For many years slasher films have become a huge staple in the horror film industry. Some people site their invention as early as 1932 with the film Thirteen Women, while others look towards the 1960 classic Peeping Tom, but it wasn’t until the late 70’s and early 80’s that the genre really started to evolve, and take off. While many classics lurk in the bowers of what some call a misogynistic or exploitative category, there are three names that often rise above any other; Vorhees, Meyers, and Krueger.
In 1984 Wes Craven terrorized audiences the world over with the beginning of what was to be a long, successful series he titled A Nightmare on Elm Street. The graphic special effects and nonadherence to the formulaic plot standards of the sub-genre were unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Initially performing on a limited theatrical release, the film skyrocketed to success and gave way to seven sequels, a 2003 crossover that sees Krueger alongside Camp Crystal Lake madman Jason Vorhees, a 2010 reboot with director Samuel Bayer at the helm, as well as a whole galaxy of comic books, video games, novelizations, and television appearances. Hardly a man, woman or child would draw a blank upon the mention of Fred Krueger.
Heather Langenkamp, a Hollywood unknown at the time, starred as Nancy Thompson, a high school teenager in the throes of sleep deprivation. Nancy and her friends (which included Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri, and a young Johnny Depp), begin to realize a frightening similarity in their dreams. Each one is repeatedly haunted at night by a horribly burned man, with knives on his fingers, dressed in the dingiest Christmas sweater anyone has ever seen. After several stylized deaths befall sleeping teenagers, startling revelations begin to surface about a child murderer who brought the hammer of vengeance down from the parents of Elm Street. These concerned citizens decided to give the finger to our judicial system, and instead burned the man alive as punishment for his transgressions. Nancy seems to be the only one hell-bent on stopping these mysterious murders, she takes it upon herself to put an end to Krueger by going “Home Alone” on his ass.
Robert Englund takes on the Freddy Krueger persona, a role which launched him into fame, and horror film history. As opposed to most of the tight lipped psychos that were taking over the genre en masse, in films like Terror Train, Prom Night, Friday the 13th, and Halloween, Englund brought to the screen a murderer who had so many witty/vulgar quips under his hat, that audiences didn’t know whether to laugh or recoil in fear. While later installments began to focus more on Krueger as a kind of psycho-comedian, the initial introduction or the character terrified audiences to a degree that the majority of Krueger’s peers at the time could not.
Craven found inspiration for his newest foray into the genre in a story he pulled from a newspaper article in the LA Times. The article told the story of Cambodian refugees who had fled to the United States. They began to experience horrifying nightmares, causing a refusal to sleep, and soon after several of the men died in their sleep. Scientists began to refer to the strange occurrences as Asian Death Syndrome, for which they could provide no explanation as to the cause of death. Coupling these events with elements of his own childhood, Craven produced a script that he shopped around to several different studios, before arriving at the then independent New Line Studios, who decided to release the film even though they were on the verge of bankruptcy at the time. The box office success of A Nightmare on Elm Street single handedly saved New Line Cinema, and did so with flying colors. The film is excellent and is executed almost flawlessly, even down to its tagline, “If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming, she won’t wake up at all…” Starting out on a very limited release of only 165 theaters nationwide, the film soon rocketed into popularity mostly through limited advertising and word-of-mouth.
A Nightmare on Elm Street relies on many great elements to present a truly shocking story. Craven brilliantly attacked what at the time seemed to be the most innocent of places…the suburbs. Grotesque murders, supplemented by the dark secret of the parents of Elm Street, give the audience an uneasy sense that despite the innocent exterior of the modern American suburb, something sinister can always lie beneath. Viewers are left with a feeling that the fictional town of Springwood, Ohio, could just as well be their own corner of the world, and their own parents could be hiding a secret just as dark. The film also incorporates the age old horror theme of the loss of innocence. On this element Nightmare does very little to take the industry further, but due to the stylized way this theme is presented, it is little to no bother that most of us have seen this subtext played out for years.
The special effects are especially well done, considering the minimal budget the crew was working on. Working with a modest filming budget of only 1.8 million dollars, the filmmakers gave audiences a show that seemed to be lacking from many of the slasher films of that time. Any fan of the genre loves seeing Jason or Michael with a machete or butcher’s knife, respectively, but no one at the time expected to see a geyser of blood skyrocket through a hole in the bed, with no killer in sight. Other highlights include a half-naked teenager being drug up the wall and onto the ceiling above her helpless boyfriend and being torn to shreds, the film’s heroine unwittingly having the infamous Freddy glove rising up between her legs while she’s sleeping in the bath tub, or Langenkamp attempting to walk up a set of stairs that begin to suck her in.
Not only does Craven strive to bring audiences some of the best gore, and in your face horror of the time, he also builds some good suspense. There is, of course, plenty of the age old horror cliché of teenagers walking around in empty houses, which most of us have grown so accustomed to that we feel the need to get up and go to the fridge during these moments, but Nightmare adds a little something extra. Most memorable being the small children jump roping and singing the song that would become a staple for the franchise, “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. Three, four, better lock your door. Five, six, grab your crucifix. Seven, eight, gonna stay up late. Nine, ten, never sleep again.” Nothing quite captures a sense of dread quite like children, and of course it’s only an added bonus if they are singing. Admittedly this is a device that is grossly overused by today’s standards, but at the time Nightmare was made, not every horror film maker was as subject to as much conformity as we see today.
While the good name of A Nightmare on Elm Street may have been slightly tarnished over the years by a slew of sequels, cartoons, and daytime television appearances by Fred Krueger himself, the original will always hold a special place in the hearts of all horror fans, and regardless of what some overly critical people might say, it’s a good movie. One of Craven’s true masterpieces, and the madman associated with it, will continue to live on as a cornerstone of pop culture, not just for horror fans, but everyone. So stop complaining, and embrace it…bitch.
Matt Oakley is a journalist and investigator of the unexplained. He has written articles for the Politomatic & Culture of Spirits Blogs, as well as Intrepid Magazine, and made appearances on several radio programs. Oakley currently writes, and is a radio personality for www.gralienreport.com and its sister radio show and podcast The Gralien Report.