A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) [DVD]
Director : Wes Craven
Screenplay : Wes Craven
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1984
Stars : John Saxon (Lt. Donald Thompson), Ronee Blakley (Marge Thompson), Heather Langenkamp (Nancy Thompson), Johnny Depp (Glen Lantz), Nick Corri (Rod Lane), Amanda Wyss (Tina Gray), Robert Englund (Fred Krueger)
Of all the psycho-slasher films to come out during the decade of the 1980s, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street is without doubt one of the most inventive and literate. Drawing on ancient myths about the realm of dreams, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s mixing of fantasy and terror doesn’t fit in easily with other slasher films of the era, despite the popular press’ attempts to lump them all together.
Like George A. Romero’s horror masterpiece Night of the Living Dead (1968), it intelligently draws its terror from deep-seated primal feelings (in this case, it digs into the fear that death in a dream means death in reality). And, like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), it creates plausible characters and sets them in a realistic, recognizable cinematic version of Middle America, where violence is always least expected.
As everybody knows by now, A Nightmare On Elm Street introduced the movie-going public (and eventually the popular culture at large) to the villainous character of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). With his ropey, scarred face, battered fedora, grungy red-and-green-striped sweater, and menacing glove with the six-inch blades, Krueger was a truly frightening presence who immediately caught on in people’s imaginations.
According to the movie, Freddy was a malicious child-murderer who was burned to death by a lynch mob of angry parents. Years later, he returns as the literal incarnation of murderous evil in the dreams of those parents’ teenage children. The film works on several levels, especially as a wicked variation of the old notion that the sins of the parents are visited on their children. In Craven’s world, the payment for those sins requires blood, and lots of it.
The teenagers/victims in A Nightmare On Elm Street are certainly some of the better depicted characters in the slasher genre. They represent a wide range of character traits, which means that not all of them take off their clothes or smoke dope in the first 20 minutes. In fact, the movie actually goes so far as to make the point that teenagers are capable of thinking about the feelings of others and looking out for their friends.
For instance, in an early scene, a 15-year-old girl named Tina (Amanda Wyss), who is the first to start having Freddy-induced nightmares, talks her friend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and Nancy’s boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) into staying over at her house while her divorced mother is out of town. Tina is in a fight with her slacker musician boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri). Rod is the closest the film comes to succumbing to Hollywood’s typical vulgar teenage archetype, but even he displays levels or pathos and empathy not usually accorded adolescent characters, especially in horror films.
Although Tina and Rod eventually slip into her mother’s bedroom together for the evening, Nancy talks Glen into foregoing any sexual escapades themselves because, as she puts it, “We’re here for Tina, not ourselves.” And even though Glen, being a hormonally raging teenage boy, is later heard muttering in a comic aside, “Morality sucks,” he agrees with Nancy. What this example shows is that writer/director Wes Craven is interested in not only making his characters more realistic by showing variations in motivation and moral codes, but also in making them more endearing and worthwhile as human beings, so their gruesome loss at the razor-fingers of Freddy Krueger has a deeper resonance.
All of the members of the young, at-the-time-unknown cast, all of whom actually look like teenagers, give good performances, although with the exception of Johnny Depp, none of them have gone on to memorable careers (and it is so very enjoyable to see the teenage Depp, in his feature film debut, playing up the goody-goody preppy image, complete with khakis and topsiders). Langenkamp is especially good as the determined, resourceful heroine. Although the film panders to the typical psycho-man-stalking-the-female situations (when the boys are killed, we never see into their dreams like we do the girls), Nancy proves to be tougher in the end than anyone. In fact, Nancy emerges as the pinnacle of the “final girl” archetype used so often in slasher films; not only does she resist the violent advances of Krueger, but she does so actively by creating booby traps and drawing him out of the dreamworld into reality.
The young cast also benefits from the inclusion of old pros Ronee Blakley (Oscar-nominated for her memorable role in Nashville) and John Saxon (already a veteran of almost 50 movies, many B-pictures) as Nancy’s parents. Unlike most films of this type that either ignore or ridicule parents, Blakley and Saxon make their characters into flawed, but interesting characters. This does not mean, however, that the film is not critical of them and parental authority figures in general, all of whom represent the decay of middle class America (divorce, alcoholism, irresponsibility, not to mention vigilante murder).
