1980s, 3/4, Horror, Review, Wes Craven

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

#1 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.

#1 in my ranking of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.

Wes Craven found an idea that played entirely to his strengths, and it’s probably his best film. It’s also hindered a bit by the fact that he couldn’t quite get rid of his weaknesses around character and structure. Craven was a frustrating filmmaker, is what I’m saying. He had great ideas, and he could do certain things really well. However, he was missing an insight into how basic storytelling worked. I think he should have picked up a writing partner at some point.

Tina (Amanda Wyss) has a nightmare where she’s being chased around an industrial setting by a man with long knives for fingernails, and she wakes up in a cold sweat. The next morning, she talks to her friend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Nancy’s boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp), and her own boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) about it. Nancy acts a bit weird about it because she seems to have had the same dream, but Glen says it’s nothing and he never remembers his dreams while Rod is dismissive of it completely.

That night, all four stay at Tina’s house with Rod and Tina sharing her mother’s bed since she’s out of town. While she sleeps, the sweatered man terrorizes Tina at night again, killing her in her sleep horribly, and, in the real world, slashing open her stomach with his razor-like fingernails and dragging her around the room invisibly, up the wall, and along the ceiling as she screams in pain. Now, this is awesome stuff. It’s pure gory slasher stuff, but it goes well beyond just blood and guts. There’s real imagination in the conception and execution of this idea.

Rod becomes a target of law enforcement, notably Nancy’s father Lieutenant Don Thompson (John Saxon) all while Nancy becomes more consumed by thoughts of her friend’s death while…still attending school. I know why Craven had her do this (the dream sequence that she has when she falls asleep is probably the best dream sequence in the film), but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a character perspective. Nancy is essentially in a procedural film where the focus is on identifying a problem and then working towards a solution. Outside of the situation, she’s not much of a character. I don’t know what she wants, what drives her, or even how much she even likes her boyfriend Glen. The same for Tina, Glen, and Rod. They are all just pawns in the game played by Freddy Krueger.

And that would be fine, except that there is something of a story in between the dream sequences, and it’s not the most interesting of procedural stories because Craven didn’t really understand the concept of escalating stakes or tension. Tina’s death is probably the most gruesome in the whole film, and it’s first. It’s a great death, but it really should have been the final death before Nancy set up her traps to face off with Krueger for the last time. Instead, the last death is Glen’s, and while there is certainly some wonderful surrealism on display as the blood pools on his ceiling rather than his floor, it’s just not as good or emotionally impactful because he simply disappears into a hole, replaced by a fountain of blood. Tina’s anguish is much more impactful, but it happens too early for Nancy.

And, again, I point back to Summer of Fear, and how the events just seemed to happen randomly without any real sense of building up to anything in particular. That’s the same thing here. Nancy’s slowly becoming the last girl standing, but outside of that, there’s no sense of real dread that she’s the end point. There’s no sense that her world is getting smaller (her simply just going to school the next day is indicative of this) or that she’s getting more alone. I think part of that is structural, and another part is that the cast of friends is too small. Add one or two new friends, leave Tina for second-to-last, and the two realize that they are the endgame for specific reasons (her dad is the police officer who covered for the parents who killed Krueger in real life, maybe? And he wants her to suffer most because he wants Don to suffer most, something like that). Instead, it’s just random death around her.

I also want to note that the concept seems a bit squiffy. In particular, the intersection of dreamworld and real world and Krueger’s ability to influence real world things. When he’s pushing Tina around up the wall, I don’t think it really breaks the concept, but when he uses the blanket to hang Rob it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And the finale is all about bringing the dreamworld into the real world, and I don’t think Craven really thought this through too clearly. It’s off, is all. It doesn’t break everything, but it just feels like there was another level of thought that needed to be addressed before actually filming the script.

Now, I’ve complained enough about a film I really do enjoy. The story connecting these dreams may be functional at best, but those dreams are dotted throughout the film at a nice even pace and they’re all really good. As I said before, my favorite of them is the one in the school, especially the way Tina’s body gets dragged through the hallway. Krueger himself is a great bad guy, full of personality, and while the backstory is kind of awkwardly delivered in the worst performance of the film (Nancy’s mother Marge by Ronee Blakely), it gives him a motive that makes sense, and the idea of real danger invading us while we sleep when we are the most vulnerable is a wonderful horror convention to exploit. Krueger is dangerous in more ways than one, and Craven uses that to its fullest extent.

