Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Wes Craven
Starring: John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri, Johnny Depp, and Robert Englund
The 1980s was the decade of the slasher, from endless Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels to one hit screams like Terror Train. Arguably the most instantly recognisable was the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise with Freddy Krueger. The original film was written and directed by the horror master Wes Craven, who had already made a name for himself with The Last House on the Left, Deadly Blessing, and The Hills Have Eyes.
There is a relatively simple plot. Four friends, the main character being Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), all have a similar nightmare that features a burned man, later revealed to be Fred Krueger (Robert Englund). Slowly the group of friends are killed in their dreams, and also in reality, until there’s only one left. It follows the standard slasher structure, helping solidify the cliches and tropes that the genre is well known for.
The character Freddy Krueger is a masterpiece of horror. The name comes from a boy called Fred, who used to bully Wes Craven when he was a child, and Krueger was chosen as it sounds German. He is set firmly in reality with his chilling backstory, that would be further elaborated on in the sequels, and then he’s also supernatural as he’s only able to hurt people through their dreams. The original film masterfully blends the dreams and reality into one, so you’re not always completely sure whether you’re in the dreamworld or not, making the suspense and terror grow throughout the film.
Jim Doyle was the head of effects, and does a fantastic job, with loads of mesmerising effects that stand the test of time. The make-up on Krueger looks incredible and at this point it’s beyond iconic. All the way through the film there are great effects with buckets and buckets of fake blood. The most impressive and memorable being Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) death, which involves a rotating room to make it look like Tina is being dragged by an invisible presence up the wall to the ceiling. It’s an incredible effect, and when you see behind the scenes footage of how they achieved it, by making a whole room that could rotate, it’s simply stunning.
Tina’s death is also quite early in the film, with everything up to that point seeming to make her the main character. It’s through her perspective that we first enter the dreamworld and see Krueger. Having her killed off early is reminiscent of Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho, in that it tricks the audience and comes across as a big shock when she dies. Wes Craven would again use this technique in his 1996 slasher Scream. It’s an old trick, but it still works. The score to the film, which is pretty great, is also clearly inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween score, which arguably started the slasher craze of the late seventies and early eighties.
One of the more interesting, and sadly underutilised, things about the film is the parents of the main characters. They’re absent a lot, with Nancy’s father working as a policeman and even when she begs him to come to the house, he doesn’t appear. Nancy’s mother is an alcoholic and doesn’t listen to her daughter at all. It’s not written very well into the script, but there is a real sense that they are neglectful. It would have been interesting to see this built upon more, especially since the sins of the parents being passed on to the children is one of the major themes of the film.
While it’s not perfect, A Nightmare on Elm Street is absolutely a classic horror film. It spawned a massive franchise, that has sadly not had an entry in over a decade, with one of the most iconic characters of the genre. If you’re a horror fan who hasn’t watched it already, then what are you waiting for?
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