Monday, 30 December 2013

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Directed by Wes Craven; Starring Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Johnny Depp

Rating: 3/5

The third of the big three slasher franchises came latest, well into the ‘80s, and has ended up being my favourite. Like Halloween it’s suburban, taking place in and around a few houses on the titular Elm Street as teenagers are picked off by a sadistic killer (with a relatively low, early instalment body count).

What sets A Nightmare on Elm Street apart from its rivals is Freddy Krueger, who again became a horror icon. With his trademark hat and clawed glove (long razor blades attached to each finger), he has a striking silhouette, which is played with during the first act of the film until his face is later revealed – and a grotesque, burned visage it is.

Writer and director Wes Craven creates an altogether different villain. He does not stalk the woods with a machete, but is wholly supernatural, and inhabits the world of nightmares, playing off a typical childhood fear – that things in your nightmares could become real.

This film is largely rooted in these childhood concerns; Freddy’s arrival is heralded by skipping children who sing an ethereal, unsettling rhyme, and another major theme is that of disconnection between children and parents.

Typically, the adults are worse than useless, dismissing the concerns of heroine Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) as mere dreams, even when her friends start dying in their sleep, and she pulls Freddy’s hat back into the real world with her.

But there’s more to this than meets the eye; hints are dropped throughout that Nancy’s mother knows more than she’s letting on, and it is later revealed that the erstwhile Freddy, a child murderer, was burned alive by the parents of Elm Street. Freddy’s plan is one of pure revenge.

As a character, Freddy is certainly unhinged and despicable, but is prone to more gags and wisecracking. In the dream world, he’s the boss, ands he likes to play around. He is not merely a lumbering stunt man in a mask, but is played by an actual actor, Robert England, who is now an established horror veteran as a result of his work on the series (he has played Freddy in nine Elm Street films between 1984 and 2003).

Unbound by the limitations of physical reality, he scares his victims with acts of self mutilation, which are not just body horror but also sight gags, another element of the series’ more tongue in cheek take on the horror genre.

He toys with his victims, slicing his gut to reveal maggots and green goo – at one point, a victim grabs his face, and the flesh simply comes away. Freddy lets this happen, to display his control and the hopelessness of the situation.

All of this provides the opportunity for some great practical special effects to showcase Freddy’s dream manipulation, which may well be lost in a modern production (I’ve yet to see the 2010 remake, so the validity of this remains to be seen).

Freddy stretches his face through the wall above Nancy’s bed, and makes the staircase melt into quicksand. A scene where Freddy’s glove attacks Nancy in the bath (part of a limited scattering of sexual imagery) was achieved by building the bathroom set above a larger tank of water. Other gravity defying effects were shot on upside-down sets.

One of Freddy’s victims is a young Johnny Depp in his very first cinematic role, and his death scene reputedly holds some kind of record for the sheer volume of fake blood used in a single movie (500 gallons, according to IMDB).

If Freddy is a unique villain, Nancy Thompson is a refreshingly different final girl. She does not spend the entire film fleeing in terror, or cowering in cupboards like some of her predecessors, but is altogether more pragmatic and determined. She sets out to defeat Freddy, and constructs a gauntlet of Home Alone-style traps throughout her house before pulling Freddy into reality for the final showdown.

The nightmares themselves are a high point. If Halloween was set in suburbia, and Friday the 13th in the woods, A Nightmare on Elm Street really takes place in the mind. Wes Craven blurs the line between dreams and reality; although the nightmares have a darker atmosphere in terms of lighting and colour palette, the transition is almost unnoticeable until Freddy appears. Dreamlike location switches are also used – Nancy leaves a boiler room, and appears on her front lawn.

The ending is strangely ambiguous, although slasher films frequently end with a final confusing shock or sequel hook. With this final scene, it is not clear how much of what we have witnessed was real, and what was just a dream, so while it’s a head scratcher, that’s really the point.

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