Awakening Wes Craven’s once in a lifetime creation
From the moment Charles Bernstein’s seething synthesizer sinks to the pit of your stomach, you know you’re in for something special. What we see onscreen is different somehow. It is dank and grungy and saturated with a sense of palpable terror. We hear heavy-breathing, more perverse than your standard stalk-and-slash drivel. Instead of following some unseen POV presence, we step into the shoes of a young girl and wander as she does, falling deeper into the bowels of a wretched boiler room as the cackles grow and a teasing shadow haunts the periphery of our imagination. The music, now an off-key lullaby, scrawls its way across your nervous system like a rusty, clawed hand. Without so much as a glimpse at one of horror’s most iconic monsters, a colossal star is born.
The year is 1984, and the slasher sub-genre has grown fiercely insipid, each lazily-conceived copycat killer plundering through the motions as batches of teenage fodder succumb to the kind of suspense-repelling screenplays producers crave. Even the indomitable Jason Voorhees, for years the sex and summer camp poster boy of a generation, is about to hang-up his machete for what, at least back then, was promoted as The Final Chapter, a censor-imposed end to the kind of mindless slaughter denounced by parents and critics alike as the censorship guillotine was unleashed. Mainstream horror has long-since abandoned its sense of invention, and it is perhaps because of this that Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is passed from studio-to-studio without so much as a bite. New Line Cinema are a struggling company stumbling from one production to the next, but producer Robert Shaye decides to take a punt on Craven’s unique concept at the risk of his entire company. He, for one, sees something special.
Flash-forward a decade and Craven is attempting to salvage his once in a lifetime creation with meta-infused Scream blueprint, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Conversely, New Line Cinema is doing rather well for itself having reaped the rewards for a spate of increasingly cynical sequels that have transformed Krueger into both a commercial superstar and a franchise-threatening self-parody. When we think of Krueger all these years later, it is hard to recall just how terrifying Robert Englund’s fritter-faced monster initially was, but we should remember, because in spite of a few sequel-setting hiccups the original A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the finest horror movies ever dreamed up. Period. It can’t be compared to the likes of The Exorcist or The Shining — very different movies that warrant infinitesimal interpretation — but what it does it does better than anything else. It is sitting pretty at the top of its conceptual field.
Nancy: [speaking to Glen] Whatever you do… don’t fall asleep.
Before Krueger descended into the realms of mystique-crushing caricature, he was sliced from a very different cloth. Actor Robert Englund dripped with sadistic relish as the dream-bound child killer beset on otherworldly vengeance, his gunslinger stance and deviant giggle serving up a whole different brand of terror. He didn’t so much pursue as he did dance you around in circles, toying with his victims in a way that had not been seen in the oversaturated realms of slasherdom. He wasn’t fierce or physically intimidating. Nor was he the kind of seek-and-destroy killer who would dispose of you with one brutish blow. For him, the thrill is in the foreplay. His evil knows no mercy.
As a marquee character, Freddy ticks all the commercial boxes. His horribly disfigured face — first conceived by make-up artist David Miller as he played with a pizza while working on James Cameron’s Aliens — is the kind of ingenious creation most horror movies can only dream of, or have nightmares about. It’s amazing to think that Miller viewed A Nightmare on Elm Street as a lesser job that required much less attention. The creation of Krueger’s costume is also an interesting story that again happened quite organically. His tatty fedora and filthy striped jumper were inspired by a Krueger-esque vagrant spied from Craven’s apartment window as a child growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. Speaking to author Thommy Hutson for his self-published book Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, Craven would recall, “It was a man in an overcoat and a sort of fedora hat. Somehow he sensed that someone was watching, and he looked right up and into my eyes. The thing that struck me most about that man was that he had a lot of malice in his face. He also had this sort of sick sense of humour about how delightful it was to terrify a child.”
Freddy would also need a weapon to set him apart from the plethora of Michael Myers clones slashing the genre into extinction. His weapon of choice was fashioned from a set of stainless steel knives that were attached to his fingers using a custom-made glove, an idea that came to Craven as he searched for “the earliest weapon that mankind might’ve been afraid of.” It is the intimacy of Krueger’s razor-fingered eyesore that makes him so intrusive. When he uses the weapon to penetrate the flesh of his victims, it becomes a phallic extension of the character’s evil that is almost sensual — a deeply troubling notion for a child killer — the act of the kill the ejaculation that follows the foreplay. As a symbol of the character’s perverse sexual nature, Freddy’s glove is easily the most iconic the genre has to offer. His slasher peers may have an unseemly taste for teen-oriented slaughter, but it is usually based on an aversion to the sexual. Krueger is an altogether different animal. Sexuality is his core motivation. He is a monster in every sense of the word.
