Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A Nightmare On Elm Street (USA, 1984)

Although it seems incredible, A Nightmare On Elm Street – the supernatural slasher movie that launched the career of undead icon Freddy Krueger – was based on real-life events. In 1977, apparently healthy young members of the Hmong-American community began inexplicably dying in their sleep. Victims had complained of an evil spirit hunting them in their dreams and, desperate to stay awake, had resorted to drugs and drinking enormous quantities of coffee. When they finally slept, they didn’t wake up.

Seizing on this story, writer-director Wes Craven gave an unforgettable identity to its dream-bound killer and created the picture that would bring him international acknowledgement as a horror movie maestro. Of course, he changed the chief characters from ex-pat Asians to the standard assortment of sexually enticing WASP teens – but little else about Elm Street was standard. The usual slasher rules – established in 1978’s Halloween and so quickly appropriated by its imitators that by the mid-eighties they had already become clich├ęd – were cleverly tweaked by Craven to remove whatever comforts they allowed the films’ post-pubescent corpses-to-be.

In Krueger, he created a killer who wasn’t limited to tapping on your bedroom windows to put the willies up you, or breaking in through them to butcher you: he just had to wait until you dropped off to sleep before sucking you into your mattress and sending out a 100-gallon geyser of your blood. If you happened to escape him by waking up, any wounds he’d inflicted – a torn nightgown or a sliced arm – were taken by your parents, or the police, or anyone on whom you depended for support, as evidence of your incipient insanity.

This was the movie’s cleverest conceit. Whilst other slashers required adults to be out of town, or stuck in the rain, or just looking the other way in order for the villain to be able to pick off his prey, Elm Street ensured that the more the victims complained, the less help they were likely to receive: no parent would ever believe the babblings of a child intent on spending every night in a state of self-inflicted insomnia. Without the possibility that adults could burst in and see off the bogeyman just as things looked bleakest, Elm Street’s teenagers were truly alone.

In straight slasher films, victims were confronted by the murderer in a landscape in which they ordinarily felt secure. Whilst this put a frightening twist on the idea of attending high school on prom night or graduation day, spending the summer at sleepaway camp or babysitting in your neighbour’s front room, the physical setting nevertheless worked to neither the killer nor the victim’s advantage. Elm Street’s adolescents, meanwhile, are chased through a hostile world over which, crucially, their pursuer has control. Here, as you turn to run up to your bedroom, that most obvious and comforting childhood sanctuary, the stairs can turn to quicksand underneath you.

The electrifying idea of apparently benign situations revealing a sinister edge also stretches into Elm Street’s storyline, as Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy, the purest and perkiest of Krueger’s quarry, uncovers a compelling mystery, thoroughly believable within the fantasy framework of the film, which reveals who Fred Krueger is – or was – and why he is driven to kill this generation of Elm Street kids. Every slasher film needs a decent back story to provide motives for its murders, and this slasher film has one of the best.

There are failings, though. The most obvious occurs in a sequence always smiled at by the film’s fans and sneered at by its detractors. As Freddy stalks a victim along a wide alleyway, his arms expand until his hands touch either wall, allowing him to block any escape. It sounds all right: but it looks awful. Considerably clouding his air of evil, actor Robert Englund appears to just spend the scene waving a pair of broom handles inside an especially long-sleeved sweater (which, one imagines, is exactly what he was doing). But, unconvincing arm extensions aside, the low-cost special effects (which can never have appeared particularly high-tech) still do the business in the CGI age.

Where the film falls down hardest is in its ending. Uncertain how to close the film, Craven filmed a few endings and, oddly, opted to include them all. Perhaps the possibility of creating a more satisfactory final scene is what persuaded the powers behind the 2010 remake to believe they could improve upon the original. Certainly, apart from a slight freshening of the special effects, there is no other area in which, for what it is, this film could possibly be improved upon.

Elm Street’s commercial success and ingenious premise were the wellspring for a seemingly incessant stream of sequels. Although these were all enlivened by the Krueger character and the malign sparkle with which Robert Englund always endowed him, they became increasingly silly and tended to undermine each other. Elm Street 3, for example, operated around the idea that Krueger would be free to stalk the sleeping until his worldly remains were buried in consecrated ground, and so reached a solid and definitive finish when they were. The following year’s Elm Street 4 then saw him unaccountably resurrected by a stream of flaming dog urine.

But the rot emphatically stopped with the seventh Freddy film, Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare, an intelligent semi-sequel to the Elm Street movies in which actors from the original film, playing themselves, are terrorized by a ‘real life’ Krueger (with much more impressive extendo-arms). Far more than any of the true sequels, A New Nightmare makes a perfect double bill with the first movie.

It is only the first movie, however, that deserves a place in this collection. Filled with fun, fear and thrills all orchestrated by the greatest horror villain ever created specifically for the screen, A Nightmare On Elm Street will outlast any number of remakes or commercially-minded franchise reboots.

5 comments:

adler said...

I'm writing a book on the "nightmare" and the Hmong sudden deaths of the 1980s--can you help me track down the source for the connection between "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and the Hmong deaths?

Scott Jordan Harris said...

Hi Adler. Thanks for your comment. A decent source for such a connection is the documentary 'Going To Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film'. It's available on DVD in a couple editions and features an interview with Wes Craven in which he discusses how he based his film on the Hmong sudden death cases.

If that helps I want a free first edition. ;P

favian said...

Great Article, i wouldn't shortchange the sequels though, they were enjoyable in their own right. As a child growing up, i loved the shift of Freddy from villain to a pure comical anti-hero. At the time of the first film, you were rooting for the teenagers. By Elm Street #4, you were rooting for Freddy, who always had a humorous one liner to go along with each slaying. My personal favorites are the original, the imaginative 'dream warriors' and the innovative 'new nightmare' which is my favorite in the series. I will avoid the remake like the plague.

litdreamer said...

Even though I have absolutely no free time to read all of the blogs that I currently follow, I am adding yours to the list. This is as good a review of the original Nightmare on Elm Street as I can ever hope to read.

adler said...

Thanks, Scott. (I somehow missed your reply until now, but I just ordered the DVD.)

My book's just been published:
Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection.

Where should I send it? :)
Shelley