A Nightmare on Elm Street - Stay Away from Uncle Freddy's Puzzle Basement

Wherein a wisecracking high school janitor teaches kids to believe in their dreams

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Starring: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Johnny Depp, Amanda Wyss, and...John Saxon? You bet your bald ass John Saxon
Director: Wes Craven
Production: New Line Cinema

Runtime: 91 minutes

It is the chief assertion by most horror movie fans that there is some sort of (un)holy trinity of slasher movies, those being the following: Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Unfortunately this means shrift is given shortly to masterpieces like Psycho (1960) and satires like Scream (1996), but the Big Three have spawned the most sequels. It takes more than sequelage to make the podium, however; otherwise we’d be putting Leprechaun up there. People actually like the Big Three, though the variance on quality is pretty large; they range from masterful to obscene (or, as they say in New York, sophisticated).

A Nightmare on Elm Street is definitely in the middle of that spectrum, but more toward masterful than disastrous. The most important quality of Nightmare 1 is that it doesn’t just feel like a horror movie; it feels like a classic 80s movie, something that’s of relevant importance. Regrettably, I didn’t get the big deal growing up, so now’s a fine enough time to revisit the first movie. I do remember when I was an ankle biter and dressed up like a Street Shark for Halloween while everyone else dressed up as either Freddy Krueger or that guy from Scream. Yeah, enjoy your R rated movies with sex and stuff, I’ll be over here with the cool kids pretending I’m a talking cartoon shark. Geeks.

The film opens with Freddy Krueger, or Mr. K as I've come to know him spiritually, putting together his main instrument of destruction: a ratty ass leather glove with some steak knives attached to the fingers. Points are given for creativity, but points must be immediately revoked for lack of functionality. I’m aware that it's dangerous, but it looks rickety as all hell. The thing looks like it’s about to shatter at any moment. I will admit that the decision to film the creation of the device in close-up detail was a nifty idea that probably influenced the making of the chainsaw-for-a-hand portion of Evil Dead II.

Not sure why it's filmed in shoebox format though.

Typical 80's movie high school teenager Tina (Amanda Wyss) is being chased by an unseen man with this finger-knife-glove. Astute viewers should recognize Wyss from the criminally underappreciated 80s classic Better Off Dead. Even though Better Off Dead was released nearly a year after A Nightmare on Elm Street, I kinda feel like the latter film is a spiritual sequel, just with a way darker tone. All I need now is for John Cusack to get decapitated and my headcanon will be validated.

Tina is chased throughout a boiler room that’s very well shot while the credits play out; if there’s one thing these movies do well it’s the dreamscape. If there's two things these movies do well it's the dreamscape and dancing around Freddy diddling children. There’s that wacky, barely-obscured figure with the poorly-designed bowling glove trying to get her, but right when he’s about to tear into her, she wakes up and fakes a really stupid face right in front of a wide-angle lens. It wuss awl a dweem. Glad they’re getting that twist out of the way in a hurry! After all, the dream sequence death fake-out is a crutch of bad horror. Something’s off though: Tina’s mother observes that there are four slashes in her nightgown and proffers this matriarchal wisdom: “you either gotta cut your fingernails or ya gotta stop that kinda dreaming.” I genuinely can’t tell whether that was supposed to be a sexual innuendo.

Tina feels rough about being nearly murdered in a dream, so she invites her friends Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and Glen (Johnny Depp, in his film debut) over to keep her company. Her boyfriend also decides to come over and completely dumpsters Glen like Warren Sapp sacking Kerry Collins. Rod decides that sex is the best way to relax, as Mr. Pataki would agree (Editor's note: Hell yeah man sex is cool, can't wait to have it some day), so they venture upstairs while Glen is left to listen to their intimate relations while lounging on a couch downstairs. This is why you buy a Rubik’s cube, kids.

Nancy’s asleep in…some bed…in someone’s house. Not really established which bed or which house, but we know she’s not sharing it with Glen because…fuck, look at him. Her crucifix falls off the wall, which gives Wes Craven the opportunity to use this really neat effect:

Wait, wouldn't his finger knives puncture the wall?

