Now here is a premise. A serial killer exists who only kills his victims while they’re dreaming, and he does just that from inside of the dream. He might not even exist in the real world, but he is sentient and deadly inside of the dream world. He can also jump from dream to dream, pick a target and follow him or her through various phases of being awake and asleep, and has a menacing metal claw hand. Oh, and because he does everything in a dream, all of his superhuman-like characteristics are easily explained away. Dreams also provide perfect locations to set kill sequences, as they’re not bound by logic. This idea is a filmmaker’s dream (pun intended).
It’s used to great effect in A Nightmare on Elm Street, which has the killer, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), attempting, and in the majority of cases, succeeding, to kill a select group of teenagers. I won’t get into why, because that’s not revealed until rather late in the film. The film opens with a dream sequence in which Freddy almost slices up a young woman, and from there we watch the teenagers attempt to stay awake or fight the killer of in their sleep.
There’s a leading character, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), who spends a large amount of time trying to figure out who is doing the killing and for what reason. She also wants to protect herself and her boyfriend, Glen (Johnny Depp), especially after her friend, Tina (Amanda Wyss), and Tina’s boyfriend, Rod (Nick Corri), both wind up dead. She knows only that they all had a nightmare involving this burned-all-over man in the ugly green and red sweater.
What elevates A Nightmare on Elm Street above a braindead slasher movie is its thoughtfulness and intelligence. You’re actually given a bit to chew on as it progresses, and director Wes Craven even plays some mind games with the audience. You’ll be thinking about the expectations you have from the film, and then you’ll be surprised. What’s a dream? What’s real? Is the character currently awake or sleep? Often times, you won’t be entirely sure.
It also features a small sampling of characters, none of whom are particularly stupid. Horror movies are notorious for not having the brightest leads, but by having only four lead teenagers — two of whom die quite early on, leaving just Nancy and Glen — allows for characterization and makes the potential death of either mean something. The characters don’t have to be written in such a way so that they all die because we don’t have too many to work with in the first place. This gives us reason to care.
In fact, its lead character of Nancy is smarter than most anyone you find in these sorts of films. She’s more Sigourney Weaver than Jamie Lee Curtis, I guess would be a good way to phrase it. She goes on the offensive, she figures out how to avoid an almost certain death, and when it comes time to lure Freddy out of the dream and try to trap him, she has multiple backup plans. How refreshing is that? If Alien didn’t exist, Nancy might make more lists of the smartest and toughest female horror movie leads.
Even despite a relatively low death count, the film is ripe with scares and gruesome moments. While it might not have a lot of bodies stacking up, the ones we do get are generally quite bloody, and there are many scenes in which death is a real possibility. These moments are generally quite creative — being in a dream allows the filmmakers that kind of freedom — and the film is actually kind of frightening. Freddy can pop out from anywhere, even when the character thinks he or she is awake, due to the premise.
The writing is quite believable, and the teenage characters, Nancy in particular, are given real-world problems. From fighting with significant others to dealing with parents, the film might not offer a wholly realistic view of teenage years but it does a decent enough job. The acting comes across as natural, save for Englund, whose Freddy is a sick and memorable killer, sure to remain engraved in the minds of many of the people who watch the film. He’s terrifying simply by being on-screen.
A Nightmare on Elm Street was made for just over $1 million, but it has a very polished look to it. It doesn’t appear cheap, even with all of the dream sequences taking place in various locales. It is beautifully shot, for what that’s worth (likely not a lot), and its score, while sparse, is eerie and works well with the material. The gore is plentiful during the killing scenes, so if you don’t like seeing a ton of blood appear all at once, you’re likely not going to want to see this movie.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is a smart, scary, atmospheric horror movie with an absolute gem of a premise. The “killing people in dreams” idea allows for logic to be thrown out the window, and also opens endless doors for creative kills. We don’t question what takes place in dreams, after all. It has a great leading character, a memorable and freaky villain, a script which doesn’t pander to or insult the audience, and the film actually gives you a little bit to think about on an intellectual level. It’s a success on pretty much all accounts.