Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Film Appreciation - 30 Years of Nightmares

Cody Hamman dreams up Film Appreciation for A Nightmare on Elm Street on its 30th anniversary.

On November 9, 1984, audiences in the United States got their first glimpse of a villain who would become one of the horror genre's greatest icons when New Line Cinema released A Nightmare on Elm Street onto theatre screens. (A limited release at first, it went wide on November 16th.)

The film was the latest work from writer/director Wes Craven, who had previously terrified and disturbed viewers with 1972's The Last House on the Left and 1977's The Hills Have Eyes, so knowledgeable audience members likely went into showings of Elm Street prepared for a fright, and Craven did his best to scare them.

Inspired by newspaper reports he had read about people who had died in their sleep after fighting for days to stay awake, Craven crafted a story about a group of typical American teenagers from a typical American small town, all of whom are dealing with a relatable problem - they've been having nightmares. We all have them. Unfortunately, the nightmares these kids are having can be deadly.

In real life, the people Craven read about who died in their sleep appeared to have died of natural causes. The same cannot be said for the victims in his film. The people who die in their sleep in A Nightmare on Elm Street are butchered, murdered by a man who stalks their dreams, the wounds he inflicts on them in the nightmare appearing on their bodies in the waking world. The name of this killer: Freddy Krueger.

Craven designed the character of Freddy to be an assault on the viewer in every way. This a man who was a serial child murderer in his regular life, until he was burned to death by a mob of vengeful parents. He retains his severe burn scars as he continues his murderous ways in the dream world, now killing people when they're at their most vulnerable. When they're sleeping. He wears a red and green striped sweater because Craven read that those are the two toughest colors for the eye to process. Craven delved into primal fears when coming up with Krueger's weapon of choice: razor sharp "claws".

The film is unnerving from the moment it starts, with a small window in the center of the frame giving us a view on Freddy constructing his weapon in a dingy workshop, hammering and welding metal pieces together, attaching knife blades to hinged finger stalls attached to a back plate, fitting those over a torn old leather glove.

From there we're dropped straight into the madness of a nightmare, a teenage girl named Tina making her way through a boiler room as an intense score composed by Charles Bernstein and the whispers and cackling laughter of a madman fill the air. A bleating sheep randomly runs down a hallway. The knives of the clawed glove we saw being built scrape along metal objects. When Tina screams, the cries of babies and animals are also heard, mocking her. Freddy wanders the boiler room, coming for Tina... And just as he catches her, she wakes up. In her own bed. Safe. But with four slices in the front of her gown. A slash from the glove that didn't reach her skin.

A heavy atmosphere of dread lays over the entirety of the film's running time, rarely is there a break from it, and it's especially palpable as the next day in Tina's life plays out. She goes to school, where we're introduced to her friend Nancy Thompson, her boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks Rod, and Nancy's boyfriend Glen. Rattled by her bad dream, Tina asks Nancy and Glen to spend the night at her house, since her single mother will be out of town. Rod shows up uninvited. As the teens talk, they come to realize that they've all been having nightmares. Nightmares about the same guy...

They go to bed that night, and although this is all about Tina and building up to her having another nightmare, there is an extremely creepy moment with Nancy. The crucifix hanging above the bed she's in seems to fall off the wall by itself. Rather than get up and replace it, Nancy puts the crucifix beside her as she drifts off to sleep. Then a human shape appears in the wall - head and hands, pushing out from the other side, stretching the wall as if it were fabric instead of wood. Freddy wants her, too. Nancy wakes up and the form recedes back into the wall.

Meanwhile, Tina is having another nightmare. One not set in the boiler room, but in her own house and back yard. Krueger lures her out into the dark of night, and during this nightmare we're shown how he is able to manipulate things to make the dreams as horrific as possible for his victims. He stretches his arms out to an impossible length, he appears and disappears, he is in complete control. He laughs at the horror he's causing, he taunts Tina, and although the character would go on to be a jokester in the sequels, he's not going for laughs here, he's merely amusing himself, deriving pleasure from messing with the girl's mind.

Freddy attacks, slashing away at Tina with his claws, and Rod awakes to see his girlfriend screaming and thrashing, being murdered by an unseen assailant. Cuts appear on her body, she's lifted into the air, she's dragged up the wall and onto the ceiling. What's happening is impossible.

20 minutes into the film, the girl we've been following since the start is dead, and Nancy Thompson becomes our heroine.

The daughter of divorced parents - her father Donald the local police Lieutenant, her over-protective mother Marge an alcoholic - Nancy strives to get to the bottom of what happened to Tina and figure out how to deal with this life threatening situation, all the while doing her best to stay awake for as long as possible. Every time she falls asleep, Freddy is there, waiting for her. In school. In her bedroom. At a sleep clinic. Most famously, in the bathtub.

As the world goes insane and falls apart around her, Nancy can rely only on herself to deal with Freddy Krueger. Rod is blamed for Tina's murder and jailed. Glen won't accept the reality of what's going on. Of course, parents won't believe that the killer resides in the dreamworld, and Marge sinks into an alcoholic oblivion.

Learning who Freddy Krueger was, that her parents and the parents of her friends were part of the mob who carried out the act of street justice that killed him, learning the rules of these nightmares, Nancy develops from your average, nice girl next door into a warrior ready to fight to survive.

Portayed by Heather Langenkamp, Nancy Thompson is one of the strongest heroines the horror genre has to offer, making her the perfect foil for Robert Englund in his career-defining role as Freddy Krueger. The role would get showier for Englund as the franchise went on and his performance broader, but he is the ultimate creep in the original Nightmare, a filthy sleaze.

Englund and Langenkamp were backed up by a fantastic supporting cast; John Saxon and Ronee Blakley as the Thompson parents, Amanda Wyss as Tina, Nick Corri/Jsu Garcia as Rod, and Johnny Depp in his film debut as the very ill-fated Glen.

Craven had an amazing idea to build around when making A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the fact that he brought it to the screen as a film that is relentless with its dark, heavy tone and features such a great cinematic boogeyman and memorable imagery (Freddy and his glove, Tina's murder, a fountain of blood erupting from a bed, the knives rising from between Nancy's legs as she falls asleep in the bath, Nancy's feet sinking into stairs that take on an oatmeal-like consistency as she runs for her life, etc.) is what makes it one of the greatest horror films ever made.

Thirty years ago, nightmares were projected onto the big screen and audiences got their first look at Freddy Krueger. They liked what they saw. A Nightmare on Elm Street was a box office success that boosted distributor New Line Cinema into the big leagues and made Krueger not only a 1980s pop culture phenomenon but also a horror icon who is put up there with the likes of Dracula, Frakenstein's Monster, and The Wolf Man.

I was just 11 months old when this first movie was released, so by the time I was getting into horror a few years later, Freddy was already considered one of the greats, and he was omnipresent. You couldn't avoid him in the late '80s, early '90s. I grew up watching the Nightmares repeatedly, buying Elm Street merchandise, wearing Freddy masks and gloves. The series was a big part of my childhood, and although I never ranked Freddy as my top favorite, he will always have a place on my Horror Rushmore.

The Elm Street series may have run its course for now, but the original film (and some of its sequels) continues and will continue to endure.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you appreciate one of my very favorite movies. I actually did go to the theater to see it during its initial run. In fact, I wrote a post all about the experience.