NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
Director: Wes Craven
You might know New Line Cinema as the distributor of movies like the Lord of the Rings and Austin Powers trilogies, but back in the 1970s, they were a fledgling company distributing movies to college auditoriums for late-night screenings. When the 80s arrived, they decided to get into theatrical distribution with little-known movies like Reefer Madness 2 and Alone In The Dark (no relation to the games or the movie with Christian Slater), but were on the verge of bankruptcy. Around that time, New Line founder and CEO Bob Shaye optioned a horror movie script that had been deemed "not scary" and "unmakeable" by nearly every studio in Hollywood. The script, written by legendary genre director Wes Craven, would struggle during filming (due to budget woes), but would go on to save New Line from bankruptcy and become a landmark film in both the horror genre and pop cultural in general. It's one of those rare movies that took its genre's conventions and redefined them. That movie is A Nightmare on Elm Street.
The story revolves around Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), a teenager living on Elm Street in the suburban town of Springwood. She's a typical teen; she's got a cute boyfriend named Glen (Johnny Depp in his first film role) and an easy best friend named Tina (Amanda Wyss), who has an on-again/off-again relationship with her ne'er-do-well boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia, credited as "Nick Corri"). However, her idyllic existence begins to crumble when she begins having a series of horrific nightmares about an anonymous figure (Robert Englund). Clad in an old snap-brim fedora and tattered red-and-green sweater, the stalker in her dreams is badly burned and sports a blade-fingered glove on his right hand. An innocent conversation between Nancy and her three friends during a sleepover leads the group to discover that they've all been having the same nightmares.
That night, Tina is brutally murdered in her sleep. Police suspect Rod because he was in the room when she died, but Nancy suspects something far more sinister. Fearing that the burned man from their dreams is hunting them down, Nancy claims that her only defense is to stay awake. She tells her parents (Ronee Blakey and John Saxon) about the man in their nightmares, but they just dismiss her as being delusional and urge her to get some rest while her friends are being systematically murdered. One by one, each of Nancy's friends are all killed until she's the only teen on Elm Street left. She resigns herself to the fact that she must give into exhaustion and face the killer in a life-or-death struggle for control.
I've seen a lot of horror films, and not many of them scare me, but this one does. It's not the typical 80s "body count" movie. Each character has their own life, all of which are interrupted by Freddy Krueger. Craven's script pushes home the underlying theme: that everyone faces danger if they fall asleep, either literally in some cases, or figuratively in others (such as Mrs. Thompson's alcoholism and Rod's rebel lifestyle). The story is also a deep one, thanks to is backstory. Freddy is given a well-justified reason (well, as justified as a homicidal maniac is going to be) for slaughtering these teens, which we learn halfway through the film.
But even with the deeper meanings, we're still looking at a horror movie. The suspense is laid on heavy, from the opening credits all the way to the climax. Craven, who had previously gained notoriety as the director of the cult classics The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, also doesn't shy away from blood and special effects, either. The dreams enable incredibly adventurous, surreal effects, and they are pulled off without a hitch, even for a film that cost only a million dollars to make. The direction is strong, and the cuts from dream to non-dream sequences are both seamless and appropriately disorienting. The cinematography is also perfect, and the Charles Bernstein score is right up there with John Carpenter's score for Halloween. The acting is better than expected, although it often feels like a horror film crash-landed in the middle of a soap opera. But Robert Englund takes the "scary" meter off the charts, even with his limited screen time. The movie made Freddy Krueger a pop culture phenomenon and Englund (whose prior claim to fame was his role in the V mini-series) became a cult movie star, despite the letdown called the end. Yes, I'll say it. The end of the movie sucks.
Even though I'm more of a Jason guy, I'll tell you right now that the first Nightmare on Elm Street blows any Friday The 13th movie right out of the freaking water. Despite being over twenty years old, the movie has aged gracefully, and it's still scary as hell.
Final Rating: *****