Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Director: Wes Craven

Freddy Krueger makes his bloody debut in this flawed but undeniably fun horror staple. Pop culture had no idea what was in store for it when A Nightmare on Elm Street burst onto the scene with its wildly violent and visually arresting style. In this film we’re introduced to the creepiest character of them all… no, not Johnny Depp. Although, some of his outfits haunted me long after it was over. I’m talking about the one and only Freddy Krueger who, unlike Jason, made torturing and taunting his victims an art form and took sheer glee in nothing more than terrorizing children in their sleep. It’s no wonder this film is sought out by curious high school kids who want to see every film they aren't supposed to see. With an excellent premise firmly clutched in the capable hands of director Wes Craven, Freddy has the perfect vehicle to do what he does best. Right off the bat, it’s noticeable that A Nightmare on Elm Street perfectly utilizes its premise of traveling between dream and reality by focusing almost entirely on visually haunting sequences. The visuals will stick with you, even though when you look back at it, Freddy only kills four people in the entire film. It’s quality not quantity here. The entire film is literally drenched in blood. And I’m not talking about splatter-fest type stuff here. It’s more like tidal waves of it that coat the characters and sets, leaving horrified audiences in their wake. Freddy is noticeably scarce here, and short on words. Later, he would learn that the camera loves him. But here, he’s a wallflower who's almost afraid to surreptitiously ask a girl to dance before literally stabbing her in the back.

The story starts out right away in a dream with a young girl runs across a spooked lamb while wandering the labyrinths of a boiler room. Why a lamb? ‘Cuz it looks creepy, that’s why. What more of a reason do you need? This is a good omen that the crew has a distinct style and isn’t concerned with drawing you in, but rather freaking you out. Tina (Amanda Wyss) traverses the corridors, only to encounter everyone's favorite sweater-wearing psychopath (except for Mr. Rogers, of course). Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) pops up, but Tina awakes before he can do more damage than just a few slices to her nightgown, which Tina discovers actually exist. The next day at school, Tina discovers that her friends, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Glen (Johnny Depp) and Rod (Nick Corri) have all had similar nightmares. So, what's the next logical response when a psychopathic killer who attacks people in their dreams is out to get you? Sleepover!!!! What could go wrong? Tina and Rod head up to the bedroom to bump uglies, while Nancy and her boyfriend, Glen, hang out downstairs. Freddy takes a second stab at the whole Tina-killing thing, and screams are heard coming from the upstairs bedroom... the bad kind of screams. In probably the most memorable scene (which holds up surprisingly well) is when an invisible Freddy begins to fling Tina around the bedroom. She’s dragged around the room, including the ceiling and walls, like a blood soaked paintbrush. Rod is no help, of course, and flees the scene before Nancy and Glen discover the horrific aftermath. Now, Rod is wanted for murder by the cops. Later, Freddy takes out Rod while he’s in his jail cell after he’s been captured by hanging him with a bed sheet.

Nancy is the main character (or "last girl"), whom the rest of the story revolves around. Nancy is continually terrorized in her dreams, leaving her no choice but to try to ward off sleep by using gallons of coffee and handfulls of “Stay Alert” pills. Her boozed up mother thinks she’s nuts, so she takes her to a Dream Therapy Clinic. It's there that Nancy discovers she can bring things out of the dream world and into the real world. In a doctor-induced nightmare she swipes Freddy’s trademark tattered fedora before waking up in her hospital bed with the hat firmly in her grasp. After little coaxing, the backstory arrives in one huge clump. Nancy’s mother reveals that Freddy Krueger was a child murderer who escaped a sentence, and the parents took matters into their own hands. They tracked him down and burned him alive. Apparently, Freddy didn’t cook all the way through and now he's up to his old tricks attacking children again... but this time, in their dreams. Death = superpowers. After a few failed attempts by Nancy and Glen at an attack on Freddy due to Glen's inability to stay awake, Glen gets sucked into his bed and belched out in the form of a blood geyser -- It's Old Faithful, Wes Craven style! Unfortunately for Freddy, there was a little side effect to Glen's untimely end: Now it's personal... more so. Nancy attempts to venture into dreamsville one last time to bring Freddy out and clobber him for good. Before the big sleep, she assembles an elaborate set of Home Alone -style booby traps around her house. She dozes off and manages to bring Freddy into the real world. Freddy bumbles around and falls down stairs, gets a mallet to the gut, and is lit on fire as he pursues Nancy. I expected Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern to walk in at some point. Freddy claims one more victim: Nancy’s mom. Freddy, still on fire, hops on top of Nancy’s mom while she's in bed. I’m assuming she wept up so quickly because her body was, at that point, probably about 85% alcohol. Nancy finally confronts Freddy in a courageous face off and claims to have discovered his weakness. She tells him she doesn’t believe in him and that she knows that it’s all just a dream. Freddy fades away thanks to cheesy 80's digital effects before he can deliver a final blow. Nancy walks through the bedroom door and finds herself now walking out her front door in a fantasy reality with all her friends and mother back among the living. Well, wouldn’t you know it, but that was just a dream too. The gang’s car takes on a life of its own and drives off with them all trapped inside like sardines. Nancy’s mom is yanked through the tiny window on the front door of their house by Freddy, while a group of young girls jumping rope recite Freddy’s signature tune.

It definitely looses steam and gets a little too goofy in the third act, but the script (which seemed more like just a concept) stays alive with its consistently chilling direction and slasher-honoring mood throughout. With Freddy lurking around virtually every corner, he isn’t the witty and charming psycho we all know and love yet. The film ultimately rests on its imagery and atmosphere, which I would guess were heavily influenced by The Shining and the works of Dario Argento. There are a bevy of memorable scenes, including a scene where Tina’s dead body is dragged down the hallways of the school in Nancy’s dream by an invisible Freddy. Also, the scene where Nancy attempts to climb the stairs, only to find that her feet sink into them, portrays the surrealistic nature of nightmares with an original and creepy effect. In a film about dreams and blurring the line between fantasy and reality this is the perfect canvas for a horror virtuoso to really make his mark. The visuals and mood were the most important elements for this film to really work, and luckily those are the exact (maybe the only) elements that do work. Characters and plot take a back seat so that we can be treated to a mosaic of blood and… well, more blood from start to finish. Although, the ending is less rewarding than it should've been and ends up feeling a bit out of place. They wanted to end it with the shocker of the dream not being over and Freddy still calling the shots, but they couldn't really figure out how to go about it. Which part was a dream? And who's dream was it? If you analyze it too much you'll probably find yourself liking the movie less and less. But that's not what we're here for. We're here for fun and terror and we get them in spades. And kudos to Heather Langenkamp as Nancy. She shines in a performance that requires her to be the voice of reason, and energetically carry this film while simultaneously running low on steam as she eschews sleep. She's one of my favorite "last girls" in horror history. So, now the stage is set. Freddy’s got his foot in the door, but is more than happy to batter it down anyway just for the sake of chaos.

Best Death: Tina's "Dancing on the Ceiling" routine turns ugly.

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