Why This ‘Nightmare’ Endures

The original was a spark of creative fire in an era soaked in simplified slasher excess. It represented the best of its iconic director’s demented vision, and spawned a series of diminishing return sequels – each one forgetting the frights of the first to play up the comic angle of the main character. By the time its legendary status was cemented with a bad ass battle royale with a certain slaughter stalker from Camp Crystal Lake, audience interest had waned. They were no longer interest in the bastard son of a thousand maniacs, his deadly finger razors, the tattered striped sweater and a crumple fedora. What had begun in 1984 with an idea about “dreams that could kill” became the monster mythos of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and with it, the induction of molester turned mass murderer Freddy Krueger into the Horror Hall of Fame.

Writer/director Wes Craven could have never imagined the extended franchise life his creepy character would soon have when he stumbled across a newspaper article about young people dying in their sleep. The teens – refugees from Cambodia fleeing Pol Pot’s genocidal regime – where having such disturbed nightmares that they refused to rest. Some who did never woke up again. Taking that material and fusing it to his own interest in Eastern philosophy and a handful of childhood memories, Craven created the accused child killer who ends up the charred vengeance of some grieving parents. As Nightmare begins, Freddy Krueger has vowed payback of a perverse, paranormal design. Haunting the offspring of those who wronged him, he systematically enters their sleep, and with his deadly hand of knives, continues his accused crimes.

Our heroine, Nancy Thompson (a wonderful Heather Langenkamp) doesn’t want to believe that a mysterious fiend with a badly burnt face can sneak into her unconscious subconscious and cause harm. But when her best friend Tina is sliced up like a sow in an abattoir, she starts to investigate her town’s past. Although her drunken mother (Ronee Blakley) and local sheriff father (John Saxon) think she’s losing her mind, she rounds up best buddy Glen (an amazingly young Johnny Depp) and together they investigate the dead man behind the menace, the murders, and the means of getting rid of him once and for all. In between, blood and body parts flow as Freddy plays judge, jury, and supernatural executioner with the families up and down Elm Street.

At the time, Nightmare was indeed a novelty. While most fright films then simply created a fiend, found a group of drug-addled and oversexed teens, and placed them together in a secluded and supposedly scary setting to await the blade, Craven took a slightly different approach. Yes, Freddy Krueger is a vile, villainous evil, and while Nancy and Glen are Puritanical in their affections, Tina and her buff boy toy Rod fill the pre-marital mandate perfectly. The real switch came in the location. Sure, most of Nightmare takes place in the real world, Saxon playing cops and robbers while Langenkamp and Depp act as pseudo-sleuths, but when Freddy attacks, it’s from a place of pure invention. It’s the dream world, a virtual reality where Krueger can manipulate and manufacture space and situations in order to carry out his callous, corrupt goals.

It was this element of the film that allowed Craven to expand the landscape of his intended fears. Special effects and camera trickery kept audiences off kilter, the viewer not quite sure where the truth begins and the terror ends (or visa versa). Memorable moments included Freddy’s first attack, his arms stretching impossibly long across a broad back alley, Tina’s deadly tussle with the madman, Nancy’s infamous hat grab, and the finale which pits our heroine against the killer in a real vs. unreal booby trapped environment. Through it all, Craven moderates between gore and gravity, speckling the scares with humor but not turning things into a jaundiced jokefest. Indeed, the biggest crime committed against the character of Freddy Krueger over the years was the desire to turn him into an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like punchline. In Nightmare, every kill is cruel. As the series went along, death turned into a set-up for sour one-liners.

More importantly, Craven understands timing and tone. Part of A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s enduring popularity derives from how good the original film is – from a purely cinematic point. This is a movie that doesn’t give away its secrets right up front, that keeps you guessing throughout the entire running time. Nothing is ever as it seems, and Craven continuously pulls the rug out from under our characters and our interpretation of events. Sure, there are moments of gratuitous slime, torrents of blood filling the frame. Craven also can’t resist a few jibes along the way (Nancy is shown watching The Evil Dead during one memorable bout of imposed insomnia). From its unusual visual flourishes to the ambiguous ending, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a very good fright flick, one of the genre’s best.

But that still doesn’t explain its enduring quality. Some successfully point to actor Robert Englund who came out of nowhere to become one of the horror catalog’s most beloved and recognizable figures. When the franchise was hot, Freddy Kruger was marketed to all age groups with dolls, games, and all manner of go for broke merchandizing. Part of that came from design (he is a unique looking psychopath) but what Englund brought to the role plays some part in the passion – and popularity. Similarly, many offer the movie’s main theme – the vulnerability of sleep – as being another reason for its universal appeal. Though many have a fear of the dark and of being alone…at night…in the shallow safety of our bed…Craven amplified such dread, exploiting to make rest as reprehensible and deadly as possible.

Others point to the time, the politics of the era (Reagan and the Cold War were equally at a crossroads) and the unusual take on the terror type as reasons for its classicism. Yet the most reasonable explanation for A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s continuing relevance has less to do with subtext and more to do with simplicity. Like a good ghost story, it lasts because it works. Hundreds of horror movies try to create their own version of Freddy or Jason or Michael. They toss out their Leslie Vernons and their Victor Crowleys and their Pumpkin Karvers and hope to hit on the same notorious note as Carpenter, Cunningham, and Craven. But unlike these wicked wannabes, Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street follows the primary rule of fiction – they create their own world, their own unique rules, and then never once falter from them. Such dedication is why the original remains definitive, and why the rest of the franchise is derivative (with exceptions).

So as Michael Bay and company prepare to reinvent the fiend for a post-modern audience (as they did with Texas Chainsaw’s Leatherface and Mrs. Voorhees favorite son), it’s important to remember the impact and import of Wes Craven’s original. Certainly it has been diluted by dozens of attempted spin-offs, and even the remake has a feeling of unnecessary forced nostalgia. But when it was released, no one was quite prepared for the intensity of imagination and invention on display – and it’s a feeling that remains 26 years later. No matter what’s been done to him, Freddy Krueger continues to haunt our most vulnerable moments. Thanks to Wes Craven and his unique and twisted vision, A Nightmare on Elm Street endures.