Saturday, October 4, 2014

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" Revisited

“Here is a film that compares to some of the greats of the genre: a film that can be no closer to reality; a film that matches us against our true fears. No, there has never been a movie like it, and there never will be.” – taken from the original Cinemaphile review of “A Nightmare on Elm Street”

The transcending nature of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” is not in how it establishes a unique premise or even an important villain, but in how its actors buy into the material with such vivid implications. When Wes Craven first made his daring and graphic foray into the nightmarish visions of weary teenagers, how was he to know that it would provide more than just a momentary thrill for audiences of that generation? What were the odds that it would be cited so many decades later as a critical benchmark in the evolution of mainstream horror films? Could he have predicted that Freddie Krueger, such a vicious and unrelenting S.O.B., would also persist in the memory bank of notable movie villains? It is because his cast of relative unknowns believed in what they were submitting to with such unwavering conviction that the tragedy of their existence throbs on so effectively in our modern awareness, often informing the movies that continue to emerge from its shadows. Absorbing it now, thirty years from the first moment it shattered the dead teenager genre’s proverbial glass ceiling, is like reliving a primitive (but powerful) attempt at understanding a dangerous world of evil. It forces us to inherit these nightmares as if extensions of our own.

The underlying psychology of this idea was hardly a new venture for a filmmaker as ambitious as Craven. While still a relatively obscure filmmaker in 1984, his almost gleeful awareness of horror movie formulas allowed him to turn their cliché-ridden principles upside down right from the beginning, as witnessed by endeavors like “Last House on the Left” (a brilliant film) and “The Hills Have Eyes” (a lesser example). That he managed to combine his unique, almost cheerful austerity to premises with such shocking subtexts also seemed to announce his presence as a new key force amongst notable thrill-seekers. “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” born from the cinders of a slasher field already smoldered by the likes of “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th,” played like the harshest of contrasting responses to that reality. That Craven was directly inspired to write such a story as a result of newspaper articles that suggested a group of people in southern California were turning up dead following murderous nightmares was an audacious move in a genre that catered to more literal slasher sensibilities, but his fashioning of such a notable and endearing villain speaks to an even deeper dedication. Unlike “Friday the 13th” or even “Halloween,” the psychology of “Nightmare” gave the premise even more weight, and its routine series of scenes involving chases and bloody mayhem were made all the more effective because it provided them with a believable subtext.

The movie opens with an abrupt implication: there are no beginnings for these characters, only exhausting moments in which we join in on their misery. The first scene is a framing device in that regard: in it, we meet Tina (Amanda Wyss), a short-haired blond teenage girl who wanders moist corridors in a boiler room as if attempting an escape from certain doom. Someone is there with her, too; sinister and foreboding, a man laughs maniacally as he chases her down narrow passageways without mercy, and a hand of knives for fingers scrapes horrifically across metal surfaces. Of course, what she is actually experiencing is nothing more than just a really bad nightmare… right? When she awakes from the ordeal sweating profusely, slash marks in her nightgown seem to suggest other ominous possibilities, and others are stirred into action.

Who is it that fearsome, malevolent force that stalks her dreams? His name is Fred Krueger (Robert Englund), and in one occasional background moment the movie cleverly suggests his influence during innocent jump-rope songs at the playground: “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you…” His appearance, often obscured in darkness, shows a man disfigured nearly beyond feasible recognition, but unburdened by such limitations; it only makes his taste for blood all the more potent. There is no small oversight in the notion that he is strictly after teenagers, either. Years prior to the grizzly events, we are told, he was a child predator who abducted and murdered young children along Elm Street, and the parents of the victims burned him to death after he was set loose by a legal technicality. Unfortunately, the evil buried within old Krueger lived on and now stalks the dreams of those who are descendants of his killers: while such children (now teenagers) remaining alive, his work is not finished, and the torture must live on.

Three others immediately converse with Tina about that first restless night. Her nightmare, we learn, is an ordeal of ongoing misfortune, shared not only by her but her close friends as well, including the headstrong Nancy (Heather Langenkamp). They exchange stories, details and feign enthusiastic wonder; how can the same man stalk each of them if dreams are personalized manifestations? If they are mere dreams, though, what threat do they impose? That night, after Tina and her boyfriend Rob (Jsu Garcia) engage in sex (the most familiar of all movie death traps), they fall asleep in an upstairs bedroom while her mother is out of town (convenient, right?), and a new facet of the nightmares emerges. Craven does not rush to the mad frenzy of lurid execution in this moment, either; he begins first with a striking image of a blurred shape emerging from the wall above a headboard, and then cautiously follows Tina, once again, down a dark series of corridors in which a shadowy presence is seen stalking her. A chase ensues, and then a struggle. We are not offered direct details of the impending demise, either; instead, the film cuts to the conscious reality, where Rob watches hopelessly on as Tina violently thrashes in mid-air while her torso is sliced open from invisible razors. This scene will likely not mean much to anyone already desensitized by the likes of “Saw” and “Hostel,” but at one time it was one of a handful of very risky movie sequences that tested the limits of the R rating.

