One, two, Freddy’s coming for you.
Three, four, better lock your door.
Five, six, grab your crucifix.
Seven, eight, gonna stay up late.
Nine, ten, never sleep again.

Halloween approaches, and so this week’s Saturday Review looks at perhaps the most influential horror film of the 1980s.

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Written and directed by Wes Craven

Cast:

Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson
John Saxon as Lt. Thompson
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
Ronee Blakely as Marge Thompson
Amanda Wyss as Tina Gray
Jsu Garcia/Nick Corri as Rod Lane
Johnny Depp as Glen Lantz
Mimi Craven as Nurse

Available here and here.

Premise:

A group of teenagers share a nightmare about the mysterious, monstrous Fred Krueger. These bad dreams cause more than psychological stress. Injury or death in the nightmare-world carries over to their waking lives.

Who is Krueger? And why do the teens’ parents appear to know?

High Points:

A Nightmare on Elm Street makes effective use of everyday objects to create uneasiness, suspense, and fear. The opening sequence should give a fair number of viewers a creeping sense of horror, as household objects get turned into something sinister. Freddy’s realm itself plays on every fear every little kid has had about going into a dark cellar.

Krueger’s appearance in the school basement may be the definitive cinematic image of the boogeyman.

Low Point:

1. I recognize that studios find it difficult to resist milking a cash cow when they’ve got one, but what happened to this film because of its success may be the real horror. An inventive horror film became a series of inferior, effects-glutted sequels, a crossover with Friday the Thirteenth, an interesting metasequel, a distasteful, short-lived television show, and a reality show which, thankfully, will likely never air. If Abbott and Costello had been alive, I suspect they would’ve been encouraged to encounter Freddy Krueger1. Ultimately, these films only served to taint the original and drain it of its power: I don’t find Nightmare… all that frightening anymore. Furthermore, success made Freddy a kind of cult hero.

2. “Fifteen-year-old Christina Gray.” Nitpicking time, but please, please, Hollywood, stop doing this. I can accept these actors as high school seniors. In fact, the movie portrays them in a manner consistent with their being seniors. But frosh or sophomores? That’s just stupidly distracting, especially as the reference was entirely unnecessary. Fantastic horror often works best when set against an otherwise believable reality.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6. The underlying premise is original. At its heart, however, this is a film about the boogeyman terrorizing teenagers, and a fairly traditional horror film.

Effects: 4/6 The older style mechanical effects often work better than CGI, when they work. This movie makes the case convincingly. Some of the visual effects are excellent, and the traditional methods make them seem real. Others, such as the spurting hand or the Krueger face-flaying, look like fake effects.

Story: 5/6. What separates this film from a good many other slasher pics is the nature of Krueger’s attacks and his problematic backstory. I only wish that second element, and the parent’s complicity, had been developed further. We also have a resourceful heroine, so the conflict does not seem one-sided, whatever Krueger’s apparent powers. I would have gone for a different ending, since the infamous twist really resolves nothing, but that may be more a matter of taste. It is an interesting twist on the “last girl” finale of many slasher pics.

As I mentioned before, horror works best when set against a believable reality. This film features a few problems that cannot be accounted for by the blurring of dreams and reality. Most glaring: Krueger killed roughly twenty children in the same small area perhaps a little more than a decade ago, and the entire story isn’t common knowledge? Outside of a skipping chant, the kids don’t already know who Freddy is?

Acting: 4/6. We have a mix of performances. John Saxon is pretty good, and the film, famously, introduced the world to Johnny Depp. Other performances are lacking. Heather Langenkamp isn’t bad as the heroine, but she’s not quite up to carrying as much of the film as her role requires. She isn’t helped by the sometimes cheesy dialogue.

Production: 4/6. Overall, this film has strong production, and few horror films had used the “scary basement” setting to quite such good effect before. A number of glitches occur: the obvious mat onto which Nancy falls when she jumps from the window, for example.

Emotional Response: 5/6. Boo!

Overall: 5/6. Freddy’s debut ranks among the “must-watch” horror films, and it definitely works as a Halloween movie—especially the first time. Unlike some classics of the genre, however, I find it doesn’t hold up especially well to repeat viewings. Fans of Freddy, who turned out for various sequels, obviously disagree.

A Nightmare on Elm Street receives a total score of 30/42

Final Comments

Identification with an evil character is a complicated matter. We might identify with the power of the creature, as fans of Godzilla obviously do2, and consequently Toho changed him from villain to superhero in some of the films. From the start, he was also a walking moral lesson; we unleashed the monster. If we’re at fault, maybe the beastie has a point in killing so many of us. Some monsters actually deserve our sympathy; the Frankenstein Monster and King Kong are obvious examples. We may also recognize in the villain the potential for redemption. Darth Vader lived by a code, and he had a perspective on the universe that the other Imperial officials lacked. A brief examination of his lines in the first Star Wars film clearly indicate that these things were integral to his character from his original appearance.

Some vile creatures we love to hate. South Park’s Cartman we have to recognize, I think, has grown from spoiled fat kid to evil monstrosity, albeit a parodic one. He remains popular, but fans of the show live for moments where he suffers, and they’re frequently rewarded. And in general, over-the-top, comedic villains appeal because they’re funny. More realistic villains, however, can present us with complicated, conflicted psychology which can be fascinating to explore. Psycho’s Norman Bates begs us to peak inside his mind and wonder about the forces that shaped him.

Sometimes the beast allows us to indulge in our darker fantasies. How many werewolf or vampire stories appeal on that level?

I cannot definitely say which of the aforementioned contribute to Krueger’s popularity, not just as an interesting villain, but as a bonafide cult hero. I also recognize that later movies problematized his origin. However, the Krueger we see in the first movie started asa child murderer, and when we hear that phrase, we can be forgiven for hearing ‘child molester’– which is how the original script identified him 3. The version that made it to film was softened. Still, hints abound, and Krueger certainly plays on that fear. These facts should preclude our feeling sympathetic.

Yet some people obviously do, and I doubt it’s because most of them have a desire to hunt down young people. So what’s with Krueger’s personal popularity, especially in the 1980s? Theories?

1. Upon typing that, I realized how immeasurably more entertaining such a film would have been than most of Nightmare…’s actual sequels.

2. That and, as others have noted, we know that some guy in a dinosaur suit is having a blast stomping a model city, and we’re coveting his position.

3. Rockoff, Adam Going to Pieces: the Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. McFarland & Company, 2003. 153.