff that people didn't even (pardon the pun) dream of when this film first came out, while also revealing that (spoiler alert) Nancy ultimately made it out alright. It's like if they made a sequel to Black Swan that canonically stated just what the hell was going on in that movie. Still, even though the sequels undo some of the ending's impact, they don't remove all of it. In any case, it's easy to disregard them and just let the WTF-ery wash over you.

What isn't so easy to ignore is the acting, which stands as this film's greatest fault. But before I get to the worst offenders, let me hand out praise for Robert Englund as Freddy and Heather Langenkamp as Nancy. Englund made Freddy an icon, and while later films turned him into a joker, here he's a dark, threatening monster with a twisted sense of humor who reminded me of a proto-Slender Man, his awful sweater doing nothing to dilute his menace. He's a man of few words, but those words gave me chills. As for Langenkamp, she's not the greatest actor, but Wes Craven clearly found the perfect role for her. I believed her performance whether she was scared, depressed, tired, or angry, and she made a very good heroine. Johnny Depp as Glenn (in his very first motion picture role, even before 21 Jump Street) wasn't as good as those two were, but from his hilarious introduction to his epic death scene, I constantly saw flashes of the star he went on to become. However, for every good actor in this film, there was one that... well, let's just say they made the good actors look that much better in comparison. The girl who played Tina, the first victim, couldn't act her way out of a wet paper bag, and the guy playing her boyfriend Rod wasn't a whole lot better; the film was fortunate to get them out of the way early and quickly. The rest of the supporting cast, including the parents, the doctor, and Nancy's teacher, were decent, but none of them really impressed me.

Score: 4 out of 5

And one that I came very close to giving a straight 5 out of 5. This is a landmark horror film, a very original, well-made, and terrifying thrill ride that's only let down by some poor performances and, ironically, its own legacy. A must-see for anybody who claims to be a fan of horror movies.

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