The Test of Time: Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Director: Wes Craven
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, and Robert Englund

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Under the examination: Nightmare on Elm Street

'Ello, 'ello.

Everybody is scared of something. Whatever that something is we’re bound to run into it in a place where not even Usain Bolt can outrun some fool: our dreams. Yes, our own heads can conjure up the most horrific, nasty, morally incorrect things. That’s bad enough, but what’s worse is when some dude figures out how not only to get into somebody’s head, but within everybody’s head. Well…as long as you own a crib on Elm Street.

It’s strange to say it, but an entire generation has grown up without fully understanding the impact of Nightmare on Elm Street. Oh sure, most have heard of Freddy Krueger or caught one of the 484 sequels on late night TV, but the original Nightmare set the bar for all slasher films that flowed it. Modern audiences have lived with so much repetitiveness in horror that it might be impossible to get the context. Let’s face it, they just don’t make franchises like they used to. The biggest deals in horror today revolve around a possessed chick in her underwear or dying guy with a toy clown fixation. They lack the charisma and the humor that made this series work. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhess might have come first, but beyond the first Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street is the most import slasher film ever made.

THE STORY: Teenagers living in a small town all have a problem: they all suffer from nightmares. But not any lame nightmare where you forget your pants at work or the Predator chases you around your basement. Nope, these kids all dream of some creep in a striped sweater and hat who has a razor blade glove. Even worse, he actually can kill you while you sleep. Then it becomes a contest to see which teen can survive, and who can avoid dying (by not sleeping). In the end, only Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) can stay awake the longest to battle the one and only Freddy (Robert Englund). John Saxon plays a cop and father to Nancy, but he’s pretty much worthless. What’s he gonna do? Slap a pair of cuffs on a dream? Please.

Peek and then the boo.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: Nightmare on Elm Street doesn’t mess around, which is perhaps its best quality. It doesn’t waste time with silly things like character development or burning 20 or 30 minutes setting up the plot before anything happens. No, no. Instead, we open with a dream sequence, introducing the villain to show that this isn’t any normal nightmare. Nope, it’s much, much worse. The flick is barely 15 minutes old before Freddy officially makes his grand entrance (well, a more defined entrance than the opening dream) when he slices and dices Lane Myer’s girlfriend (you know, from Better Off Dead). From here, things never let up. And why should it? With such a simple idea, there’s no reason to add any filler. This is the ultimate nightmare.

While not his first movie, Nightmare on Elm street is Wes Craven’s coming out party, and it’s one brutally mean, blood soaked, and generally disturbing bastard. I don’t know what sort of demons Craven had stuck in his head at the time, but I’m damn glad he stayed away from shrinks and worked out his issues on the big screen (I assume at least). Even more, what makes Nightmare work, especially this first one, is that it deals with dreams, the one freakin’ thing that no one, no matter how tough, bitchy, or weak, can control. The great thing about nightmares, at least in the movies, is that it can do anything it wants without the audience bitching about something not being real. It’s not. Shit’s a dream, and a f*cking scary one at that.

But what’s even better is Englund’s performance. He’s not hamming it up like he does in later films (where he took things too far going straight camp), but he still gives the character personality without saying too much. Plus, he’s an asshole. He messes with his victims, he taunts them before he kills them in ways Jason and Mike could only dream about. And yes, that was an awful pun.

Not the most erotic bath...

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Honestly, not much. The movie reeks of 1984, but that makes the movie, giving it that timeless feel that works so perfect in horror. If there’s anything that blows now it comes from the old notion of the law of diminishing returns. With so many sequels and so many rip-offs, watching the original Nightmare can’t repeat the same impact as it did in 1984, when the slasher genre was already running then (there were already four Friday the 13th movies!). But I think it’ll still bitch slap any modern audience.

THE VERDICT: Of all the horror icons, Freddy has the major advantage Englund. While Myers and Verhoese changed actors every 3000 miles, Freddy was Robert Englund. Just try to watch the remake. While Jackie Earle Haley is a damn fine actor, it was impossible to not hear or see Englund. It’s his baby. And that all started in 1984 with this one. It’s a simple, straightforward slasher movie with an angle that made folks take notice, which is all a horror fan can ask for.



It's the poster!



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