Of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street is, at its heart, a slasher movie, and there is plenty of gore to go around. While not as explicit as some other movies not worth mentioning, it has the distinction of being more creative in its death scenarios--and this doesn’t simply entail substituting a nastier weapon of death for the boring old knife. Because A Nightmare on Elm Street plays with the notions of fantasy vs. reality and dreaming vs. waking, it is free to introduce a fantastic, supernatural element. Freddy is made that much scarier because he doesn’t have to play by the laws of physics and the spatial time-order that rules our waking hours. He can literally be in two places at once, which makes him that much more inescapable. He is the truest variation of the boogey man, and unlike the numerous sequels that followed, this film keeps him mostly confined to the shadows. While his persona became more wise-cracking than frightening in the inferior later installments, Craven’s original kept Freddy sinister and vicious. He had personality, but in the end, he was threatening instead of laughable.
Wes Craven, who resurrected his career in the mid-1990s with the Scream films, was something of a fringe-dweller before A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984. At that time, he was known primarily for the sickeningly effective, but deeply flawed The Last House on the Left (1972) and the cult classic The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Craven, a former humanities professor with a master’s degree in writing and philosophy from Johns Hopkins, seems an unlikely candidate to become associated with horror and exploitation films. Nevertheless, it is his background in literature and humanities that inspired him to take the slasher genre farther, to introduce elements of fantasy, surrealism, irony, and black humor, which is why A Nightmare on Elm Street continues to stand head and shoulders above most of the genre material produced in the 1980s.
|A Nightmare on Elm Street inifinifilm Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Distributor||New Line Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||September 26, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The image and sound of A Nightmare on Elm Street have both been remastered for this new infinifilm release, which is somewhat surprising given that the previously available transfers were not bad at all. The image is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), and considering the film’s low-budget origins, it looks incredible. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a purposefully dark film, and the transfer does a fine job of maintaining strong detail in even the darkest corners of the frame and keeping the black levels consistent. Comparing the new disc with the previously available disc reveals the new transfer to be slightly sharper and more detailed, so purists who want the best possible image quality will want to opt for an upgrade. The audio has also been given a boost. In addition to the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track (remixed from the original monaural track) that was previously available, this release also includes a DTS ES 6.1 surround mix that is quite impressive. Charles Bernstein’s synthesized orchestral score sounds rich and full, and the nightmare sequences and “boo” moments are given extra impact through aggressive use of the surround channels and low end.|
|As part of New Line’s infinifilm series, this new release of A Nightmare on Elm Street offers a clever interface that allows the viewer to engage with the supplements while watching the movie. If you choose to watch the infinifilm version of the movie, at various times a blue menu bar will appear along the bottom half of the screen with one or two supplement options that relate to the scene you’re watching. By selecting one of the options, you are temporarily taken out of the movie and into the particular part of the supplement (the menu bar not only tells you what the supplement is, but also how long it runs). Most of these supplements are brief interviews and footage excerpted from the documentaries and featurettes available on the second disc, but it also includes some intriguing alternate footage and deleted bits of scenes. If the infinifilm option doesn’t give you enough information, there is also an optional trivia track you can play during the film. |
The rest of the supplements are a mix of the old and the new. There is a rehashed screen-specific audio commentary from the 1999 disc by writer/director Wes Craven, stars Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon, and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin. There is also a new audio commentary in which New Line apparently tried to round up every single person involved in making the film shy of the caterer (and, of course, Johnny Depp). This new commentary, which is edited together from separate interviews and rarely addresses directly what is on the screen, features writer/director Wes Craven, producer Robert Shaye, stars Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, and Ronee Blakley, co-producer Sara Risher, cinematographer Jacques Haitkin, associate producer John Burrows, composer Charles Bernstein, editor Rick Shaine, co-editor Patrick McMahon, mechnical special effects designer Jim Doyle, special make-up effects designer David B. Miller, and film historian David Del Valle.
The second disc includes several documentaries and featurettes about the film. “Never Sleep Again: The Making of A Nightmare on Elm Street” is a new 50-minute documentary that includes interviews with all of the people included on the new commentary. It is a well-done history of both Wes Craven and the film. The title of the 22-minute featurette “Night Terrors: The Origins of Wes Craven’s Nightmares” suggests that it is about Craven, but it is really more about the nature of dreams and how they have been understood by various cultures (interviewees include a Jungian psychologist and the research director of the Gnostic Society). A second featurette, “The House That Freddy Built: The Legacy of New Line Horror,” traces the history of New Line Cinema from its origins as a small, store-front distributor to a powerful filmmaking force, arguably because of the success of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. The featurette includes clips from all of the Nightmare films, as well as other New Line horror releases such as Critters (1986) and Final Destination (1998). Both of these featurettes are worth watching, but it’s a little insulting that they are both bookended by annoying advertising come-ons reminding us that all the films mentioned in these featurettes are available for purchase.
The second disc also includes three alternate endings (all of which are slight variations on the actual ending), the original theatrical trailer (which, for some technical reason, had no sound on the disc I was reviewing), and the cleverly designed “Freddy’s Coming for You” trivia game.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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