A Nightmare on Elm Street – USA, 1984. Dir. Wes Craven. Starring Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund.
You know what’s really fun? A cross-country red eye flight after a nice long week at work. Especially when you can’t sleep. Because maybe you watched Final Destination a week before your trip. Maybe. Just maybe.
This is what the gin and tonic is for. This is also the disclaimer and excuse for any nonsense that occurs in the rest of this post.
It does seem somewhat appropriate though that I choose now to write about A Nightmare on Elm Street. With the not sleeping and all that. You know what I mean. I’m not delirious at all right now, I swear.
I mentioned Nightmare the other day when I posted about Poltergeist. It belongs in that same group of films, the scary movies I heard about as a tiny child in the eighties, the ones I would go on to be scared of well into college. Poltergeist. The Exorcist. Alien. A Nightmare on Elm Street. They are the four.
They are the ones that the mere idea of scared me silly. Well, those four and the one scene from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Do you know which scene I’m talking about? That sh*t gave me nightmares.
However, like Poltergeist, I find A Nightmare on Elm Street to be much less frightening now as an adult versus then when I was still a kid. And I wonder why that is. Why does a film like Alien hold up where Elm Street does not? I’m not sure exactly but I’m trying to figure it out.
Watching Nightmare now, I find it to be really kind of silly. The effects sure, but also the production, the acting, the writing. There’s a lack of subtlety – the girl running in the almost see through white nightgown, the classic shot of Freddy’s hand reaching up between Nancy’s knees in the bathtub… the terrible acting… oh wait, I said that. Eh, the acting is pretty bad. Bears repeating. Sorry Johnny Depp.
And yet… like Poltergeist, I still love this movie. It’s partly a nostalgia thing sure. It’s also more than that. While so many parts of this movie are so very bad, there are couple of key bits that are amazingly good.
The effects are terrible at times, sure. The scene where Freddy is stalking down the alley and his arms stretch out after his victim is laughable. A lot of the blood spilling, knife cutting, mom being sucked into a bed, whatever, is absurd. But there are three moments that for me make up for all of that.
1) The early scene when Tina is flung around the bedroom and eventually dragged across the ceiling by an unseen assailant (Freddy). I mean, seriously. That is terrifying. She is not only flying around the room, something is tearing her to pieces as it happens. Someone we can’t see.
2) The scene when Nancy falls asleep and starts dreaming in school. I will never forget the image of Tina’s body being dragged down the hall by its feet or Nancy’s screams as she burns herself in order to wake up.
3) When Johnny Depp is finally sucked down into his bed only to be spewed back out in a fountain of blood. Yes, it looks amazing, if a little obvious, when the blood hits the ceiling. The most effective part however is when the blood soaks through the floor and starts dripping through the ceiling in the living room below. That is a tremendous amount of blood.
At this point in the movie we begin to lose track of when Nancy is awake or if it’s still all a dream. After a point it just all gets so nightmarish and surreal, the lines between waking and sleep are completely blurred.
I think that’s what makes this movie so good. After a while we no longer have a firm grasp on where we are. We’re trapped in the nightmare.
What Wes Craven succeeds in doing amidst the cheesiness, is bring to life a truly terrifying concept. We’ve all had bad dreams. Despite whatever our logic tells us, we are afraid of the monsters in our sleep. How much more terrifying is it to think that one day we may have a bad dream that we may never wake up from?
So maybe it’s not that the film doesn’t hold up exactly. In terms of craft it may be pretty silly but in terms of ideas… Freddy is a monster in our sleep, in our dreams, in our heads. He’s a monster in the one place we can never escape from. If that’s not a good idea for a horror movie, I don’t know what is.