Written and Directed by Wes Craven Starring Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Johnny Depp, & Robert Englund
Film review by Chris Olson
They say the mark of a truly effective horror film is that is disturbs you so much that you have nightmares about it. Wes Craven’s cherished A Nightmare on Elm Street goes straight for the jugular, by having the ghoulish villian, Freddy Krueger (Robert England), operate in the dreams of his victims - where no snooze alarm can save them…
Craven is well known for his contributions to the horror genre, from films like The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), to more modern scary flicks like Scream (1996) and the rest of the Scream franchise. In this very much 80’s film, the horror is based in our subconscious, and personified by a knife-fingered, stripy-jumper-wearing psycho who stalks teens in their nightmares simply for living in a specific suburban street.
There is a lot to praise about A Nightmare on Elm Street, as film reviews go Wes Craven often lends himself to plenty of compliments and plaudits. The thrills are incredibly visual, the themes of coming-of-age vulnerability are utterly engaging, and the use of atmosphere is totally immersive. Certain scenes are visually arresting with the use of abstract violence. However, the movie has not aged well, with a linear script that most modern audiences will find jarring, and overtly Americanised characters that seem like cartoonish frames. Characters are often the stumbling block for horror films, where an enthusiasm for evil seems to outweigh the necessity for believable people.
If you can lose yourself in the visceral aesthetic of Craven’s slash-fest there is a lot to gain. So many of the genre’s filmmakers have benefited from the leaps that Craven made. Tension, atmosphere and thrills are honed with an auteur’s craftsmanship that seems total and affectionate. Every scene is laden with intensity, capturing the horror of the plot and the character’s abstract terror. And whilst the characters are pretty thinly sketched, they do at least contribute to the plot consistently, in particular with an early role for Johnny Depp as teenage Glen - a cheeky yet wholesome lad who (SPOILER ALERT) may or may not get swallowed up by a bed - if that’s not a blatant warning against underage sex, I don’t know what is!
These elements can be very much lost with modern audiences, though, as the linear performances and wooden script are perhaps unforgivable, whilst the instantaneous spills/thrills/kills of newer films have left viewers numb to these kind of outdate theatrics - even if they were trendsetting at the time. In fact, many of A Nightmare on Elm Street’s devices seem like cheap TV rather than prolific horror.
That being said, there is a reason that Craven’s film has become a mainstay with film lovers, and it can be found in the aforementioned stripy-jumpered psycho - Freddy Krueger. This character embodies several fundamental fears that audiences connect with: nightmares, subconscious vulnerability, and knives that can properly tear you a new one quickly. Krueger has become more than the children’s skipping song he began as, instantly recognisable for his cutlery-based accessories and a regular go-to for Halloween costumes. Part of the success in a good horror film needs to be a legendary villain, and Craven created a doozey here.
A Nightmare on Elm Street, whilst being a beloved title in the history of horror, carries with it a sad decrepitude that has blunted a lot of its sharp features. Krueger’s knives seem like plastic spoons in this story of ghoulish games, and the characters are thinner than a slashed white t-shirt.
Still, you will never meet a scarier villain in a stripy jumper…unless Where’s Wally terrifies you with his chaotic hiding.