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Accompanying the release of a new remake is a fresh Blu-ray of the original 1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street, a big horror hit that spawned a successful franchise. Although by no means a classic, the low budget thriller has recognition value galore thanks to the invention of the memorable fiend Freddy Krueger, a particularly creepy concoction of actor Robert Englund. With his razor-fingered glove, "Freddy" was a skin-crawly alternative to other boogeymen of the day, which were mostly big lugs in masks.
The shrewdly conceived Nightmare does an end run around the slasher fare of the day, a trend that had certainly begun to fade: Don't Answer the Phone on Valentine's Day, Because Nobody Can Hear You Scream, Baby Blue Writer-Director Wes Craven carried a notorious reputation, thanks to his truly repulsive early stab at horror, Last House on the Left. A difficult film to watch, Last House was legitimized by Craven's genuinely artistic approach - it rubbed the decade's violence in the public's face the way urban terrorists sought to bring Vietnam horror back to its country of origin. An ex- college professor, Wes Craven made his later The Hills Have Eyes into an equally disturbing horror siege, while his much more exploitative Last House producer cleaned up with the first of a series of derivative Friday the 13th slashers.
In A Nightmare on Elm Street Craven backs away from cerebral social politics, opting for a much less exploitative commercial item. Slasher films have a tendency to ignore simple logic -- the victims are almost always teens punished for sexual activity, and everything is subordinated to the need for a gory "surprise" killing every ten minutes or so. Victims behave like dingbats in old haunted house movies: "Hey, it's dangerous here -- let's all separate, strip down to our undies and go wandering alone in the dark".
Craven's refreshing Nightmare concept is new territory for the slasher genre. It also does a clever end-run around the issues of credibility and logic. Dreams can be as irrational and inconsistent as they wish, so there is no limit to what Freddy Krueger can and cannot do. Actions, effects, apparent demonic powers can be totally random -- in fact, the more erratic the better. Once asleep, Freddy's victims are at the mercy of a crazy non-logic. Time and place can switch about at will; cause and effect no longer applies.
The central characters are two teen couples, and the fact that one couple is sexually active isn't stressed. The motivation behind Freddy Krueger has more to do with children paying for the sins of their parents, a very Wes Craven-ish theme. The kids catch on early to the fact that they're experiencing "shared dreams" about this creepy Freddy guy in a dirty sweater, but Craven wisely avoids the "Daddy won't believe us" clichés -- they know Daddy won't believe and don't knock themselves out trying to persuade him. Freddy's early attacks are centered on kids in their beds and are indeed shocking. Rod (Nick Corri) watches uncomprehendingly as his girlfriend Tina (Amanda Wyss) is tossed about like a Linda Blair doll. When razor cuts erupt on her body as if made by invisible knives, we're reminded of the historical claims of similar haunted killings. 1
Freddy's first murder encourages the police to blame Tina's boyfriend, and typical "responsible" parenting results in depriving the remaining teens Nancy and Glen (Heather Langenkamp & Johnny Depp) with the means to avoid further attacks. Alcoholic mother Marge (Ronee Blakley) ignores her daughter's pleas and puts bars on all of the house windows. The cops insist that Rod is a mad killer, despite having no motive. Glen's parents refuse to allow Nancy's potentially life-saving phone call to their son.
Again, the lack of logic in Freddy's actions only makes him scarier. Freddy gleefully mutilates himself, slicing off his own fingers and gashing his chest to reveal a mass of worms inside. He makes his arms grow twenty feet long for one stalking scene. He can walk through walls and change reality at whim ... Nancy descends into her cellar, which becomes the boiler room under her high school. Freddy feeds off of the panic of his victims, making the nightmare stronger and more horrible.
A Nightmare on Elm Street eventually allows Freddy to extend his menace outside of the Dream situation ... his victims don't have to be asleep, it seems. Glen is the only teen that says he doesn't dream at all, but that distinction is no protection from Freddy.
The effects in Nightmare are mostly simple but effective cutting and lighting tricks, riffing on visual shocks that worked in thrillers by Dario Argento, Roman Polanski and Brian De Palma. Cackling in his rotted, burned face makeup, Robert Englund is a highly effective Freddy, a disgusting phantom stuffed with vermin and pus. Wes Craven's direction doesn't emphasize the notion, but his script reinforces the idea that the older generation abuses the younger generation with their bad example: alcoholism, broken marriages, loose morals, and lack of emotional support. Freddy's depredations simply take this parental abuse to a perverse extreme.
Craven's direction is good but the film's acting is variable at best. It's not a good sign when John Saxon is the most credible player in the cast list. The kids are all in their mid twenties, and only Heather Langenkamp and Johnny Depp are convincing as high schoolers, and then not all the time. Ronee Blakley is at best weak in all departments, hurting the film's ability to create a sense of tension. But the careful lighting and blocking attention given to the appearances of Freddy Krueger keeps the show on track.
New Line Cinema's Blu-ray of A Nightmare on Elm Street shows Wes Craven's big hit to be a competently filmed low budget effort. The many night scenes are creatively lit by cameraman Jacques Haitkin. We get a fairly good sense of the Halloween- like neighborhood, that transforms into a foggy horror-land when Freddy is present.
The disc is loaded with docu extras, probably more than are actually necessary. Director Craven appears on two commentaries, one with actors Langenkamp & Saxon and cinematographer Haitkin; and another with Langenkamp again joined by actors Englund, Blakley and two producers. A choice of three alternate endings makes us appreciate the one that Craven retained. Three long featurettes address the production and the overall Freddy franchise, and offer a fairly fuzzy discussion of the nature of dreams. The only thing we need to know about dreams in relation to Nightmare is how easily they motivate creepy horror movie situations.
Viewers can also enjoy a picture-in-picture trivia track, a pop-up feature that can make a re-viewing an informative experience. Reddy Freddy Focus Points work the same way, but add moving video to what can be seen as the film progresses, including alternate takes of scenes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, >nr>
A Nightmare on Elm Street Blu-ray rates:
1. An "unexplained phenomena" pocketbook I read as a kid scared me half to death: besides the usual ghosts and UFOs, it included a Victorian account of two London Bobbies holding a screaming woman in a taxi coach. Blood soaked her blouse, and when they opened it up they reported seeing similar wounds opening up by themselves. I'm less gullible now.
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2010 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.