4.5 out of 5 Skulls
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Johnny Depp
Written & Directed By: Wes Craven
When we were deciding on what films to review in our first theme we asked around what came to mind with the phrase ‘final girl’. Nancy was the most common answer, which is not at all surprising since she is highly regarded as one of the strongest, smartest final girls with a real thirst for survival. We love A Nightmare on Elm Street for a myriad of reasons so we were happy to dive right into such an iconic film for our first review.
I refer to Halloween (1978) as my “gateway drug” into horror; it’s the film that made me see horror with different eyes, that really got me to relish in, connect to, and fall for the genre. But once that love was triggered and I watched pretty much every horror film I could get my hands on from there, A Nightmare on Elm Street, was really the one that truly grabbed me and fueled my senses in a way I don’t think any horror film will ever be able to outdo or replace. Wes Craven’s “fighting through the mind” brand of horror and how he really utilizes psychological and surreal elements to make any given evil seem all that more entrapping while exploring so many compelling themes, layers, and testing ones strength and ability to endure against the odds, always spoke to me. This is consistent through most of his films, but it seems strongest in A Nightmare on Elm Street to me. He takes this villain, who in life could have been a very real brand of evil within humanity; a depraved child murder who delighted in seeing his victims’ suffering and got away with murder. Even in death when justice was seemingly served and he was brought to his end, Freddy only became more powerful and truly immortal. He had an even more direct link to attack the kids of Elm Street forever; igniting that fear making their nightmares a reality of their quickly impending death. He took away the safety net of something “just being a dream” and thus not real, leaving these kids in quite a dreadful reality, where they are even more on their own to face off against the ruthless dream master.
Freddy is certainly still one of the most iconic and loved slasher villains that in part makes the film so enticing. I really see Freddy as the brilliant creative love child of Wes Craven and Robert Englund. Freddy and this film wouldn’t have been what they were without Englund and what he brought to life in this role, working with Craven’s nightmarish vision, which he did like no one else could have done. I do love the silent, mysterious killers like Michael Myers, but there was always something about the psychotic and in your face nature of Freddy that seemed like it would be so much more terrifying to be on the receiving end of, someone you really couldn’t hide from. He is the one in total power of the dream world and essentially in the waking world as well. Once he digs his claws in to his victims’ body and minds, he is creating that impending fear that only fuels him further and leads them straight to their imminent death.
The thing that really sets A Nightmare on Elm Street apart from other iconic slasher films is that the threat Freddy poses is as much psychological as it is physical. If you’re facing a killer such as Jason or Michael, there’s always the chance that you can get away and there’s a sense of security you can grasp because you know if you just run far enough or hide well enough, you’ll be safe, but you can’t have that with Freddy. With Freddy, when you’re physically the safest is actually when you’re most vulnerable, and that’s the scariest thing of all. You can be locked up safe and secure in your own house with no way anyone can get in, and as soon as you relax and fall asleep, you’re no longer in that safe space. Once he’s planted his seed in your mind, there’s no way to fight him. The more you focus on how to combat him the more power you give him. The more you talk about him the more victims you supply him and you can’t stay awake forever, so, how do you escape? When we have a nightmare, we tell ourselves it’s “only a dream,” but what do you do when it’s no longer just a dream?
A Nightmare on Elm Street is already scary because Freddy can get to you no matter where you physically are and Freddy’s personality only adds to that fear. Again, unlike other iconic slashers, Freddy has a very unique way of terrorizing his victims. Jason and Michael slowly, silently stalk you, but not Freddy, he’s not afraid to move fast, get in front of you and shout in your face. He is Mr. Freddy In-Your-Face Krueger and I love him for it. Robert Englund really brings Wes Craven’s writing alive when he plays Freddy. The maniacal laughter, the running, the dashing, the taunting, the way he acts like a big, homicidal kid, it’s stands out so much from other slashers of the time.
Yet what really brought us to revisiting the film is Nancy, who is easily equally iconic in the horror world as Freddy. She really was a breath of a fresh air in the age of 80’s slasher films where most of the female leads were more often than not just there for the T & A factor and were essential damsels In distress. Sure, there were exceptions to this and female leads who fought back, who had some substance and strength, but Nancy always stood out to me as one of the strongest examples of this.
It’s as much Nancy as Freddy who made A Nightmare on Elm Street so memorable, along with Wes’ masterful vision of course. Nancy was essentially a normal girl put in to a nightmarish fight for her life where she was utterly alone, against the odds, and no one believed in the torment or reality of what she was up against. But she didn’t let herself simply be a victim. Yes, she was human, she was afraid. It physically wore down on her and invaded her reality more and more and made her fear her death, but she didn’t accept that as her fate. As she says, “she’s into survival”, she will keep on fighting until her last breath, daring to face Freddy at his own game, even in his own domain, outsmarting and fighting him head on. At the end of the day she realizes the strength and power of Freddy all lies in her will, which really nails the core of fear and the power she holds within her. In fear we let these have power over us, but ones’ bravery and willingness to keep fighting even against those greatest fears of ours is not to be underestimated. We fear what we don’t have control over, but Nancy takes that control back.
