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Happy Halloween: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) review
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Heather Lagenkamp, Robert Englund, Johnny Depp, Amanda Wyss, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Nick Corri
A Nightmare on Elm Street follows several Ohio teenagers as they attempt to defeat the murderous, dream-stalking demon Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund), who wears a glove with four sharp blades. As it turns out, Kruger, who was a child murderer in life, was murdered by the teen's parents when he was released from prison due to a technicality.
What's Good About the Movie?:
Where to begin?
With A Nightmare on Elm Street, writer-director Wes Craven took the Mad Killer genre and elevated it into a work of art. The formula is there: there's a Mad Killer; a group of nubile teens; and some incredibly bloody set-pieces. The reason why the movie works as well as it does is because it refuses to be just another “formula” film. Whereas many horror films are content with recycling old ideas (note Friday the 13th), A Nightmare on Elm Street brings a fresh and frightening spin to the material: Instead of a killer stalking you at a camp or a suburban neighborhood, here's a killer who stalks you in the safety of your dreams.
This idea, based on a number of LA Times articles published in the 70's about Khmer refugees suffering from disturbing dreams (some of them later died in their sleep), leads to a number of spectacularly creepy sequences. Perhaps the most effective scene in the film is where the leading lady Nancy Thompson (Heather Lagenkamp) falls asleep in English class and dreams that her friend Tina (Amanda Wyss), who was murdered the night before, is calling out to her while sealed up in a bloody body bag. It's a very disturbing scene, one made all the more so when we listen to Nancy's classmate read a verse from Julius Caesar.
What makes this scene even more effective, and all the other horror scenes in the film, is the way Craven makes the transition from the real world to the dream world. There are several instances where the line separating fantasy and reality becomes blurred, so that we're not always certain whether or not a character is dreaming or awake. This gives the film an unshakable feeling of dread and uncertainty throughout. Sure, there are moments where you know for certain when a character is in the real world, but other times, not so much.
None of this would matter so much if we didn't care about the characters, and the ones in A Nightmare on Elm Street are surprisingly compelling. Mind you, this isn't award winning screenwriting; you've seen more complex and interesting characters in other films before (horror films included). But Craven does a fine job of making these kids something more than just horror movie caricatures. Some of them have their own personal problems at home. Nancy's mother and father are separated, and her mother has started drinking excessively. All of them have their own discernible personalities.
Because the cast they've assigned to play these parts are as solid as they are, that makes them all the more interesting. Lagenkamp beautifully captures her character's spunk and fierce determination, and Johnny Depp (who made his acting debut here) is lovable as Nancy's doofus boyfriend Glen (it's almost impossible not to smile when he calls up his mother and lies to her by telling her he'll be staying with his cousin, who lives near an airport). Robert Englund, whose career was forever altered by this film, is pitch perfect as Freddy, bringing dark humor and a jovially evil personality to the character. He makes the iconic villain his own, and much of the movie's creep factor is due to his spot-on performance.
Also contributing to the film's chilling mood is cinematographer Jacques Haitkin, whose use of shadows is often times spell-binding, and musical composer Charles Berstein, whose synthesizer score adds considerably to the mood. Production designer Greg Fonsesca also creates a number of creepy sets, the most frequently used being a menacing boiler room, and the special effects are pretty impressive for such a low budget film (the scene where Freddy comes through a bedroom wall is fantastic). All their work comes together beautifully in a wildly entertaining climax where Nancy faces off against Freddy in the real world after setting booby traps all over the house (the details of how she got him in the real world are best left for you to discover).
What's Bad About the Movie?:
Not a lot, actually.
*MILD SPOILERS AHEAD*
The opening dream sequence is not particularly scary, and the film's final scene is hampered by a special-effect that's just plain laughable. While some have explained the final scene as Nancy being haunted by what Freddy did to her friends and family (and it does make sense if you think about it), the shot of Freddy pulling Nancy's mother through the front door window is just hilarious, mainly because actress Ronee Blakley has obviously been replaced by a blow-up doll.
Other than a slightly uneffective dream sequence and one bad special-effect, there's nothing really bad about the movie. It's an effective and very well-made horror show.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is a terrific horror thriller: stylish, scary, and consistently involving. It's a shame that horror films these days don't put as much thought and effort into their work as Craven did with this film. If they did, horror films today would be much more rewarding than they are.
Final Grade: *** ½ (out of ****)
What did you think of the movie? :)
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