Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street
( As part of the Wes Craven Blogathon my second piece is on his iconic horror movie, Nightmare on Elm Street. Spoilers ahead, some key scenes discussed in the review, so readers please note).
Wes Craven’s had played upon the subconscious nightmares of average Americans in his first two movies The Last House on The Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Both these movies were a typical motif of the 70′s exploitation grindhouse flicks, damned as B cinema, but which in years later would have a cult following of their own. They had certain elements common to 70′s Grindhouse flicks, copious amounts of gore, sex, nudity and violence. But most importantly they seemed to play upon the insecurity of the average American to the 60′s free sex, free living, flower power movement. In the Last House, two teen girls, out for a quick fix of hash, on a weekend, get into trouble, as they are kidnapped, gagged, taken to the woods, raped, tortured and finally kiled. Craven seems to set the line between the good folks and the bad folks, the bad folks, were guys who got stoned, were slutty, and horny. In an ironic indictment of the free sex mood, a particularly graphic scene, shows the two teen girls, forced to have sex with each other in front of their tormentors. Craven draws the line even more clearly in The Hills Have Eyes, where the good All American family, is stranded in the middle of nowhere, and they have to deal with the bad guys, the a family of violent thugs with a cannibalistic tendency.
In 1984, Craven came out Nightmare on Elm Street, a movie , that actually preys on a common fear, of nightmares. So many times we would have had nightmares, waking up in sweat, and wondering what if it really had happened. Interestingly the word nightmare originates from an Old English word referring to demons called incubi which were thought to sleep on the chests of people. This could be one reason, why the nightmare device has always been a favorite of horror fiction writers. Wes Craven here again goes for a kind of what if scenario. Its like “Hey i got a bad nightmare, now what if that nightmare becomes real? What if the character in the nightmare actually jumped out from it”. Traditionally horror movies have worked on the idea of something unseen somewhere, comming out and attacking us. Poltergeist played with the fear of ghosts comming from a TV set, and much later The Ring, toyed around with the idea of a spirit comming from an old video casette. The very reason why Nightmare is to date regarded as one of the best in the horror genre, is that its not just your routine, evil spirit comes out and goes slash, cut, slash on screaming victims. Nightmares have often been said to be the outcome of our inner fears, so Craven here by suggesting that our inner fears could actually end up comming true, puts in a pyschological, Freudian sub text.
In fact when the movie begins we see glimpses of the killer its only in brief glimpses, where we see a hand putting the knives to the fingers of a glove, and a kind of dimly lit boiler room. The hand strikes, a dark canvas is torn into shreds, and then we see a panoramic shot of the San Fernando suburb near Los Angeles, where the action takes place. As the title credits roll by we see a young teen female of around 15, by stalked by a mysterious stranger, in what must be one of the scariest opening scenes. What i loved here is the way, Craven, shows the credits in every frame, the girl leaves behind, and we have the blades ripping through the fabric. For a while everything goes silent, and then we have the mysterious stranger attacking the girl, and she breaking free from him, and then suddenly we see her walking up in bed with a scream.
The girl here is Tina( Amanda Wyss), staying with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend. Tina looks down to see that her nightgown bears the same cuts as those inflicted by her mysterious attacker. The next day at school, Tina listens to the kids singing “One two Freddie’s comming for you” and is again reminded of her nightmare, confiding about it to her friend Nancy Thompson( Heather Langenkamp), who coincidentally has the same kind of nightmare Tina has had, as we come to know later. Both Tina and Nancy are typical American suburbian teens, with divorced parents, prom nights and yes boy friends looking for a romp. Nancy’s boyfriend is Glen Lantz( a certain Johnny Depp in his debut), while Tina’s on and off boy friend Rod is a kind of Richard Gere wannabe , black leather jacket, studs and all.
With Tina’s mom out of town, Nancy and Glen, offer to sleep over at Tina’s place to make her feel better. Glen as it turns out is bit of a Mama’s boy, who has to make up a story to his Mom, to come over. Rod gatecrashes into their party, and though Tina has this “now i love u, now i dont” relationship with him, he takes her inside ostensibly to talk. The unwritten rule of any horror flick in Hollywood is “With great sex, comes sudden death”. Or in other words, you have a couple indulging in some hot romping around, you can be very sure, that in the next scene, they are gonna have their party rudely interrupted, of course unless you happen to be the lead pair. I somehow wonder how the hero and heroine have great sex, and nothing happens to them. Sure enough we hear Tina and Rod, having a great romp, and then both of them under the sheets, and as in Hollywood, the romp under the sheets, seems to fix the problems they are having in their relationship for the time being.
