Monday, October 2, 2017

Movies I Love: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET

by Patrick Bromley
This is my favorite horror movie ever made.

I'm not sure there's any movie that defines me as a horror fan more than the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. It's one of the earliest R-rated horror films I can remember seeing. It's the horror movie that scared me more than any other I've ever seen -- not because of anything I saw or experienced in the film, but because my best friend in the second grade would describe the scenes to me at lunch, all of which sounded totally fucked up and left me terrified to see them actually play out on screen. It's the first horror film to really represent forbidden fruit for me; it was a movie I saw in secret at said friend's house, without the knowledge of my parents and no doubt against their wishes, as I was too young to see it. But isn't that a large part of the appeal of horror? The element of danger, the feeling that we are seeing things we are not supposed to be seeing? A Nightmare on Elm Street gave me my first taste. I've never looked back.

It's a challenge to find anything to say about this classic, written and directed by the late, great Wes Craven, that hasn't already been said. It's a watershed movie for a reason, one that launched not just a successful franchise but a genuine pop culture phenomenon unlike anything else in horror history. No horror icon since the original Universal monsters has crossed over into as much media and with as much recognition as Freddy Krueger. I might make the case that it's really the sequels that raised Freddy's profile -- he didn't really break out until he became the wisecracking boogeyman of Dream Warriors -- but none of that happens if the character isn't invented by Craven and takes up residence into our collective nightmares in the original film.
We've had countless conversations in the years since first launching F This Movie! about what each of us wants out of a horror movie. Some of us want to be scared first and foremost. Others, like myself, aren't really concerned with whether or not a movie is scary; I just like living in the horror space, where anything is possible and monsters and murderers are everywhere. Horror can do things, can show things, can tell the kinds of stories no other genre can. A Nightmare on Elm Street is practically the Platonic ideal of what I want out of a horror movie: it is scary, sure, but more than that it has great characters, a memorable monster, dark themes that directly relate to our own daily struggles, and, best of all, boundless imagination. Before Elm Street, the majority of horror films either focused on real-life horrors (like most of the output of the 1970s) or introduced one or two supernatural elements into the real world. Wes Craven was one of the first filmmakers to say "fuck all that" and create a horror film not bound to any recognizable logic. By blurring the lines between dreams and reality, A Nightmare on Elm Street is free to do and show anything it wants, from the absurdly outstretched arms of Freddy to a bed that swallows up its sleeping inhabitant. Few filmmakers have been as explicitly fascinated by what makes us afraid, and few horror films have ever reflected those fears back to us as well as Elm Street.

What the original Elm Street does better than any of the sequels is to actually feel like a dream, and not in that "dream logic" way that so many writers (including me) will often use to make excuses for a movie that's narratively incoherent but nevertheless effective. There is nothing incoherent about Elm Street's narrative; in fact, the screenplay is incredibly tight, particularly by the standards of Craven, who had a tendency to think bigger than he could execute in a number of his movies, resulting in a filmography that favors the messy. The majority of the follow-ups to the original -- yes, even Dream Warriors, the fan favorite that's more often than not named as the best in the series but which codified this particular trope -- turned their nightmare sequences into set pieces, neatly organized into a traditional story. The dreams of the sequels have clear lines of demarcation: beginnings and endings (usually when someone dies) and always informed by elements already introduced into the film. One character is a punk rock drug addict, so her dream/nightmare incorporates both -- it's both beautiful...and bad. Another character loves comic books, so he turns himself into a superhero to fight a bulked-up Freddy and is killed when he's literally shredded like so much paper. Despite finding their origins in surrealism, there is a kind of well-defined logic to these entries.
But not A Nightmare on Elm Street. There are no neat edges to the nightmares here, and while the film does have clear rules about what is and is not possible (something its sequel, Freddy's Revenge, would ignore, which is a big part of why audiences initially rejected it, though the movie has been reassessed in recent years because that's what happens with horror movies), Craven isn't afraid to drop non-sequiters into the mise en scène: a random goat in the hallway of the high school, Freddy's tongue jutting from out of the receiver of Nancy's phone, or even the now-iconic image of the girls jump roping in slow motion when everything else is moving at regular speed. These images aren't contextualized, aren't explained away with character traits or easy story definitions. Craven is willing to experiment with the form and to be abstract in a way that hardly any other slashers were at the time. In this way, his movie really does feel like a dream, especially because Nightmare is constantly blurring the lines between the characters' sleeping and waking states. There's less structure to the nightmares in the original movie, so instead of Freddy popping up from time to time for a showcase sequence, he feels like a presence throughout the entire film.

