Friday, December 16, 2011

Arguably One Of The Best Horror Concepts, A Nightmare On Elm Street Still Scares!

The Good: Wonderful horror moments, Moments of effect, Reasonably smart characters, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Remarkably weak ending, A few horror conceits
The Basics: Conceptually frightening, A Nightmare On Elm Street overcomes its limitations with good DVD bonus features and enough scary moments to make it worthwhile.

I am not, traditionally, a fan of movies in the horror genre. It is, quite simply, not a genre I am into whatwith the prevalence of so many conceits that have become cliche and my general aversion to gore. In fact, among my many film reviews, the only horror movie that comes instantly to mind as a great overall film - the only horror film in my personal collection - is 28 Days Later (reviewed here!). Still, over the years, there have been horror films that I have wanted to see because of the idea and the assumption that if there are so many people who have enjoyed them enough to justify so many sequels that they must be good. At the top of that list is A Nightmare On Elm Street.

A Nightmare On Elm Street had an idea that I was instantly drawn to; the notion that a killer would strike in one's dreams and that such an enemy might use the subconscious to manipulate its victims was actually terrifying. At best, I figured A Nightmare On Elm Street could be dark and psychologically complex. Recently, the local mini-golf course in the village where I live has gotten a pinball machine based upon A Nightmare On Elm Street in and given that it has captivated my partner and I (it is the only game - to date - she has beaten me consistently at!), we decided that we might as well see the source material for the game. That led us to watch A Nightmare On Elm Street and it was a decent combination of the expected and the audacious. Indeed, it is in this movie that writer/director Wes Craven establishes many of the conceits of the horror/slasher genre.

Tina Gray is dreaming of a horribly burned man in a red and black sweater, who has fashioned a glove with knives for fingernails, chasing her around a boiler room when she wakes up in terror. Recounting the dream to her wholesome, innocent friend Nancy, they recall stories of the boogyman and they try to get through their day. However, as night approaches Nancy and Tina learn that their boyfriends Rod and Glen were haunted by similar dreams. Camping out at Tina's house, Tina dreams again of the mysterious fiend and Rod awakens to Tina being bandied violently about their bedroom and he flees into the night after she is cut up.

As the police begin to hunt Rod, Nancy postulates that Rod is innocent and that Tina was actually killed by the deformed man she dreamed. When Rod is killed in his jail cell, after Nancy's father the police lieutenant apprehends him, Nancy fears she might be correct. After pulling the hat off her assailant in her dream and discovering the hat in her bed with her when she awakens, Nancy becomes more convinced that the key to stopping the increasingly gruesome murders is by staying awake. As the body count rises and she learns of the origins of Fred Krueger, the burned man in the shared dreams, she hatches a plan to bring Krueger into the real world where her father might stop him!

A Nightmare On Elm Street is a mixed bag, but deserves a lot of credit for concept and introducing the world to actor Johnny Depp, who plays Glen. Lauded for special effects at the time of its creation, it is generally strong in that regard and viewers ought to be impressed by the make-up special effects, especially of Krueger. The most serious detraction - outside the early 1980's hairdos - is the ending. A Nightmare On Elm Street finishes with a twist that is both conceptually problematic and poor in its execution. The special effect of the final shot mortgages much of the seriousness of the rest of the film and is more laughable than frightening. Moreover, the increased emphasis on Marge Thompson, Nancy's mother, for the resolution is annoying.

In fact, Marge is an all-around problematic character. She is an alcoholic who is full of information which she does not relinquish until plot-convenient moments. Marge is used more for simple plot exposition than actual character development and she acts as an annoying antagonist to Nancy. Conversely, the hardened police detective who is Nancy's father becomes more willing to take a chance on his daughter's wild theory based on the evidence.

A Nightmare On Elm Street is - obviously - not for the weak of heart (though ironically my partner has a weak heart and made it through the movie with only minimal crushing of my hand). The film is not exceptionally gory, but it has a lot (buckets!) of blood. Smartly, the film does not waste any time in getting viewers acquainted with the concept. Unlike something like Jaws (reviewed here!), A Nightmare On Elm Street introduces Fred Krueger, his weaponry, and the concept in the opening frames of the work. The result is a film where the premise is established, known to the viewers and we have a chance to revel in the character's coming to terms with it . . . as the disbelievers and naysayers get slaughtered from their ignorance. A Nightmare On Elm Street is violent and scary as the young people are killed at the time they cannot act to save themselves.

This is where Nancy becomes an almost instantly likable character. Despite being annoyingly wholesome and innocent at the outset, she quickly learns the truth and works to protect herself and her friends. Viewers begin to root for her because she does so much correctly; she tries to stay awake, she educates herself on survival tactics and she tries to find practical, real-world solutions for stopping the bloody murders of her friends.

Writer/director Wes Craven enhances the horror, then, by blending her dreaming horrors with the practical application of teenage fears and insecurities. After Tina is killed, Nancy sees her dead in her dreams several times. One of the permutations on Fred Krueger is that he appears in the dreams with exceptionally long arms while chasing the girl. The effect is less powerful than the concept of the image, which is probably why Craven does not have Krueger reach for the girl with his elongated arms (they simply flap by his sides). The ability to reach the fleeing girl is much more terrifying than the execution.

Because so many of the elements Craven uses in A Nightmare On Elm Street have now become much-imitated (or parodied) conceits of the genre, viewers now will be able to lessen the sense of horror by simply noting when characters are awake and when they are asleep and to his credit, Craven seldom attempts to be clever with bending which is which. Still, there are moments - the claw in the bathtub, being the best example - where Craven is still able to surprise and anyone looking for good jumpy moments will find much to enjoy with A Nightmare On Elm Street.

As for the acting, there is some irony here as well; some of the young performers outshine the adults. Ronee Blakley is terrible as Marge, both in physical presence and the delivery of so much exposition as she is forced to deliver. Johnny Depp is given an auspicious beginning, but he plays a pretty cocky generic boyfriend type here and the only real foreshadowing of his future excellence is in his adequacy in playing a good looking young person. John Saxon and Robert Englund play Lieutenant Thompson and Fred Krueger with both wonderful sensibilities for the real world and over-the-top body movement that can pervade dreams, respectively.

But much of the film rests on the shoulders of Heather Langenkamp, who plays Nancy and here Wes Craven chose perfectly. In the outset, Langenkamp plays Nancy with a sense of wide-eyed (literally!) optimism and wholesomeness. As the movie goes on, she must play her as exhausted and determined and she gets the body language and vocal resolve for both down perfectly. Langenkamp makes it possible for viewers to buy into the extraordinary reality of the "Elm Street" world and her performance sells some of the movie's more potentially-ridiculous moments.

On DVD, A Nightmare On Elm Street comes with the ability to watch either full-screen or wide-screen versions of the movie. There is an informative commentary track which does not repeat too much of the information from the behind-the-scenes featurette. As well, there are deleted scenes and a featurette on the special effects which are informative.

But mostly, the point of A Nightmare On Elm Street is to scare viewers and it works for that. It is good at what it does and if it were not for the very weak ending, it would be worth more enthusiastically recommending.

For other horror films, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Last House On The Left
Open Water
Hide And Seek


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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