Sure enough after some time Tina listens to the voices, and as she rushed around to find out, the mysterious stranger attacks her. As Tina rushes around seeking help, she runs to her home, and in the dim light, finds that the mysterious stranger attacking her is the same guy who haunted her in the nightmare. And on hearing her cries, Rod wakes up, only to find Tina thrashing around on bed, and in front of his shocked eyes, she is cut across her chest, and then her bloodied body is dragged along the ceiling before she falls dead. Here Craven, actually uses two POV’s in quick succession, Tina’s and Rod’s. From Tina’s POV, we see her being attacked by the stranger and then being killed, while Rod only sees Tina being killed by some strange invisible forces. The way Craven keeps shifting between the two POV’s makes the scene really unsettling.
The cops arrest Rod for the murder, because he happened to be there, incidentally the local police lieutnant Don Thompson( John Saxon), also happens to Nancy’s father. The scene here is significant in one way, for me in that Craven, seems to be exploring the issue of abstinence. Nancy refuses to have sex with Glen, making him remark “Morality sucks”, while Tina the girl who has a romp with her boyfriend, is bumped off in a rather gory manner. Something like you cross the line, you end in trouble. As i said earlier, the late 70′s and 80′s were the time, when there was some sort of conservative backlash against free sex and teen pregnancy, and Craven seemed to be playing on that implicitly.
Nancy however is convinced that Rod is innocent, as when she is again stalked and attacked in the nightmares by the same mysterious stranger. And she sees that whats happened to her in the nightmare is occuring to her in real life. She meets up with Rod, and she discovers that he also had the same nightmare. Nancy is convinced that the attacker is the one responsible for Tina’s death, but her father dismisses it off as a case of hysteria. When Rod is next found dead, strangled by bedsheets in the prison cell, the cops dismiss it as a case of suicide. Nancy however knows that its the stranger, responsible for the deaths, and its a matter of time before she and Glen become victims. Thats when her mom, reveals the story of Freddy Kruger, a notorious serial killer of kids, who was caught and burned to death in a boiler, by the angry parents, which explains the boiler motif appearing in most of the scenes. Nancy is now convinced that its Kruger himself involved in the murders.
Basically horror or slasher flicks work in two ways, you have the who dun it kind, where we have the masked stranger going on a killing spree, and then his motivations are explained in the final reels. The other is where we have a knowledge of the killer, but the interest centers around how it is encountered. Like in Alien, we know that the culprit is a nasty alien, going on killing every one, but the tension is how the lead character tackles the situation. Here once Nancy’s mother explains about Freddy Kruger, we know the character and his motivations, but the interest here is in how Nancy is able to tackle him.
And where Craven, really perks up the viewer interest is in the way he looks at the barrier between the dreams and real world. We have a real chiller of a scene, when Nancy is having her bath in the tub, and she is pulled under into a totally dark pool. Here every scary scene, which shows Freddy attacking Nancy, is in essence a dream, but when she wakes up from the nightmares, and finds that whatever injuries she sustained in her dream, appear in real, we find it hard to see the difference. Craven here gets the viewers into thinking whether dreams could be real or vice versa. Is that at times our inner most hidden fears could come true? Also the way he gets the contrasting POV’s of the characters in the death scenes of Tina and Rod, looks at the issue of perception. The same thing could be seen in two different ways by the characters in that scene. This constant interpolation of dreams and reality, the contrasting POV”s of characters, goes right down into the ending, which again is totally open ended. And i guess this is what elevates Nightmare from a mere horror flick into some thing more intellectual. It is the kind of horror flick, which could actually end up making you think.
One more reason that puts Nightmare up beyond the standard horror/slasher flick is the strong female character. Nancy is not your average scream queen, damsel in distress who needs her knight in shining armour, to come and rescue her from the dragon. She is more feisty, more resourceful, and yes compared to the standard, low IQ heroines of horror flicks, who end up doing the daftest things, she is much more smarter. So while Freddy Kruger is a suitably nasty villian, Nancy is more than a match for him. She is not there just to scream around, run around, be dumb and have her hero rescue her in the last reel. She is more like Ripley in the Alien series, Clarence Starling in Silence of the Lambs or Rachel in The Ring. Heather Langenkamp does a fairly good job, though she is not a Jodie Foster or Sigourney Weaver. Johnny Depp in his debut feature is fine, however nothing too remarkable, honestly his role here is more of a supporting act. Robert Englund, who plays Freddy Kruger, gained considerable fame, and is suitably nasty beneath the latex face and all.
Craven also creates the necessary creepy mood here, with good light and shadow effect, especially in the surrealistic dream sequences, and also the climax. Though shot on a very low budget, the movie does not have a tacky feel to it, and the special effects are well done. The 80′s feel is there though, especially with some of the blood spilling scenes. Craven however did not take much interest in the sequels, though he wrote for the 3rd part, with the result, that like any other franchise, this also went downhill, as the subsequent versions just dumbed down the intelligence of the original to make them more audience friendly. Nightmare on Elm Street is proof that a horror movie can be made without asking the audiences to leave their brains at home, and which can be scary too. It is one of the few movies in this genre, where you can have your gore, thrills and at same time use your grey cells a bit too.