I really do like this film. I think it’s a good slasher with real imagination that takes horror seriously instead of just an excuse for gore, but I also feel like it could have really used another rewrite.

There’s real horror here, but it could have been just a bit more.

Rating: 3/4

19 thoughts on “A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)”

  1. While recognizing the technical problems that you point out, those things just don’t matter to me at all, as I love everything about this movie without reservation. Probably because it was absolutely unique when it came out and it was terrifying for a drunk 21 y/o in the theater in 1984.

    One of my all-time favorite movies.

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  2. I recognize that the concept is interesting, and Krueger is much scarier before he essentially became like a game show host, but the film doesn’t do it for me. Obviously, since it started a huge franchise, I’m in the minority on this one.

    The thing I’m never able to get past is Heather Langenkamp. I’m sure she’s a very nice person but I think her performance is just terrible.

    Anyway, lightning strikes for Wes Craven, finally.

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  3. Orson Scott Card talks about stories using his M.I.C.E format.
    Milieu
    Idea
    Character
    Event

    It’s a way to categorize stories. Some stories are character pieces, some are event (Plot) focused, some are genre (Milleu) formulas.

    Nightmare on Elm Street is an Idea story and it’s a killer idea, no pun intended. Craven managed to grab something common and relatable, many people feel helpless in dreams or suffer from nightmares, and then heighten it. ‘What if you die in your dream’ becomes ‘if you die in your dream, you die in real life’. And then he mixes in character, not Heather (sadly, she’s a cute helpless lump but…so is Laurie in Halloween) but Freddy. And splashes around horror and fantasy in equal measures (the balance between the two is perfect only here, later the fantasy gets too strong). What Craven didn’t manage was plot and he seems pretty terrible at plot.

    But for pure emotion, Wes Craven hits it out of the park here and he hasn’t really gotten ahold of the ball since ‘Last House on the Left’. And this is a piece of emotion here, not logic. So I’m not terrible bothered by plot flaws, because dreams defy logic and this whole movie is very much a dream, right down to the shocking end ‘dream’. Heather keeps going to school, because she’s a kid still and her life revolves around school, even down to her dreams (I can’t tell you how many dreams I had growing up that revolved around things happening in school), so that fits for me.

    Likewise, the target of the events of the film isn’t Heather. It’s the audience. We, the people who dream, not these puppet characters on the stage/screen. Tina’s death is targeted at us. So are all the other deaths, they aren’t relevant to the plot of Heather, they’re targeted at us. Just like Heather’s trap filled revenge isn’t honestly about Heather ‘getting’ Freddy, it’s so WE can see someone fighting back. Freddy’s power coming into the real world isn’t to scare the characters, it’s to scare us. The rules are disturbingly vague so WE are unsure of what can happen, so we are uneasy about when someone is safe or not. That also ties into the ending, I believe. Craven is involving his audience here like he hasn’t done since Last House on the Left.

    Craven also finally manages to get a good staff to get the technical stuff right: Haitkin on camera, McMahon and Shaine editing, art, makeup, special effects, stunts….Craven finally manages to make a professional movie.

    Casting…well, I love John Saxon and he seems confused about what kind of movie he’s in and that fits for a mostly-absent father cop who literally can’t do anything to help. I thought both actress and character were drunk, so Ronee Blakley being a bad actress actually seemed to work for me. Johnny Depp isn’t showing us much here, apart from being cute. Robert Englund however is finally getting a star role and he is working that mother fucker.

    Horror is all about things going wrong, about being unsafe, about happy endings not being guaranteed; and A Nightmare on Elm Street delivers on that. Good stuff. Proof maybe that you only really have to be great once.

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    1. I don’t think you’re wrong at all. I see it on a similar line to They Live, a great concept that could have been executed better, but that doesn’t undermine the greatness of the concept.

      I just feel like the emotions could have been better mined with a stronger approach to building the story’s structure intelligently. The terror of the individual dreams is palpable, but I feel like it could have been much more so with a better arrangement of them.

      Otherwise, this is my favorite of the franchise, my favorite of Craven’s whole body of work, and probably the best distillation of his strengths in a single film (The Serpent and the Rainbow, which he did not write, feeds on the same strengths almost as well).

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