Archive Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

It’s horror archive reviews all October long! This review of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” is from August 4, 2010.


Nightmares are about the closest any of us get to confronting something truly terrifying. In them everything feels so real, but we wake up and all is fine. Wes Craven sees the powerful possibility for horror by blurring that line and such is the premise of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” a story of teenagers being hunted in their dreams by a burned man with knives attached to his fingers.

“Elm Street” is not as scary so much as fraught with creepiness and suspense. When Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) does strike — because it is within a dream world independent of reality — the attacks are exciting and original. Essentially, Freddy is nothing but a slasher, but his existence in a “supernatural” plane keeps “Elm Street” fresh.

One of the under-appreciated story techniques that Craven uses is that he focuses on Tina (Amanda Wyss) for the first 15 minutes and it is with her gruesome death that our attention turns to Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), our true (and infinitely more likable) protagonist. This simple technique of violating expectation sets the tone for the film on a positive note.

As an antagonist, Freddy is simply demented. The one scene when Englund really gets to do any acting is during his assault on Tina in the beginning. He’s a goofball — anything but terrifying — but with the knife fingers and Craven’s suspense techniques he becomes as formidable as any slasher.

Outside of the horror elements, Craven excels at creating rules for the dream world that Freddy occupies. It starts with only being able to attack you in his dreams and then expands to including any wounds that you suffer at his expense show through in the real world. Then we later learn you can take things back with you from the dream world into reality. This kind of contextual crafting usually gets reserved for science-fiction movies, so it’s refreshing to see another genre trying it out.

The credit for retaining the film’s sense of self-seriousness belongs to Langenkamp. She believes in the material as any one of us would in her situation. She’s cautious-brave about taking on Freddy, but not stupid-brave. She’s not afraid to tell the other characters what’s going on, but she doesn’t act all crazy explaining herself like most protagonists do when the people around them think they’re insane. Thanks to her, “Elm Street” doesn’t necessitate being laughed at for being preposterous; it’s genuinely suspenseful and dramatic.


4/5 Stars


A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Written and Directed by Wes Craven
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Johnny Depp


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