Celebrating 35 Years of A Nightmare on Elm Street

When speaking of the masters of horror, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and George Romero certainly come to mind. Among the most iconic directors of our time, the trio satiated fans with gory thrills and hellish delights for decades via a steady stream of original and stylish movies. Their audacious works earned them the monikers The Prince of Darkness, The Baron of Blood and the King of Zombies respectively.

The emerging crop of horror directors attempting to make their mark have not been afforded the same distinction. Trailblazing artists like Ana Lily Amirpour and Jeremy Saulnier, auteurs whose pictures display an uncompromising commitment to vision and style fail to achieve prominence. While  Netflix and Amazon yield an endless supply of cinematic wonders, they also hinder young talent from making a name for themselves. Horror enthusiasts seem more in touch with production companies than they are the artists driving their product. “Have you seen the new Blumhouse pic?”

“The Daniel Goldhaber film?”

“Who?”

Another filmmaker whose name will endure is the Sultan of Slash, Wes Craven. For four decades, Craven treated fans to compelling, frightening and unforgettable experiences in terror. From his endurable trashy debut, The Last House on the Left, to his revered revisionist slasher Scream, Craven created a strange and wonderful collection of works unique in approach and commentary. Perhaps his greatest contribution to horror though, was Freddy Krueger. Cloaked in a threadbare sweater with black, piercing eyes staring through scorched skin, Krueger is the stuff of nightmares.

America was in a bit of a funk entering the 1980s. Political tensions with Russia reached a fever pitch, racial intolerance boiled over, the threat of AIDS hung over young people everywhere. Black Flag taunted white America with their song “White Minority” and slasher films depicted a foreboding world where evil reigns supreme. People were ready for a change. They rejected John Carpenter’s grim interpretation of extraterrestrial life in The Thing in favor of Steven Spielberg’s uplifting rendering of a homesick alien and his human compatriot in ET. They voted in favor of replacing the incumbent, democratic president with a republican actor.

Ronald Reagan uttered, “Where’s the rest of me” as a double amputee in Sam Wood’s gloomy romance, King’s Row and played opposite Lee Marvin in Don Siegel’s exquisitely violent thriller, The Killers. In 1980 he tapped his acting wit to charm a nation into voting him into office. Meanwhile, Iran Contra and an economic recession were brewing beneath the surface.

In 1984, horror fans developed malaise toward dead teenager movies. Wes Craven utilized slasher fatigue to develop a new genre dubbed rubber reality. Slasher movies featured faceless, voiceless maniacs stalking promiscuous teens. Though many of them survived to pursue budding prey in sequels, they were essentially mortal figures. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven’s boogieman has a face, lumpy and misshapen with jagged lacerations in various shades of pink. His voice is coarse like sandpaper scraping against rough wood. He spouts chilling sarcasms at would-be victims benumbed by fright. An immortal spirit who invades the nightmares of sleeping teens, he is provided a perpetual stream of sufferers.

The film opens with the image of steel blades ripping through frayed canvas. A desperate scream permeates the soundtrack. It bores through the viewer like the knives through the fabric. Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) inches down a monochrome hall, her frail shape limned by the eerie glow of the door. A volcanic eye peers at her around rusted pipes and through curling steam as she presses forward through the murky space. Her footsteps echo through the barren corridor; water drips from beams overhead. Freddy pounces. Tina springs awake. It was just a nightmare.

The next day, Tina confides in her friend Nancy (Heather Langencamp) who reveals she too has been tormented by the burned man with the green and red sweater and razor-sharp claws. They realize they must figure a way to deal with Krueger in the real world before he kills them in their dreams.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a classic celebrated alongside the genre’s perennial best. It is a thematically inventive, visually compelling and deeply frightening experience from start to finish. Its success rests with Craven and his understanding of the codes that govern horror cinema. An opening title sequence introduces us to Freddy as he assembles his deadly weapon. The images are presented in a cropped format, the action enclosed within a larger black frame. The negative space instills a sense of claustrophobia akin to the anxiety brought on by a nightmare. The shots are trapped within the inky border much like how a sleeping person is unable to escape a terrible dream. The truncated presentation crossed with the unsettling tones of the score imbue the picture with an evil sense of foreboding while communicating the dangerousness of its villain.

