So once again we have survived.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Well, Michael Bay is going down the list of everything he can do to ruin the quality of my life. Destroy the language of action cinema – check. Produce a horrible remake of one of my all time favorite movies – check. Make one of the most moronic event movies ever imagined and convince most of America that’s the best you can expect from a “summer popcorn movie” – check. He also personally re-elected Bush, in my opinion, and invited all the yelling party kids to hang out outside my apartment every night after the bars close. So he’s pretty much set everything on fire already but just to add insult to injury he’s circling back to pee on my rose garden by having his rat fucking, no-account production company Platinum Dunes “relaunch” both Jason AND Freddy. And maybe I’m in a small faction here but I was patiently awaiting the JASON VS. FREDDY 2 they’ve been trying to get off the ground for a while and was not aware that those two troublemakers had been sent back to the docks yet.

So as much as I believe in forgiveness and second chances, I’m pretty sure I will hate this soul-less cokehead asswipe for all his days, even if he prevents world war 3 (unlikely) or gives all his Lamborghinis to charity (way more unlikely). But on the positive side he has so far failed to erase the existence of the movies he is working hard to destroy the legacy of. So to celebrate the silver lining on this toxic cloud I think I’m gonna go back and watch and review all the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies. Take that, Michael Bay. Game, set and match, motherfucker.

A Nightmare on Elm StreetWhen people think of ELM STREET they usually think of wisecracking Freddy, making puns and calling women bitches. (Not only is he a child killer, he’s disrespectful to women.) You think of all those teens who have one hobby or fear and then they fall asleep and have an elaborate dream where that hobby or fear turns into their ironic death. So if they’re into comic books they will be killed by Super Freddy, if they’re afraid of bugs they’ll be turned into a roach and stuck in a roach motel. If Freddy haunted Michael Bay I guess he’d dream about driving around in his Lamborghini getting a blowjob but all the sudden the hooker turns into Freddy. Freddy sucks Michael Bay (played by Peter Horton) in through his mouth and shits out an animated film loop with Michael Bay’s head on it. The film screams “Noooo!” in a high–pitched voice as Freddy puts it into an old fashioned movieola with red and green stripes painted on it. Then he starts chopping the shit out of the film with his finger-knives and makes some quip about quick cuts making a scene more exciting.

Well that’s how corny it got in the sequels but people tend to forget that the original was a different animal. Freddy actually doesn’t talk much in this one and in fact doesn’t have a huge amount of screen time. The kids are scared of him and hear his fingers scraping against metal, but he doesn’t actually show up that many times, so when he does it’s a big deal.

And the dreams don’t get too elaborate or gimmicky. Maybe they could’ve spent more time to add realistic dream-weirdness like you go through the door of your bedroom and all the sudden you’re at school or something like that. But I’m glad they didn’t go too far. I’m sure in the remake all the dreams will be fancy computerized wonderlands where the walls melt and stretch and faces grow off of things and all kinds of “dreamlike” show offy shit that never happened in a dream you or I ever had. Here there is some pretty true-to-life dream imagery like for no reason there’s a sheep in a boiler room, or the stairs turn to goo as you try to run up them (I’ve definitely had that one). But other than the boiler room where Freddy was killed the location of the dreams is always the place where the people are having the dream, like their house or their school. Not some fancy abandoned gothic church or some shit. Just real dream shit.

As a horror fan I’ve seen this movie about a billion times since the ’80s. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece like TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, but it’s a clever and well done movie and I do think it holds up. If you want to really understand why it caught on so big you sort of have to compare it to the slasher movies that came before it. When A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET came out there had already been four FRIDAY THE 13THs (three with Jason), three HALLOWEENS (two with Michael Meyers), there had been THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, BLACK CHRISTMAS, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, THE BURNING, SLEEPAWAY CAMP, THE PROWLER. So we were used to slasher movies and especially the faceless, voiceless killers coming after people with knives and power tools. Even in Craven’s own movies like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and the more outlandish THE HILLS HAVE EYES it was brutal reality that we were fearing – having to deal with a sudden, savage attack from some crazy fucker or fuckers.

