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A Nightmare on Elm Street (DVD)
Member Name: plipplop
A Nightmare on Elm Street (DVD)
Date: 03/05/09, updated on 27/05/09 (159 review reads)
Advantages: Gory, imaginative and features one of the best horror icons ever invented
Disadvantages: Some dodgy special effects and a messy conclusion
Terrifying nightmares plague teenager Nancy Thompson. In her dreams, a horrific, disfigured character in a red and green sweater stalks her through the darkness, chuckling maniacally and brandishing a fearsome set of sharpened blades attached to a single glove. Only when she wakes does Nancy find any respite, but when she discovers that her three best friends are experiencing similar visions she begins to think there may be more to this than a simply case of night terrors. Her suspicions quickly turn to tragedy when one of her friends is brutally slain, but she must convince both her parents and the police that the killer is something rather more supernatural than your average murderer - if only she can stay awake long enough to do it.....
When the writers of 80s soap opera decided to wipe out a whole series as being nothing more than a dream, they provided ample evidence that for any narrative that features dreams or nightmares pretty much anything goes. Horror director Wes Craven probably already knew this because in the mid 1980s, he conceived a gory little tale that introduced us to one of the most infamous horror serial killer franchises of all time. Few children of the 80s can deny the existence of Freddy Krueger, either in a poster on their bedroom walls, or within the confines of a nightmare, inspired by the Elm Street movie.
Freddy Krueger was, and remains a fiendish creation and even now, some twenty-five years after the film was first released, there's a gruesome appeal to the character that has rarely been equalled and probably never bettered. Deformed by a terrible fire, Krueger stalks the nightmares of the teenaged residents of Elm Street, whose parents harbour a terrible secret that may explain why he's gradually picking of their children one at a time. It's evident from the beginning that the actor behind Krueger (Robert Englund) had an absolute ball and through a combination of careful lighting, some (rather dodgy special effects) and some innovative thinking he stalks and slashes his way through a nightmarish vision of suburbia in a way that grabs attention, even by modern standards.
If you can put aside the obvious technical limitations of the era, the film is still peppered with startling visuals that betray a creative mind that has long since ceased to function as such. A barbed, gloved hand rising from beneath the bath water; a gruesome skulking visage peering down through the wallpaper; a demonic shadow running it's barbed fingers along a metal wipe. All these moments (and more besides) are soon etched into the minds of an Elm Street audience when it quickly becomes clear that Craven had a whole host of ideas that he wanted to try out. Sure, some of them don't quite pay off (a scene in an alleyway with a badly-conceived Freddy, resplendent with wobbly puppeteer-like arms is more ridiculous than anything else) but it's hard to fault the director's ambition and vision for what he was trying to achieve. Some of the effect remain impressive to this day, particularly when you consider the very different technical capabilities of modern studios, most notably an early 'wall-climbing' slaughter scene and a torrent of freshly-cleaved blood bursting out of one of the students beds. It's grisly, gruesome stuff and, for the visuals alone, rightfully considered a landmark in horror film making.
The plot itself is perhaps a little less successful, particularly as things wander towards the conclusion. The inherent problem with dream-driven stories, of course, is that if anything goes, there's a risk that nothing makes sense and as Craven attempts to unravel the secrets of how Freddy wanders between this world and the dream word, things start to get a bit dodgy. Initially heading down a reasonably coherent path, Craven finds himself too easily tempted to twist things first one way and then the next in such a way that the eventual conclusion is perhaps just a push too far. Whatever the reality actually is the audience needs to have a reality to hold on to and with his final twist unleashed on the world, Craven pushes his luck just one step too far. There were other, far better conclusions that could have been applied to Elm Street but it seems evident that Craven was rather more interested in the commercial possibilities of an inevitable sequence to see them.
Unsurprisingly for a film in this genre (think Friday the 13th and Halloween) the characterisation leaves something to be desired. The teenagers are almost as vacuous as the teenagers normally are in such things, although it should be acknowledged that Heather Langenkamp (Nancy) does at least have a little more spirit than her usual scream queen counterparts. The other teenagers are unquestionably one-dimensional, although the film is notable for introducing the world to a certain Johnny Depp, who has since gone to become one of the most successful film stars of the last two decades. With what is essentially a very limited script, there's still a whiff of the promise of better things to come and Depp has a certain something that none of his co-stars could really match. (For historians, his astoundingly youthful appearance almost makes this essential viewing in its own right.) The other adults in the film are extremely odd indeed, particularly Nancy's mother Marge (Ronee Blakley) who sort of floats around in a pseudo-drunken daze and, even more so, Nancy's father (John Saxon) who, as a policeman, seems strangely disaffected by the carnage taking place around him. It's Englund who steals the show though, of course. The actor seems almost born to play the maniac and completely makes Freddy his own.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is, pretty much, an unquestionably good horror film. Targeted at the 18+ group of cinema-going teenagers, it's the perfect fright movie, filled with disturbing images and gory effects and a relentlessly brisk pace for which the words "edge of seat" were probably intended. Time has been relatively kind to Freddy's first outing too and, although the remake planned for next year will almost certainly smother the thing in a new level of technical expertise, the original will always have a charm that fans will simply never find bettered.
Summary: Child killer Freddy Krueger lives on in teenagers' dreams