A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Did we not establish this, not only on this blog, but as a culture? The Nightmare on Elm Street series is going to be R rated. I would almost say none more so than the first in the franchise. There is so much gore, guys. Like, so much. There's also crass language and innuendo. You know, for those of you who are totally cool with kids getting chopped up but don't like language.
DIRECTOR: Wes Craven
This is the one I like! I'm going to be griping about this franchise for many, many reviews, but I do actually like one of these movies. But then I realized that it kind of makes me a snob to say, "None of the sequels are as good as the original." When I say I liked this movie, it never really made me a fan of the franchise so much as it gave me a good scare. I'm also going to keep on feeling guilty. Considering that Wes Craven had the insight to put a strong female character as the protagonist, I couldn't help but make the image up top be of a young Johnny Depp. I hear that he cameos in Freddy's Dead, but I always got the vibe that Johnny Depp has mentally separated himself from this franchise.
I think that Wes Craven might be one of those intense hit and intense miss directors. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a genuinely creepy film. I don't get scared very often because I've been horribly desensitized through my own doing, but A Nightmare on Elm Street kind of gets me. The same thing with the first Scream film. That movie is so good and so creepy. It has to be from just finding the right balance and believing in a product enough. Both of those franchises never had another film in the series that really captured the brilliance of the first film and there has to be a reason why. In my review for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, I talked about the simplicity of formula. Scream is not a simple film, but it also sticks to its premise. For a movie that is so genre focused, the Nightmare series loses its basic premise pretty early. That premise was so good. I guess it comes down to the basic problems with sequels. A Nightmare on Elm Street creates a scare around a really basic idea: don't fall asleep. It is something so common and something so relatable that it forces its audience to start hypothesizing what they would do in the same scenario. Similarly, the concepts of dreams becoming reality is such a strong notion that it isn't much of a leap to get to that point. That's what makes the first Nightmare on Elm Street work so well. Dreams and nightmares are chaotic. While I've had dreams that are definitely around my personality (Two nights ago, I dreamt that my wife and I became friends with Jodie Whittaker), most of them don't make a lick of sense. Craven seems to really understand that notion in the first film. The killings aren't novelties and magic tricks. Rather, they are simplistic. The kids are naturally afraid of the things around them because those things are scary. Our brains mess with us and Wes Craven understand that the imagery doesn't have to match the personality.
One of the gimmicks that he uses to stress that dream logic is bizarre is the idea of getting one's feet trapped in sludge. So far, I've watched five of these movies in the past week and a half and they all go back to this gimmick. But the gimmick works best in the first one because it is part of the natural surrealism (natural surrealism...geez, I hate me) of dreaming. Similarly, the creature effects in this one aren't "show-offy" like they are in future entries in the franchise. Rather, they really help the narrative of the bizarre nature of dreams. There's a sequence (I suppose it's pretty memorable) where Freddy is chasing Nancy down an alley. His arms become elongated and it just feels like a real dream. It's scary and weird. The dreams in this one seem to mirror what the dreamer creates, not simply what Freddy wants to accomplish. Nancy seems to be her own worst enemy in this one and that's a cool concept to me. Adding to that the absurdity of the whole premise is the disbelief of the adults. That motif follows the entire franchise, but it is a central concept within the first film. The adults know that they have done something wrong, but can't possibly believe that a serial killer has entered their kids' dreams. But in that, we also get another cool premise that isn't followed up past the third entry. I love that the adults who murdered Fred Krueger also have this deep and dark secret. SPOILER (but not really) FOR THE WHOLE FRANCHISE: Freddy eventually gets all of the Elm Street kids. That causes all kinds of problems for the best elements of the movie. John Saxon being a law enforcement officer who resorted to clandestine vigilante justice is fantastic. Compounding that with the notion that he eventually realizes that he is mostly at fault for the events that are haunting Nancy and her boyfriend is an awesome realization. John Saxon pulls it off (because I will always say that) very well while Ronee Blakley's alcoholism is a bit over the top, but it still works.
Heather Langenkamp does a better job in this one than she does in Dream Warriors, but that doesn't necessarily means that she crushes it. I do like the fact that Nancy is a strong female character and the guys are kind of dopes. Nancy is a bit more like Ripley than a lot of female protagonists in horror movies. She seems to take control of her situation as best as she can. She also has this cool element of being haunted by the death of her friends. Could someone besides Heather Langenkamp pull it off better? Probably. But she's definitely doing some heavy lifting in this movie and I have to give her props for that. I do love that Johnny Depp is in this movie. This is Johnny Depp before he really became the Johnny Depp we know. He doesn't even hint at his stylized acting style that we get from him in his other movies. I've never seen him play it so safe before that it's weirdly rewarding to watch him in this one. I'm saying that there's nothing special about his performance like it is a good thing. But it also makes him seem more human.
I think the favorite thing I like about the first Nightmare movie is that Freddy doesn't really joke. Freddy is a boogeyman. That is all that is really behind his character. He seems like a force of nature and that really works for me. The second that Freddy started to crack wise and call people the b-word, I lost interest. This seems demented, but I know I'm not alone in this emotional response. I occasionally laugh if a sequence of gore catches me off guard. Perhaps it is the unexpected. Maybe I'm just impressed and I have no idea how to emotionally respond, but the best sequences of 2017's It were moments where the gore completely surprised me. Remember, I'm not a gore fan, but I can still be impressed by effects. To add a joke to force that response is probably one of those mood killers. I have the same reaction to when people put "funny" music over funny sequences. I like the moment to play out itself and to treat that release as a cathartic reaction to built up tension. By having Freddy joke later in the franchise, I can see the telegraphing of the situation. Instead of having that suspense released in a single intense moment, the suspense slowly fades as I prep for release. Freddy is scary in this. He's the Predator (pun intended). I have just the right amount of info that I need to know about this character to follow his motivations while finding him absolutely terrifying.
I try not to watch this movie too often because I imagine being obsessed with this film can only harm my mental state. It's a gore fest, but it is also a gore fest mostly done right. There are eye rolling moments and I'm not sure the film as a whole is perfect like I'm making it sound. There are definitely cornball moments, but the movie mostly works. It is a scary film and its a shame that the rest of the franchise so far can't find the legs it needs.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.