There are so many things I love about Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street. She is not only one of the most iconic final girls of all time, but she doesn’t follow many of the annoying tropes especially prevalent in her time. One of my favorite things about her is that unlike so many other final girls, she doesn’t start out weak. She starts out smart and strong and finishes even stronger. She is entirely the smart, influential female character that the genre needed at the time and still often struggles to find now. I am endlessly annoyed at the flatly written female characters we are often subjected to in horror movies. When a movie is riddled with female characters that are just there for sex appeal/”T&A factor” or the lead character starts off weak and stupid (even if she ends stronger) I feel cheated by the “throw-away” characters and yearn for better writing. A Nightmare on Elm Street certainly doesn’t give me that feeling.
A Nightmare on Elm Street has many other good qualities beyond Nancy. I’d love to touch on the special effects. I’m a sucker for practical effects, so, watching any pre-CGI horror movie is always a treat for me to begin with and this one had a few effects that don’t disappoint. Perhaps the most iconic one is when Glen (Johnny Depp) gets sucked into his bed and then, defying gravity, blood starts pouring out from the bed onto the ceiling. Obviously, they used the same rotating room they used for when Tina is being dragged across the ceiling earlier in the movie and it delivered an awesome visual that any horror fan will remember. One of my other favorites is the stretchy wall above Nancy’s bed early in the movie. Who could forget the image of Nancy peacefully laying in bed and her wall slowly stretching into the form of Freddy as he’s getting into her head to build up her fear of him? It was such a perfect way to mark the beginning of Freddy’s hold on her. Another effect worth mentioning is when Nancy is trying to descend the gooey melting stairs in the dream world. She starts sinking into the stairs and the carpet appears to be sticking to her like peanut butter. Practical effects are part of the reason I originally got into horror films, they end up making the whole film feel more real and tangible and I end up so much more invested in the experience when they’re involved.
Agreed, practical effects are always very refreshing and do have an element of seeming more embedded in reality than CGI, which more often than not comes off as distracting for me as well and can take me out of things. This film certainly utilizes the practical effects well and really creates its own aesthetic and style unique to Freddy. I can always appreciate creative, jarring deaths and nearly every death in A Nightmare on Elm Street hits this mark, making it all seem that much more vicious and hopeless, showing them what they are matched against and is equally visually remarkable and horrifying for the viewer to experience. I can’t lie, there’s also something very fun about the creative, super gory deaths too. Glen’s death is without a doubt one of my all time favorite horror movie deaths, such beautiful brutality is at work and especially Glen being Nancy’s last hope for someone to fight through this with her, it becomes even more clear after this point it’s going to be up to her. Even Tina’s death at the beginning is quite strong, both in the visuals and the tone it sets for what these kids are up against. There’s an unreal vicious quality to seeing Tina tormented and dominated so completely by something no one can see, something that is supposedly just from your dream, something that shouldn’t exist. Yet she is being thrashed around the room, cut in to with these unseen finger knives, bled to her very death with no one who can help her. That sums up what the rest of these kids will have to face; they will be targeted and killed off one by one, making them increasingly more alone. They will be left to fight a supernatural eternal vicious serial killer that shouldn’t even exist any longer.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is my favorite horror film and one of my favorite films period, but I will admit the ending is a little jarring and slightly disjointed, probably because it combined 4 possible endings in one and what we were left with wasn’t really true to Craven’s original vision. Obviously it’s an idealist dream turned to a nightmare, showing that Nancy will never truly be free of Freddy and the deaths of her mother and friends cannot be undone, which is powerful and fitting in many ways if it had been a little less jarring. This ending was just a clear way for the possibility of keeping the franchise alive with a possible sequel to be left open. In a way it does deter from the strong impact we just had of Nancy standing up to Freddy, making his attack on her no longer have any power, of her taking back control and finding her own strength and not letting her fear of him consume her any longer. Mere seconds after she frees herself from Freddy’s grasp, she is immediately terrorized by him again, twisting her desperate hopes for happiness and to restore her life in to being forever trapped by him yet again. I do like the cyclical nature of never truly being able to shed your fear and Freddy’s grasp, but it does take a little away from Nancy’s managing to overcome him if she really hasn’t. Freddy is such a compelling character and many other great films came from this, so there was more to explore and I’m glad it didn’t end there. Freddy’s reign is long from over, but I do think there could have been more of a transition, for this ending to take a little more time to really manifest and leave us with something that felt consistent with the rest of the film, which could have made the ending feel that much stronger. Ultimately though, there is so much about A Nightmare Elm Street that makes it such a unique, surreal nightmarish terror with intensely compelling characters and truly powerful themes, daring to break horror tropes and give us a slasher with substance. Overall, I can fairly easily look passed a somewhat jarring, rushed, perhaps even a bit odd of an ending, because of everything that came before it; for being a horror film that deeply resonated with me and so many other horror fans.
“Horror films don’t create fear, they release it.” -Wes Craven