So Craven’s concept was devious. Here is another killer coming after young people but this time he’s only in dreams. With the other slashers your goal is to escape, to get out of the house or the desert or find help. Those options aren’t available on Elm Street. The place you have to get away from is dreams, and the body needs sleep. And nobody’s gonna help Nancy because the adults don’t believe her and her boyfriend’s parents take his phone off the hook and her mom put bars on her windows so she can’t climb out.

And of course Freddy can do things that even Jason can’t do, because he’s not confined by the rules of reality. He can appear where he wants to, he can stretch his arms out ten feet, he can stick his tongue out of the receiver of your phone. He lives in nightmares so pretty much by definition his job is the same as what I think Wes Craven would say is the horror movie’s job: to tap into your deepest subconscious fears. He’s the fuckin boogey man.

People throw the same “bad acting” criticism at this movie that they do all these types of movies, but I don’t think it’s that bad. Admittedly Ronee Blakeley as Nancy’s mom has a pretty bad line-reading in the last scene. But otherwise the cast is pretty solid. You got John ENTER THE DRAGON Saxon as Nancy’s dad, also the police chief who’s on the case. You couldn’t do much better. He’s a dad you want in your corner and also one you don’t want pissed off at you. The co-lead is Johnny Depp in his first movie role, and he’s not very good but as luck would have it he turned out to be easily one of the best actors of his generation, so to watch him when he was just starting out is a novelty now and any bad acting is no longer a problem. And then the lead, Heather Langenkamp as Nancy does a great job. She’s pretty but not a babe, she seems like a real girl. I think she’s more relatable than a good percentage of the slasher movie protagonists because she’s a little troubled – her mom sends her for medical testing, she’s on prescription drugs, her boyfriend’s parents think she’s trouble, and she can’t sleep so she starts to get legitimately a little crazy. But it’s not her fault.

ELM STREET is not as much of a college professor’s essay as LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES were. It follows the same pattern of suburban people getting attacked, then deciding to fight back and setting up some boobie traps. But this time it abandons the subtext that fighting back destroys your humanity. Because who can say what the ethics are of killing a supernatural murderer who haunts your dreams? Sure, she pulled him out of her dream into reality, but does it still count as taking a life? The guy is already dead.

But the movie does have a little bit of a theme to it, this “sins of the fathers” sort of deal. Freddy in a way is a monster created by the Elm Street parents. He was a killer who was let go because of some legal loophole, so they turned vigilante and burned him alive. I mean you can’t get too mad at them, but anytime a mob burns a human being alive and then tries to go on with life as if nothing ever happened, that’s a pretty big skeleton in the closet. And now the children are suffering from their dirty little secret. Nancy’s mom is the one who seems to admit that maybe they made some mistakes and the kids are paying for it. Even though the story is from the kids’ point of view there is part of it that’s about a parent’s fear of not being able to protect their kids. The system couldn’t stop Freddy, so they tried to, and now reality can’t even stop Freddy, and they can’t go into their kids’ dreams to protect them.

So that’s what’s smart about this movie. It combines slasher movie conceits (horny teenagers, killer with mythic backstory and iconic look, one-by-one gimmicky deaths) with psychological horror. You still get the instinct for survival you get from other slasher movies, but combined with some more abstract primal fears. And when it comes down to it some of those deaths are just brutal. In sequels the gimmicks and special effects they came up with were clever, but jokey. They were cute. This movie is not cute, especially in that fucked up scene where Tina is stabbed by her invisible stalker, slammed against the wall and dragged around on the ceiling, trailing blood. I mean, shit.

I never thought of it like this before, but in a way Freddy is just like Rambo. Two sicko icons from serious-minded ’80s classics that somehow turned into children’s toys through a series of increasingly cartoonish sequels that were stupid fun in their own way but missed the point of where they came from. So maybe it’s hard in your mind to separate the roots from the tree that grew out of it, but give it a shot. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is a good one.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Sunday, February 10th, 2008 at 11:35 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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