Published on November 9th, 1984 | by Padraic Coffey


A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

In light of the death of writer and director Wes Craven (1939-2015), a look back at his most iconic film, A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Replete with Christian iconography, from the crucifixes adorning the walls of several characters’ bedrooms, to the chilling nursery rhyme accompanying the closing credits, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is not an especially subtle film. But then, subtly and horror do strange bedfellows make. This was the film which established Craven as one of the kings of the horror genre, if not the reigning champion, after low-budget video nasty Last House on the Left and Texas Chain Saw Massacre-knockoff The Hills Have Eyes the previous decade. In Freddy Krueger, as iconic a monster as there has ever been in cinema, Craven took the more supernatural elements of characters like Michael Myers, of John Carpenter’s Halloween, to their most extreme conclusion. The result is a film which mines the fear factor of ghost stories and slasher films alike.

Set is suburban Ohio, on the Elm Street of the title, it centres on Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp), best friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) and local delinquent Rod (Nick Corri), all of whom share a series of disturbing dreams in short succession, in which they are terrorised by badly deformed, razor-fingered figure. One night, post-coitus (a common trope of the genre which Craven would gleefully send up in his later film, Scream), Tina is violently attacked by a seemingly invisible force, viciously slashing her body, while Nick watches, startled and helpless. Nick is soon accused of Tina’s murder, though Nancy suspects a more nefarious element at play. She discovers a disturbing secret about Elm Street, in which both her parents and others in the neighbourhood are complicit, involving a child-murderer named Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).

As with the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises, constant reappearances of the character of Freddy Krueger in seemingly-endless streams of sequels, TV series, remakes and spin-offs have somewhat blunted the effectiveness of the character. Later entries would see Krueger primarily used to deliver pithy one-liners before dispensing with some gormless, unsympathetic character, but there is little to laugh at in Craven’s original film. Freddy’s first attack on Tina is truly starting, making outstanding use of the kind of rotating film sets David Cronenberg would use two years later in The Fly, to give the impression Jeff Goldbum could scale walls. The film is positively relentless in its delivery of onscreen shocks, from the geysers of blood released when characters are dispatched, to wounds torn apart to reveal festering maggots.

That said, the film is not without a strain of self-referential humour. In her attempts to avoid falling victim to Krueger, heroine Nancy steadfastly stays awake, gulping copious amounts of coffee to keep herself alert. “God, I look twenty years old”, laments actress Langerkamp, who herself turned twenty during the film’s shoot. An early scene of Depp attempting to fool his mother with a tape-recording of airport sounds could be taken from a John Hughes’ film. There is also Craven’s characteristic intertextuality by having Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead shown on Heather’s bedroom television (Raimi would later return the favour by including a prop of Freddy’s claw in Evil Dead II). Although Nancy’s mother’s alcoholism is handled clumsily, our heroine’s status as the child of a broken home is done without much fanfare, rendering it all the more understated.

As much as the impact of A Nightmare on Elm Street is dependent on visuals, so too is its aural soundscape crucial to maintaining its mood, the distinctive sound of Freddy’s finger-knives scraping along walls and corridors being memorably unsettling. It must be said, Charles Bernstein’s synth-heavy original music has not aged quite as well, and is one of the few aspects of the film grounded firmly in the mid-1980s. Still, Craven wisely ends the movie with that aforementioned nursery rhyme and little else, leaving the imagery which have gone before more resonant in the audiences mind, before Freddy Krueger became a caricature of himself.

Agree or disagree? Leave a comment below.


About the Author

Padraic Coffey is a freelance writer and film critic who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He has written for the Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest circulation newspaper, and Trinity College, Dublin, ranked in the top 100 best universities in the world by the QS World University Rankings in 2014. Additionally, his film criticism has appeared on Volta - Ireland's first VOD website - as well as sites such as Taste of Cinema, Film Jam and Head Stuff.

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