Movies have always had a dream-like quality with the fluid editing, lighting, and impossible situations. Therefore it is only natural for some movies to create a nightmare atmosphere, and in 1984 Wes Craven took that concept to the next level with A Nightmare on Elm Street featuring one of the scariest villains in cinema history, the disfigured Freddy Krueger. It’s already a horrible scenario to have a maniac is chasing you down a dark alley, but what can you do when the alley is your own mind?
With his fedora, stripped sweater, metal claws, and sick sense of humour, Krueger has become ingrained in pop culture ever since he began killing teenagers in their nightmares back in the 1980s. The fact that there have been over half a dozens sequels and a remake has helped keep the character alive, and it has also had the unfortunate effect of lessening his impact. If there is one thing that will make a supernatural monster less scary it is the tenth instalment in his franchise. Still, over the years the mere concept of a dream monster seemed scary enough for me to stay away from those films, although I did watch the gory Freddy vs. Jason when it played on TV. Finally two years ago I rented the original nightmare a few weeks before Halloween to see the origin of the ultimate dream monster. Verdict: stick to the original for a true nightmare.
The concept of the movie feels like a cross between The X-Files and The Twilight Zone. A group of teenagers who live in the same beautiful suburban American neighbourhood all start to have nightmares about a man with a burned face who calls himself Freddy (Robert Englund). Glen Lantz (a young Johnny Depp) says to ignore the monster since a dream can’t hurt you. Unfortunately this particular monster can, and one by one the teenagers start to suffer horrible deaths in their dreams, proving that you can in fact wake up dead, or at least wake up dying.
When a girl is found with stab wounds in her bed, the cops of course go after the boyfriend. When the boyfriend is found strangled in his cell they naturally assume he committed suicide, but Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp, the film’s proverbial “final girl”) knows there is something far more sinister at work and begins to think the parents know it too.
She gets her proof when her mother (Ronee Blakley) takes her to a sleep clinic to deal with her incessant nightmares. In one of the film’s best sequences the doctors put wires on Nancy’s head to monitor her sleep and get some rather unusual results. Not only does she wake up screaming with severe gashes on her arm, but also she is now holding a hat that seems to have materialized out of thin air. Talk about the world’s creepiest magic trick.
Nancy’s mom recognizes the hat, having been part of a mob that killed its owner when it was discovered that Freddy was a child killer who was acquitted on a technicality. The parents would not have that, so they burned him alive. They thought they could sweep their crime under the rug and live happily ever after, but Freddy is back from the grave for vengeance. Instead of telling their kids the truth, the adults lie to them or bury their heads in the sand hoping the problem will go away. Instead it grows stronger with each kill, while the children grow weaker from the lack of sleep. Suddenly suburbia doesn’t look so peaceful anymore.
As the nightmarish Krueger, Englund is terrifying and for better or for worse is now forever associated with the iconic character. The film’s effects are all practical and all the scarier for it. I have not seen the unnecessary remake, but I imagine it is full of cartoony CG effects that remind that you are just watching a movie. I like Jackie Earle Haley, but there was no point in him trying to recreate an icon when the original is perfect.
If I have one problem with the original Nightmare it is with its ambiguous ending that left the door wide open for a sequel. After what those characters go through they deserve closure, whether it is death or knowing they can have peaceful dreams again. Even Freddy needs to give at rest, because by the 6th or 8th sequel it’s just no scary anymore. Like with actually nightmares, the story needs to end eventually.