Saturday, 1 September 2012

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)


Dir. Wes Craven
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund

“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…” 

Tina (Amanda Wyss) awakens from a nightmare in which she is stalked by a murderous psycho with a taloned glove (Robert Englund). To her amazement her nightgown bears slashes. When she tells this story the next day her best friend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) recalls that she too had a similar dream. Tina’s on-off boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) later reveals that he has been having nightmares as well. That night Tina once again sees the same figure in her dreams. Yet this time she is brutally murdered in real life. Rod witnesses her body being thrown around the bedroom by an unseen assailant. 

Rod is arrested for Tina’s murder, but Nancy continues to see the evil figure when sleeping. She starts to believe that the disfigured person in her dreams is responsible for Tina’s death. Her mother identifies this man as child-killer Freddy Krueger, but explains that he is dead. Dead or not, Nancy knows that he is coming for her next. 

“Three, four, better lock your door…” 

Growing up in the ‘80s A Nightmare on Elm Street was one of the films that everyone claimed to have watched. I claimed to have watched it myself and took part in conversations about it. In reality I doubt anyone really had. The film was released with an 18 rating, and we would have been about seven when it came out. But it was a film that everyone talked about, and the VHS revolution probably meant that it had wider exposer than if it had just been a cinema release. And so it was almost a rite of passage for me to go back and finally watch it for real, albeit some 25 years later. 

“Five, six, grab your crucifix …” 

What immediately struck me was how cheap it looked. Some of the effects – like Freddy’s lengthening arms in Tina’s second dream – look terrible. The acting is also pretty dire. Until her gory death I had assumed that Tina was going to be the main character of the film. She was the first person to appear on screen and Amanda Wyss’s acting was far superior to Heather Langenkamp’s. In fact Heather’s parents (John Saxon and Ronne Blakley) were also rotten. The good point to this was that the suburban houses looked genuine and lived in. The point of the movie is that Elm Street is just another ordinary suburban street, and yet very bad things happen on it. The setting worked. 

Added to this was a good central idea: what is the boundary between dreams and reality? The idea of the terrible things that happen in a nightmare actually having an effect in the waking world is a scary one. After all, when you are asleep you are helpless. When you are caught in a nightmare you have no control over the course it will take. The film is about the fear of being impotent against an unknown threat. And this is a threat that seems very sexual. While other characters die it is only Tina and Heather we see being stalked. Tina and Rod bear out the horror movie trueism (later referenced in director Wes Craven’s own Scream) that if characters have sex, they die. The image when Freddy’s claw appears between Heather’s legs in the bath is quite explicitly sexual. In an early draft of the script Freddy was to have been a child molester rather than a child murderer. Freddy is a monster that preys on the young and innocent and helpless. 
Rubber Ducky had a serious product defect

 “Seven, eight, gonna stay up late…” 

And while some of the special effects are a bit naff, others are very good: Tina being thrown up against the ceiling by an invisible attacker, the bulging wall over Heather’s bed, the fountain of blood when Glen (Johnny Depp) is attacked. To me though, the simplest effect is the best: the characterisation of Freddy Krueger. This is before the later movies in the series when Robert Englund was allowed to play Freddy as an arch anti-hero. This is Freddy without the backchat but with an image that was to become iconic. Hat. Burn-scarred face. Striped jumper. And, of course, the glove with attached knives.  

“Nine, ten, never sleep again!”

Englund’s career was made by this film. Now it seems that all horrors need to have him in as a twinkly-eyed homage to classic slasher flicks. Wes Craven’s was too. Craven’s is one of the roster of illustrious names that can sell a horror movie: Craven, Raimi, Carpenter. And Nightmare… also introduced us to a young actor who went on to have the most successful career of them all. As the credits announce at the start, ‘Introducing Johnny Depp’. We have already seen Depp in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A Nightmare on Elm Street was his first film role. So it seems that we should be grateful for this film for creating something new in cinema. 

What have I learnt about Ohio?
A Nightmare on Elm Street is set in the fictional town of Springwood, Ohio. Apparently. I don’t recall Ohio, Springwood, or even Elm Street being mentioned during the film. This fact might have become canon later on in the series. So I’m not sure how much we can read into this film and say that we have learned a lot about Ohio. I’m sure that in Ohio cemetaries do not come shaded by palm trees! 

Can we go there?
So quelle surprise the film was not shot in Ohio; it was filmed in California (as those palm trees suggested). That cemetery was the Evergreen Cemetery on North Evergreen Avenue, Los Angeles. The boiler-room in which the dreamers keep finding themselves was the real boiler-room of the (supposedly haunted) Lincoln Heights Jail, whereas the police station was really the Cahuenga branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on Santa Monica Boulevard. The kids’ school was John Marshall High School in Silverlake (other films shot at this school include Rebel Without a Cause, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grosse Pointe Blank and the final scene in Grease). Nancy and Glen meet on an arched bridge (with more palm trees in the background) – this was filmed in Venice Beach. 

A lot of the action takes place in people’s homes however. Nancy and Glen both lived in West Hollywood – Nancy at 1428 N. Genesee Avenue, and Glenn across the road at no. 1419. This was the fictitious ‘Elm Street’. But it looks as though Tina didn’t live on Elm Street at all. Her house (complete with back yard and alleyway) was 620 Milwood Avenue in Venice.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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