“Whatever you do… don’t fall asleep.”
Yeah. That’s gonna work. Talk about an absolute classic catchphrase. Parents of newborns, late night essay crammers and insomniacs all know how weird your head can get without enough sleep. I’m in the mad throes of a rushed move myself, packing and running around at all hours, and I am spaced. If someone said that to me right now, in a dead serious hushed whisper, I can tell you, I’d freak the fuck out. Freddie Krueger knows where we all live, at night, when our eyes are closed and we’re most vulnerable. But he’s not real, it’s okay. That horribly burnt, disfigured face isn’t real. Those razor claws aren’t real. Have another cup of coffee. We’re fine. Let’s talk about the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, I’m just going to lean back, and… did you hear something? Never mind. It’s probably… just… the wind…
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) came out during the glut of 80s slasher horror movies that burst forth in the arterial wake of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). What set it apart was director Wes Craven’s visual inventiveness and commitment to blurring the lines between waking and dreaming. In a quintessentially Reaganite suburbia, we meet Tina (Amanda Wyss), a pretty blonde hanging with her friends Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and Glen (a ludicrously young Johnny Depp in his feature debut), and keeping her horndog boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia) sort of at bay. She’s having nightmares about an awful man chasing her through a basement boiler room, and we soon learn that her friends are having the same dream. In a classic Psycho-esque move, poor Tina isn’t long for this world, and the movie switches gears to focus on its real heroine, Nancy. She’s the daughter of divorced parents, Ronee Blakely playing her alcoholic mom Marge, and John Saxon as her father, the stoically indifferent police Lieutenant Thompson. As Nancy realizes the boogeyman in her dreams is very real and very definitely trying to kill her, bits and pieces of the killer’s backstory and his connection to her parents begin to emerge. Unusually, the full story of Freddie Krueger isn’t fully explained in the first feature, but we get its contours. A sadistic child killer, Freddie was able to escape punishment on a legal technicality, and the neighbourhood parents banded together to hand out their own vigilante justice, burning him to death in the school furnace. Somehow, his spirit has managed to manifest out of pure malevolence, wreaking revenge on the children of his killers in their dreams. But there’s nothing illusory about the harm that Freddie causes. With long razor-sharp knives attached to the fingers of his right hand like a murderous Michael Jackson glove, when Freddie cuts you in your dreams, you bleed in real life.
Nancy has to battle to save herself and her friends, with her parents disbelieving and preferring to stay in their own dreamworld of denial. Along the way we’re treated to a feast of surreal horrific touches, as Nancy fights to stay awake and we’re never quite sure where reality begins and ends. Her scene in the bathtub is genuinely creepy and brilliant, as Freddie’s monstrous glove of knives pokes up through the soapy bubbles between Nancy’s legs. When Freddie pulls her down into the water, suddenly she’s immersed in a deep, dark pool, the light from the surface of the tub like a hole cut in an imaginary sheet of ice above. But Nancy’s pluck and ingenuity make her a worthy opponent. She decides to stalk Freddie and pull him out of nightmares and into reality himself, where he can be hurt. The traps she sets for him presage Home Alone‘s booby-trapped house by six years, with the same cartoonish invention and an added wicked undercurrent of fear. The way that Wes Craven keeps the audience off-balance and always wondering what’s real or not is fantastic, and keeps getting under your skin.
Nightmare isn’t quite as good as John Carpenter’s Halloween. You can feel the relatively low budget in the flat dramatic scenes between characters, but they’re more than made up for by the extraordinary confrontations that blur dreams and reality. And Robert Englund’s Freddie is by far the creepiest in the first outing. The sequels make him into more and more of a sadistic comedian, which in places can be pretty darkly hilarious – A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) really works on that front – but Freddie’s unknown murderous malevolence is at its most effective here.
To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary and as part of its special series Wes Craven: Dreams, Screams & Nightmares, TIFF is showing A Nightmare on Elm Street on Saturday, October 11th at 9pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre in Toronto. Definitely worth checking out – see the full program of Craven films here. Just gas up on espresso before you go. And don’t get into anything with orange and grey stripes. Trust me.