It is hard to make good horror. We have all loved, and we have laughed, but few of us have experienced true terror. We do not know it, and moreover, we do not really want to know it. We do not want to find ourselves in mortal danger. In order to make good horror, then, a filmmaker must have the ability to seize on that which terrifies us while delivering it in such a way that is sufficiently removed from reality. Most filmmakers go too far in one direction or the other, creating a product that is either campishly over the top or not horrific at all. The best directors, however, straddle this line, and push viewers to the very edge of what they can tolerate, producing the very best in the genre.
Wes Craven is one of these directors. Because he is so good at pushing the boundaries, he occasionally creates films that are too disturbing to be entertaining in any way. The paramount example of this kind of filmmaking is The Last House on the Left, a film so gruesome and so disturbing that it is barely watchable. Its intense horror comes from its realism. There is no doubt that what is depicted on the screen has happened before and will happen again. As a window into the darkness of man’s soul it is terrifyingly effective, but it may very well push the boundaries too far, making it less valuable as a film given that most people cannot make it through the entire movie without walking out in disgust. In The Hills Have Eyes, Craven steps back from the precipice and gives us an effort that is sufficiently removed from reality as to be terrifying while still watchable and enjoyable. This film might well have been remembered as Craven’s best. But then he had a dream that turned into a nightmare, and he made that nightmare into one of the scariest films of all time.
A Nightmare on Elm Street takes two simple premises and puts them together to create the greatest horror story ever told. The first is the bogeyman, old as time immemorial, the personification of the dark uncertainty that haunts our childhood, lurking behind every closet door and under every bed. Secondly, dreams, the palette of the mind where we are often lost in a fantasy world where anything can and does happen. Normally dreams are mere fragments, but sometimes they are so real and so vivid as to be barely distinguishable from reality. What if, in those instances, we were to die, caught up by the bogeyman who exists only in such a world of fantasy? Might that death translate into the real world as well?
Wes Craven took this idea and ran with it, combining the faceless killing machine of films like Halloween, combined it with the bogeyman of lore, and created Freddy Kruger. The spirit of a horribly burned dead child murderer, Freddy inhabits the dreams of the children of Springwood, drawing his strength from their fear. Freddy has a lot of Krug Stillo from Last House on the Left in him, but with a sly humor that cuts the edge off of the dark evil of that character’s persona.
The story begins with Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Glen (Johnny Depp) Tina (Amanda Wyss), and Rod (Nick Corri), four teenage high school friends, discovering that they are all afflicted with strangely similar nightmares. When one of them is murdered in bizarre and grizzly fashion and another is accused of the slaying, they begin to explore the origins of that which hunts them, in the hopes that by doing so they might discover some weakness of Freddy’s that they can exploit.
While there are no Oscar worthy performances in A Nightmare on Elm Street, the young actors acquit themselves quite admirably. They each inhabit their characters with ease, helping us to experience their fear and confusion. Heather Langenkamp, who would go on to appear in two Nightmare sequels, is thoroughly convincing as a young teenage struggling to survive another night while simultaneously convincing the world around her that she is not insane. Johnny Depp, appearing in his first motion picture, shows flashes of the brilliance that would come to define his career while playing Langenkamp’s boyfriend and sidekick, Glen. Finally, Robert Englund gives a career defining performance as psychotically twisted killer, Freddy Kruger. By adding a personality to Freddy, Englund redefined a genre that had been dominated by the silent, robot like killer.
The atmosphere of the movie is superbly developed. The dream sequences are appropriately surreal, filled with obscuring mists and eerie non-sequitors such as animals in places they should not be, people who act as though they are possessed, and school stairways that lead to factory boiler rooms. Moreover, we are never quite sure where dreams end and the real world begins. This blurring of reality even opens the possibility that the entire film is a dream, an eternal nightmare locked in the insanity of Nancy’s mind.
I cannot recommend A Nightmare on Elm Street with too much zeal. It is one of the few movies that truly terrified me when I first saw it, and it still holds the power to frighten me to this day. In the case of most horror movies, the evil that is personified on screen can be easily avoided. Don’t go in the old run down house. Don’t read the Latin words in the old musty book. Don’t travel to Transylvania. But we must all sleep, and in doing so, we put ourselves at the mercy of forces we cannot control and whose power, in the dream realm at least, is absolute.