It is a sad day when you find yourself having to dig up one of the great American horror movies to watch because the director has died. It is an even sadder day when you have to watch that film with someone who wasn’t around when the film came out and just laughs all the way through it… May.
In some ways I can’t blame her. A Nightmare on Elm Street was ruined by its own success. As the sequels got sillier and more commercial it was almost impossible to see past the merchandise, dolls and video games to see the pure horror of the original. My girlfriend even said before we started the film “oh, its just one of those stupid comedy horrors from the eighties, I won’t be scared of that.” I’d like to say that as I dimmed the lights and Wes Craven’s classic started May’s mood soon darkened and she crawled up next to me, shivering in fear, however that’s not true. She just giggled and guffawed throughout the proceeding ninety minutes. Balls.
The truth of the matter is that even the first movie had some silly and comic elements. The weird bit in Tina’s dream when Freddy walks towards her down the alleyway with long arms got some laughs when I first saw it back in Purley Astoria all those years ago. The effects of those fake arms haven’t aged well, it looks like Robert Englund is really struggling to hold them up, so its not surprising no one thinks it is anything other than a joke. Further to that there is the ludicrous final shot when Nancy’s mum gets pulled through the small front door window. That was always a TERRIBLE shot. It was the one thing that stopped me from fully embracing this first film for many years. It looks so much like what it is, an inflatable doll in a wig and dress being yanked through the window, that I could never understand why anyone would leave it in. Apart from that final scene not making a scrap of sense anyway, that shot really undermines all the great work that has gone before it. Apparently Wes Craven felt much the same way and tried to cut it but studios being what they are, i.e. full of money men with no taste, it got left in. Maybe they thought that it was needed to help set up a sequel. We could have ended with Nancy screaming her head off in the car and it would have been a better ending. Maybe next time I watch it I’ll just stop it before that shot. God it leaves such a sour taste in my mouth. Grrr, as they say.
Hey, I came here to praise A Nightmare On Elm Street not bury it, and that’s what I’m going to do. Despite the fact that it has some really stupid bits and the effects have aged much worse than I thought they would it is still a fantastic bit of horror cinema. What got me right from the off was how good the tone was. We start with Tina in the boiler room with Freddy stalking her just out of sight, a silhouette in the shadows. We know something is not quite right because a random goat wanders by, but that whispering of her name and cackling voice gives the whole scene a terrible feeling of doomed dread. If this had been the one and only A Nightmare On Elm Street film then Fred Krueger would have truly become the stuff of nightmares: “ooh did you ever see that horror movie about the child killer who gets you in your dreams , that still freaksthe shit straight out of my bottom, etc etc”. Fred, as he is mostly known here, is a horrible and bleak creation – the opening credit scene shows the knives glove being made; Freddy is making something with the sole purpose of scaring and killing children. His spare time is about finding ways of hurting people in the most terrifying way possible.
The sense of dread is kept up throughout the whole film. There are a few short establishing scenes early on with our teenage friends goofing around but these are just long enough for us to get to know and like the kids before the film focuses in razor sharp like on the main plot. Its surprising how tight this story is. Keeping the emphasis really on Tina and then Nancy (with the boys just side notes) means we really get into the meat of the mystery. And Wes Craven shoots the whole film with a dreamy like quality – dazzlingly bright daytime scenes, making the town of Springwood look more perfect and picturesque, then the night time stuff is all misty with floating steady cam work, like you’re flying through a nightmare.
The violence in the latter films became increasingly lightweight and ludicrous (am I right in thinking there was a death by video game at some point? Ugh) but here it is grim, violent and mean. Tina’s death in particular is pretty horrific especially as how young Amanda Wyss playing her looks. She is torn apart whilst her boyfriend Rod looks on in horror, then dropped to the floor with a loud splat, her corpse now just a mess of blood and hair. Freddy is also prone to self mutilation in order to freak out his victims. He tears open his stomach for maggots to fall out of, cuts his fingers off for a bit of arterial spray and when Nancy tears his whole face off his skull just laughs liek the whole thing is some big, hideous freak show.
Its this sense of the macabre which sowed the seeds of the “Funny Freddy” that would raise it’s burnt head in the sequels but even here there is a lot of fun to be had. Johnny Depp, after he has turned into a fountain of blood, is removed from his home by vomiting policemen carrying buckets. It’s horrific but it is also a comedy moment in amongst the horrors. The general consensus is that Freddy didn’t start wise cracking until part three but even here he is making some throw away one liners – when Tina screams for God he cuts his fingers off and shouts out “This is God!” which you know, isn’t exactly funny. but he seems tickled by it.
This sense of humour is peppered throughout the film and it stops A Nightmare On Elm Street from being bogged down by its depressing subject matter (it is about a child killer after all) and prevents it from being as bleak as Wes Craven’s earlier efforts. In fact, even May, who failed miserably to be scared at any point during the entire film, admitted that she had a good time watching it, even if it wasn’t necessarily for the right reasons. Maybe it has dated somewhat but I’m sure that if you were to watch this for the first time how it is meant to be watched then you would love it as much as I did way back in 1984.
A Nightmare On Elm Street is a film designed to be seen in a packed cinema with a bunch of teenagers, and like-minded folk, and its there that it works the best. It might make you laugh along with the crowd at the sillier and crazier moments but the dream stuff will hit a nerve. And you will, whether you like it or not, be just a little bit frightened.