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A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The worst thing you can do before viewing Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is to watch one of its sequels. It isn’t that watching the sequel first spoils the chronological flow of the story. No. It is merely because the sequels are predominately ridiculous trash. This can colour your preconceptions of the original movie which is, in fact, rather good. For A Nightmare on Elm Street is, believe it or not, a horror film. It is (brace yourselves) scary. Unlike the pseudo-scary, pseudo-comic franchise that grew out of it, the original film contains some memorable images, interesting plot twists and (gasp, faint) even a decent-to-good script.
For those who have spent the past few decades sitting facing the wall with their fingers in their ears, A Nightmare on Elm Street concerns a group of teens who discover that they have all experienced nightmares concerning a scarred gentleman with a red-and-green jumper and razorblade claws. When one of their number is violently killed in her sleep by an invisible attacker, PMT-driven adolescent Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) sets out to discover the truth. Yet it’s hard to avoid a killer who strikes in your dreams, and soon a mixture of sleep-deprivation and over-protective parents (‘it’ll all be fine if you’ll just get some sleep’), begins to take its toll. A tense race ensues between Nancy and the killer. She must discover his identity and how to destroy him before sleep takes her – for with sleep, comes death.
Visually, A Nightmare on Elm Street is surprisingly interesting. Like so many films of this genre, its artistic ingenuity is concentrated into several gory set-pieces. Yet they appear to hover somewhere between creepy, gothic, supernatural imagery and mad 80s cartoon violence. Particularly effective is a scene featuring a bath which momentarily becomes fathomless when our killer, Freddy Kreuger, drags its occupier under the water. Fans of Evil Dead-style, gory physical effects will also be delighted by the scene in which blood gushes, fountainlike, from a bed which has just ‘eaten’ a young Johnny Depp (this was his first film role, which would make Nightmare an interesting collector’s piece even if it were as awful as its sequels). The movie score is patchier. While some of the nursery-rhyme sections are excellent (‘one, two, Freddy’s coming for you, three, four, better lock your door’), a housemate of mine did point out – not inaptly – that when the characters ran the friction of their feet created bad 80s rock music.
The script is rather better. In this film, Freddy has not yet become the ridiculous wisecracker of the sequels (I will stop bashing those soon, honest). He says very little, and what he does say is all the more potent for its brevity. ‘Please, God!’ whispers a doomed teen. Freddy waves his clawed hand menacingly and sneers, ‘THIS is God!’. Robert Englund is excellent as Freddy, playing it by turns patiently relentless and out-and-out murderously bonkers, and the sound of those razor-clawed gloves scraping against metal is enough to give anyone the shivers. The teen cast is less impressive, with Langenkamp being the only one giving it her all. Even Depp turns in a so-so performance. Yet none of this stops the film from being enjoyable.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is smarter than your average teen horror movie. A little banal and silly in places, it nevertheless has some quite subtle scares to offer, as well as a feast of striking visuals. I’d advise anyone who has been discouraged from seeing this film to bite the bullet and watch it. If nothing else, it’s cheap ‘n’ cheerful horror entertainment for those rainy nights in (cheap, because it turns up regularly in second-hand shops, at least in the UK where I’m based). And, like that high school polio vaccination, it’s really not as bad as you thought it would be.