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. 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 humble indie distributor-come-production-company in search of a breakthrough hit, and founder Robert Shaye decides to take a punt on Craven’s unique concept. 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’s hard to recall just how terrifying Robert Englund’s fritter-faced monster initially was, but we should remember, because despite 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.
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 an entirely different brand of terror. He didn’t so much pursue you as he did dance you around in circles, toying with his victims in a way that hadn’t been seen in the oversaturated realms of slasherdom. He wasn’t fierce or physically intimidating, the kind of seek-and-destroy killer who would dispose of you with one brutish blow. For him, the thrill was in the foreplay. His evil knows no mercy.
Whatever you do… don’t fall asleep.Nancy Thompson
As a marquee character, Freddy still ticked 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. It’s amazing to think that Miller viewed A Nightmare on Elm Street as a lesser job that required very little attention, casually creating one of the most iconic images in all of horror. Whether it’s Halloween‘s William Shatner mask, the cheap equipment used to create The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s ungodly sound design or Freddy’s diner-conceived visage, it always seems to be the happy accidents that go on to have the biggest impact. Some things are just meant to be, I suppose.
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 implement 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, 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 meaningful the genre has to offer. His slasher peers may have an unseemly taste for teen-oriented slaughter, but it’s 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.
But for all those winning elements, the man in the costume is the most valuable asset in making Freddy the unique character that he is. Even as the series descended into comical hi-jinks, you could always rely on horror icon Robert Englund to inhabit the character body, mind and soul. 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’s easy to understand the logic. For reasons already mentioned, the Krueger character was unique enough in its own right. I mean, how much of a difference could a faceless actor really 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 very 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 that’s 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’re forced to torture yourself by staving off sleep, but 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, dreaming, or drifting hopelessly in-between, 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 haunts the psyche of the Elm Street kids like the proverbial puppet master. 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? It’s total madness. But since dreams are a part of our subconscious that we know very little about, there’s always a sense of mystery involved, and, most crucially, a complete absence of control.
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: Screeeeech.
The key to A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s effectiveness is that you’re 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, the blurred delineations establish a sense of uncertainty that leaves us in a constant state of unease. 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 slasher movies, 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 was 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 space and shadows. 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 self-parody, 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. If the pursuer can be everywhere at once with absolutely no possibility of Earthly escape for his victims, it’s an almost futile exercise.
There’s nothing scary about absolute control in horror movies; it’s that sense of uncertainty that makes them effective, that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. There’s an element of omnipotence to Krueger too, a heavy one, 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 a 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 dreamworld 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 in which 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 something we’ve all experienced, but in cinematic terms it was almost brand new. Rarely has such a unique concept spoke to so many so effortlessly. It tapped into everything that makes us weak and vulnerable, conjuring that isolated, hopeless place where all of our darkest fears rest.
Put succinctly, A Nightmare On Elm Street, which was imitated ad nauseam for years thereafter, wasn’t your average slasher, but for the concept to be truly effective our manipulative villain’s prey required a similar level of depth. Englund may steal the show as one of horror’s most unique icons, but the film’s teenage cast are also a cut above, its characters plagued by 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 group of victims who are rich in conflict — the perfect meal ticket for our unquenchable scourge.
The film’s first victim is the quintessential target for an emotional tyrant like Krueger. Naive hellcat, Tina (Amanda Wyss), is a conflicted soul who is drawn to danger like a moth to a flame, a girl who ultimately, perhaps inevitably, gets more than her juvenile heart bargained for. If teenage rebellion is the one constant that divides generations, then Tina has it in abundance, but rebellion is typically a sign of emotional immaturity, the kind that leaves a monster of Krueger’s variety licking his teeth with anticipation. Tina may have all the hallmarks of a standard stalk-and-slash victim, but there’s a tragic depth to her that is lacking in the majority of slasher productions, the kind that makes Krueger a much more personal and manipulative threat. Her death may come as a surprise to the residents of Elm Street, but for those stood gossiping on the periphery, it may seem like a case of ‘if you play with fire you get burned’.
In reality, Bad Boy Rod (Jsu Garcia), is more than just a wild fling for Tina, but neighbourhoods like to choose their enemies. They act as justification for so much. Despite his switchblade antics and outward sense of anarchy, Rod makes Tina feel secure at a time of deep uncertainty, her so-called sins a by-product of teenage angst and alienation. Rod is the kind of outlaw whose insecurities see him isolated from the community, 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 methods he soon will be, and no one could be blamed for thinking otherwise.
The film’s second pairing is much sweeter, their peril harder to justify, but Krueger is just as at home with, and insulated from, acts of outward depravity that defy Earthly logic, the kind which nestle nicely in the psyche of a community clouded by denial. 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. Of all of Krueger’s original victims, Glen’s life is the most settled and traditional, the most free from personal conflict, but there’s no hint of the respectable virgin surviving the massacre. His demise is the most explicit of the bunch, and perhaps the most satisfying for a villain executing revenge on the clean-cut folk of everyday suburbia, the kind who keep their sins buried behind their immaculately kept lawns and congenial smiles.
Glen’s high school squeeze, Heather Langenkamp’s inimitable Nancy, is 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 dreamworld 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’s hard to recall a slasher heroine as strong or as determined as Nancy, or a teenage cast who possess such richness.
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.
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 the film’s more fantastical indulgences. 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 throat slit or head 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.
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 incongruous 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 by 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 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, he and Shaye ultimately compromising by combining their endings, a settlement which jeopardised the movie’s masterpiece status while ensuring New Line Cinema’s long and prosperous future. Money may have won out in the end, but very few films have had this kind of impact on the genre at large. In fact, it’s difficult to recall a horror as fresh and invigorated, while Craven’s craft, imagination and understanding of what makes an audience tick has never been keener.