Normally, dying in one’s sleep is supposed to be the ideal way to go; without pain, without warning, without fear. But this notion gets derailed a bit by the long-held myth that if we die in our dreams, we die in real life. Few things can be as unsettling as a really good nightmare, and when we lose the sense of what is nightmare and what is reality, well, maybe we might start believing that what we dream about really can kill us. Such is the fuel for A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Wes Craven horror masterpiece that did so much to supercharge the slasher movie genre that dominated the late 1970s and much of the 1980s.
The story involves young teenager Nancy Thompson, who is plagued by recurring nightmares of being chased by a disfigured man wearing a striped sweater and a hideous glove with knives for fingers. Shortly after she learns that a friend of hers is having the same nightmares, that friend is savagely murdered, apparently by the guy from Nancy’s dreams. As Nancy grows increasingly terrified of falling asleep at all, she tries in vain to get people to understand what kind of danger she and her friends are in. As the bodies begin to pile up, parents in her neighborhood are forced to confront the awful reality that the man tormenting Nancy and killing her friends is none other than Freddy Kreuger, a wicked child murderer who was burned alive by neighborhood vigilantes years earlier. Somehow, Freddy has returned from the dead and is taking his revenge by targeting the children of those who killed him in real life. As Nancy understands that she cannot stay awake forever, she must form some kind of plan for defeating Freddy not just in her dreams, but in the waking world as well. But night is falling, Nancy’s eyelids grow heavy, and soon, she will return to Freddy’s realm…
By 1984, the slasher movie genre was becoming badly overcrowded and formulaic, so much so that even writer-directors such as Wes Craven, who helped get the whole genre off the ground just a few years earlier, had to use ever-more novel conventions to set his new horrorshows apart. Somethings had become almost required; a relentless killer with a hidden face and some kind of trademark gimmick, a kind of home turf on which the killer’s power is supreme, and a premise that allows for endless sequels. Craven took the notion of people dying in their sleep and came up with Krueger, a villain so macabre and memorable that he instantly became one of the slasher era’s top box office draws, justifying a long chain of increasingly disappointing sequels, most of which Craven had little or nothing to do with.
But in this first movie, Freddy is not yet established as the kind of villain audiences root for, and since he is not yet spewing terrible one-liners and chewing the scenery. Thus, he remains where he is strongest, as a half-seen demon of the shadows, something whose outline and actions hint at even greater horrors than what we can easily identify. Craven’s premise creates a kind of terror where our heroes do not need to venture into creepy places, split up to cover more ground (it’s faster that way) or sign their own death warrant by having sex with each other. They need only do what everybody else does—go to sleep—to offer themselves up on the sacrificial alter that is Freddy Krueger’s hit list.
What holds this all together are the efforts of young Nancy herself, who knows she can’t escape what’s pursuing her and so resolves to meet her menace head-on to secure her safety. Like a few other standout slasher movies, the presence of a strong, capable heroine does much to drive this thing forward; Nancy is no damsel in distress. And even if she was, nobody around her believes she’s in enough danger to merit a rescue. And so she more or less goes it alone, in what has become a memorable twist on the Final Girl routine. Alas, everything that makes Nancy special in this movie is eventually undone in subsequent installments, none of which ever had the originality or malice of the first, or the scrappy inventiveness of a movie made on a budget and willing to try something crazy just to see if it would work. But in this first movie, on its own, we get contest between a killer who won’t stop and a target who won’t give in, and that makes for enjoyable watching, indeed.
This is not a particularly deep or meaningful movie, even if it gave us one of the more iconic cinematic villains of the last 50 years. But it’s not without its memorable moments, especially the first kill scene, a subversion of the by-then-familiar slasher trope of “if you have sex, you die.” Seeing Johnny Depp end his first movie appearance by turning into a massive fountain of blood is another. And a stinger of an ending featuring a bad guy we thought was supposed to have been vanquished, makes for a third. But the scariest scenes are when we see how our character’s dreamworlds and waking worlds blur into each other—like when Freddy stretches through a bedroom wall to menace a dozing Nancy—that take us well beyond the typical range of slasher stories.
Such a scene delivers our moment of truth here, as Freddy very nearly gets the drop on a drowsy Nancy while she soaks in the tub. There is more than a little sexual violence suggested in that scene, reminding us that what slasher movies do best is subverting sexual energy into mortal danger, tapping into a kind of moral panic that tends to accompany carnal awakenings. Even if we might not be ready to see our heroes as sexual creatures, Freddy is. He sees that in everyone. That people love him for it might be his creepiest trait of all.