Writer: Wes Craven
Cast: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Nick Corri, Amanda Wyss, Ronee Blakley, John Saxon
Plot: Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) is being plagued by a dream in which some maniac with knives on his fingers is stalking her through a boiler room. The next day, she discovers that her friend Nancy (Heather Langencamp) has been suffering from similar dreams. Nancy and her boyfriend Glenn (Johnny Depp) come over that night to make her feel better while she’s home alone, but Tina’s boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) crashes the party and coaxes Tina into her mother’s bed. Tina falls asleep and is again attacked by the man with the knives in her dream. This time, as she fights him in the dream-world, in the real world her body is tossed about the room, cut and broken, and she dies. Rod, the only witness, flees in terror, but is arrested the next day and charged with her murder. Nancy falls asleep in school the next day, and has a vision of Tina’s blood-covered corpse being dragged around the school in a bodybag. Nancy finds herself in a boiler room, pursued by the man with the knives, who introduces himself as Freddy (Robert Englund). In terror, she puts her arm against a hot pipe, the pain jolting her awake. Freddy attacks her again when she falls asleep in the bathtub, but she again manages to wake up in time. After a third dream-encounter, Nancy and Glenn rush to the police station to visit Rob, but at that same moment he has fallen asleep. Freddy hangs him in his jail cell.
Nancy tells her parents (John Saxon and Ronee Blakley) about the dreams, and they bring her to a doctor who observes her while she sleeps. She has a violent reaction to the dreams, cuts appear on her arms, and a white streak appears in her hair. In her bed, she finds the battered hat Freddy wears in the dreams. She confronts her mother with the hat and the name written in it, Fred Kruger, and Marge breaks down and tells Nancy the truth: Krueger was a child murderer in the neighborhood that escaped justice on a technicality. Marge and the other parents of Elm Street tracked him to his hideout in a boiler room and lit the place on fire, letting him burn to death. Now he’s back, seeking revenge on the children of the parents who murdered him. Marge, heavily drunk, locks Nancy in her house, and she is trapped across the street as Glenn falls asleep and is killed, sucked into his bed by Freddy, and then expelled back into the room as a geyser of blood. Setting up traps around the house, she finally allows herself to fall asleep. She manages to bring Freddy into the real world, where she leads him through her gauntlet of traps and eventually trapping him in the basement – on fire. As her father arrives, Krueger escapes the basement and kills Marge, drawing her blackened, burned corpse into the bed. Her father leaves her alone, and Nancy confronts him one more time. This time, though, she refuses to give in to her fear, breaking his power, and he vanishes. In the morning, we see Nancy and Marge step out into the sunlight as Glenn, Rod, and Tina drive up. Nancy gets into the car, but the top (with Freddy’s distinctive red and green stripe pattern) closes and drives them away.
Thoughts: If you’ll recall, I was less than impressed with Wes Craven’s first entry in this experiment, Last House on the Left. Twelve years later, he more than redeemed himself with this horror classic. Freddy Krueger was a game changer for slasher movies. For the most part, previous films about some madman stalking people were grounded in reality. Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface and the sort were all human, if a bit hard to kill. It was Freddy that brought slashers into the supernatural, and a large number of the imitators that have come since then have embraced the supernatural elements wholeheartedly. Even some of those psycho killers that preceded Freddy made the switch to supernatural after a few movies, some successfully (Jason Voorhees became a Superzombie in Friday the 13th Part 6 and never looked back), and some not (there have been a few attempts to make Michael Meyers possessed by a demon or some other rot, all of which wound up simply undermining the character).
The modern slasher is often pictured as some maniac killer who dies and returns to a semblance of life in some hate-fueled quest for blood, and this is where that comes from. Even Tim Seeley’s excellent comic book series Hack/Slash uses this as its core – this series focuses on a “Survivor Girl” who gets pissed and decides to start hunting supernatural slashers, many of them creepy enough to stand right next to Freddy or Jason, and on one memorable occasion even encountering the maniacal Chucky from the Child’s Play series. Without this vision from Wes Craven, it wouldn’t have happened.
Also like many other films on this list, we get a great argument for the use of practical effects over CGI. The 2010 remake of this movie tried some of the same gags using computers, and they just weren’t as effective. When Freddy leans through the wall at Nancy, Wes Craven simply had Robert Englund pushing against a rubber membrane to terrifying effect. The remake went CGI, and it looked terrible. The fountain of blood in Johnny Depp’s death scene? Again, something that just wouldn’t look as good with computerized blood as good old-fashioned red corn syrup (or whatever they used).
