CKF SOLO REVIEW: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
by Michael Arruda
On April 30, the remake of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) will hit theaters. Is everyone good and excited? Yes? No? While some people flat-out hate remakes, I’m always curious because I like to see what kind of vision the folks making these remakes give to their new baby. Sure, most of the time I’m disappointed, but sometimes, and these times are special, I’m pleasantly surprised.
In expectation of the new movie, let’s look back at the old movie, to see just how the Freddy Krueger phenomenon got its start.
Written and directed by Wes Craven, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was a huge hit back in 1984. I was never that turned on by this movie, and though I enjoyed it and its sequels well enough, I never felt they deserved all the hype and glory they received.
Let’s see if time has changed my opinion.
In A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, a group of teens discover that they’ve been seeing the same creepy guy in their nightmares, a disfigured creep with razor sharp knives in place of fingers. Tina (Amanda Wyss) seems to be the most frightened by all this, as her friends Nancy (Heather Langencamp), Glen (Johnny Depp), and her boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) laugh it off and poke fun at her fears.
However, when Tina has a nightmare and sees the same guy again, he attacks and kills her. She not only dies in the dream, but in real life as well, in a brutally violent scene that still packs a punch today. Rod is in the room with her when she is murdered, but since he didn’t see anyone else in the room with them, and since the police find no evidence of a third person being there, he quickly becomes the prime suspect, especially since he has a history of being a hothead. He’s arrested by Lt. Thompson (John Saxon) who also happens to be Nancy’s father.
With one friend murdered and another arrested for the crime, Nancy begins to take these dreams seriously. When she discovers that she can be physically hurt in the dreams, she realizes that it’s also possible one can be murdered in these dreams as well. Of course, no one believes her story, that some maniac in their dreams is responsible for the murder of Tina.
Nancy learns the identity of the man in their dreams, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), and his story. Krueger was a child killer in their neighborhood years ago, and when he was freed from jail on a legal technicality, the parents in the area rebelled and took the law into their own hands. They hunted Krueger down and burned him to death.
Since they can’t get the support of any adults because their story is so unbelievable, Nancy and Glen have to take on Freddy Krueger on their own, which is no easy task since they have to enter a dream world to do it.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET contains a creative and thought-provoking story that strangely is both a strength and a weakness.
I like the idea that a group of friends would suddenly discover they’d been dreaming about the same guy. It’s a very creepy concept. Early on in the movie, this idea works very well, as you really relate to Tina when she’s creeped out by the whole thing. I’d be creeped out too.
But— and this is a problem I have with all the movies in the series— as the story goes on, the thinking behind the dream world becomes muddled and unclear, generating more questions than answers, and leaving most of these questions unanswered.
To begin with, let’s start with Freddy himself. It’s never clearly explained what he’s doing in their dreams. I’m assuming he’s a ghost of some sort, but why he haunts them in their dreams rather than in reality is not explained.
And what about this dream world? Where is it? In their minds? Or is it some physical place somewhere in another dimension? Since they can be physically injured, to the point of death, you’d think it would be a physical place somewhere. Again, this is not explained.
And how is it Freddy can jump back and forth between worlds? Again, no explanation.
The problem is, this is a fascinating concept and deserves some heavy-duty thinking, the likes of which the movie doesn’t offer.
There are other problems as well.
The cast is average at best. Compare lead Heather Langencamp to say, Jamie Lee Curtis in HALLOWEEN (1978) and you’ll quickly see there is no comparison. Curtis delivered a knockout performance. Langecamp’s performance isn’t very good at all, mostly because she’s not that believable. Johnny Depp is fine as Glenn, and it is a lot of fun to see Depp looking so young, but his performance is not even close to the kinds of things he’d be doing later, and that he’s doing right now. John Saxon, a veteran of genre films, as Lt. Thompson, is barely memorable here, and as a hero, he hardly compares to Donald Pleasance in HALLOWEEN.
The performance of the film really belongs to Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. By far, he’s the best part of the movie. There’s a reason Krueger would become a horror movie icon. Part of it is the writing of the character, sure, but the bigger part is the performance by Englund. As played by Englund, Krueger is one creepy dude. Although he does have some comical lines in the first film, we’re spared the ones which became almost ridiculous in the sequels.
Krueger also has a neat look, as the charred scarred facial make-up is frightening. Another advantage that Krueger has over some of the other movie maniacs like Michael Myers and Jason from the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, is that he moves swiftly. While Michael Myers might lose a foot race to a turtle, no such luck if you’re fleeing from Freddie Krueger. Not only is he fast, but he also possesses supernatural abilities to appear where he wants, when he wants. Even if you could outrun him, he’d just materialize a few feet in front of you anyway.
Freddy is unpredictable. He takes different forms, sometimes appearing as different people, other times contorting his body in bizarre ways. In this one, his arms elongate to three times their normal length at one point. In short, Freddy Krueger is a most unsettling character, and as played by Robert Englund, he’s viciously frightening. The movie belongs to him.
The music score is a downer. I’ve always found the A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET theme by Charles Bernstein boring and uninspiring, sounding like filler music on a soap opera.
Wes Craven wrote and directed A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, with mixed results. Again, the plot is creative and thought-provoking, but the story never delves as deeply into its mysteries as it should, and, as a result, leaves the viewer disappointed.
There are a couple of well-crafted thrill scenes in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. The murder of Tina, for example, and towards the end, the tragic fate of Glen. Both these scenes are hard-hitting and scary.
However, the pacing is way off in this movie. In fact, towards the end, when the suspense should be building, things actually slow down. The way things wrap up is anticlimactic, and the very ending no better than the old “it was just a dream” revelation, which I think is horrible. The action in the final scenes is reminiscent of HOME ALONE. Let’s watch Nancy set booby traps for Freddy, and let’s watch Freddy bumble his way through them. Ha ha! I half-expected to see Macaulay Culkin running through the house throwing paint cans at Freddy’s head.
Another problem is–dreams just aren’t that scary. They’re certainly not scarier than reality. Sure, you can have some wicked nightmares, but guess what? You wake up and you sigh in relief, “It was just a dream.” And so in the movie when all these events which happen in dreams occur, they play like dreams. How scary is that? Not very.
But what if dreams were actually real, you ask? Supposedly, this is what is happening in the movie, after all. The dreams the teens are having in which Freddy terrorizes them are real. But if this were true, it still leaves the question, why? Why are dreams with Freddy real and others not? Since this isn’t explained, the dreams don’t seem real, nor do the scares.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is an entertaining horror movie that has its moments, but ultimately doesn’t deliver the goods. It never gets to the heart of its dream philosophy to really get under your skin, and, as a result, never explains what’s going on to any great satisfaction. Plot-wise, the movie is very disappointing, and while it does better in terms of style, it’s hardly an exercise in creative movie making.
The best part is Freddy Krueger himself, and the performance by Robert Englund as Krueger. They’re the reason to see A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and the reason it’s scary. The rest of the movie is cloudy, vague and unfocused, like a dream.
© Copyright 2010 by Michael Arruda