Halloween has come and gone, and finally I've managed to squeeze in an annual horror flick. I'd seen eighties classic A Nightmare on Elm Street already, but probably not for fifteen years.
The premise is simple but clever: an undead psychopath enters into the dreams of teenagers to kill them. But why? The question is enough to keep you watching.
It took me maybe 2 minutes to love this film, or approximately from the time an off-screen Freddy Krueger first laughs his maniacal, madman's laugh. There is nothing better than a bad guy who LOVES being a bad guy. And Freddy absolutely delights in what he does to amorous teenagers who commit that unforgivable sin of having lustful thoughts, or, much worse, actual sex. Such an act of lechery summons our villain, and, voila, we're treated to an early bloodbath.
And so much about Freddy is iconic, and was so even when the films were being churned out at a rate of about one every other year. Beat up felt hat, dirty striped shirt, scorched face and, of course, those razor claws.
But maniacal laughter and claws do not a classic make. Too often a horror film is undermined by having a cool antagonist but an uninteresting hero. After all, scary scenes are much scarier when we have something invested in the victim. Fortunately, in Nancy Thompson Wes Craven drew up a protagonist that we can genuinely root for. While Nancy spends most of the movie swilling coffee and popping pills in efforts to stay awake and thus avoid Freddy, she also knows this can't go on forever. You face things. That's your gift, says Nancy's mother, and so Nancy goes on the offensive, hatching a plan to lure her nemesis out of her dreams and into her house, where she has set up a series of booby traps meant to finish the villain off once and for all, or until at least until the sequel. While Freddy is ingenious enough to kill from beyond the grave, his archrival proves more than a match.
Maybe that's why Nightmare has vaulted its way into the horror canon, in spite of the wooden acting (even by a debuting Johnny Depp) and hokey special effects (although some are not bad). A good story is a good story, and in this one we have two clever adversaries who will inevitably face each other. Alas, Nancy must fall asleep eventually, but how will she seize the advantage? That's the genius of the film.
John Saxon had a great toupee in Enter the Dragon (1973), and he has a great one here (1984) as Nancy's father. I love John Saxon.
Heather Langenkamp is indeed wooden as Nancy--at first, but she really loses herself in the role and by the end is actually a joy to watch.
The final two minutes are a complete waste, which is too bad. Obviously Craven or the studio or someone wanted to leave things open for a hundred sequels, which of course undermine the potency of this first film.
There are excellent sets throughout, particularly when we visit Freddy's boiler room and various deserted dark alleys.