Director Wes Craven is known as a pioneer in the slasher sub-genre. His works, such as the film in question and Scream (1996), employ his signature mix of horror with both dark comedy and satire; works that reinvented, killed, and eventually saved the sub-genre as a whole.
But of his works, none are more iconic (and long-lived) than A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).
The film’s main group of children are played by Heather Langenkamp (Just the Ten of Us), Nick Corri, Amanda Wyss, and a young Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands) in his first theatrical role ever. Alongside the children are John Saxon (Enter the Dragon) and Ronee Blakley as Nancy’s parents and Robert Englund (The Phantom of the Opera) as the ever-iconic Freddy Krueger.
After she and her friends each experience violent dreams depicting their apparent deaths at the hands of a clawed figure, Nancy Thompson (Langenkamp) soon learns that dreams can become a reality when the disfigured dream demon known as Freddy Krueger (Englund) hunts them down one-by-one in their dreams, which kills them in real life. Now, she and her boyfriend Glen (Depp) must find the truth about the midnight mangler and why he’s after them.
REVIEW & ANALYSIS
SPOILER WARNING STARTING HERE! GO WATCH THE FILM, THEN COME BACK! OTHERWISE, SKIP DOWN OVER TO THE CONCLUSION.
A Nightmare on Elm Street re-imagined the slasher sub-genre. Craven’s inspired premise, the characters of Freddy and Nancy, and the well-grounded established rules and sheer creativity of the how he kills allowed the film to standout amidst the formulaic slashers of the time; slashers that tried to recapture the lightning-in-the-bottle that was John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) but fell short.
While still employing many of the elements that Halloween established, A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t afraid to push boundaries and take risks and change up a lot of the elements that the likes of Friday the 13th (1980) took to gospel – which subverted expectations while still proving to be effective.
Take the character of Freddy for example. Unlike Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, Krueger is as wacky as they come – garrulous in his own twisted way. He has a certain dark charisma that doesn’t require him to be a silent stalker to be frightening and yet, when his reputation on Elm St. precedes him, it’s believably haunting.
His supernatural existence allowed the film to enact kills more creative than a kitchen knife through the heart or a machete to the face. Every kill in this movie, despite not being that many, are some of the most iconic and memorable in any horror movie before or after – from Tina getting dragged up onto her ceiling by an invisible Freddy to Glen being sucked into his bed before erupting into a geyser of blood.
On that same note, Nancy subverts the traits you’d expect from the role of Final Girl as established by the film predecessors. While the role of Final Girl in slashers was initially created to overturn the concept of ‘the damsel in distress’, the trope became a predictable part of the sub-genre. But whereas other Final Girls are forced to take up the gauntlet only after they’re left with no other choice as the sole survivors and fight back against the villain, Nancy serves as an active protagonist that, from the very beginning, is shown to already possess that drive – working to protect her friends and find out the mystery about Freddy from the very beginning. As Nancy’s mother puts it, “You face things. That’s your nature. That’s your gift (…)”
The film also puts its primary theme of ‘dreams’ to good use, despite it being a little heavy-handed in its presentation of it while still missing the mark in most cases. Common nightmare elements like being unable to run fast, ever-changing environments, Freddy being able to disappear and reappear at will, and things constantly changing form are used to establish a kind of surreal horror. It’s fear that’s incomprehensible, illogical, disjointed, and bizarre and unsettling while also embracing slight elements of body horror and psychological horror.
A Nightmare on Elm Street plays into that concept of the waking and the dreaming creatively by means of seamless transitions between the two – so much so that the audience is ever-ensure whether the characters are walking into a nightmare up until it actually happens.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is as creative as it is iconic – successfully serving up inspired kills, memorable characters, and decent scares that live up to its legacy. While its special effects are undoubtedly dated, the film continues to be relevant and entertaining to this day. Nancy continues to be my favorite Final Girl and Freddy my favorite slasher killer.