For all those winning elements, the man in the costume is the most valuable asset for making Freddy the unique character he is. The likes of Jason and Michael Myers have been recast repeatedly, but try separating Englund from Krueger at your peril. New Line Cinema tried as much back in 1985 when the actor demanded what was considered too much money for starring in the sequel. With a whole new crew embracing the project in the absence of Craven, it is easy to understand their logic. For the reasons already mentioned, the Krueger character was unique enough in its own right. I mean, how much of a difference could a faceless actor make? The answer was a lot, something Freddy’s Revenge director Jack Sholder would quickly realise having attempted to work with a replacement, a venture that didn’t last long. It didn’t matter that New Line had to admit defeat and renege on their decision in an industry fuelled by ego, Englund was soon back strutting his stuff having proven just how valuable he was to their budding franchise. New Line Cinema was once dubbed ‘the house that Freddy built’. If that is indeed the case, then Englund was the foreman to Craven’s architect.
Craven’s game-changing concept makes for such a wonderful slice of horror cinema, you wonder how nobody thought of it earlier. Like many of the industry’s most unique creative inspirations, it seemed so obvious after the fact. Krueger — a real-life monster burned to death by vengeful Elm Street residents — is back to stalk their children in the one place they can’t protect them: their dreams. Great horror thrives on claustrophobia and isolation, and you can’t get more isolated than your dreams, an imaginary realm largely beyond our control and often inescapable. There is nothing more personal or private than a person’s dreams, and when the nature of those dreams is determined by an omnipotent evil beset on tenderising you for the slaughter, there is no bigger violation. It’s not like you can jump on a plane and flee the vicinity. Instead, you are forced to torture yourself by staving off sleep — it’s all so futile. Rest is an essential part of every person’s life. Starved of it we become weak and disorientated, bound by the laws of our very nature. Whether you are awake or dreaming, the threat of Krueger looms large.
The idea of a killer stalking kids in their dreams came to Craven while reading an article in the LA Times about an Asian boy who literally died as the result of a nightmare. The kid in question, a refugee from the Cambodian genocide, was terrified of sleep for fear that he would be attacked in his dreams and never wake up. As a result the boy forced himself to stay awake for two days, even hiding a coffee machine in his closet, before ultimately succumbing to the inevitable trappings of nature. He would never dream again. “I just thought, wow,” Craven would explain. “It literally brought tears to my eyes because here’s a guy who has a vision that’s accurate, but it’s so unusual that it seems like it’s part of some sort of madness.” It is this notion that drives A Nightmare on Elm Street, particularly the Krueger character. Who would ever believe that dreams have the capacity to kill? Who in their right mind would entertain a person’s forewarnings about such a likelihood?
Nancy Thompson: Fingernails? That’s amazing you saying that. That made me remember the dream I had last night.
Tina Gray: What’d you dream?
Nancy Thompson: I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.
[Glen looks up, curious]
Tina Gray: Well, what about the fingernails?
Nancy Thompson: Well, he scraped his fingernails along things. Actually, they were more like finger-knives or something; something he’d made himself. They made a horrible sound…
[imitating nails on a chalkboard]
Nancy Thompson: Screeech.
The key to A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s effectiveness is that you are never sure if what you are experiencing are dreams or reality. Craven pays close attention to the mind-bending unrealities of slumber, and particularly the purgatorial place in-between, that moment when we are at our most vulnerable. Whether it’s Krueger’s leering impression in the wall above Nancy’s bed or the moment when his claw appears between her legs as she drifts in and out of slumber in the bathtub, the blurred delineations establish a sense of uncertainty that leaves us feeling ill at ease. We’ve all had that feeling when dreams seem to cross over into reality and you wonder if it was in fact real, or when you know you are dreaming but are still unable to determine your fate. When Nancy asks Glen to keep watch while she enters her dreams in search of Krueger, her sleeping friend joins her in that realm, and she accepts his claim that he is still awake and watching, despite the glaringly obvious.