Alright, so this is obviously a dream, but who’s dreaming, Nancy or Tina? This is never established, but that’s a good thing: it keeps the audience guessing and it means the environment is never safe. Anyone can be dreaming about anything. As long as the cast stays relatively small, this isn’t a problem. Try doing this in something like Nashville, however, then you got problems, city slicker. On second thought, I wouldn’t mind a bunch of country-western singers meeting Frederick Q. Krueger.

Someone fires a molar into Nancy’s window, so she does the logical thing and goes out into the night to investigate without telling anyone. The scene progresses pretty much as you’d expect; Freddy (might as well dispense with the “who could it be~” conceit, since this scene clearly displays his face) shows off his neat-o stretchy arms, cuts off his fingers to show he’s got green blood, and even melts his face off to show a spooky skeleton face underneath. Really, the whole thing is unintentionally hilarious and totally worth watching. While these supernatural shenanigans take place, Tina is having a real bad time in her bedroom. Rod awakens to find her tossing and turning beneath the sheets, before being flung up the wall and onto the ceiling while being slashed apart by an unseen force as blood splatters all over the room.

It’s…actually kinda terrifying.

No horseshit, this is probably the scariest part of the movie. Despite being entirely unbelievable, the effects are so well done that it’s almost certainly the point of a movie where the audience doesn’t scream or shriek or impotently yell “look out!” – it’s where they sit and watch in stunned silence. I don’t know a single thing about Tina, but I felt horrified during the entire duration – in a good way, I guess. It’s a lot better than watching Friday the 13th and realizing most of the audience is sympathizing with the killer.

After I consider watching Veggietales instead gather my wits and press on, Detective John Saxon (!) enters the precinct to determine just what in the blue hell happened. Turns out he’s Nancy’s dad, and as movie dads go that’s gotta be a top ten pick. Not quite Schwarzeneggar, but damn close. Rod’s the lead suspect, all because he and Tina quarreled, and police somehow believe he did all that damage to her with a straight razor. I’d say that’s hard to believe, but I guess the undead pepperoni faced man with the knife glove doing it in a dream world might not fly in court. It’s even harder to buy Rod’s story when he tackles Nancy off the side of the road, but Super Action Police Chief John Saxon is there to arrest the out-of-work punk rocker. The streets are safe from another Ramones imitator thanks to you, Roper

Your hifalutin symbolism is just a little too subtle for me, Wesley.

After a less-than-stellar encounter at the school that doesn’t really deserve a written description, Nancy retires to the comfort of her bathtub. Again, another great effect wherein Nancy gets dragged down into a swimming pool-depth tub. This is one thing I’ll make clear about the movie now: I have a pretty good idea of how they accomplished all the effects, but I don’t need to know to be impressed. The whole thing feels believable and impressive at the same time. Shoutout to the effects crew; this movie still (mostly) holds up in the toughest department for any 80s movie.

The whole stay-awake-to-avoid-Freddy thing is pretty tough, but luckily the world’s dorkiest boyfriend swings by like he’s Sam from Clarissa Explains It All to save the night. Fade to black as Nancy leaves the house and wanders off to the police station, and OH SHIT

Freddy chases her back to the house, as she struggles to ascend her staircase (now made of foot-flavored oatmeal, presumably), back to her room – where Glen lies sleeping. What a geekasaurus rex. Nancy consoles herself in front of the mirror and OH FUCK

THANKS FOR THAT SHIT. Anyway, the alarm clock goes off just in time to wake Nancy, and she was definitely about to be gutted right that second. Glen is the most useless piece of trash on the face of the earth. He looks like Brian Setzer if Brian Setzer couldn’t get any chicks or play guitar (so basically Morrissey). He’s got arms like dry spaghetti. He can’t run 200m without stopping and asking for directions. In case it’s hard to tell, Johnny Depp sucks in this movie.

Stricken with panic and bad hair, our two intrepid teens rush over to the cell block, where beautiful perfect god-man John Saxon is waiting for them to tell them their darling Rod is totally fine. There is absolutely no way that Freddy is using his blankets to hang him while he sleeps. Wait, is Rod dreaming about getting hanged? Is Nancy meta-dreaming about Rod getting hanged? Can Freddy just kill someone who’s dreaming even if they don’t dream of him specifically? Somehow this 1984 slasher movie just became too cerebral for my walnut-sized brain.

