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.
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.
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.
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 (
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.
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.