Bucket List Movie #465: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Another day, another Horror-tober Bucket List Movie, and it's time once for again for yours truly, Miss Slow on the Uptake, to review one of the most influential slasher films ever, 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Let me just confess that for years I never watched horror films, because I was simply afraid, or at least afraid of being afraid. I can't help it, I wasn't a brave kid, and my inborn wimpiness carried on through adolescence. Then, in 1997, I was invited to a friend's birthday party, with other girls in the 14-16 age range, and we huddled together on the living room couch and watched what was easily the hottest movie of that time (before Titanic came along): Wes Craven's Scream. By this time, I was desensitized enough to enjoy it. Scream was everywhere in 1996 and 1997; young audiences loved it at face value, while adults appreciated how it wasn't just a horror film, but a pitch black comedy and a mouthy satire. I had a classmate who had an almost unhealthy obsession with Scream, bringing it up whenever possible, sometimes apropos to nothing. Long, long before directors such as Joss Whedon began making meta-commentaries on genre films (particularly slasher films, the tropiest of them all), Craven dared to take loving (and not so loving) jabs at classic horror film cliches in Scream: the couple doomed to die after having sex (because only virgins survive), the poor dumb girl who always runs up the stairs instead of out the door, and so on and so on. I haven't watched Scream in years, but it has stayed with me in a good way, and that's the mark of a darn fine movie.
I promise that there was a point to that lengthy intro, and the point is this: Scream is, for all its strengths, the type of movie that ruins other movies for you forever. I really, really shouldn't have watched Scream before I finally saw Wes Craven's even more beloved film, A Nightmare on Elm Street. It was not the first slasher film ever, and it certainly would not be the last. In fact, A Nightmare on Elm Street became a veritable cottage industry, with its plethora of sequels and a 2010 remake with Jackie Earle Haley taking over the role of modern day Bogeyman, Freddy Krueger.
Never caring much to begin with for slasher movies, and knowing that Craven is capable of making smarter movies, A Nightmare on Elm Street is stylish, but felt pedestrian and overly familiar to me. But since I had no moral qualms about seeing it, and lack of interest isn't a sufficient excuse to skip a BLM, I thought I'd check it out (a few years late, but whatever).
It doesn't take long for the cliches to start, especially with our main characters: Outgoing and popular Tina (Amanda Wyss), her douchebag jock boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia), nice girl Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and dorky Glen (Johnny Depp in his film debut and 80s chinos and feathered hair). Why do these types of kids always seem to congregate? Surely Glen would rather hang out with like-minded nerds, or Nancy would be turned off by Tina's abrasive boyfriend and steer clear, but we need our specific personality quartet, so what are you gonna do?
All four teens are being haunted by extremely gruesome nightmares, featuring a disfigured creep in a striped sweater and knives for hands. But the nightmares go beyond realistic: Tina is cut in her dream, and wakes up with her nightgown shredded. Her friends don't think much of it, but one night, Tina has the mother of all bad dreams, when her killer finally gets her, as Rod witnesses her levitating body and ultimately dismembered corpse. He is accused of murdering her, but Nancy knows something else is up. As she becomes haunted by the same horrific visions, she learns the truth about child murderer Fred Krueger (Robert Englund), his sacrificial burning at the hands of outraged parents, and how he now exacts his revenge from beyond the grave by killing children in their dreams.
Tiresome Trivia for the Day: Craven named Fred Krueger (he isn't referred to as "Freddy" until later in the film) after a kid who bullied him growing up. How's that for revenge?
Yeah, I can't say I enjoyed A Nightmare on Elm Street very much. Mind you, it wasn't awful, but considering the much better horror movies I've seen (Scream is among them), it sits at the kid's table. The acting is rote, and while I like that Nancy is pluckier and smarter than your average slasher film heroine, Langenkamp's portrayal left a lot to be desired. Ever been torn whether someone is a bad actor, or something about them just makes them seem like a bad actor? For me, it was Langenkamp's whiny, prissy voice and constant, slack-jawed sneer. And, boy, it's amazing how the man who gave us Scream wrote a screenplay riddled with slasher tropes and cliches. First victim walks out, in nightie and bare feet, towards the obvious danger when she should be heading for the hills? Check. Jump scares? Check. Soft-focus, slow-motion shots of children creepily chanting a foreshadowing nursery rhyme? Check. Useless, clueless, and utterly oblivious adults? Check-eroo. There's no denying that A Nightmare on Elm Street is, technically speaking, a very well made film, with special effects that have aged a lot better than the story has. When Nancy sets up elaborate booby traps (the kind that would take days to devise and set up, but she pulls it off in minutes), I couldn't help but think of Home Alone, especially when Freddy gets it in the groin with a sledgehammer.
Englund should be commended for playing Freddy Krueger with such zest and zeal and as well he should have, for that role was his bread and butter for years and years. I feel sort of bad for him, though. Like the late Jim "Ernest P. Worrell/Slinky Dog from Toy Story" Varney, Englund is a classically trained actor, has done various works on stage and screen, but Freddy Krueger is his legacy, whether he likes it or not. At least the critical disaster that was the 2010 Nightmare remake kept it from being Jackie Earle Haley's. But Hollywood just loves to recycle, and in 10, 15, 20 years, who knows who will be asked to don Freddy's striped sweater and clawed gloves? Hmm, I'm sure Justin Bieber will be angling for an acting career someday...