The gratuity of such moments – including another in which a victim is pulled violently into a mattress – is enlivened by young faces so in synch with the writing that they absorb any remaining notions that we are just observing grotesque fantasy; because their eyes are indicative of believers, we accept their plight without question, and endure the horror as if unwilling spectators. Langenkamp, now one of the most famous of all movie scream queens, was remarkably likeable here given the one-note destiny of her characterization; despite the inevitability of her to carry out the movie’s grizzly agenda, not a moment goes by where the actress is surrendered to the notion of becoming disposable meat (or an inane dialogue reader). Furthermore, the character’s ability to understand the Krueger persona before it consumed her was key in developing the survivalist implications of later genre pieces. No wonder, indeed, that she showed up in two later installments of this series to further that cause: “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” (1987) and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (1994).

If her association assisted in establishing the Elm Street legacy for what it was, then other faces offer varying degrees of potency. The casting of Ronee Blakely and John Saxon as Nancy’s parents, for instance, was perhaps a rather sound rationale: with his constant deadpan scowl and her overzealous instinct to rely on eyebrow movement to exert emotional response, both actors are respectable in establishing a certain passive awareness in the events in order to propel their daughter’s reactions. The presence of a mere four possible teenage victims is also key; because movies of this scope often attempted to amp up the murderous statistics as a way of sensationalizing the menace of their killers, odds were never in favor of a story spending most of its time with a limited number of faces. Nancy is provided three peers who are relatively effective in holding their own while she attempts to understand the mechanics of these nightmarish mysteries, and though one of them is played by the often-overpowering Johnny Depp (in his debut screen performance, no less), they are equal parts of a brewing storm.

Which brings us to Krueger, portrayed here with almost affectionate wisdom by the charming and versatile Robert Englund. Not content to simply emote based on a circumscribed trajectory established by slasher villains like Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees, Englund takes a menacing threat and gives him a life and energy that are almost haunting in their complexity. Often relegated to shadows and very succinct lines of dialogue, his challenge is matched by undeniable presence, and when the camera is in his line of sight, there is no urge in him to overplay the severity of the material; only an inkling to fully embody the mind of a hopeless madman. The performance was as critical to establishing the legacy of such a character as much as the writing itself, and because both were so complimentary in conveying the presence of a remarkable sense of evil, audiences were as much enamored by the identity as they were about the concept of fantasy and reality spilling over into one another. This success would inevitably inspire a decade’s worth of much lesser sequels, and the tragedy of them, above all else, is that the Krueger persona shifted so drastically from its origins. By the end of the franchise, Freddie was not so much an object of misery as he was a pun-influenced wisecracker that interspersed his killings with comedic one-liners.

As both a director and writer, Wes Craven was one of the immediate standouts of his chosen field – unique in the sense that he thought with the intentions of higher filmmakers while dabbling in a field often known for more shallow goals. In “Last House on the Left,” what could have been a graphic and exploitative premise was instead elevated by a sustained interest in the lurid minds of plausible psychopaths. “The Hills Have Eyes,” one of a handful of popular “lets-stumble-into-desolate-landscapes-inhabited-by-relentless-maniacs” vehicles of the 1970s, was less effective but driven by a rather clever insinuation: that those who lived in the hills were mutated (and driven to insanity) by nuclear fallout. The years following his forays into Freddy’s world were a bit spottier, but nonetheless played like individual exercises in stripping away formulaic sensibilities of horror filmmaking; by the time he came to make the first “Scream” picture, his characters were no longer caught up in naïve impulses and instead were driven by a deliberate self-awareness, which in turn added credence to the notion that the antics of merciless killers could be made more interesting by victims who were well-informed enough to resist the inevitability of demise.

For “Elm Street,” he also managed such subtexts with an impeccable skill for creating stirring images. The best, needless to say, are the most edge-inducing; aside from that famous shot of Krueger’s figure appearing in the wall above a headboard, there is also that dubious moment of Nancy falling asleep in the bathtub while Freddie’s glove of knives rises ominously from the water. Other effective moments: a shot in a high school hallway where Tina’s bloody body is carried off by an unseen force; a moment when the shadowy image of Krueger seems to stretch to the length of an alleyway; and that all-important moment when his third victim, the Depp character, disappears into a hole in his mattress and is replaced by a fountain of blood that spills upwards. If the movie had been a failure of its horrific details, then the images would have nonetheless survived as indications of a talented young artist building on his Shakespearean sensibility that something menacing was, indeed, operating in nature.

Few nowadays will remember the impact of the original “Elm Street.” The wonder – and indeed the stamina – of younger audiences has already been tested by the more pornographic qualities of modern horror films, and their eagerness to absorb the qualities of much more primitive times is no longer in fashion (though the studio did, in fact, remake the original movie in 2010, and replaced its thoughtful ideas with relentless visual vulgarity). Yet its legacy does live on, indirectly influencing the nature of its nearest cousins by simply embodying the spirited gusto of a unique idea caught in the trenches of an exhausted movie formula. If thirty years of repeat viewings (and quiet acknowledgments) have eroded the impact of these visuals, the ideas at least remain unscathed. “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was once upon a time the defining moment of an almost trashy sensibility in filmmaking, and now, in context with the compost heap of gratuity that inflicts every film of this kind, lives on in the mind as a vestige of cautious tension. And always there is Englund’s Krueger, horrific and alarming, dragging us through countless visions of unrelenting violence that have aged in traditional ways, but go to the heart of what deep possibilities existed for the greatest of horror films from the very beginning.

Written by DAVID KEYES

To read the original review of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," click here.

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