I believe that there are low budget horror films that are masterpieces of cinema. Night of the Living Dead is one. Halloween is another. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is up there. Wes Craven had already done some pretty impressive films that dealt with fear by 1984. The Last House on the Left, with its shocking, no-holds-barred violence, and The Hills Have Eyes are both pretty interesting. It wasn’t until 1984, though, that Craven not only made a masterpiece of cinematic terror, but also unleashed on the world of cinema the best villain since Darth Vader first appeared onscreen: Fred Krueger.
I was nine years old when I first met Mr. Krueger in the fall of 1986. I have had at least one scary Freddy Krueger nightmare every year since.
You know the premise so I’ll save you a synopsis and go right to the nitty gritty.
Craven is a writer, maybe not the best writer to ever write screenplays, but better than many. He is a well-educated man who uses the horror film to express his ideas as much as to entertain. A Nightmare on Elm Street became an instant classic partly due to the writing. The characters are pretty believable teenagers and parents.
Though Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp), Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss), and Rod Lane (Jsu Garcia) live on Elm Street¹ in Smalltown, USA (the town isn’t given a name until the second movie), the only teen who seems to have the sort of Americana suburban life one equates with a person living on Elm Street is Glen–Mom and Dad are still together, Dad makes the rules, Mom rolls her eyes but goes along. Tina’s mother has a boyfriend (we assume, there’s some guy shacking up with her and taking her on vacation) who says, in front of the fifteen-year-old girl, “Hey, babe, when you comin’ back to bed?” Rod Lane comes from a broken home and has had many skirmishes with the law. And the girl next door, Nancy Thompson, also comes from divorced parents. Mom (Ronnee Blakely) is an alcoholic, Dad (John Saxon) a lieutenant on the police force. Yes, some of the acting is a little wooden, but the young actors mostly bring Craven’s words to life.
The character of Fred Krueger was also well-thought-out. From the fedora to the red-and-green sweater to the claw to the scarred face, he is designed to be noticed and to strike fear. Most importantly, he is a character. Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and even Leatherface were pretty much silent killers. They chased their victims (hardly), slew them, and then went on their way. Fred Krueger fucks with his victims. Because his home is in the dream realm, he can do and be anything. Also, unlike most of those aforementioned baddies (including the body of Vader), Krueger isn’t played by a stuntman under a mask. Robert Englund took great pains to bring Fred Krueger to life and make him something more than the run-of-the-mill slasher. The thing that gets me most now is the pure fun Krueger seems to have throughout. The dude has a smile on his pizza face throughout the movie. He cuts himself to screw with his victims. He runs funny and makes funny sounds. He taunts them. On Krueger, the claw is more than just a weapon and a psychological motif, it is also a symbol that he is a cat and the teens are mice. He will chase them, play with them, and then eviscerate them, all while cackling and generally fucking with their heads.
There’s the way that Robert Englund carries himself as Fred Krueger, too. After Tina’s death, Nancy follows her body through the school to the boiler room. She finds a small habitat and then hears the knives on metal. She turns and Fred Krueger shambles out from behind boiler. His left shoulder is higher than his right, the sweater and the pants are too big for him, his fedora is messy, and he looks…well…terrifying. Even if he had no burns, I would not want that guy to be there.
One last thing before I move away from Fred Krueger: Interviews done by the cast and crew of the 2010 remake often mentioned Freddy’s campy one-liners and silliness as a point where they are re-imagining the character. Looking at the most recent incarnations of Freddy, I can see why, but Wes Craven’s first film has little-to-no campiness in the character. Krueger’s “sense of humor” comes directly from the goals I mentioned above, namely, to fuck with his victims. He’s not breaking the fourth wall to make the audience laugh as he does starting with the fourth movie. He doesn’t even really have one-liners.
Craven directs the film with a deft eye for details. The sheep that appears in the boiler room at the very beginning in Tina’s first nightmare is a great what-the-fuck?! moment. It’s a dream, after all. The nightmares have an internal logic but not an external logic. Nancy finds a “secret door” that leads to Fred Krueger’s boiler room. She also seems to be able to travel across town through a few, strange gates. Craven has fun playing with the strange happenings in a dreamscape. The wall that comes inward over Nancy, the stairs that melt below her feet, Krueger’s arms stretching out to create the sense that you cannot escape, the moment when he’s at Nancy’s front door wearing a Tina mask and, using Tina’s voice says, “Nancy! Save me from–” before returning to his own voice for the final word of the sentence: “Freddy!” Craven has done his research and it shows.
The music. I know it’s early-eighties synth crap, but it works.
Nancy’s watch. When I was nine-years-old, Nancy’s talking wrist watch was kinda cool. At 35, it’s kinda lame. According to the commentary track on the DVD, the watch was actually Craven’s watch at the time and was quite expensive.
Rod Lane’s characterization. He is the punk with a heart of gold. He was rude, crude, and antagonizing, but Tina loved him and so did we. Only, Craven never really develops Rod. He is far more realized than most of the characters that will follow in sequels, but I always felt he was a little too much of the stereotypical punk in the motorcycle jacket, complete with switchblade. All those things wouldn’t have been a problem had he been just a tad more developed.
Ronnee Blakely as Marge Thompson. Everyone else on the film seemed to be trying their best to give an A-movie performance to this low-budget (aka B) horror movie except Ms. Blakely. Her performance is a masterpiece of B-movie acting. It’s over-the-top, melodramatic, and borderline silly. I still love her in the movie, but, well….
The endings. I know, everyone agrees. From the moment Nancy pulls Fred Krueger out of the dream until the end credits, things go wrong. Not all things. Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon give great performances, but the Looney Tunes contraptions that Nancy put together in ten minutes or so from a book just underwhelms. If this is Craven’s way of displaying the popular idea that evil is, in actuality, stupid and not as powerful as first thought, well….
This is one of the few stories where the idea that “It was all a dream” might not be a cop-out, but to get to that point is ridiculous. I wonder if that was Craven writing his way out of a corner, or if it was because of his miniscule budget, or if he really thought mallets falling from the ceiling and tripwires that set off exploding lightbulbs would be a crowd pleaser. To me, it feels like, “Man, I have got to tie this story up. What can I do once Nancy pulls Fred out of the nightmare?”
I’m not going to bother mentioning Marge Thompson being pulled through the small window in the front door. If you’ve read this far, you already know the deal on that.
The Morning After
This movie rocked my world when I was nine. It introduced me to the horror genre. It gave me nightmares that I still have. It also opened a world of wonder. Craven could have produced just another slasher movie about a killer who comes back from the grave to seek some sort of vague vengeance on teenagers. Instead, he gave us a horror-fantasy story that was as filled with imagination as it was with fear. I wonder what would have happened had the larger studios not passed on it and he’d been given a larger budget. Would A Nightmare on Elm Street have been an even better film or would it have only provided more rope for Craven to hang himself with?
I still, obviously, love this movie. Nobody write 1,600 words on something without getting paid in some manner except for love. There are plenty of flaws but the good far outweighs those.
¹ But do they? As far as I can remember, the words Elm and Street are never actually spoken in the movie. The closest we come is when Nancy’s mother, Marge, tells her the “neighborhood parents” hunted down and burned Krueger alive. I wonder if the Elm Street in the title was more symbolic than an actual place.