Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review - A Nightmare on Elm Street

August 29, 2013

Nightmare on Elm Street, A – US, 1984

Fred Krueger was the fourth of the modern-day franchise horror figures to appear on the silver screen, following Leatherface (1974), Michael Myers (1978), and Jason (1980), and I feel safe in saying that he has as little personality as any of his predecessors. However, while they seem content with chasing strangers or trespassers around film after film and slaughtering them one after another, Fred – or Freddy as he has come to be called - sits back and waits for people to come to him. And once one does, he seems perfectly satisfied laughing maniacally, mutilating himself to make someone scream, and chasing people around dark alleys or rundown houses. His actions are set to the kinds of music one used to be able to find preprogrammed into Casio synthesizers, and his face looks every bit like the mask that so many children wore as they went trick-or-treating on Halloween night. He isn’t so much scary as he is annoying, reduced as he is to saying lines that amount to nothing more than I’m going to get you! And so I am temped to entertain the notion that Wes Craven intended his 1984 film A Nightmare on Elm Street to be camp, which Curtis F, Brown says “mocks bad taste” and “arouses our sense of the ridiculous.”

As evidence of this, let us look at the scene that follows the opening credits. In the scene, a young woman named Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) runs along the kind of wet hallway that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in horror movies about mental asylums and hospitals. Water is pouring down from the ceiling, as if the sprinkler system is leaking, and there is a constant repetition of alternating whispers and laughter. The woman hears a noise, turns, sees nothing, and then continues running, all the while eerie music tries to create the impression that what we are seeing is indeed terrifying. And suddenly there he is, in the very evil costume we saw being assembled a scene earlier. He laughs and slashes at her with his long, sharp Wolverine-like claws, and then magically she awakens in the comfort of her own bed. It was a dream, yet if it was a dream, why are there tears in her nightgown? A moment later, her mother gives her the kind of motherly advice found in a movie of this sort: “Cut your fingernails, or stop that kind of dreamin’.” It is such a ridiculous thing to say that I am not sure whether I’m supposed to laugh or curse the screenwriter.

The campiness continuous. It turns out that all of Tina’s close contacts – and it is a very small group - are seeing the same hideous figure in their dreams. This frightens Tina so much that she asks her best friend Nancy (Heather Longenkamp) and Nancy’s boyfriend, Glen (Johnny Depp), to stay at her home that night. This is possible because her parents – as they must be in a film such as this one – are out of town. The party is of course crashed by Tina’s jerk-of-a-boyfriend Rod, who after impressing Tina with an inspiring amount of rudeness heads upstairs with her so that they can do what movies say teenagers do when their parents are gone, completely ignoring the fact that in a movie such as this one, murder almost always immediately follows sex. It is as if the filmmakers are punishing their characters for being “immoral.”

There are additional elements of the film that mark it as either camp or ridiculously inconsistent writing. There’s the presence of more than one pair of dumb adults and the inclusion of the requisite amount of bad sex jokes. We get Nancy’s father (John Saxton), who is also a lieutenant in the police force. His role is to disbelieve far longer than he should. In addition, there’s Nancy’s mother, who is an alcoholic and knows more than she lets one. One moment, she’s reassuring her daughter that nothing can harm her, and in the next, she’s barring the windows and locking the door so that she can’t get out – not to protect her from a maniacal murderer, mind you, but to ensure that she gets enough sleep. Realistic? No. Campy. Yes. Finally, there’s the odd scene in which Nancy goes to school the day after her best friend’s murder and falls asleep while a student is reciting Shakespeare. After Freddy’s inevitable appearance and disappearance, we get the following exchange:

            Father: “Keep her home!”
            Mother: “I’ve got something better. I’m going to get some help.”

Alas, her idea of helping is taking her daughter to a hospital that studies sleep disorders. There, doctors strap her up to machines and watch as she falls further and further into dreamland, all the while monitoring her reactions using a rather primitive-looking computer. Anyone want to guess what her readings will be? On the plus side, there’s a clever scene in which Nancy falls asleep in the bathtub that will no doubt elicit chuckles and fond remembrances of a certain Steven Spielberg movie.

To go on would be an exercise in futility. Suffice to say that with Tina out of the way and Rod in jail on suspicion of murder, Nancy - perhaps inspired by that great female detective that shares her moniker, Nancy Drew - sets out to prove Rod’s innocence and stop the man in her nightmares from making all of her friends his victims. It is in these moments that she utters her most famous line: “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep. To emphasize just how important she is, she pauses after each word. It is the kind of delivery that screams camp.

In the end, Freddy Krueger the villain turns out not to be all that interesting, despite having a back story with great potential for suspense. However, if there’s one thing the audience should get in a horror film, it is consistency. Therefore, a villain like Freddy should only be able to terrorize people in their sleep. However, this rule is broken almost immediately. Does it make any sense that someone being dragged in her dream would be dragged up a wall in the real world? Does it make sense that a body disappears in the real world when someone is killed in the dream world? Well, no, but in truth, not much makes any rational sense in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and perhaps it is a mistake to expect it to. These movies exist to scare people, and part of the way they achieve this is to go against the audience’s expectations regardless of the scenarios and ground rules that they have established.

If A Nightmare on Elm Street is meant to be camp, it is only slightly successful. If it is meant to be taken as a genuine example of the horror genre, it is even less so, for the film is neither laugh out loud funny nor nightmarishly frightening. The actors do as well as they can with the dialogue they have been given, but only Johnny Depp, here making his screen debut, is able to make his lines sound plausible. In the end, the film is a mild disappointment, but at least it is a campy one. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 and a half stars

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