Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

USA, 91 minutes
Director/writer: Wes Craven
Photography: Jacques Haitkin
Music: Charles Bernstein
Editors: Patrick McMahon, Rick Shaine
Cast: Heather Langenkamp, Ronee Blakley, John Saxon, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri

I'm very fond of A Nightmare on Elm Street because it's approximately where I decided to give the horror / creepshow genre one more chance. They just kept scaring me too bad. And Nightmare is truly a full-on scare fest, with cunning shock cuts, gore, and a premise that insidiously gets under your skin. But it's also an '80s movie, complete with cheesy synthesizer soundtrack, and a critical moment (in the wake of The Evil Dead) when horror became self-conscious and started to riff and goof and deconstruct, playing for laughs when it chose. The sing-songy nursery rhyme chanted by anonymous children here (a somewhat tired trope of the genre by then) is turned subtly toward explication and a kind of self-mocking: "One, two, Freddy's coming for you / Three, four, better lock your door / Five, six, grab your crucifix / Seven, eight, stay up late / Nine, ten, never sleep again."

Freddy, of course, is Fred Krueger, the monster figure child molester at the center of this. The backstory is silly and preposterous, evidently only to be related in filthy cellars. Even within this movie, let alone the entire franchise that followed, our boogeyman with the Wolverine blades in the red and green sweater is more super villain than proper monster (and morphing slowly but surely into stand-up comic), which makes him ultimately a bit dull or worse. But here's how it works. Fred Krueger attacks his victims from inside their dreams—hence "stay up late" and "never sleep again" in the nursery rhyme. And for most of its length Nightmare is really pretty good on the insanities of dream world logic. The best dream scenes here, such as one in the high school, feel convincingly weird (and threatening) as only dreams can.

The picture is really good on violence too. I count the first death—of Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss), shortly after she has enjoyed sex with her boyfriend—as one of the great scenes in horror. Director and writer Wes Craven does it just right, hitting us with it in the first 15 minutes, which have otherwise been mostly spent on introducing the suburban / small-town high school players and creating a genially cozy (if vaguely menacing) atmosphere. Then, quickly, Tina is suddenly disturbed in her sleep, ripped into with invisible blades, lifted from the bed where she's been sleeping (obviously on wires, but it works). She is screaming. There is blood. She is thrown about and then dragged up a wall and across the ceiling. What does gravity matter when colossal evil forces have set to you? How do you fight something invisible that can drag you across the ceiling? It is sudden, wrenching, unexpected, over the top, and impossible to look away from. The picture now has your full attention.

Indeed, it works in many small ways too. Krueger's blades and the way they scrape on metal and other surfaces are continually invoked, making full use of the skin-crawling reaction to the sound and the idea, the proverbial fingernails on a chalkboard. And Craven keeps finding ways to make his characters ridiculously vulnerable, as one scene in a bathtub that is shot looking at our heroine Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp, trying hard) from her feet, with her legs lazily falling open. You see that, you suspect what you will see next, and still you can't prepare for it.

I also get a kick out of the faces that show up here: the great John Saxon as Nancy's father and a gruff if somewhat inept cop. Ronee Blakley right out of a defective tanning booth as Nancy's alcoholic mother. And "introducing Johnny Depp," who pretty much even then as a 19-year-old already had his smoov ways down.

Unfortunately, things being what they are in the movie marketing world, something has to be done to resolve the premise, and so the picture gradually shifts into a thriller mode in the last third, as the dream rules become merely utilitarian in terms of hunting down the bad guy—chase scene material. With the booby traps she sets for Krueger at the end, Nancy and her plight become a Home Alone scene even before there was a Home Alone.

It's redeemed somewhat by a last scene that's wonderfully insane and incomprehensible—but then came the sequels, so that's that. I haven't seen any of those sequels, by the way, though I now own a set with the first four and plan to make a project soon of seeing how bad it got. Craven's reputation largely rests here and with The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House on the Left, the latter of which is despicable but interesting (a calculated rip-off of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring) and with its place in the history of the form. I still recall being scared just by the radio ad campaign, where viewers were encouraged to remind themselves, zombie fashion, "It's only a movie ... it's only a movie."

When A Nightmare on Elm Street is good, it's very good. The dream sense is strong and it often feels like a nightmare, with the lines between dream and reality adroitly blurred, as when people wake from their nightmares with wounds. It has a good many nice gothic notes, with the dream world pushing and distorting reality from the other sides of walls. It's also a pretty good summation of the state of slasher codification to that point (the rudimentary and automatic equations of sex with death, blades as the instruments favored, and of course a central super villain). Do you like scary movies? You could do a lot worse.

1 comment:

  1. One of the all-time great concepts. I've seen it once (waaay after the point I should have seen - and been traumatized - by it; I think I was about 27 when I finally caught up with it) & liked it but should probably see it again. The Simpsons parody has a firmer hold on my memory. But then that one I DID see as a child, so perhaps that's why.