A Nightmare on Elm Street is a favorite franchise horror film to many; it is one of the most important films in my life. In fact, it is the first film I ever recall seeing. That’s right, as a three or four year old I have a vivid memory of standing in the kitchen of a family friend’s house at some party and seeing Freddy Krueger for the first time on a small television on the counter. Given the timing, it may have actually been A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 but that’s not really important. [The only other film I remember seeing at that age was Hellraiser, but that’s an entirely different story. OK, that one I actually watched with my parents sitting on the couch at home. They covered my eyes for the all the nasty bits, which given it was Hellraiser, I imagine was quite a lot.] Our first is always special.
Years later, when I was 10 years old, I was hospitalized for a kidney ailment that required multiple surgeries. My first go-round through the hospital included a night alone, my mother away for a few hours for her weekly bowling league. So, I watched television, and what happened to be on as the late-night WGN movie? Yep, A Nightmare on Elm Street. [I realize my parents aren’t coming across very well here, so you’ll have to believe me when I say I’ve become a fairly well adjusted person.] On another occasion I had to go in for a difficult and painful examination, which prompted the nursing staff to give me a stuffed frog as a companion. I named him ‘Freddy’ in honor of my favorite movie monster. I owned that little guy for years until it was finally beyond saving.
Given the thematic ground of the Freddy series and my young impressionability, of course I had dreams of the psychotic child killer. But they weren’t all bad. One I remember particularly well was when I was away from home for a summer in Tennessee where my grandpa and grandma were building a house on land they purchased. Sleeping on the floor of a motor home one night I played football with my pal and he was particularly frustrating. As my team’s quarterback, I just couldn’t get the ball passed him. Not exactly on the level of what the kids of Springwood, Ohio had to deal with but as the series got increasingly bizarre, I’m a little surprised we didn’t get a football dream at some point.
OK, onto the film. A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in the emerging peak of the slasher subgenre. Halloween and [to a lesser extent but with more mainstream appeal] Friday the 13th built the new blueprint: get a bunch of kids, create a monster, and then pick them off one-by-one in creative and shocking ways. With this precedence already set, A Nightmare on Elm Street had to be different and boy was it ever.
First and foremost, there is Freddy Krueger, a radically different type of movie monster. The killers in slasher films were the strong and silent type. The terror was in their physical presence and sheer force of will—they were humongous and unstoppable. Freddy, on the other hand, has real personality. Some may consider this a detriment by the end of the series, but speaking strictly for the original, Freddy’s ability to speak allows him to play psychological games with his victims. While he’s not the physical threat when compared to Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees, his infinite abilities in the dream world more than make up the gap. And his signature weapon, the glove of knives, is sheer genius design and incredibly original.
As a film that heavily involves dreams, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s inventiveness still holds up. Many of the sequences walk the line of reality with splashes of strangely off, just as our own dreams feel—even when things obviously aren’t real, when we are in the dream, it feels so. This thematically helps the film build tension and scares because it isn’t always immediately recognizable when one of the characters have slipped into sleep.
And yet, the images Wes Craven creates in the dream world are stunning. Nancy falling asleep in the bathtub, the knived glove coming up between her legs; Freddy’s introduction in Tina’s dream, his arms extended out, scratching the walls; the incredible effect of Tina being dragged around every wall of her bedroom; Freddy pushing through the wall above Nancy’s bed; the blood geyser of Glen’s death; and my personal favorite: Nancy seeing her murdered friend Tina wrapped in a body bag and dragged through the halls of her high school. No horror film of its style and era was able to convey such nightmarish visuals.
There is so much more about A Nightmare on Elm Street that makes it an effective film than its myriad of impressive kills. Because writer-director Wes Craven crafted the film around real-life tragedy, there is a strong mythology behind it. He writes every character with depth, even the monster, who is given a frightening backstory that adds an important element to his supernatural nature. None of the kids are written off as mere slasher fodder [which can’t really even be said for the great ensemble in Halloween]. Nancy, Glen, Tina, and even fuck up Rod and sympathetic figures. A Nightmare on Elm Street even goes on to include parent characters, who serve the story much more than the typical absentee excuses. Both of Nancy’s parents are active and imperative to the story.
I love A Nightmare on Elm Street. I hope you love A Nightmare on Elm Street, too. We don’t need an excuse to revisit this extraordinary film, but another Halloween holiday is a good enough one to spend a week to celebrate it.