Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Freddy Krueger, the dream demon has been the villain in seven movies plus a remake, the host of an anthology show, Jason's punching bag, and the visage on any number of t-shirts, lunch boxes, and other memorabilia for Robert Englund to autograph (you know, Englund will be in town soon for Comic Con, and I've thought about bringing him my copy of The Mangler to sign, just to see how he reacts, but I don't know if it's worth $50.).

Today, Freddy's seen less as a monster and more of a macabre game show host: "Hey kids, make your way through this elaborate dream level while I crack puns for the folks at home!" Going back to Wes Craven's original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), it's astounding to remember just how scary and dark Freddy Kruger was. Sure, he makes the occasional joke, but the jokes are a reminder of how much he enjoys scaring people before he kills them. He jokes because he can, a demonstration of his power in the dream world.

The teens of Elm Street in Springwood, Ohio are all having the same nightmare of a man in a ratty red-and-green sweater and dirty fedora chasing them with a glove that has knives for fingers. After Tina (Amanda Wyss) is killed, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) becomes convinced someone's stalking them in their sleep, and she becomes determined to find the truth, much to the consternation of her divorced parents, Marge (Ronee Blakely) and Police Lt. Donald (John Saxon), and the puzzlement of her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, I hope his exit from the movie is shown at his AFI tribute). Nancy learns that years ago the parents of Elm Street killed a child murderer named Fred Krueger (Englund) after he escaped justice on a legal technicality, burning him alive in a boiler room, and now he's back and he's pissed.

As the budgets got bigger, the movies in the Elm Street series became more elaborate and fantastical. The special effects and dream sequences became more prominent and complex. Part III featured Freddy killing one victim by using his veins to make him a macabre puppet and manipulating him off a building. Other entries featured Freddy feeding the souls of his "children" to an unborn child, Freddy becoming a giant snake-demon, a "Dream Master" pulling others into her dreams to battle Kruger, buses perched over a hellish landscape, and the revelation that Freddy is the "Bastard Son of a hundred maniacs," the result of a weekend when his mother, a nun, was accidentally locked in the nut house with a bunch of loonies.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is both more modest and darker than it's sequels. The nightmare effects and Freddy himself are kept in the shadows, and the result is a more menacing Kruger. His jokes are more taunts and not cheesy puns. When Tina begs "Please God," Freddy holds up his claw and croaks, "This! Is God." The horrific elements aren't show-stopping special effects; they're more subtle and more effective: faint whispering, the tooth that appears in the window, Freddy elongating his arms to stretch the length of an alley, the centipede that crawls of out of Tina's dead mouth (Craven loves his creepy crawlers, see also Deadly Blessing and The Serpent and the Rainbow). In one simple but effective shot, Freddy starts chasing Tina at the end of an alley, the camera follows her and then suddenly Freddy's right in front of her in the foreground of the frame, demonstrating how easily he moves through the dream world.

The later entries in the series had a certain irony with their killings. The gamer who finds himself trapped inside a video game, the aspiring actress whose face is smashed into a TV set, and the deaf kid who is killed by a hearing aid are some of the examples. Here, the murders are more brutal. Tina's death is a harrowing encounter. As Freddy guts her in her dream, her boyfriend Rod can only watch in horror as she is dragged across the wall by a force he can't see or stop while deep cuts appear across her body.  Later, Glen gets sucked down into his bed and vomited up in a geyser of blood and guts. The jokiness is mostly absent, and in it's place is shock: as reality is torn apart, so too are Freddy's victims.

Craven milks the wonky dream logic for all it's worth: the steps that melt as Nancy runs upstairs trying to escape Freddy, the way locations kind of fold into one another without transition (a fall in the boiler room ends up in the rose bush in front of Nancy's house), the unplugged phone that continues to ring, the random appearance of sheep, the doors that open up to completely separate locations (i.e. the Thompson basement opens into Freddy's boiler room). Craven has fun tricking the viewer with what's real and what's a dream and blurring the line, most notably the bathtub scene. Nancy, exhausted, slouches in the water, and it's a seemingly normal scene until Freddy's finger-knives break the surface between her legs, surely one of the most iconic shots of the genre.

The story allows Craven explore one of his favorite themes: the sins of the father and repression. Yes, Freddy Krueger was an evil, sick man, but by covering up what they did to him, the parents of Elm Street have left their children vulnerable and unprepared for his retribution. The ugly truth of crimes committed by the parent generation has deadly consequences for the children of the next generation, and seeking out the truth and confronting it is the key to surviving. "I'm into survival," Nancy tells Glen after he sees she's reading up on booby traps and improvised explosions.

Nancy is a progression of the slasher "final girl." Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a screamer, all she can do is run for her life, beg when caught, and be saved by a truck driver that just happens to be passing by. Laurie Strode in Halloween runs and calls for help but protects the children under her care and strikes back in defense at the right time (remember the coat hanger and sewing needle?). Nancy Thompson is more proactive than either of them. She investigates the mystery of who's killing her friends, sets traps for Kruger in her home, defies her parents because she knows she can't depend on them, and she willingly descends into Kruger's lair to bring him out into the waking world where he's vulnerable. Characters in horror are much more compelling when they try to fight back, and Nancy's one of the toughest.

Most of the performances in A Nightmare on Elm Street are weak. I don't know if it's the performers themselves or the stilted dialogue, but something about most of the acting in the picture feels off. Of the cast, Saxon is convincing as the disbelieving cop and father while Englund appropriately steals the show, walking off with the whole movie. I never like to harp on actors because ultimately, it's the director's job to get the performances he or she wants out  of them. Craven's gotten good performances out of a lot of his other casts, so I don't know what went wrong here. The small number of affected teens is appreciated (four) as is the effort to distinguish them and give them personalities: Tina is set up as the nominal hero before her death, Rod is the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Nancy is determined, and Glen is the supportive, nice boyfriend.

Still, flaws aside, A Nightmare on Elm Street remains one of the genre's most important entries. The music by Charles Bernstein is spooky and atmospheric, and Freddy Krueger is one of the great villains of horror. Where Michael, Leatherface, and Jason are mute, masked men, Freddy really has a nasty, memorable personality, and he doesn't hide his burnt features behind a false image. During a struggle, Tina reaches up and yanks his face off, just in case we thought Freddy was trying to hide how ugly he really is.

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