Throughout the month of October, The Open Man spotlights its favorite horror movies to set the mood for the season.
Gore, jump-scares set to loud musical transitions, auxiliary characters present only to pad body counts: These are not the necessary ingredients for an effective horror film. Horror intended to frighten works best when the audience is put into a familiar situation.
Realism isn’t as important as relatability. The dead have never risen and feasted on the living, but the presence of zombies enhances the unsettling, claustrophobic themes of George Romero’s game-changing classic, Night of the Living Dead. Wes Craven similarly combined elements of the supernatural with a relatable phobia when he directed A Nightmare on Elm Street.
The Elm Street series devolved into something of a punchline as it racked up guaranteed money-making installments. The enduring image of lead antagonist Freddy Kreuger is that of a wise-cracking prankster, akin more to a foul-mouthed Bugs Bunny than the dark, terrifying character Craven originally envisioned.
Freddy’s transformation over the course of the original six films into a comedic character wasn’t the fault of actor Robert Englund, who always brought it in his performances. At a certain point, Freddy became the main attraction, with the “heroes” rendered increasingly dispensable — if not downright unlikable.
Such was my entry point to the series. The first Elm Street movie I saw was The Dream Warriors, an undeniably entertaining fan-favorite of the series, and the last to feature elements of frightening Freddy. However, the transition to comedic anti-hero began with the third movie, and was complete with the second Elm Street I saw, the abominable Freddy’s Dead.
Imagine my surprise, then, watching the original A Nightmare on Elm Street for the first time.
As a teenager, I held the very stupid belief that franchises must improve with more installments because, after all, cinematographic technologies improve, and the ante ups as far as the action beats a movie showcased. It’s a confused time in my life when I believed The World is Not Enough was superior to Goldfinger, and I’d never seen Godzilla, but had watched Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla multiple times.
I finally got around to watching A Nightmare on Elm Street in college, when my tastes had started to refine somewhat (I was still a Kevin Smith fan, so I can’t say they were completely matured). But I was a savvy enough movie watcher to realize A Nightmare on Elm Street was more than just the best installment in the series; it’s one of the greatest horror movies ever made.
Robert Englund plays an entirely different Freddy than I’d seen before, exuding a sinister sleaziness writers in later installments failed to convey. As an aside, Freddy vs. Jason fails in other regards, but absolutely nails capturing the evil, grotesque version of Freddy originally depicted in 1984.
Englund’s performance juxtaposes well against the cast of protagonists, most notably Nancy Thompson. Through Nancy, A Nightmare on Elm Street follows the Survival Girl archetype that was already fairly well worn by 1984 as a result of the slasher craze, but Heather Langenkamp’s Hero’s Journey is so well-performed that it transcends the trope.
Nancy and her friends are relatable high school kids, not intentionally interchangeable and one-dimensional filler designed to set up kill scenes. That you establish connection with the protagonists underscores Freddy’s villainy and establishes an emotional investment that makes each death more shocking than if the characters existed simply to stop existing. It’s much more effective than something like Eli Roth’s Hostel, which relies on over-the-top gore to compensate for the fact the main characters are total scumbags.
Not to say A Nightmare on Elm Street lacks for gore: Glen’s death in particular is one of the most shocking from this era of horror.
The use of practical effects enhances the impact. In fact, the effects from 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street hold up much better in a viewing today than the CGI of 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason, or even the atrocious Platinum Dunes remake of Nightmare in 2010.
Some effects from the original are a tad dated, but those that work are stunning. Tina’s scene highlights both, while also showcasing the unsettling creepiness of Englund’s performance.
The incredible special effects also enhance the relatability of a premise that would otherwise seem laughably unrealistic. Indeed, the central concept around A Nightmare on Elm Street is one ripe for parody, perhaps making the direction of the series an inevitability.
But the first is so expertly made, the idea of a dead murdered returning in the dreams of children from the community he once terrorized isn’t far-fetched. Or, at least, the viewer’s so immersed in the story and thematic elements as to overlook the unrealistic premise.
Wes Craven excels in touching on the relatable feeling of helplessness we all have experienced during an actual nightmare. The sheer terror an especially bad nightmare invokes dissipates quickly when we awake. A Nightmare on Elm Street takes us through a narrative in which that feeling of relief never arrives.