Nancy explains to the parental units that she’s been dreaming of some manlet in a tacky sweater with razor blade fingers and – most saliently – a burnt up face. For some reason having an extra crispy face is what gets her parents’ attention; I would have worked on that knife finger angle, but that’s just me observing the inverted pyramid of newsworthiness. For another, separate but idiotic reason they believe her ludicrous story and toss her in a sleep study lab/hospital crossover. What follows is probably the most worthless Freddy encounter in the series: Nancy encounters him, but we never see him or what she’s dreaming about. There’s an important development, though: she somehow came back with his hat. This raises so many questions, like how does one bring back something from one’s imagination? Can one bring real world objects into the dream world? Did Freddy know about this dream-object transference theorem, or did Nancy just come up with it? Is Freddy going to retrieve his hat a la Indiana Jones?

Nancy has some serious questions too, and mother knows best. Why is my body changing? Will it hurt when I start bleeding? Should I wait to have sex? Do I use the same razor on my underarms that I use on my legs? And, most critically,

Why am I dreaming about a barbecued man with finger-knives?

Everyone knows the backstory by now, but I might as well recite it. Frederick Q. Krueger was a filthy child murderer who slashed 20-somethin’ kids up and down Elm Street. When they finally caught him, he was let off on a technicality (someone didn’t sign the search warrant in the right place), and all the grown-ups decided to deep fry him in a boiler room. Nancy’s mom even held onto the knife-glove for some fucked-up reason.

Right around here is when I, the insufferable, intractable youth that I was when I saw this for the first time, turned to my father and asked an endless barrage of questions that were all answered with an innocent, sing-song “I don’t know.” Why did Freddy kill all those kids? Does he only kill kids is that why he never invades the dreams of grown-ups? How did he remain alive in dreams? Did he make a deal with the devil or something? If he only exists in memories, how can Nancy or Tina or Rod dream about him? Does daydreaming count since you’re not asleep? Why did Nancy’s mom hold onto the knife-glove? Does Freddy exist in all dreams, or is he just confined to Elm Street? If it’s the latter, does he exist during the day when no one’s dreaming? If you dream about someone else being killed, do they die even if they were awake? Why did Freddy decide to come back now? Why did they decide to market the sequels to children? These questions remain unanswered to this day despite oodles of sequels and dedicated fans.

Nancy theorizes that if she can bring Freddy’s hat out of the dream, maybe she can bring Freddy himself out as well. She phones Johnny Depp to warn him that he might be next, to which he offers as a rejoinder: “Me? Who would want to kill me?” I dunno, maybe anyone who saw Alice in Wonderland. Nancy insists that he coldcock Freddy once she brings him out (about midnight), all the while forgetting that her mother installed bars on all the windows. I’m sure “jock” Glen will be able to get in just fine, of course.

Inaugural member of the 35-pound bench press club

Turns out Dipshit Depp can’t stay awake for 18 minutes (no wonder Nancy didn’t want his pelvic meatus), as he promptly gets pulled into his bed as his blood splatters all over the room. I won’t bother to include a gif of this, as it’s probably in the top five most famous kills in horror movie history. Everyone has seen this scene, even if they haven’t seen the movie. It’s nice to be creative, but it just gave 9-year-old me more questions to ask my dad. How the heck did he do that? Why didn’t the tv shoot out battery acid? Does someone really have that much blood in their body? When can we switch back to Animaniacs?

Turns out Nancy’s dreaming too, despite taking handfuls of amphetamines and drinking coffee and setting up an intricate plan that expressly demands she stay awake. This is okay though, because it’ll help her pull Freddy into the real world. So why did she want to stay awake? Stop asking questions, Chris, or I’ll take away your GameBoy. Nancy’s unplugged phone rings, whereupon Mr. K informs her that he’s her boyfriend now, then the speaker turns into his mouth a big ol fake tongue. It’s one of those really perfect hilarious yet creepy moments that you want to see in movies of this oeuvre. Unfortunately this scene is all totally unclear as to whether it’s a dream because we never see her wake up from it. Consistency, Wesley!

