Written by Wes Craven
Directed by Wes Craven
Acted by Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp
The Premise: What if a janitor could enter your dreams, but instead of cleaning your school he’d just kill you?
Is It Good?: It’s only one of the best horror movies ever made. The premise alone is just brilliant and makes every horror writer blush. If you think about it, there are only three possible ways to have a completely lifelike fantasy world experience: by using the right kind of (dangerous) drugs, by playing an impossibly good VR video game (bring it, Palmer Luckey!), or by, you know, dreaming. You can clearly decide not to try out the two former. However, you simply can’t decide not to sleep. You have to sleep every single night, therefore you can’t ever escape a killer who’s only active in your dreams. And there’s another, scarier element to it: dreams are mostly built by your subconsciousness which means that Freddy Krueger can basically read your deepest fears, anxieties and sins, and use that against you.
It’s a majestic concept for a horror story, and one that seemed both way deeper and more original than the three Halloween and four Friday the 13th entries horror fans had already seen at that point. In its basic structure and flow though, it’s a very traditional teen slasher. Teens get killed, other teens investigate the killings, no one believes them, and eventually, they have to confront the seemingly unstoppable killer themselves. Heather Langenkamp makes for a cute virginal survivor girl, and while her friends (one of them being Johnny Depp in his first role) are far from memorable, Craven goes all out when it comes to killing them off in spectacular ways. Every single murder is executed with gripping atmosphere, grotesque elements, and fresh ideas. It’s as easy to be thrilled by what’s happening on screen as it is to guess how exciting the next nightmare will turn out to be. Just like Spielberg did it with his shark on Jaws, Krueger played by Robert Englund is barely seen, and compared to his later appearances he doesn’t even say much. However, he’s incredibly effective as that creepily burned looking creepo weirdo fuck fucking up your dreams. He’s so good, even if this hadn’t been a movie with supernatural elements Englund would have killed it just as easily.
I gotta admit that the jokester version of Freddy is entertaining as well, and I love Freddy vs Jason, but this serious version (and respectively the one of New Nightmare) works just so great. Let me go even further: I claim that Jackie Earle Haley’s performance in the otherwise terrible and uninspired remake is honestly as good as Englund’s, because it’s going back to that very strength. Freddy’s always effective when he’s staying in the shadows, and smiling, just slightly altering stuff to make you uneasy. Then going in for the gruesome kill which – important – he openly enjoys. He isn’t driven by voices, or by a primal instinct. He kills because he enjoys it, just like Hannibal likes to roast and eat small birds.
If you’re watching the movie as a typical slasher movie, you don’t really get to think about it, but ever wondered about Freddy’s powers and limitations? We see Freddy showing up in the teenagers dreams, creating creepy locations for them to stumble around in. Freddy can teleport himself and the dreamers around in there, he can summon all sorts of objects, he can connect the dreams of multiple dreamers so that they can meet and communicate, and he can heal whatever happens to his dream avatar. If he kills you inside the dream, you’ll die in the real world as well. But that ability of physically harming you also means that you can actually grab him and bring him into the real world. So, how much control does he have over dreams? Is he a god who can create anything? Does he only see what his avatar sees or is he omniscient? He’s obviously extremely arrogant and probably doesn’t even know that he’s not invincible at all which would explain why he toys so much with his victims.
Him having seemingly limitless power is an intriguing idea, one that could have been explored further in a different movie. Just imagine Freddy wouldn’t just create dark backyards and cellars, but impossibly hellish worlds even guys like HP Lovecraft, Clive Barker, or HR Giger couldn’t come up with. If you can create literally anything to scare someone, body bags with talking dead bodies, and elongated arms aren’t exactly the peak of what’s possible. I’m not saying that the images Craven went for don’t work – they do. They’re simple, and used in great ways, and Craven obviously did neither have the budget nor the will to out-Argento Dario Argento. On the other hand, film is a mostly visual medium and it’d be really fascinating to see what a truly grotesque mind could do with that very concept.
You could write whole books about this movie, but one final interesting aspect is how the teenagers get to beat Freddy (or do they?), and it does speak a lot about the workings of horror movies in general. Early on, the teenagers have no idea what that guy is, where he came from, why he does what he does, and how he’s capable of doing all that. He’s extremely frightening because all of the questions we just can’t answer. Therefore, the teens study him and learn about his past. Suddenly he has a name, a past, a motivation. They waited until Part 6 (which came in 3D and featured Alice Cooper as Fred’s dad) to explain the source of his powers, but what the teenagers learn from early on is to shine a light into the darkness that scares them. To identify the terror, to analyze it, to understand it, to find a way to beat it. It’s a very human way of dealing with problems, but while it helps the kids to beat the monster, it literally steals away its scariness.
If Part 2 had just repeated the same procedure with a different group of kids who then get to ask the same questions, it wouldn’t have worked as well, as we as the audience would already have known about Freddy. Which leads to a bigger question: should horror movies try to show and explain monsters if the main selling point is them being mysterious? For example The Thing (Carpenter version) does explain a lot as well, but learning the fact that it’s an thawed alien life form able to imitate humans doesn’t make it any less mysterious. We still don’t know shit about what it looks like in its non-hybrid form, we don’t know anything about its origin or source. While Ridley Scott currently does exactly that to demystify the Alien, shining a light on Freddy’s past and workings just takes away from it. Maybe it’s just the fact that A Nightmare on Elm Street is a lot closer to Halloween than to movies like Hellraiser or Suspiria. Remember Gore Verbinski’s remake of The Ring? One of the best moments of that movie had Naomi Watts finding Samara’s body, believing that her ghost was only vengeful because her corpse had been left in a dirty well. A romantic notion – find the body, set the ghost free. Peace. But Watt’s character was actually dead wrong on that, and Samara just loved to kill out of reasons that can’t be answered. She was born evil, just like Michael Myers, and not being able to understand that makes both of those characters extremely scary. With the revelations in A Nightmare on Elm Street though, Craven made Freddy ultimately weak, just like other overexplained mysteries tend to lose their power upon exploration. Here it was okay, because it happens at the end of the movie and because the sequels wisely changed both tone and direction. New Nightmare eventually had a whole different Freddy to offer, but the original scary Freddy died in the two hours he was introduced in.
The movie’s success pretty much saved New Line Cinema’s ass. From then on, it was known as “the house that Freddy built”.
Freddy Krueger has less than ten minutes of screen time.
Craven initially wanted a happy ending, making everything Nancy experiences just a harmless nightmare.
A Jason mask can be seen in the movie, and The Evil Dead plays on TV.
Johnny Depp’s debut. He was chosen over another actor, Jackie Earle Haley who got to play Krueger in the remake.
Cinematic Soulmates: Shocker, Hellraiser, Jem and the Holograms