Of all the slasher franchises to make it out of the horror boom in the 1970s and ’80s, few have had the staying power of A Nightmare on Elm Street. With it’s disfigured mascot Freddy Krueger at the helm, the series enjoyed six sequels, a crossover with Friday the 13th, and a remake. It put New Line Cinema on the map, saving the fledgling company from near bankruptcy and turning it from a B-tier distributor of low budget films to the genuine movie studio that would later go on to make Lord of the Rings. For New Line, it all started with A Nightmare on Elm Street and even though it’s lost much of it’s impact all these years later, the movie remains a fascinating piece of horror history.
Inspired by the disturbing news story of Khmer refugees who died mysteriously in their sleep in the 1970s, A Nightmare on Elm Street follows four youths: bubbly Tina (Amanda Wyss), level headed Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), bullish Rod (Jsu Garcia) and soft-spoken Glen (an almost unrecognizably young Johnny Depp). The group share a common and disturbing nightmare: that of a brutally scarred man hunting them down in a shadowy boiler room, a man with horrific gloves that have knives attached like claws. This is no mere nightmare however; when they are injured in the dream they wake up injured in the same way in real life. As the kids begin to realize that they are in very serious danger, they struggle to find a way to extinguish the nightmare forever.
A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s strongest weapon is it’s characters. One of the most common problems horror movies have is creating three dimensional protagonists that you actually get to care about before they start being brutally killed by whoever the lunatic with the knife is. With Elm Street, writer/director Wes Craven (who helped reinvigorate the horror genre a second time with the Scream series in the late ’90s) spends time building his characters up before he cuts them down. It lends the story weight and, while the characters surrounding the main foursome don’t come off nearly as well, the film benefits from the care and thought taken with its leads.
That extra focus on character work is buoyed by some pretty decent performances from the young cast, with the exception perhaps of Jsu Garcia who capital-A acts his way through the film with a little too much enthusiasm. It’s particularly interesting to see Johnny Depp at work here, not only because he’s so young (this was his first film role, years before he became the dog smuggling superstar we all know and love) but also because he’s playing a normal human being. Depp is an extraordinarily capable actor, one perfectly able to deliver a subtle, understated performance, and Elm Street is a nice reminder of that. While his recent roles skew almost exclusively to the extreme and over-the-top, his debut performance is better than most of them, with the exception of Pirates of the Caribbean.
The story is equally well-done, one that exploits the highly unpredictable nature of dreams for maximum effect. While later entries in the series would lean heavily into the crazy absurdity that populates nightmares, Elm Street 1 plays it disturbingly straight, grounding the action in a dream world just the tiniest bit different from our own. It’s only slightly off kilter but that diluted familiarity is especially effective. Less successful is the disappointing cop-out of an ending. Multiple conclusions were filmed as Craven and producer Sean Cunningham struggled to figure out how to close out the movie, and only one would really have worked in the context of previous scenes. Since that one was an even bigger cop-out then the one we got, the filmmakers elected to go with a final scene that makes little to no sense given what came before. But hey, it left room for the sequels so… there’s that I guess?
A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s biggest flaw is retroactive one: it’s just not very scary anymore. While the stilted dialogue and utterly hopeless adult characters are pretty easy to get past, a lack of scares is a critical absence. Freddy Krueger is a memorable villain and his history and motives are the film’s most disturbing element, but when he jumps out of the shadows and slashes people it all feels by the numbers. The art of frightening filmgoers has progressed enormously in the last few decades (Craven would go on to outdo himself in the excellent opening sequence of Scream, which puts anything in Elm Street to shame) and what worked in 1984 no longer has the desired effect in 2016. Craven is also unusually restrained behind the camera, withholding the creative blocking and framing that would mark his later work. Elm Street has value without it’s scariness but it’s hard to argue that that value hasn’t been diminished.
A Nightmare on Elm Street has influenced almost every horror movie released since it first came out over thirty years ago. At the time it was groundbreaking: a gritty, creative film that easily surpassed the increasingly by-the-numbers Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels that dominated the box office. Looking back on it now, through the lens of 2016, it’s impossible to recapture that. One of the downsides of innovating is that if you’re the first to do something, then eventually someone does it better than you. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror movie pioneer and it’s impact cannot be overstated. It’s villain has transcended the series that birthed him and haunted the dreams of pop culture at large, and riffs on the movie’s most famous scenes can be found in everything from The Simpsons to the 2001 version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. This is an important movie, and it’s still very enjoyable today but anyone going in fresh would do well not to expect the same kind of response the movie elicited from audiences three decades ago.