#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.