Revisiting Childhood Movies Part XVII:

A Nightmare on Elm Street

  • It's all fun and games until Freddy Kruger kills you in your sleep.

    It’s all fun and games until Freddy Kruger kills you in your sleep.

    Director:  Wes Craven

  • Writer:  Wes Craven
  • Producer:  Robert Shaye
  • Stars:  Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Johnny Depp, Ronee Blakely
  • Studio:  New Line
  • Award Nominations:  none that I track
  • Length:  91 min
  • Genre:  Horror (Slasher)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  9 November 1984
  • Box Office Gross:  $25.50 mil  (#40 – 1984)
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #28  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Notables:  none
  • First Watched:  1987 or so
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  2 or 3

As a Kid:  This film pretty much scared the crap out of me.  It wasn’t the worst movie I ever dealt with (I watched The Hitcher at one in the morning alone – that was a mistake) but it was genuinely terrifying.  And yet, I watched it more than once.  Why?  Well, because I knew it was well-made.  The director clearly had some talent, and he used that to great effect.  I wasn’t quite certain why it had scared me so much – perhaps that I never liked to sleep to begin with (I had nightmares a lot as a kid) and this film is designed to make you scared of sleeping.  Perhaps because the killer was unreal in a sense, and that made him more frightening than someone like Michael Myers.  Either way, this was one of the few non-Godzilla Horror films that I watched more than once as a kid.

As an Adult:  It’s what Spielberg did.  Of course, Spielberg did it partially by accident, but it was effective nonetheless, and I can’t imagine that Craven wouldn’t have realized the power of that.  In Jaws, we don’t actually see that much of the shark.  He under the water, he’s a fin, he’s a pounding John Williams score.  But he’s not constantly there in front of us and that’s part of what terrifies us – the fear of what might be under the surface, just out of sight.  We actually don’t see much of Freddy Krueger in this film.  We think of Robert Englund’s performance, but that mostly comes in later films, when some humor was thrown in to distinguish him from other slasher villains.  Here he’s mostly in the shadows.  It’s the presence that is so frightening.  He actually gets very little screen time – Craven just wants us to be afraid of what we might find as we drift away into dreamland because we never know what we’ll find.  So, it’s a glimpse of razor sharp knives on a glove, the sound of metal being scraped across metal, and the unnerving voice in small bits.

Think of what, to me, is the most unsettling scene in the film.  No, it’s not Tina being carved up, being yanked around the room, although that is brutally effective.  No, it’s not Johnny Depp being pulled into his bed, only to erupt out as the world’s largest geyser of blood.  It’s the scene where Nancy is asleep and suddenly Freddy starts appearing above her, pulling himself through the wall, the surface stretching out across his features.  It is deeply disturbing, but also incredibly effective.  Nothing actually happens other than the fear of what might happen.  We never know when the darkness will kill us.

This film, as so man good horror films before it (Psycho, The Exorcist, Jaws, Halloween) would run off a string of inferior sequels (I don’t mention Friday the 13th because that was crappy to begin with).  Some of the sequels would be worth watching (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in particular) but many would not.  What is surprising is that the concept used in Freddy’s Dead (the sixth film) to actually kill him is here in the first one – pulling him out of the dream when you wake and killing him in real life.  But this is the original and it’s the best.  It’s not a classic – it’s a high-level *** with some very effective direction from Wes Craven and an unnerving, though small, performance from Robert Englund – but it’s very much worth watching.