Exactly seventeen minutes later, Tina is dispatched in a jaw-dropping display of carnage that sets the bar for the rest of the picture. She convulses wildly about the bed. An invisible force tears at her nightgown and rips at the soft flesh of her belly. Blood pours thick and strong from the wounds. She screams in agony as she’s hoisted from the bed and flung about the room. Her limp body is dragged across the ceiling, her blood wicking in the crevices of the tiles before collapsing back onto the bed. She slumps to the floor and lies there like a macabre mannequin. The film’s general conceit is laid bare: if you die in your dream, you die in reality. Script doctors suggest revealing the essential conflict of your story on page 17. Craven hits the mark precisely.

Like so many of the grisly set pieces utilized in the film, Tina’s death is achieved via simple yet ingenious devices (a revolving room). Other scenes witness Freddy attempting to push his way through the wall above Nancy’s bed (the actor pressing against a large piece of spandex) and Tina running at full speed while going nowhere (the actress was placed on a treadmill). Characters slip between reality and fantasy without notice. The dream domain of the killer means Craven is free to devise all sorts of craziness.

In a conversation with Tulsa World, Craven biographer John Wooley reflected on the rubber reality genre the director helped to create. “Basically, this means that when you’re watching the action on the screen, you’re never sure if what you’re seeing is supposed to be taking place in the real world or the dream world. This intentional confusion of dreams and reality keeps you off-balance and skittish, pulling you into a weirdly intimate place where anything can happen — just as a dream does.”

Nancy’s dreams are bathed in dreary shades of blue and red. Her reality has the qualities of a nightmare where parents are unable to provide any sense of protection. At one point she says to her boyfriend, “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.” On the surface, the line has literal implications within the story, but beneath, speaks to the deception of the controlling influence of America at the time. Reagan was great at making people feel safe and secure. He wasn’t however always truthful. He claimed during his first year in office, for instance, that he developed a solution to the problem of homelessness in America. By the end of the decade, the amount of people living on the streets swelled to an abundant number. Also during his inaugural year he claimed that, “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles.”

In a scene that owes a bit to John Carpenter, Nancy is seen sitting in class while her teacher lectures about the meaning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “According to Shakespeare, there was something operating in Nature, perhaps inside human nature itself, that was rotten.” She goes on to say that, “Hamlet’s response to this was to continually probe and dig, always trying to get beneath the surface.”

Nancy’s mother says to her, “You face things. That’s your nature. That’s your gift. But sometimes, you’ve got to turn away too.” Americans loved Reagan. He was instrumental in the destruction of The Berlin Wall and played a key role in bringing an end to the cold war. Perhaps America’s willingness to turn away rather than face harsh realities however resulted in them seeing only the virtues and none of the vices of their sworn leader.

In the end, Nancy does both. She takes Freddy on in a tightly wound finale in which the supernatural hobgoblin is forced to withstand a series of booby traps set about by his nemesis. He survives the hidden dangers but reveals in the process that he is fueled by the fear and anxiety of his victims. Nancy calmly turns her back on him and he evaporates into thin air.

Wisely crafted, tensely paced and feverishly frightening, A Nightmare on Elm Street is not just another slasher movie and it’s more than just the first entry in the rubber reality genre. It is a deeply unsettling commentary on the world that forces us to reevaluate how we act in answer to the bureaucracy around us. It is more than just a little ironic that Reagan’s campaign slogan was, “Let’s make America great again.”

SINCE ITS RELEASE

A Nightmare on Elm Street made a whopping $25 million at the box office triggering a series of sequels and spinoffs. Craven continued to stir up the horror genre throughout his career. The proliferation of slasher films and sequels in the late 80s and early 90s depleted the genre of energy. To reconnect with viewers, Craven created Scream, a wry and witty deconstruction of the dead teenager genre. The film gave rise to a movement of self-referential horror that thrived throughout the decade. Craven succumbed to cancer in August of 2015. The level of artistry on display in his works has rarely been matched.

Ernie Rockelman

Ernie loves movies. He's not so great talking about them, but he's pretty okay writing about them. He worked as a critic for the Press of AC for a number of years. Now he teaches film to high school kids and occasionally makes movies that nobody sees.

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One thought on “Celebrating 35 Years of A Nightmare on Elm Street

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    January 15, 2019 at 10:49 am
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    “Horror enthusiasts seem more in touch with production companies than they are the artists driving their product. “Have you seen the new Blumhouse pic?”

    This was a very interesting and fresh point that I have not seen pulled into focus until this article. You’re right on, though. There seems to be great horror still being churned out at an impressive level but the auteurs that create these works are not celebrated as much as the production house that produces it. Perhaps it’s just harder to remember all the names now that we have such an onslaught of media coming at us. Back in the day, there were only so many “masters of horror” out there.

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