Tuesday, November 6, 2007

reVIEW (29)

It’s been a while since I was last on Elm Street, so when the chance came for a return visit, I took it without hesitation.
I first walked down it in 1984, via the magic of Betamax, knowing this was something new from the man who’d given me The Hills Have Eyes and Deadly Blessing, so I was stoked.
Wes Craven did not disappoint then, and here, now, 23 years later, A Nightmare On Elm Street to a large extent, still holds up as an exercise in scares and chills.

With this film, Craven introduced all of horror geekdom to Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), child murderer come back from the dead, to haunt the dreams of the children of Elm Street. Freddy, of course, would go on to join Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees to form the Slasher Trinity, all three graduating to Horror Icon status over the course of money-making sequel after money-making sequel.
In Craven’s original Nightmare, Freddy is a darker, more sinister bogeyman, and would gradually transform over the franchise’s length, into the wisecracking death-dealing jokester most know him as, whose puns and one-liners were probably more dangerous than his razor-blade fingers.
Here though, at the very beginning—and in keeping in tone with the film—Freddy isn’t very big on laughs, and this first Nightmare is all the better for it.

From the opening sequence of Freddy assembling his killer glove, through the Last Girl fake, all the way up to that final shot of poor, boozy Marge (Ronee Blakley) going—ha ha—through the front door, A Nightmare On Elm Street is an effectively creepy little number, with a number of scenes and images that permanently seared themselves into my fevered and impressionable horror geek brain. (That singular image of Amanda Wyss’ Tina standing in her bloodied body bag in the school hall still pops to mind whenever I encounter certain lines of Hamlet.)
And of course, given the subsequent career trajectory of one of the film’s young stars, A Nightmare On Elm Street is notable (particularly to the mainstream movie-going audience) as having these three words in its opening credits sequence: “Introducing Johnny Depp.”

As much as I love Craven’s first Nightmare though, I cannot deny it does have a number of warts, among them, some bad performances. Mr. “Introducing Johnny Depp,” in fact, as young Glen Lantz, is one of the few actors that manage to rise above bad in Nightmare. The rest of his young co-stars display questionable acting prowess.
And perhaps most alarmingly, the bad acting isn’t just confined to the youngsters, as even the aforementioned Blakley (who plays alky mother to Nightmare lead Heather Langenkamp) is a train wreck.
This might not have been so great a sin, except for the fact that the pivotal revelation of who Freddy Krueger really is and what the parents of Elm Street did to him so long ago, comes to us (and daughter Nancy) through the bleary “acting” of Blakley. This could have—and should have—been a great scene. Instead, it feels obligatory, more a plot necessity than the gut-wrenching moment of epiphany it must have been on paper.
There’s also the synth score which gets vaguely ridiculous in certain patches, and “Nightmare” by 213, which plays over the end titles is so bad, I’d managed to wipe it entirely from memory till just a few moments ago, when hearing it once more filled me with an entirely different kind of horror.

Still, in the final analysis, A Nightmare On Elm Street is a horror movie that works, that gets the job done, and leaves the audience with a lingering aftertaste of anxiety, which is so much more than can be said of many a horror film today.

Parting shot: The companion piece to this review—The Director’s Chair (3)—can be found in the Archive.

(A Nightmare On Elm Street DVD cover art courtesy of cduniverse.com.)

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