Nancy outfits the house with the Home Alone booby-trap setup. If Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern swing by, they’ll be toast as well. She falls asleep and descends her dream-home steps to (quelle surprise) another damn boiler room. This movie loves boiler rooms, but the nice thing is that a) it was probably a strong inspiration for the nightmare sections (my favorite part) of the first Silent Hill game and b) it shows the shifting planes of reality that makes dreams so interesting, which is extended when, during a pursuit by Freddy, she jumps down a boiling room ladder and somehow ends up in the bushes of her front lawn. I love shit like that.

Nancy succeeds in bringing the The Man with the Sharp Hand to the real world, and thus begins a nice ol’ bit of revenge. She smashes a glass coffee pot on his head, bonks him in the breadbasket with a sledgehammer, knocking him off the balcony onto some stairs, which he then rolls down, blows up a nearby lightbulb full of gunpowder, then just completely immolates the dude for good measure (my favorite effect in the movie). Even still, he continues to chase after her. Say what you will about him, Freddy Krueger is committed to this whole murder thing. If all that happening to me, I’d probably throw my knife-glove on the floor and say “faggeddaboudit, I’m going into accounting.”

Stuntman Anthony Cecere won Best Stunt of the Year for this.

She yells across the street to bring several deputies off an active murder investigation to come over to her place, but it turns out Freddy’s not much different than Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees in that he’s basically immortal: he survived the aforementioned ordeal and somehow got away – up two flights of stairs – past all of them. Like, no way they could have missed them. Elm Street’s finest, ladies and germs.

Freddy’s upstairs having a go at Nancy’s mom (no, I’m not going to look up her character’s name on IMDb, I don’t get paid for this), so Nancy pulls a Mick Foley and hits him with a chair. Sadly, Freddy disappears and Momma gets sucked into some sort of blue vortex. Maybe she’s going to live with that demon dog from Ghostbusters. This all establishes, of course, that Nancy’s been having another one of her gosh-darned dreams again (Dad, if Freddy has omnipotent control in dreams, why did he allow himself to get his ass kicked?) which means she’s still in danger. To her credit, she does come up with a good idea: if Freddy only exists in dreams, then he only exists because she’s thinking about him. She declares that he’s nothing, that she takes all his power away from him, that she no longer believes in him. Two problems though: a) it’s already been established that she was dreaming about him without ever learning about him or seeing him, and b) she already said “It’s just a dream, it isn’t real! It’s just a dream, it isn’t real!” right before this happened:

So yeah, maybe I was a little premature to call that a good idea. At first it seems to work: Freddy evaporates like spilled milk on the breakfast table, Nancy walks out to a sunny day, her mom declares she will stop drinking, and she pops into a car with all her totally alive, not-disemboweled friends. It’s gonna be a good day to save the rainforest, or clean up the local youth center, or recycle your sandals. Awww shit, turns out Freddy is a decepticon, and his alt-mode is John Carpenter’s Christine. As he drives off with the trapped teenagers, Nancy’s mom gets grabbed through the door and sucked in like a LEGO minifig in a vacuum tube. It’s another one of those hilarious and genuinely kinda creepy moments that distracts you from wondering if this twist ending was a dream-within-a-dream or a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream.

Well, there’s only one dignified way to leave this movie.

As mentioned previously, I haven’t seen A Nightmare on Elm Street since I was an ankle-biter. I didn’t understand it back then, and I didn’t think I’d like it this time. I can’t stand any of the Friday the 13th movies (sadly, that’s really my only point of comparison, and it’s not a great one). It was extremely refreshing to find out this movie is not only deserving of the “classic” moniker, but still holds up. “Oh wow, big shock, local dunce discovers critically adored classic movie is good. Developing: same jackass to find out Chappelle’s Show is also great several years after it ended.” Nah, really though, the odds were stacked against Nightmare 1. This is an 80’s slasher movie, an oeuvre that has a lot of pitfalls (derivative tropes, poor writing, dated effects, laughable acting) to overcome. Wes “Pitfall Harry” Craven leaped nimbly over nearly all of them.

There are two chief reasons why A Nightmare on Elm Street works. The first is the somewhat cheap and obvious explanation: the viewers will (one hopes) have nightmares of Freddy Krueger. Of course viewers likely had nightmares after watching The Exorcist and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but this time it actually mattered when you had a nightmare - there could very well be consequences. This is the sort of immersion that's excellent in movies; by making the viewer a more active participant, you can ensure the atmosphere sticks with the audience. Ringu is another movie that did this excellently.

