‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

“Morality sucks…”

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) — Directed by Wes Craven. Starring Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, John Saxon, Johnny Depp, Amanda Wyss, Ronee Blakely, Nick Corri, Lin Shaye. 

We lost one of the great ones recently. On August 30th Wes Craven, age 76, succumbed to brain cancer. Director of landmark horror films such The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have EyesScream, and A Nightmare on Elm Street he is probably one of a handful of directors whose name might even be familiar to those who don’t pay attention to the genre.  Folks, let’s pour one out for Wes…

RoxieTo commemorate his passing San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre ran A Nightmare on Elm Street each night over the Labor Day weekend. A buddy and I headed to the Mission District to eat some grub, drink some brews, and watch Elm Street on the big screen. …if you can get away with calling the screen at the Roxie “big”. I wondered if there might be a big crowd of enthusiastic fans dressed up as Freddy Kreuger but there was not a clawed glove to be found. There was a noisy guy a few rows behind us who spouted random film-related comments (“I’m a Dapper Dan man! This theater’s a geographical oddity… two weeks from everywhere!”) but he quieted down when the movie started.

Obligatory plot synopsis: High school student Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends are all experiencing the same dream of being chased in a boiler room by a crazed, snarky killer with burned flesh. The teenagers get together for a sleepover to comfort Tina (Amanda Wyss), who is the first to share her dream with the small group. But she is brutally murdered in her bed by an unseen presence while her boyfriend, Rod (Nick Corri), watches in horror. Soon Nancy learns that the evil presence terrorizing their dreams is Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a child murderer who evaded the justice system of Springwood, Ohio and then subsequently killed by a vengeful mob of angry parents, burned to death in the same boiler room where the dreams are taking place. But he’s back and seeking to return revenge on his killers by invading the dreams of their children. After a week of no sleep Nancy vows to defeat Freddy and the battle is on to bring the fight into the real world.

At this point in the ’80s the slasher film was king with the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises going strong, along with their slew of imitators. A Nightmare on Elm Street takes the elements of the slasher film –a stalking killer coming back for retribution, the sexually active teens getting the business end of the knife, and the morally pure final girl eventually vanquishing the villain– and steers them out of reality into the rubber world of dreams. The characters, and the audience, are left guessing as to when they are dreaming or awake.

This is close to where it all started for me, if memory serves right. I’d seen a handful of horror movies up to this point but I didn’t begin my passion for them until I started gleefully devouring them on VHS in my teenage years, Nightmare included. Watching it again is like visiting an old, violent friend. I’ve always enjoyed movies that break the rules of reality and present a dream world where, for better or for worse, anything can happen. Watching Nancy take control of her nightmares to defeat the terror stalking her is a blast.

There are some classic horror moments including the brutal, bloody death of Tina in her sleep as she’s dragged across the ceiling, Nancy’s foot sinking into the gooey steps on the staircase, and the fountain of blood that was Johnny Depp rushing to the ceiling. It has plenty of campy moments as well, Nancy pulling out a hidden coffee pot from under her bed getting the largest laugh from the Roxie. You might think Freddy would factor into more of those moments but there is less of him here than in the sequels, which is where his reputation for wisecracks was truly borne. Don’t get me wrong, Robert Englund does a great job in his first turn as Krueger. But I’d always thought he could be scarier, which is what Craven originally thought as well and attempted to correct in New Nightmare.

Ronee Blakely’s wooden performance as Nancy’s spacey, alcoholic mother is worthy of even more laughs. The speech she gives when revealing the ineptness that is the Springwood justice system (“all the lawyers got fat and the judge got famous, but someone forgot to sign the search warrant in the right place and Krueger was free just like that…”) and the parents’ ensuing mob justice (“We lit the whole thing up and watched it burn. He’s dead now. He’s dead because Mommy killed him.”) is particularly stilted but I admire the precise cheesiness of the dialogue.

A Nightmare on Elm Street on the big screen? Achievement acquired! As Wes Craven only directed the original Nightmare and New Nightmare, I don’t feel that continuing with the rest of the series this year would be the best way to honor his memory. Not that they aren’t worth watching. If you’re in the mood for some gory special effects, they’re some great viewing. But none of them match up with the original.

btw, if you are so inclined to see photos of the interior of the famed house on Elm Street, which is, of course, not really on Elm Street, check out the house’s entry on Redfin. It’s been massively remodeled and the interior is wild. You can also get a look at some photos of the renovation of the famed home.

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