Those who listened to the Weekday Matinee podcast this month know that A Nightmare on Elm Street was one of my top 5 scariest movies. While it deserves its place there, with a recent viewing for this series I have to say, it wasn’t quite as good as I remember. The last time I watched Nightmare was maybe a dozen or so years ago, and my thoughts about it then were very much what they had been since I first saw it on its release in 1984.
What further surprised me when watching the rest of the series is that my opinion on most of the others had changed as well. In fact, I don’t think the first is even the best or scariest of the seven. As I go through each movie every day through Halloween, I’ll put them in some kind of order, and then we can all compare our lists. For now, though, let’s talk about that house at 1428 Elm St, and the girl who has bad dreams.
After watching the creation of Freddy’s glove, we’re whisked away into the dream of a young woman. She’s being chased through a boiler room, complete with a random lamb wandering around. Tina wakes up with a start, with her nightgown shredded. We cut to the next morning when we meet her friends as they make their way to school. We see the by now iconic little girls in blue dresses jumping rope, as the car pulls up to the curb.
Tina mentions her bad dreams and they all agree to help her stay awake that night. And as is wont to happen when teenagers are left alone to their own devices, one of them gets killed, and, in this case, it’s Tina. Her boyfriend Rod is blamed for her murder and after hiding from the police is eventually found and arrested. Her best friend Nancy, and also the daughter of the police chief starts having the nightmares next, and here we’re introduced to Freddy Krueger. In what’s probably one of the most iconic scenes in the movie, Nancy falls asleep in the bathtub, and we see Freddy’s gloved hand rising from the bath water between her legs. This sets Nancy off on trying to find out who Freddy is, why he’s after her and her friends and how to kill him.
As mentioned earlier, I labeled Nightmare as one of the 5 scariest movies I’ve seen. I’ll stick to that claim, though I’ll be honest and say had I seen the movie before I recorded that podcast, I might have picked something else. For me, the movie doesn’t hold up quite as well as I had thought. While Nightmare has a lot of atmosphere and some terrific set pieces, it’s ultimately let down with some very bad acting, and an over-reliance on jump scares. Does that mean I think it’s overrated? Not at all, Nightmare will always deserve its place in classic horror movies because of its villain. Yet, I don’t have it on the pedestal that I used to.
Craven pulls a bit of a Hitchcock in Nightmare, in the fact that he introduces us to Tina, who we assume will be the main character, yet much like Psycho, she’s killed off early and Nancy takes over the story. In spite of the obvious source, it still works and is a clever way to start the movie by keeping the audience off kilter. For her short time in the film, Amanda Wyss as Tina is the strongest of the teen actors. This fact makes it a shame that she dies so soon because the rest of the cast doesn’t have near the acting chops Amanda has.
Heather Langenkamp as Nancy is, to be blunt, not a good actress. Even in the sequels she appears in, she doesn’t seem to improve. While we’re supposed to sympathize with her, I found her whiny and annoying more than anything else. Langenkamp is certainly a pleasure to look at, but that’s about it.
In his first movie, Johnny Depp plays Nancy’s boyfriend Glen, and while he certainly has a screen presence, he certainly had a long way to go. He’s certainly better than his costar but really, that’s not difficult. At all. Nick Corri as Tina’s douchebag boyfriend Rod is probably the next strongest, so of course he’s the second one to be killed. Trivia time: in the jailhouse scene, Nick Corri had just snorted heroin before filming and did the entire scene high.
The adults do fare better, and John Saxon is always a pleasure to watch, even if he has a “What the hell am I doing here?” look in his eyes from time to time. Not surprisingly, his scenes with Heather are some of her best, as I think he got her to rise to a level that she couldn’t sustain. Ronee Blakely as Nancy’s mother is also a strong performance at times. Her turn as the alcoholic parent with a terrible secret is pretty spot on. However, when she has to give some exposition on Freddy (pulling his glove from the heater in the basement), she stumbles a bit.
I think it’s fair to say that Wes Craven was never an actor’s director. He excelled in creating tension, and dread, and wasn’t as concerned, it seems to me, with getting god performances. This makes his decision to hire Robert Englund to play Freddy, a godsend, as Englund is terrific. Despite the fact he has little screen time, what he does have is used to great effect. He gets the character, he knows what motivates Freddy, something that I think gets lost in future installments, and he’s a lot of fun to watch.
The special effects and makeup are, however, top notch, and really add a lot to the movie. And in spite of my reevaluation of the movie, the scene where Freddy’s arms elongate as he’s walking down the alley is still one creepy scene that managed to give me chills again.
There’s always a danger when going back to movies we remember with a fair amount of fondness that they may not be all we remembered. That’s certainly the case with Nightmare for me, and despite all its flaws, the horror genre would be poorer without Freddy and his glove.
Tomorrow: get your best shades out, for Freddy’s Revenge! It’s a gay old time!