Another reason Freddy feels more prevalent throughout the original Nightmare than in all of the sequels despite enjoying what I believe to be the least amount of screen time in the series is because he exists as a more metaphorical evil in any entry outside of Craven's later New Nightmare. Here he represents so many things: the sins of the parents, the fears of adulthood and sexual maturation, the dark possibilities of what can happen when you fall asleep and surrender control. Freddy is everything bad that's waiting for us in the world. He's the reason our parents lie to us and protect us too much. He's the reminder that they have done terrible things in their own pasts -- things for which we will be asked to pay the price. In the sequels, Freddy is just Freddy, the killer who gets us in our dreams. He represents nothing but his own iconography. There are no greater fears at work, only the fear of falling asleep and being killed. I prefer him in his original, much darker, much scarier form.
One thing the sequels generally do have going for them is strong, sympathetic characters. Whereas so many '80s slasher victims and/or survivors are more or less interchangeable (with exceptions, of course), the Nightmare series has an unusually long list of memorable teenagers: Alice, Jesse, Kristen, Kincaid, Yvonne...the list keeps going. That all starts in the original Nightmare, which features not only my favorite group of young protagonists in any horror movie, but also my all-time favorite final girl in Heather Langenkamp's Nancy Thompson. I love how Amanda Wyss' Tina is given some tragic backstory in the short amount of time we get to know her, and between Wyss' own California beauty and the fact that Nightmare opens with her, it appears on first viewing that she's going to be the protagonist -- she looks the part and the language of the film tells us it's her. When Craven makes her Fred Krueger's first victim, killing her off in spectacularly creative fashion, it functions in much the same way killing off Drew Barrymore in the opening moments of Scream did, even if it rarely gets credit for pulling off the same Psycho-inspired feat. And I know that Rod (Nick Corri Jsu Garcia) is kind of the worst, but there's something authentically awful about him. He's a teenager that really exists -- the one your parents didn't want hanging around, especially not as boyfriend material. But then he's got that great scene in which he's crying in his jail cell, blamed for a crime he didn't commit and having seen his girlfriend die horribly, and we're reminded that despite all his bullshit bravado ("Up yours with a twirling lawnmower!" is the worst line in the movie), he's just a scared kid. I like that Nancy stands by him after he's blamed for Tina's death because it says something about their friend group and about Nancy's character. She is decent and she is loyal.

She's so much more, too. She's smart and resourceful, a good friend and a good daughter despite having something of a rough home life (her mother, played by Ronee Blakley, is clearly an alcoholic). She's wholesome but not sexless, existing right on that precipice between adolescence and womanhood, which is what makes her arc and her connection to Fred Krueger take on such resonance. Their dynamic is partly sexual without ever being overtly sexual, making one of the more fascinating relationships between final girl and slasher in any horror movie. More than anything, I love that Nancy feels like a real teenager: young but not immature, in a relationship with her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) that feels sweet and authentic. Their scenes together are perfect, as is Depp's decision to play Glen as a genuinely nice guy who's a little dorky but happens to be blessed to look like 1984 Johnny Depp. I love that Langenkamp is never not in control, whether it's with her parents, with Glen or with Fred Krueger; the one time she cedes that power (not by choice), she's left with a streak of white hair that serves as a reminder that she'll never let another person take her power away again.
A Nightmare on Elm Street lacks the technical precision and perfection of contemporaries like Halloween and The Shining. That's ok. It only makes me love it more. I love the way Wes Craven paints his big ideas in a way that sometimes overreaches his grasp, sometimes rough in the moment to moment but with images so powerful they remain burned into our brains more than 30 years later. Some of the visual effects could be called clunky even for their time, a function of the film's low budget. It doesn't matter. The impact they have is what counts, and every one of the movie's visual effects has a major impact; for proof, look no further than the moment in which Fred Krueger pushes through the bedroom wall above Nancy as she sleeps and compare it to how much better it works in 1984 than in the 2009 remake. It's the difference between being able to do something and knowing why you're doing it. Wes Craven always knows why he's doing it.

He's been gone just over two years now, and while he gave us so many great films (and many others that are flawed but fascinating), Wes Craven was never better than the original Nightmare on Elm Street. It may not be his best-made movie, yet it's his best made movie. While Carpenter's Halloween theme and "Tubular Bells" get all the attention, Charles Bernstein's score for Nightmare belongs in the same conversation for being every bit as haunting, as memorable and as iconic. It's a slasher that's about more than killing teenagers, a horror film with imagination and visual invention, an iconic monster and the best final girl ever. If that's doesn't make for my favorite horror movie of all time, I don't know what would.

7 comments:

  1. yes dude! can't wait to watch it for the first time in many, many years. i just got the blu-ray and there's a ton of extras that look very cool.

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  2. I love this. What a great article. You're feelings about this movie remind of a lot of how I feel about Fright Night. It's everything I want out of a horror movie and every I love wrapped in one movie. But Elm Street is so so wonderful too. I saw it in a theater this summer and it was unbelievable.

    PS, I think you meant to write "it's sequel Freddy's Revenge" not Freddy's Dead. ;)

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    1. Drat. Fixed. Thanks for the nice words and for the catch.

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  3. Its the horror movie I've seen the most often. The Friday the 13th franchise was my introduction to horror but Nightmare was my first horror love.

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  4. It's the best stand alone film ever that unfortunately never Got the chance to stand alone

    Your comment About the random goat scene got me thinking about Xtro as my thoughts usually do but with the random Black Panther too. Then I got to thinking is this Bob Shaye at work again?

    Ok Wes you can do your movie but i want a Goat in it. I dont care how but i want a Goat in the school hallway

    Coincidence?

    I could be onto something

    As you most likely know he said exactly the same to Harry about the Panther
    Makes you think.

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  5. The concept of the dream killer strongly appeals to me. As you state, Patrick, the original NIGHTMARE flirts with the boundary between sleep and wakefulness so effectively.

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  6. This is great. It's all the ideas I've felt towards this film, but someone wrote 'em down. I've loved this movie since I was around 7.
    It's all of the things that made a 1984 film look like nothing that's come before it, and now with every single re-visit I can easily say, "and nothing that's come since has really even been able to stand next to it."

    I agree entirely; Craven was never as good as when he made Nightmare. What he and David Miller came up with was a man most who've seen will never forget.

    And the weapon. I'm so glad this weapon exists. It's easily the coolest slasher weapon we'll ever get to see, and I've loved all the variations (for the most part) throughout the years.

    Then, yeah, there's the franchise that trailed that first film. And while there's definitely some shit in that pile, I'd be a god damn liar if I didn't say that there's at least a small part of me that gets excited well before it should any time I hear of a new movie.
    I just want to live in that world again. Alongside Freddy. 90 minutes at a time. Make it different. Take liberties. I'm cool with that.

    Just don't ever give me a re-make of the remake.

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