A Nightmare on Elm Street
There’s something perverse about the way horror franchises are run. With the exception of Alice in the Resident Evil series, played by the alluring Milla Jovovich, horror franchises are based around the murdering psychos and eldritch monsters that extinguish human life. It makes perfect sense given the standard horror movie formula; even the plucky protagonist and his, often her, romantic partner succumb to the inevitable “surprise” ending when the killer/monster jump out of the shadows and cut the teens’ lives tragically short. At least, it should seem awful, but frequently when watching the umpteenth iteration of a horror franchise, all the viewer has left is the joy of a few creative and gory kills. The insipid teens/college students are often more aggravating and obnoxious than sympathetic. A friend of mine once called foul when I admitted that I was rooting for the bad guys in horror movies, particularly slasher flicks. Although I poo-pooed her comment at the time, I’ve since concluded that sometimes the bad guy, while still legitimately bad in the viewers’ perceptions, is a genuinely interesting character, psychologically, conceptually. The monster has a whole history, a mythology, which the protagonists lack because they died off, necessarily so, since the franchise can’t continue if the monster is defeated. According to horror formula dictates, evil never dies, so a successful movie or franchise needs an interesting evil; the youth of the filmic world are just the bait. Of course, in the interests of honesty, some of us horror fans might take a little too much enjoyment out of splatter, especially when the character is one we particularly dislike. C’est la vie.
A Nightmare on Elm Street introduces on of the most iconic horror movie villains of all time, Freddy Krueger. What makes this movie great though is that we have reason to care for the teens, particularly Nancy. Although menaced by Freddy throughout the film, she seems tough in comparison to many horror movie heroines; she certainly has more personality. Nancy’s best friend Tina, who would be the mean-spirited and/or ditzy slut in most movies because she had sex once with Rod, comes across as sensitive and likable despite her terrible choice in boyfriends. We also get to see Johnny Depp in one of his earliest roles as Glen, the guy gets turned into bloody chutney. Seriously though, Depp’s character Glen is somewhat bland, but we have reason to like him as Nancy’s supportive, though skeptical boyfriend. We’re not dealing with mere lambs for the slaughter.
However, Freddy is still star of the show, not just as a burnt man in characteristic clawed glove, red and green sweater, and fedora, but as a force that molds the dream world to his own sinister purposes. I’m being quite literal. He pushes against the wall, which presses out in the shape of his face and hands and he turns the stairs to melting goop that Nancy slogs through to try and run away from him. There is a distressing elasticity to the dream world. Architecture and geography is bent to his whim as characters go down corridors and stairs and, no matter which building they are in, they always end up in the boiler room; I wouldn’t think a factory or boiler room could be inherently scary until I saw this movie. Yet, Freddy Krueger not only sets the stage, but performs as well. He cuts off his fingers, speaks in Tina’s voice while wearing her face, disappears and reappears, and frequently grinds his blades against metal walls and pipes just to torment Nancy and her friends. Freddy is theatrical and it only serves to make him more sinister because we know he’s only playing with the plucky young teens before he kills them.
The theatricality and surreal nature of the dream world also make for some inventive death scenes. Sure we liked the characters, except Rod, but how could a horror fan not fear-enjoy Tina’s antigravity struggle, Glen’s suction into the portal in his bed that results in a flood of blood defying gravity and hitting the ceiling, or, perhaps creepiest of all, the final scene where a flaming Freddy (don’t ever ask me to write that again) burns Nancy’s mother and she descends into a fog flashing with lights into her bed, disappearing into some hell before Nancy’s and her father’s eyes. However, my favorite scenes aren’t the death scenes, but the ones where Nancy slips into the dream world. The scenes in the school and bathtub are both really cool. My favorite image however is in the dream when Nancy walks to the police station. Her friend Tina appears in a plastic body bag, blood still coating the inside. At her feet, snakes or worms writhe through mud and a centipede crawls out of her mouth. The snakes or worms at her feet are subtle and the centipede crawling out of her mouth is viscerally gross. My guess is the vermin coming out her mouth and at her feet indicate that she’s already prey to the conqueror worm.
There are some clever details in A Nightmare on Elm Street beyond inventive ways to show someone killed or the creepy image of Tina. During the class that Nancy falls asleep, the teacher is lecturing about Hamlet. She explains that the line, “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark,” is Shakespeare telling us that not everything is what it seems. Furthermore, she remarks that the gravediggers were trying to get underneath the surface of things, figuratively as well as literally. Aside from the obviously dark subject matter of Hamlet, we’re given an obvious reference to the deceptive tricks of Freddy and how we should see past them to the truth. Later, Glen tells Nancy that the Balinese control their dreams and they can drain the power of nightmares simply by turning their backs on the monsters; in effect, he’s talking about lucid dreaming. At the end of the movie, Nancy sees through Freddy’s tricks and claims it’s all a dream. She turns her back on him, draining his power and causing him to fizzle from reality. Wait, but does that mean it was all dream? Ha ha, no. That’s stupid.
There are a couple of things in this film that surprised me though. First of all, Freddy Krueger is never called Freddy. He’s always Fred. The second film changed the name, since the subtitle was Freddy’s Revenge. Still, I wonder what prompted the change to the more informal and potentially less threatening version, Freddy. The second thing I noticed was that Nancy’s mother had Freddy’s glove stashed in the basement furnace, but it was never explained why she had it. What kind of sick people are Nancy’s parents if they keep the glove of a child murderer after they’ve most probably assisted in his immolation? At first I thought they might be covering up the murder by hiding the evidence, which would make sense since Nancy’s father is a policeman and he would have power to aid in a cover up. But if that were the case, why wouldn’t they just destroy the evidence, burn it with Fred Krueger? What do you all think?