Other directors had toyed with the idea of omnipotence in slashers, giving us characters with an air of invincibility who seem to have the capacity to be everywhere at once, but Freddy took it to new and convincing levels, plunging audiences into a conceptual realm that made the concept not only more effective, but also plausible and utterly relatable. Michael Myers had that illusive quality, one beautifully captured by John Carpenter’s innovative use of shadows and space. The director teased audiences with a sense of the supernatural. You almost believed Myers possessed phenomenal abilities, though logic told you something else entirely. Jason Voorhees was a much more self-aware entity, a path Krueger would ultimately follow. Jason’s ability to survive and regenerate always erred on the side of knowing, and by the end of the 80s he had developed the power of teleportation, a sign of just how risible and bereft of horror the series had become. We smiled at the notion of Jason leaping across space and distance, at his ability to be everywhere at once, but we weren’t scared. If anything, it made the already bloodless Jason Takes Manhattan even less potent by further jeopardising the suspense levels. There’s nothing scary about absolute control in horror movies. It’s that sense of uncertainty that makes them effective. There may be an element of omnipotence to Krueger but his prey are always an alarm clock away from being beyond his grasp. One second he’s all powerful, the next he’s been castrated by a wholly natural and inevitable occurrence, and it’s so satisfying to see this sexual deviant suddenly fall limp at the peak of his dominance, a sense of futility that Englund portrays so wonderfully.
It’s that loss of control, on both sides, that makes A Nightmare on Elm Street such a rewarding experience. The dream world is a blank and lawless canvas for a horror movie, resulting in a surreal and detached experience that shifts between the everyday and the abstract with an ambiguity that allows us to further invest in the Elm Street kids and their perilous predicament. When Jason’s latest victim wanders senselessly into the darkened woods, we perceive the character as stupid and look upon them with knowing derision. With A Nightmare on Elm Street it’s different. The characters are drawn to their peril not by stupidity or contrivance, but by a universal weakness we can all relate to. Who hasn’t in their dreams wandered helplessly in search of something or been unable to run away for reasons which defy logic? Who hasn’t witnessed one face blend into another, or looked on with seeming indifference as one scene merges seamlessly with the next? The fun Craven has exploiting such fears is truly inspired. The scene where Tina wanders outdoors in search of an unknown presence breaks down those elements that makes the dream world such an intangible place. The way she accepts her unreal environment, all incongruous whispers and nonlinear events, is a universal experience we can all relate to.
The characters in A Nightmare on Elm Street have issues beyond the context of their peril. Characterisation is notoriously peripheral in the world of slasher flicks, but each of Krueger’s targets are vulnerable in their own distinctive way, resulting in a cast of victims who are rich in conflict, the perfect meal ticket for our unquenchable scourge. We have the bubbly, wild child in Krueger’s first victim, Tina (Amanda Wyss), a naive teenager who is drawn to danger like a moth to a flame and gets more than her juvenile heart bargained for. She may have all the hallmarks of a standard stalk-and-slash victim, but there is a tragic depth to her that is lacking in the majority of slasher productions. Bad boy, Rod (Jsu Garcia), is more than just a wild fling. He makes Tina feel secure at a time of deep uncertainty, her so-called sins a byproduct of teenage angst and alienation. Rod, too, is the kind of teenage rebel whose insecurities see him isolated from society, making him the perfect pawn for Tina’s murder as Krueger looks to remain anonymous for long enough to cherry-pick his victims. Rod isn’t the vile delinquent many have him pegged for, but thanks to Krueger’s sadistic modus he soon will be, and no one could be blamed for thinking as much. The borderline-soporific Glen, played by an exceedingly young Johnny Depp, is a quiet, unassuming kid who refuses to accept the existence of his ethereal predator and is therefore easy prey. Then we have Heather Langenkamp’s inimitable Nancy, a sweet-faced child of divorce living with the stink of her alcoholic mother as Krueger’s legacy continues to hang over the community in ways which are never confronted.
Nancy is arguably the most resourceful final girl of the entire era. Not only does she survive Freddy’s onslaught, she actively tracks him down as she attempts to pull him out of the dream world and into reality, an environment that provides a fairer playing field. Nancy sets about understanding her pursuer’s weakness, her fear diminishing as she begins to see past his gruesome embellishments, and by the end of the movie she has turned her back on Krueger completely, knowing that without her fear he is little more than a figment of her imagination. When you take everything into consideration: the isolation, the obstacle of adult delusion, the hopelessness of her predicament and the manner in which she overcomes it, it is hard to recall a slasher heroine as strong or as determined as she is, or a teenage cast who possess such richness.
