“A Nightmare on Elm Street” remains Wes Craven’s master opus, a film that is his most creative and most visually appealing. There aren’t many horror films that dabble in the iconology and symbolism of dreams and end up being truly horrifying, but Wes Craven’s film continues to be something of a crowd pleaser to this day. While it hasn’t aged too well since its initial release (which is the case with all of Craven’s films, I’ve found), it remains one of the most influential films of all time considering its primary character is a dream demon who plays more of a supporting role than taking center stage.
Unlike the rest of the series, the clawed scarred monster called Fred Krueger, is something more of a demonic omen, someone who controls the domain of the subconscious and serves as a form of helping our young characters to unravel the sordid history of the town they live in and learn that the bedfellow in which they reside actually has something of a twisted past that involved a series of murders and angry parents revolting against a child murderer. Craven treats his slasher film as something of a murder mystery where the monster became a source of pure evil, and the alleged voice of good became evil. Fred Krueger is a horrifying character, one who attacks every one of his victims with a cackle and a taunting that allows him to gain some form of dominance over their soul and their wills.
Krueger is something of a calculating maniac who stalks and creeps on his potential kills before ultimately finishing them off in about as gruesome a form as possible. Adding to the whole “the sins of the father” adage, we eventually learn the horrible secret behind the death of Krueger and soon this string of isolated deaths becomes a fight for survival in a world where anything is possible by the power of Krueger. Craven’s film, almost thirty years later, still manages to provoke some of the most startling and twisted imagery ever produced for a horror film featuring a horrible mutilation in mid-air inflicted on by character Tina whose warnings of Krueger go unnoticed, while Krueger takes a seemingly sexual pleasure through this power by slithering along the naked body in a bathtub of heroine Nancy.
And let’s not forget the particularly shocking death of Nancy’s boyfriend Glenn whose murder is off-screen but produces a suffocating flood of blood splashing up against the ceiling. To this day it’s a brilliantly directed death and a sequence that’s burned itself in to the minds of many horror fans alike. Filled with haunting music from Charles Burnstein and haunting imagery that’s constantly blurring the lines of fantasy and reality, Craven explores the ideas of the sub-conscious, the methods of dream studies and the narrative becomes a race against time as heroine Nancy must figure out how to stop Fred Krueger while fighting an uphill battle against her increasing urge to sleep. Krueger’s true power lies in the impending need to sleep, and this is where he’s able to strike, especially when one of his victims is capable of deep sleep or vivid dreams.
Robert Englund is the epitome of frightening as the clawed monster who takes pure glee out of making his victims suffer as much as possible with a surreal arousal and delight that’s disturbing, while Heather Langenkamp is very strong as heroine Nancy whose own vulnerabilities and resentment toward her alcoholic mother may be her own undoing if she isn’t careful. There is of course Johnny Depp in his debut performance, and John Saxon, both of whom are entertaining if forgettable. One of the primary flaws of Craven’s film is while he does have a sense of a strong and potentially brilliant concept, he can never quite live up to the potential he sets down for the audience. While “A Nightmare on Elm Street” does dabble in the concept of dreams and dreaming, he doesn’t fully tap what could have been a more cerebral and haunting look in to the sub-conscious while also putting in display what Freddy is fully capable of in this dream world.
A peek in to the more surrealistic aspects of the dream world and consciousness would have elevated Craven’s slasher in to much greater lengths of cinematic substance. Is he a monster who can drift in and out of dreams, or has he conquered the dream realm? Where did he acquire the power for all of this? Meanwhile there’s the infamous climax that continues to be one of the most incoherent and inherently moronic closers to a horror film of all time. It’s basically an ending that would make even David Lynch scratch his head as Craven seems to have so many ideas on how to close this first story up, so he just goes for broke and incorporates a variety of ridiculous ideas and suggestions that keep us wondering long after the credits have rolled if his intent was to confuse or if he’d just given up by the time the climax wound down and didn’t even bother offering any sort of explanation.
There have been dozens of theories and analyses of what the closing scenes could have meant or have been trying to interpret, but deep down it’s pretty obvious that Craven was trying to have his cake and eat it too by offering a self-important labyrinth of a finale while also leaving the door open for a potential sequel. As such it’s a primary flaw that brings down an otherwise strong slasher film from the Craven history. “A Nightmare on Elm Street” may not be a timeless classic, but when all is said and done, very few eighties horror films can measure up to its quality and innovation. While Wes Craven’s landmark horror film hasn’t aged as well as some remember with a nonsensical final act, it’s nevertheless an imaginative, menacing, and scary film with top notch performances, an original premise, and horrifying villain destined to become an icon of horror.