A cacophony of recognizably ’80s synthesizers and persistent, wheezy breathing score a series of close-up images bathed in colorfully dark, almost impressionistic lighting. A pair of dirty hands in a red sweater fashions a few rusty tools into a violent glove apparatus, before the camera flashes to an innocent teenage girl in a flowing white nightgown. Immediately we understand the implications. There’s something pure and primal to this sort of horror, creating fear even without context, through only suggestive imagery and sound effects. Such is the genius of Wes Craven’s franchise sparking A Nightmare on Elm Street.
In the wake of acclaimed horror director Wes Craven’s death, the premiere of his 1984 Nightmare may seem like a distant memory. Younger horror buffs might more easily recall his four Scream films, even his mile-in-the-sky thriller Red Eye, or even the mostly-forgotten 2010 remake of Nightmare. Nonetheless, the original film is always worth a revisit. Despite a few dated touches, like that omnipresent synth score, the film holds up remarkably well as a horror film that combines artistry with knowing schlock in a way that perfectly sums up the remarkable career of the great, now-late Craven.
The story — which most of us probably know by heart simply through how pervasive it’s become in pop-culture — follows a group of suburban white teenagers led by virginal Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who are trying to understand the nature of the violent dreams they’ve been having involving a mysterious burned killer. Other cast members include Ronee Blakely as Nancy’s mother and Johnny Depp in his surprisingly straight-faced film debut. This, we later find out, is the iconic Freddy Krueger, a child murderer killed not long ago by a group of the town’s parents. How he manages to invade the dreams of others and kill them from beyond the grave is never quite made clear, but that doesn’t matter.
What matters instead is how the film uses the setup to construct scares. The premise itself is a brilliant one, making audiences fear one of their most basic needs — sleep. “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep” is up there with “in space, no one can hear you scream” in terms of the all-time greatest taglines. Craven isn’t content to rest on the strength of his concept, though it is what allows him to incorporate such striking, surrealist imagery throughout. In one scene, Nancy’s now-dead friend appears to speak through her body bag, only to collapse into a pile of slimy, writhing snakes. In another, a school hall monitor morphs halfway into Freddy, a teenager’s plain face supplanted on a serial killer’s hulking body.
In scenes like these, we get a sense of Craven’s brilliance in tapping into a horror that feels built into our human psyches, relying upon his, again, almost-primally terrifying imagery rather than any lazily constructed jump scares. Luckily, Craven is anything but pretentious, so the film takes itself just seriously enough to maximize the scares. Some of the scenes even approach parody in a way that foreshadow his more obviously tongue-in-cheek Scream franchise, but never enough to dull the creative terror he creates.
In our first clear look at Freddy, for example, he menaces Nancy’s friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) who tears his face away while wrestling against him, only to reveal his smirking, giggling skeleton. She screams. It’s a funny moment of brutality, but the scene of Tina’s death that immediately follows is anything but. In real life, she gushes blood through the razor wounds inflicted in her dream, screaming and writhing up the wall as her boyfriend looks on in helpless horror. It’s creative, it’s surreal, and it remains disturbing to this day despite the bright red blood. Craven likes to have fun in his horror, but his scare-inducing instincts serve him well.
The film is often lumped in with some of its 1980s contemporaries as another one of the slashers that dominated the decade. Nightmare doesn’t have much in common with other slashers, beyond its dispatch of teenagers and penchant for killing them post-coitus. But this is more colorful and creative than those films, which were generally plain in color and concerned unthinking, unfeeling masked killers driven by compulsion. Freddy isn’t driven by compulsion. Like Craven, he likes to have fun, and for him, killing is fun. In fact, Freddy is one cinema’s greatest villainous creations, both for his gleefully brutal personality and his instantly iconic character design.
Craven even makes the film thematically interesting too, setting his film in a suburban world of facades hiding sinister, deadly truths, rather than a remote location in the woods as in, say, Friday the 13th. He was even unsatisfied with the ending, preferring to end the film earlier to drive home the moment wherein Nancy defeats Freddy by refusing to fear him. There’s a powerful (if not entirely original) statement in that version of the ending, but I find it hard to argue against the brilliant insanity of its current ending, wherein Nancy arises in an all-too manicured suburban dreamworld still within Freddy’s grasp.
What a great film. What a great director. What a great loss.