It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve discovered horror as a genre I can enjoy. It wasn’t so much that I dismissed it as worthy of attention, but growing up I had a severely overactive imagination. The fear of having a bad dream from a horror movie, or simply driving myself insane from hearing random noises in the dark while trying to fall asleep was too great for me to even consider watching horror until college. Horror comedies like Shaun of the Dead really paved the way for me to get into the genre, and other zombie flicks like 28 Months Later helped. Catching a bunch of the Halloween films during parties and other social gatherings at school got me a bit further, as did seeing Cabin the Woods in the theater and loving it.
Furthermore, I tend not to like films and other media that rely heavily on dream sequences. The lack of “rules” and the surreal imagery tends to be off putting, and most of the time they aren’t well executed in that they don’t serve much of a narrative purpose (the “Knightmare” sequence of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is my least favorite thing in the film, probably). Inception is the exception to the rule as the film spends a decent amount of time explaining how dreams work in the film.
All of this is to say that I am floored by how much I love 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s not that each individual aspect of this film works perfectly, but they do work exceptionally well in concert together. Even having seen most of the big moments (the Johnny Depp blood geyser, the clawed hand in the tub), they work just as well in context as they do on their own. This is due to a combination of Wes Craven’s inventive filmmaking, deliberate camerawork and the design of Freddy Krueger.
I was astonished to discover that the film was supremely low budget. Sure, some of the effects do look cheap to eyes 32 years later, but just because you know how something was done, it doesn’t pull you out of the moment. The bathtub giving way to bottomless water still looks amazing, and seeing Tina (Amanda Wyss) being tossed around a bedroom to an increasing amount of blood is deeply unsettling. Whether or not it is intentional, the film walks the line between over the top, campy moments and sheer terror. The whiplash created from snapping between outright horror and dark humor enhances the film’s watchability as well as the scares.
Having seen a smattering of Halloween and Jason Voorhees films, it’s amazing how much a difference it makes that Freddy talks. Unlike those masked killers at the center of those slasher franchises, Freddy is not a silent Terminator of a killer. Freddy toys with his victims. He enjoys causing them fear as much as he is compelled to kill them. It makes total sense that he became even more a popular icon than any horror monsters of the 1980s, he’s just so full of personality and menace (which, having watched Freddy’s Revenge and Dream Warriors this weekend, would only grow in future installments).
My favorite thing about watching older horror movies (beyond discovering another genre of films I can enjoy) is that it is very easy to see the fears that they were attempting to encapsulate in the film. The Reagan era was full of domestic fears, especially concerning culture. Kids on drugs, teenagers having sex, all of the things built up since World War II that weren’t related to Civil Rights or the Cold War are directly addressed in a A Nightmare on Elm Street. “Just Say No” had just become championed by Nancy Reagan two years before the film’s release. But sex aside, none of the kids in the film are on drugs, but it is their parents’ fear of and for their children that drives the film. As commentary on how parenting is evolving, it’s not subtle either, as the parents in the film are the ones who murder Freddy as a way to protect their children. I’m not sure how much Craven was aware of this coming shift, but the film definitely works on that thematic level.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is an excellent entry, earning its place in the horror canon. Can’t wait to finish the series!
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.