The other necessary quality for success found in A Nightmare on Elm Street is the creativity found in dreams/nightmares. I still find the best representation of a dream sequence in cinema is the toaster's nightmare in The Brave Little Toaster (bear with me). The shifting planes of reality, the subconscious fears, the symbolism; it all works together better than any other movie I've seen. Inception came close, but introduced too many rules for my taste. In the past I've criticized A Nightmare on Elm Street for adhering too much to a realistic dream, but there's two main problems with my critique. One, upon reflection, dreams often do reflect reality and can in fact be very realistic; that recurring dream where you missed an entire semester of class certainly feels real no matter how far removed you are from graduation. Two, the realistic setting is absolutely essential for giving the victims a false sense of calm and for (intentionally) misleading the audience as to whether the victims are awake or asleep. (On the one hand, I suppose one could also argue that Freddy’s magic powers make the teenagers dream of a realistic scenario analogous to their geographic whereabouts, but on the other hand, shut up.)

This isn't to say that the dreams are completely realistic; if they were, there wouldn't be a gorillion sequels by now. FK's kills are creative and unique for each person, as they very well ought to be. It's sort of like Final Destination in that regard; even though he's limited by that ridiculous knife glove, he still finds interesting ways to dispatch his targets.

And general ways to just kinda bug them.

The writing’s on point, too. There’s multiple genuinely funny lines in the movie, and you really get the feeling that audiences in the theater were eating this up. There aren’t any moments to my recollection where a line was so stupidly written where I rolled my eyes, and that’s a pretty decent accomplishment for an 80s movie. I’ve also got to credit the general situations; the tongue scene and the final scene are – in addition to being somewhat creepy, are also likely to make various audiences laugh. There’s just the right amount of silliness, and it’s not just the sort of “oh this is so stupid” kinda humor found in the Friday the 13th series.

The effects are also great for their time, and passable by today’s standards. Sure, you can see the marks on the stairs where the oatmeal is supposed to be, and you know it’s a bottomless tub/an upside-down room/a flame-retardant suit, but you’re able to suspend your disbelief because you just want to see what’s going to happen next. There’s an important distinction between Friday the 13th again: in Friday the 13th, the audience typically roots for the evil psychotic killer because that’s the only place entertainment comes from; in A Nightmare on Elm Street there are far more elements to draw interest, but the most critical is the dreamscape.

Unfortunately, there are some problems. A bit of a twist ending here: for all the plot-hole questions I’ve asked throughout this review, I don’t think any of them are a big problem at all. None of them really ruin the movie. There are two reasons we don’t need to know about Freddy’s (or Michael Myers’s, or Jason Voorhees’s, or Leatherface’s) background: 1) it represents  more of an excuse (rather than a reason or explanation) for the way a person turned out so hostile, or worse: turns into an opportunity to moralize (yes, thank you New Line Cinema, I know not to beat my children lest they turn into skin harvesters). 2) (more salient point here) We seldom know a rotten person’s backstory in our own lives; while the advantage of fiction is the opportunity to expound upon a nasty individual’s upbringing, it’s far more realistic and relatable to be left somewhat in the dark – and all the more fun to guess the backstory on your own. That hasn’t done anything to stop me from asking copious questions, of course.

“Golly, Pop, if the later films establish that Freddy lived at 1428 Elm Street, why did two parents move into the house of a serial child murderer?”

No, plot holes aren’t what dooms this movie. It’s the acting. Oh, lord, the acting. Heather Langenkamp is trying her best, but it’s just not enough. Amanda Wyss doesn’t get enough time to contribute anything meaningful. Nick Corri is high on heroin (that’s not a joke). Ronee Blakley just clearly doesn’t care at all. I know Johnny Depp improved and gave some really quality performances in Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, but he’s just laughable in this. He has absolutely zero screen presence. Color me shocked that the reason he was cast is because Craven's daughter said he's cute. Robert Englund is the only one who matters, and even he barely gets a line. He’s enough to save the movie and, to be certain, the poor performances (and they are poor) aren’t enough to drag this film down to even “just okay” standards. It was good then and it’s good now. There’s just one other problem with A Nightmare on Elm Street: not giving us John Saxon a chance to show off his kung fu skills against Freddy Krueger.

That's a gutterball, Wesley.


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