Thursday 8 November 2012

Movie Review: A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

A small horror film that spawned a long running franchise, A Nightmare On Elm Street introduces a memorable villain and juices up the spooky thrills with a blast of gory special effects. The movie offers little that is genuinely new, but the packaging and context are fresh enough to make an impression.

Nancy, Glen, Tina and Rod are four teen aged friends living on a quiet suburban street. They gradually realize that they are suffering from the same nightmare, where a murderous man with burned skin and steel finger extensions, later revealed to be Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund), attempts to murder them. Nancy (Heather Lagenkamp) gets the uneasy sense that if Freddy succeeds in killing them in the nightmare, they also die in real life. After Tina (Amanda Wyss) and Rod (Nick Corri) have sex, Tina falls asleep and becomes Freddy's first victim, slashed to death in a bloodbath. The innocent Rod is held as the main suspect in Tina's murder.

Nancy and Glen (Johnny Depp), her tentative boyfriend and neighbour, realize that they have to stay awake in order to stay alive, and they start taking stimulants to avoid sleeping. In his prison cell Rod does fall asleep and is hanged by Freddy. Nancy's father Don (John Saxon) is the local police lieutenant and does not believe her theory about nightmares causing death, but her alcoholic mother Marge (Ronee Blakley) eventually reveals a dark secret from the past involving Freddy. Nancy and Glen then try to set up a final showdown to end the nightmares.

Following on from Halloween (1978) and Friday The 13th (1980), A Nightmare On Elm Street was the third cheap-to-make slasher movie that resulted in numerous sequels. Costing $1.8 million and earning back more than $26 million, A Nightmare On Elm Street helped establish New Line Cinema as a production studio and provided director Wes Craven with his first significant mainstream hit.

It likely does not need to said that the acting is stiff and just one level above an amateur high school production, the dialogue (also by Craven) is juvenile and contrived, and the characters are stereotypically boring and many exist primarily for the purpose of being dispatched by Freddy.

All this is a given, yet A Nightmare On Elm Street endears itself by playfully having fun with the theme of nightmares disrupting real life, the past intruding onto the present, the sins of the parents haunting their children, and teens learning that fears can be confronted. The admittedly thin and ultimately inexplicable psychological context nevertheless adds a welcome shine to what would otherwise be a rehashing of any Halloween or Friday The 13th flick.

Despite plenty of stock "gotcha" jumping-from-the-shadows horror staples, Craven also loads A Nightmare On Elm Street with a heavy dose of style and entertaining special effects, including a killing on the ceiling, a hanging rope coming to life, a bottomless bathtub, and a gooey staircase. The bells and whistles enhance the nightmarish qualities of the film and add to the is-it-real-or-is-it-a-dream tension.

Johnny Depp made his inauspicious debut in A Nightmare On Elm Street, and in a bland performance he mostly tries not to fall asleep, fails every time, and ultimately pays the ultimate price, triggering a gushing  eruption of blood that is more about surreal wonderment than horror. John Saxon does his reputation no favours by displaying the emotions and intelligence of a plank. Heather Lagenkamp as the teenager suffering the most at the hands of Freddy is merely adequate, and despite the film's success her career quickly sank into the abyss of intermittent guest appearances on nondescript television shows.

Robert Englund gave Freddy enough of a personality to create a lasting imprint on the horror genre, Freddy a combination of a twisted nightmare character and contorted cartoonish fun. Englund made a career out of reprising the role in the many sequels, as Freddy became the mainstay and focal point of the series.

Ironically, Craven wanted a tidier ending that closed the door on sequels. But in a triumph of crass commercialism over schlock art, New Line insisted on a twist ending that launched Freddy into immortal sequel heaven. A Nightmare On Elm Street is one small and rather clever slasher film, the series is one giant leap backwards into endless repetition.

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