“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you;
Three, four better lock your door.
Five, six grab a crucifix;
Seven, eight gonna stay up late.
Nine, ten – never sleep again…”
What’s scarier than a children’s rhyme being turned into a forewarning of a coming evil? A child murderer who now haunts the dreams of the Springwood teenagers on Elm Street with knives for fingers and a red and green sweater that was so last season. A Nightmare On Elm Street was released 30 years ago in the winter of 1984 and received both critical acclaim and financial success, almost making back its $1.8m budget during the opening weekend. Nightmare is the perfect blend of fantasy and horror as it blurs the line between the real world and the dream world, so much so that not even the audience or the characters have a true grasp on which reality they lie in.
A Nightmare On Elm Street took the slasher concept of a visually identifiable and significant killer but transformed him into something entirely new: just as Jason and Michael were showing their incapability of dying, Wes Craven created a character that transcended boundaries and demonstrated immortality with sadistic ease. Freddy Krueger is well and truly the character of nightmares: a child killer in life, he is a scarred, deformed demon in the afterlife who is capable of trapping his victims where they are the most vulnerable. His motivation is somewhat clearer than other horror antagonists but this doesn’t stop him from being just as callous as Jason, Michael or any other characters in the annals of horror history.
Wes Craven was inspired by news story’s and his personal history when writing A Nightmare On Elm Street. The story of Asian Death Syndrome – where Asian men emigrating to the US began to suffer disturbing nightmares so terrifying they were dying in their sleep – inspired Craven to craft a story about a murderer that haunted teenagers in their sleep. We as homo sapiens are designed to survive and the fear of death is prevalent in many of us. We are at all times vulnerable, but none more so than in our sleep when our bodies have switched off and our motor reactions are drastically reduced. We’ve all had those dreams where we’ve come close to death, but the tagline – ‘You die in your sleep, you die in your bed’ is a fear trigger for all of us. A Nightmare On Elm Street managed to create a film that made that fable a reality.
The opening scene, in which a living Krueger crafts his signature gloves to the sound of heavy breathing and metallic music sets the tone of the film. The mystery of Krueger, who lurks in the shadows for the first act of the film and is only scene fleetingly, is exemplified in the opening scenes as he stalks one of his victims – Tina – in her sleep. She evades him, believing it to be nothing but a dream until she meets up with her friends Nancy, Glen and Rod who seem to share the same dream. It’s not long until Freddy claims his first victim in view of her boyfriend and so begins a murder mystery in which the adults plead ignorance as the teenagers play detective, fully immersed in this fantasy. The way in which Craven builds Tina up from the beginning makes the audience assume that this is our heroine, but by killing her off we are left contemplating for awhile who is going to lead the film and it’s not until Nancy falls asleep in class do we see who will be guiding us.
A Nightmare On Elm Street is categorised in the same way as Halloween, assessed by critics and film historians as a social reflection of teenage angst and coming of age. It does share similarities with Halloween as it is teenagers who are the target with adults rarely seen; when they are, they cant do much to stave the destruction of the killers. Though the similarities are there, A Nightmare On Elm Street has something unique over other stalk’n’slash movies in that its antagonist is only seen in the dreams of its victims which lends an important angle to the adults versus teenagers dichotomy. Nancy is the epitome of the ‘Final Girl’ – she’s strong willed, determined, fearless and caring. In the face of evil she stands above her friends, and though she is the main intended victim of the afterlife Freddy, she evades his capture multiple times whilst putting together the pieces of who he is and how he can be defeated. In Never Sleep Again, the Elm Street documentary, Wes Craven explained the casting choice as he wanted a lead with intelligence as well as sex appeal, yet this is not exploited as it might be nowadays – when Nancy is wandering her house in her pyjamas they are real pyjamas, not skimpy pants and a tight top with nipples that could cut glass.
When you watch the original A Nightmare On Elm Street as opposed to the slew of sequels and even the remake, Krueger isn’t seen all that much until the final act. The mystery of the character only exacerbates our intrigue but at the same time the film leads us in the hand of Nancy as we see and feel the nightmare she’s going through. As her friends are picked off one-by-one, Nancy plans her destruction of Krueger by bringing him in to the real world from her dreams. Once again, Craven blurs the lines between dream and reality in the last act of the film – as it goes on, we don’t know what is real and what is the dream world. We’ve all had one of those dreams where we think we’re awake when we’re not, but in the world of Krueger it’s even more terrifying. Just as Nancy thinks she’s escaped him, he’s back again.
And back again. And again. The financial and critical success of A Nightmare On Elm Street inevitably led the Hollywood machine down the sequel and franchise route. Six sequels, of which Wes Craven returned to direct the then final instalment, one remake and one crossover saw Freddy Krueger continue to haunt audiences for over a decade. It’s of no surprise that the sequels and the remake don’t touch the ingenuity of the original. Krueger became a poster boy antagonist for horror and the sequels became less about the characters and more about Freddy and his inventive deaths – standard 80’s horror sequel formula. The sequels lost the mystery of Krueger and instead made him a kill-by-numbers catchphrase killer.
Despite this, the original A Nightmare On Elm Street stands the test of time. It is 30 years old this year and despite the cherubic face of Johnny Depp, for the most part it feels fresh and new. Horror is different today with an emphasis on seeing more, and though there’s a certain amount of crimson seen in this film it’s done in all of the right places. The film is still scary because we still dream, and for as long as we dream, for as long as we dream of running in mud and shouting with no sound, Freddy will always be around.
One, two Freddy’s coming for you…
TOMORROW: Horror Masterpiece: The Exorcist