Having watched the other two staples of modern Hollywood horror over the past week, FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN (review coming later), my appreciation for Wes Craven's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET has increased even more. Craven took the monster out of the woods, off of our street, and put him in the one place we can't escape from:
Made just 4 years after the original FRIDAY, it looks a little dated almost 22 years later. But there's so many things that work in the movie - from the incredible opening sequence to the classic death scene by Johnny Depp - the dated effects and lapses in continuity are easily forgiven.
In brief: a group are kids are having the same terrifying dreams: being chased and stalked by a mysterious burned man wearing an old and a ratty red and green sweater. On his hand is a glove with long, sharp knives for fingers. It soon turns out this "Dream Man" can indeed chase you through your dreams, and he's exacting his revenge on the children for their parent's sin of burning him alive in a boiler room 20 years before. Die in your dreams, die for real. So it's left to our heroine Nancy to take matters into her won hands (literally) and drag Freddy Krueger out into the waking world for a final showdown.
I remember watching this movie for the first time when it came out on HBO years ago with my mother. We both recoiled against the far wall where the sofa was, pulling my grandmother's knit blanket over our heads while my mother cried "Never again! I'm not watching this!"
Watching again now, I'm amazed at how effective the beginning works. The opening is a small square shot of Freddy making his killing glove in the boiler room. We see almost nothing - just the knives, the hissing pipes, the flames as the blowtorch welds the razors into place. As Freddy puts the glove on for the first time the titles come up with the score. We then proceed directly to Tina's dream as she's chased through a boiler room. Lambs pass by, you constantly hear their bleating as she moves further and further into the labyrinth of the boilers. The score works as effect, accentuating the scrape of the razors against the steel. When Tina runs, her steps seem almost comically slow - until you recall your own attempts to run in your dreams.
Of course the movie's greatest strength lies in its mythology and its version of the Anti-God: Mr Freddy Krueger. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are silent hulks, offering only the sounds of their death dealing for a voice. Freddy brings with him an entire universe - as the saying goes, "he contains multitudes." This is one of the first moments that the thing under the bed had a personality to speak of. Although the actual number of deaths are relatively few, the creativity in the killing and the amount of blood definitely one-ups Freddy's predecessors - Michael has a butcher knife, Jason used an arrow, but only Freddy can make your bed eat you.
Inevitably, the ending seems a little forced, setting things up for a sure-fire franchise. But in terms of setting up a sense of dread, of helplessness, of placing both the characters and the audience in situations that pray upon our own fears of falling asleep and not being able to wake up, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is a great horror gem, still scary all these years later.