Despite its conceptual digressions, A Nightmare on Elm Street is still a slasher by nature, and Craven delivers as much in the gore department as he does with the film’s more fantastical indulgences, and the two are very often inseparable. Despite the rapid decline of the slasher during the mid-1980s, practical effects maestros such as Tom Savini were creative enough to generally justify the price of admission, but due to ‘Nightmare’s’ dreamworld setting, mechanical special effects designer Jim Doyle had his work cut out, and he didn’t disappoint. The dreamworld concept opened all kinds of creative avenues for a sub-genre that was running seriously low on ideas. There’s only so many times you can watch a victim have their throats slit or heads chopped off before it all gets a little tiresome and predictable. A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t susceptible to any of that. Every single kill in that movie — even Ronee Blakley’s notoriously tacked-on demise — felt unique and inventive, if not through imagination and practical effects wizardry, then simply by existing within the confines, or lack thereof, of Craven’s ingeniously constructed dreamworld.
Nancy Thompson: I know you’re there, Freddy.
Fred Krueger: You think you was gonna get away from me?
Nancy Thompson: I know you too well, Freddy.
Fred Krueger: Now you die.
Nancy Thompson: It’s too late, Krueger. I know the secret now. This is just a dream. You’re not alive. This whole thing is just a dream.
[she turns around and faces him]
Nancy Thompson: I want my mother and friends again.
Fred Krueger: You what?
Nancy Thompson: I take back every bit of energy I gave you. You’re nothing. You’re shit.
There are some extremely graphic moments in A Nightmare on Elm Street, but their inventive nature elevates them above those of your standard slasher. Some were simple to execute, some were anything but, but almost all of them were fresh and awe-inspiring, particularly considering the budget at hand. The fact that Doyle and his crew had to build an unmotorised, rotating room in order to pull off Tina’s excruciating, ceiling-bound death highlights the level of commitment that went into making the movie a success. That particular kill is still hard to stomach. You feel every bump and bruise, wince at every slit, and it’s all so perversely intimate, the equivalent of being cuckolded by an invisible intruder. Go and watch the crude, CGI imitation of that scene in 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and see the difference. That movie had the benefit of a quarter of a century of advanced technology, and it pales in comparison. It feels so generic and empty and without consequence. That original scene is perversely intimate and utterly deadening. It is still one of the most startling deaths in all of horror.
Glen’s death, inspired by the infamous elevator scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, is also one of the most visually impressive of the era, his bedroom-bound bloodbath, perhaps Krueger’s most audacious display of effrontery, achieved using 80 gallons of water mixed with red paint, and it works a treat. In that scene, the dreamworld and reality seem to become somewhat intertwined. Glen’s ferocious deliquescing, a kind of visual ejaculation from an unseen sexual predator, has no place in reality, and Krueger takes great pleasure in breaking the rules and rubbing the dripping viscera in our faces. He understands the power of self-denial, has until that juncture carefully exploited it as a means to alienate his targets, but in that moment he is flexing his supernatural prowess, soaking the Elm Street parents in their own repudiation and announcing himself as beyond the laws of a world they took so unceremoniously away from him.
Unlike your standard slasher, Craven doesn’t restrict the use of practical effects to the film’s death scenes. In fact, some of A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s most impressive visuals are instead used to create that environment of absolute uncertainty, to craft that tenuous void between dreams and reality, establishing an almost perpetual feeling of teetering on the edge of control. The visual that most impresses me is that of Freddy’s leering impression on the wall above Nancy as she drifts in and out of consciousness. It was achieved through the simple, almost rudimentary process of stretching a sheet of spandex across a hole and having Freddy press against it. This was another scene savaged by the almost insouciant use of CGI in 2010’s reboot. I’m sure that version cost considerably more to produce but it’s so shallow and forgettable, so lacking in ingenuity and imagination, exactly the traits that make the original scene so effective and timeless. Rarely has a horror character been brought so ingeniously to life.
It is this kind of ingenuity that makes A Nightmare on Elm Street feel fresh, not tired, inspired, not cynical, and when the credits roll you know you’ve experienced something landmark and unrepeatable. Krueger is a once in a lifetime creation, the irrepressible star of a movie with the kind of seminal concept that is impossible to replicate. For most people, A Nightmare on Elm Street falls a little short when it comes to the very cream of the horror crop, but I respectfully disagree. The movie may be flawed — thanks in large part to a sequel-setting ending which, although nicely executed, lacks clarity and assertiveness — but this was a decision beyond the director’s control. Craven wanted his finest creation to be a one-shot deal, and he and Shaye would compromise by combining their endings, a settlement which perhaps jeopardised the movie’s masterpiece status. Money may have won out in the end, but very few films have had this kind of impact on the genre at large, and it is difficult to recall a horror as fresh and invigorated, while Craven’s craft, ingenuity and understanding of what makes an audience tick has never been keener.