It’s not just the quality of the effects, though, it’s how creative Craven is at conjuring up images that seem like something that would come straight out of a dream, like the centipede that comes from Tina’s mouth or the stairs melting away beneath Nancy’s feet. Even now, the image of Tina’s bodybag being dragged around the school by some unseen force is among the creepier images I’ve seen in a movie. It’s this kind of imagination that makes the movie work, that and the fact that Craven taps into one of the most primal fears a person could have. Regardless of age, sex, religion, or culture, everybody sleeps, and everybody dreams. That moment when you’re asleep, you’re the most vulnerable, but we survive by knowing that nothing that happens in a dream can actually hurt us. For Nancy and the others, Craven takes away that last bit of security, creating some genuine terror for the characters. Nancy is now living in a world where she has to sleep or go insane, but the moment she falls asleep she knows she can be attacked by a madman.
Nightmare helps to reinforce a great number of horror tropes. The first victim, Tina, dies immediately after having sex: we have slasher-as-morality police. Nancy’s parents don’t believe her at first: the clueless authority figures. Then, it turns out Nancy’s mother knew the truth all along, while her father still resists the truth: the useless authority figures. And then there’s Nancy herself, one of my favorite horror movie Survivor Girls. Sure, Laurie Strode is the prototype, but for my money Nancy Thompson is the character all girls who want to survivor horror movies should aspire to be. Laurie shows guts, but she’s largely reactive. Nancy investigates, hunts the killer, even going so far as to lay traps for him, and when she returns to the series in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (the best of the film’s many sequels), she has evolved considerably. She uses her trauma to help other people, and makes the transformation from Hero to Mentor figure, something which very few horror movie characters ever get a chance to do. Even though Nancy dies in that film, she dies with a purpose, escaping that much-hated “survivor dies in the first five minutes of the sequel” plague that hit so many of her peers.
If I may tangent a moment here – the scene of Nancy booby-trapping the house evokes the similar scene Craven used in Last House on the Left. Exactly why Craven saw fit to use such a similar sequence in two different movies, I don’t know, but it works much better here. In Last House it felt silly, reminding me of nothing so much as Home Alone. Here, possibly because Nancy has already proven herself as a true survivor, it works.
Freddy himself breaks the mold of the monolithic, quiet slayers we saw in Leatherface, Michael Meyers, and Jason Voorhees (once he took over his franchise from Mommy). Freddy is a smaller figure, slender, and wiley. He isn’t quite the chatterbox he would become in the sequels, but he’s already taken to taunting his victims – both verbally and physically – as part of his game. And it is a game to him, make no mistake. Michael and Jason are driven to kill by their respective madness. In a way, Freddy is scarier. He kills because it’s fun. Robert Englund raised this character from a one-note killer to a horror legend, the kind of character that took over the franchise and that audiences actually started to root for after awhile. That’s a testament to his skill as an actor and the charm of the character, but whenever someone starts to cheer for Freddy, I feel somewhat compelled to point out that the guy wound up in this predicament in the first place because of that whole “molest and murder small children” thing he had going on there.
I am not, to be honest, a big fan of the ending of the movie. The ambiguity of Nancy’s final confrontation with Freddy doesn’t quite work. We’ve seen other films in this project with ambiguous endings that worked very well – Ash’s final scream in The Evil Dead, or Joan Crawford’s lingering mortality in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But here we get the feeling that Wes Craven (who didn’t have sequels in mind when he wrote this script) wanted to make it more definitive, and give the film more of a down ending, while the studio (New Line Cinema, which until this point had only been a distribution company and was actually producing its first film) wanted things a bit more open-ended. As a result, we have something that leaves the movie feeling unfinished, and as the second film in the series (in my opinion the worst film in the series) doesn’t touch upon Nancy or her fate at all, except to find one of her old diaries, the audience was left wondering until Craven returned to help write the story for Part 3. And that, frankly, isn’t very satisfying.
Although he made many more horror movies, it’ll be another 12 years before we see Wes Craven turn up in this project again. As for now, the 80s seemed to be the era of things returning from the dead. Aside from Freddy and Jason, the zombie film really seemed to hit its stride in this era, and one of the more memorable of the entries in that group comes up next. Join us tomorrow for Return of the Living Dead.
Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.