Skip to main content

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #162: A Nightmare On Elm Street

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.  


Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.
The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake nam…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theat…