A Nightmare On Elm Street was a huge success in the eighties and provided an alternative to the standard stalk and hack franchises created by Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth. It also provided Wes Craven (as director) with major success and allowed him to go on and build a career in horror, he re-invented the stalker/slasher genre again later with Scream. In Nightmare he completely alters the parameters without breaking from the conventional horror film rules.
Nightmare tells the story of Nancy and her friends, the usual bunch of thick American teenagers. They live on Elm Street and are all experiencing the same frightening nightmares featuring this horribly burned, evil-looking man clad in a dirty red and green jumper, a brown fedora hat and with razor sharp knives protruding from the end of his right hand. The film opens with the villain, Fred (lovingly lengthened to Freddy) Krueger constructing his razor hand. It transpires that he worked as a janitor and liked to kill children in his spare time. Rather unsurprisingly the locals don´t take too kindly to this and so they douse him in petrol and burn him alive (hence the scarring). The twist and premise of this film, and the sequels, is that he can live in the dreamworld and is able to kill people while they sleep. He hunts the children of the locals who burned him.
Now it must be said that there are holes aplenty in this ridiculous story line but that is nothing new for horror and if you suspend your disbelief you should find this an enjoyable horror classic. One criticism you could possibly level at it, although it is more true of the sequels, is the fact that Freddy is allowed a comic character at times. Usually what they try to do in horror films is to dehumanise the killer (think of the completely silent Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers), this is in fact a common media reaction as well, instead of admitting the uncomfortable truth that some human beings do these type of things, they try to create monsters. The fact Freddy is a wisecracking killer made him more appealing to the audience, as the sequels spewed out he became more and more of a lovable rogue figure (but he is meant to be an evil child killer!). In the original he managed to be a scary figure but thereafter gradually descended into self parody. Although giving him a bit of a character made him more realistic, at first, it sometimes seems to lend legitimacy to what he is doing (or belittle the seriousness - although it should be remembered that films are for entertainment, if it offends you don´t watch it).
What is different about the Nightmare films is the creation of a dreamworld in which the killer operates which gives the makers a great deal more freedom, the death scenes can be that bit more imaginative because they don't have to be realistic. At the same time most of the best scares in the film were very simple tricks that would have been cheap to do (eg tongue in the phone). The setting is very western suburbia and combines with the teenage cast to give you an idea of the target audience, Craven provides a potential threat (albeit a ridiculous one) to spice up suburban life for the viewer. The scares are fast and furious and it isn´t long before the deaths are piling up, can Nancy get anyone to believe her? Can she stop Freddy before he murders the lot of them? Will she have learned to act by the time she appears in a sequel?
The acting is the usual horror film standard, even an early appearance from Johnny Depp does not improve matters and what is he wearing? Heather Langenkamp plays Nancy (the heroine of the piece) and she is awful, spending most of the film crying, whining or running. Robert Englund plays Freddy and is now unable to play anything else, he looks even uglier without the make-up and although he is competent enough at scraping his knife fingers down things and delivering the odd one-liner I can´t see him getting offered too many serious parts. He did, however, make this role his own, creating a cackling evil laugh and a creepy way of stalking his prey.
The special effects and make-up are highly impressive, Krueger looks slimy and evil throughout and his razor fingers are enough to make you shiver. The best scene in terms of special effects has to be the post coital murder. After breaking the sex rule our young teen has no chance of survival but the manner of her death is extremely gruesome and well shot, an unforgettable murder scene. She is sliced up, apparently by no-one as her boyfriend looks on helplessly in horror. The soundtrack is unmemorable but the sound effects are brilliant, creepy whispering, metal scraping all designed to make you uneasy and add to the experience.
Craven also cleverly weaves into Nightmare the idea that every town has a myth about some evil murderer. The character of Kreuger sounds unfortunately plausible, at least until he pops up in the dreamworld. This gives the film more power, and is added to by the famous rhyme, "One Two Freddy´s coming for you" etc. The story is left fairly open in the first film, you could interpret it how you want, there was no attempt to explain Kreuger's motivations. Later films deteriorated, part two was still trying to be scary but after that it went really bad and became a mix of poor comedy and poor acting. Scary jumps and painful to watch murders became cheesy one-liners and stupidly elaborate death scenes.
A huge history built up around the Kreuger character and he now has a firmly established place in horror character history squeezing in uncomfortably between the silent Michael Myers and the older villains Dracula and Frankenstein. The fact he makes it into this kind of company is a clue to how good a horror film Nightmare is and how much of an effect it had on those who watched it. It is flawed but genius nonetheless, Craven´s best work.