It is not a new or interesting point that slasher, and by proxy horror, filmmaking was in a rut in the mid 1980s. The slasher genre had reinvigorated American horror briefly (extremely briefly, like maybe for a year or two) in the late ’70s and early ’80s by incorporating Italian giallo bloodletting into the mix, but the well went dry before anyone could say “blood geyser coming out of a bed and onto the ceiling”. Luckily, long-lost grubby horror maestro Wes Craven (what a last name for a horror film director) – who had shepherded cinema’s most distraught, devilish Bergman remake ever (Last House on the Left) and the latter grotesque haunt The Hills Have Eyes – was looking to have a little fun with the genre, and the stars had finally aligned after years of wallowing in semi-obscurity.
Largely, the central conceit of A Nightmare on Elm Street is just that: a conceit, bordering on a gimmick. But it’s a well-structured, highly thought-out gimmick that succeeds so readily it’s hard to critique it for some of the questions brought up by the film’s slightly haphazard use of dream logic, switching things around on an as-necessary basis. Craven introduces some pitch-black energy to the horror genre by re-introducing it to the surreal and mystical, a trend that was almost out the door by the time it became popular again here. Briefly however, he ushered in a certain sense of the otherworldly in horror, returning it to its roots in expressionist dreams and nightmares which looked less to reality than unconscious fear. His script looked to dreams, saw nightmares, and made it into a playground for atmospheric kills and chills, opening up new possibilities for the genre as quickly as it made others no longer relevant.
It all begins with teenager Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and friends in typical ’80s suburbia. One day they all come upon a curious discovery: the dreams they’ve been having, of a burned man, donning fedora, knife-covered gloves, and a particularly murderous Christmas sweater, are shared. When one of Nancy’s friends Tina winds up murdered in a particularly inhuman manner while sleeping, Nancy naturally has suspicions as to the perpetrator, although any adult disagrees mightily. The dream-killer’s name is Fred Kreuger (the “dy” came later), and he’s a most demented monstrosity indeed. He also bears a closer relationship to the teens’ parents than anyone lets on, but that’s for the movie to tell.
The highlight of the film, rather famously, is the first murder; ravaged, tightly edited, and exceedingly “physical” in a way that creates genuine tension and most fully drives home the connection between the way Kreuger “invades” dreams and sexual penetration (expanded more forthrightly upon in the 2010 remake, but that is best not spoken of). It’s a brutal, tormented scene, and the film never equals it again. It sure gives it a game try though – the bath tub scene is fairly terrific, and a number of “dream” sequences inside a boiler room as Kreuger stalks his prey are char-broiled terror at its finest. Johnny Depp’s archly-1980s bedroom is pretty frightening too, for what it’s worth.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is also notable, perhaps even most notable, for its main character, perhaps the most fully realized slasher protagonist ever committed to celluloid. Heather Langenkamp isn’t a great actress in the conventional sense, but she’s plenty good for this production – worried, anxious, assured, curious, and resourceful, she captures the essence of someone between victim and tough-as-nails agent – an actual teenage girl, of all things, the kind of figure who acts in exactly the ways a teenager burdened with the hell of an un-assured existence, not to mention the inability to sleep, might. A large portion of this film, relative to most slashers, deals with Nancy actually trying to “figure out” and battle Kreuger, and she’s given greater agency and import than most slasher protagonists (traditionally uncharactzerized fodder more “object” than subject). She’s got gumption.
More generally, and unlike most slasher films, A Nightmare on Elm Street genuinely feels for its characters and wants them to succeed. Gone are the traditional slasher rhythms of “teenagers are around”, “they are teenagers”, and “a creature or stalker of some kind kills them without them realizing”. The characters aren’t air-tight, but they exhibit more awareness and concern about their lives than in most slashers. It’s all just a touch more lived-in and complicated than many other slashers, and that seems to make all the difference. On the other hand, there’s also a pretty gnarly blood-geyser scene straight out of giallo, so there’s that too.
Finally, there’s the man himself, Freddy Kreuger. The man we think of when we think of Freddy is the cartoon killer he would later become, but here he’s a twisted, sardonic, sadistic predator who exists in the shadows and as a manifestation of them. His protoplasmic, flesh-eating design is famously creepy enough, but the way he’s filmed is more death-marker, surrounded by a world his own and tracking nightmares like mud wherever he goes. Robert Englund is positively scarlet in the title role (he would later become a cult celebrity as his personality become more synonymous with the creature’s), and it’s a great bit of theatrical showmanship. More generally, the way that Freddy is simultaneously more supernatural, what with the whole dream invasion proclivities, and more human, size and personality-wise, than other slasher villains adds a devious underbelly of insinuation and mortality to the material – he’s not an implacable wall who shows no emotion, but a perverted creature who takes sheer cackling delight in everything he does.
Now, A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t, by my estimation at least, some kind of all-time horror classic, or a masterpiece of any genre – its premise certainly is a hellish carnival of horrors primed to give slasher filmmaking a kick in the teeth – but the film around is merely exceedingly well made, albeit flawed in some ways (the acting varies, and I’ve never entirely warmed to the somewhat slapstick-y Final Girl sequence). The horror sequences, of which there are a good many, are rather cathartic and approximate slightly diluted expressionism in exactly the way an ’80s American horror at its best ought to. It’s well-scripted, generally well-acted, and often frighteningly directed (although there are a few static shots here and there that don’t lend as much mournfulness or vigor to the material as the camera should). But if Nightmare isn’t a masterpiece, it’s a whole lot more than just a walking premise.